Everything you see in Disney/Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, in theaters this Thanksgiving, consists of research that was gathered to create story boards, special effects, lighting, and other elements that made the new film so visually stunning.
The creativity of these teams is unmatched and some of what they created, and how they created it, has never been used before for any animated film.
Creating The Visual Design Of The Good Dinosaur
Much of what you see visually in The Good Dinosaur was inspired by the talent of Sharon Calahan, the Director of Photography and Visual Design. It was her concept paintings, inspired by Wyoming’s Big Sky country, that helped capture the outdoors and create a world that is more like real life than animation.
“We started the process, Pete [Sohn] and I, by talking about the kinds of films that were memorable to us,” Calahan told us, “and the kind of film that we wanted to make. The films that stood out to the both of us were the ones that had a lot of heart and were also very rich in visual story telling.“
The Black Stallion‘s strong emotions of loss, survival, and friendship is one of those films that inspired the team to be bold with their creations in translating the beauty of the land onto the big screen. Seven Years In Tibet was a huge inspiration for scope and scale; they wanted the feeling of a big emotional and physical journey for the characters that could be felt by the audience.
The amazing collaboration of Sharon, Pete, and The Good Dinosaur team is so visible on-screen, and their creations are like no other anyone has ever seen. So much research and thought went into this film and it shows.
“I’m happiest when I’m outdoors, painting somewhere in the wilderness.” – Sharon Calahan, Director of Photography and Visual Designer, The Good Dinosaur
“Arlo’s journey was to take place following a river,” said Calahan, “so the first day we spent on drift boats leisurely floating down the Snake River and it was really gorgeous – late fall, sunshine – so it was the best way to soak it all in.“
The rest of her inspiration for concept art came from trail rides through the Targhee wilderness are on the Idaho side of the Tetons where the team took thousands of photographs and hours of film footage that served as reference for the creators of the film.
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The View From Above: The Expansive World Of The Good Dinosaur
The breathtaking panorama of The Good Dinosaur took an entire team of creative Pixar employees to not only create, but to make it look and feel real. Sets Supervisor David Munier is one of those team members. His staff is in charge of building all of the environments of the film; that’s everything that you see that is not characters or special effects.
“For this film,” Munier said, “Pete really challenged us from the very beginning to be able to capture a very cinematography style, of really being able to see the landscape while he’s following the characters.“
Their goal was to create and present beautiful landscape for most of the film. As we follow the characters throughout the film, it was Pete’s goal to show miles of wilderness, clouds, mountains, and other background design that they spent so much time researching.
Munier said that this was something that’s not normally done. For many films, expansive shots are usually only shown when they’re establishing a scene; the rest of the scene is shown with tighter character shots. So, Munier’s team had to figure out how get the look of Jackson Valley, Snake River, and The Grand Tetons onto the big screen in an animated version, but with a realistic feel. From what we’ve seen so far, his team nailed it!
One of the ‘tricks up their sleeves’ actually came from the US government; Munier and The Good Dinosaur creators used the United States Geological Survey (USGS) for data from satellite photos for height and forestry data. They downloaded the data, uploaded it to their software, and matched it to where their photos were taken. This practice is nothing like anything that has been done in animated film history.
“If Pete wanted a wilderness area like this, we could download this data and then start moving the camera around,” said Munier, “just like we’re doing a location scout.“
Visual Effects To Add To The Story Telling Process Of The Good Dinosaur
Where most people try to avoid things like raging river currents, wind storms, rain, fire, smoke, and other natural disasters, it’s the job of the FX Supervisor to bring those to life on screen. It is people like Effects Supervisor Jon Reisch that made things like the river in The Good Dinosaur look so real, you forget you’re watching a Pixar animated film.
“It just gives the characters a sense… like they’re tangible, interacting with our environment. This means they can be hurt, they can be put into danger, and get into trouble,” Reisch said, “so there’s an emotional component to just having our audience connect with them by providing all this interaction“
Special effects can also help heighten the mood, the atmosphere, and the drama of a film. Creating weather can help reflect what’s going on in the character’s head and help guide the audience to what they’re supposed to be feeling at any given moment. It helps connect the audience to the characters.
“To me, we’re at our best when we’re using the effects to help support the story,” said Reisch.
The effects department relies heavily on simulation software to help them understand the physics of movement, including drag, velocity, forces, mass, and momentum. It can include complex equations and a lot of patience, Reisch says, and each frame depends on the other and there are 24 frames per second.
Think about each grain of sand in a dessert or each drop of water in a river. The special effects team is designing each of those to create a seamless fluidity of movement, such as seen on blowing sand or a flowing river.
You can see how the amazing work of these teams translated on to the big screen when The Good Dinosaur hits theaters on Thanksgiving.