Jakarta. When director Pete Docter attended the world premiere screening of his newest film Inside Out at the Cannes film festival in May, the theater went quiet. There were very little laughs. Docter, who became the third animator at Pixar when he joined the studio in 1990, remembered the underwhelming reaction well.
The 46-year old won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature with the movie Up in 2009, but he knows there is no guarantee for the success to repeat.
“It was not dead, but it was not the biggest laugh that we've gotten elsewhere [ in test screenings],” he said. “We were nervous, we didn't know what to expect because [the crowd are] such film fans,”
The calm atmosphere went on until the movie ended and the credits appeared, and that's when the applause started. It became a ten-minute long standing ovation, and Inside Out have been winning praises from critics and audience since.
During a recent visit in Jakarta to promote Inside Out, Docter said he approached the film as a challenge to do something different.
“It's not that I have to top Up, but if I repeated myself, I'd feel like I failed,” he said.
Inside Out tells the story of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger, five core Emotions that belong to a 11-year old named Riley. They control Riley from behind a panel at the headquarter inside her head, where Memories are born and Islands of Personalities are created as the little girl grows up. By nature, Joy the protagonist, voiced by Amy Poehler, is especially protective towards Riley and want to keep her happy all the time.
When she turns eleven and her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco and Riley experiences major changes like never before. As always, each Emotion does their best to help Riley adjust to her new life.
All except for Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith, as she just cannot bring a positive attitude to Riley's life. When Joy and Sadness fall into the less-traveled parts of Riley's mind, it is up to Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader) to keep Riley on track.
Docter said the movie is told from a parent's perspective as it speaks about his experience as a dad of a little girl. Riley is very much inspired by Docter's own daughter, who was “a goofy kid with a lot of energy” and became a lot quieter and laid back as she turned eleven.
“That change really got me thinking, what's going on inside her head?” he said. “All the films that we do are reflection of us and our lives, and I don't think there's anything that impacted me more than being a parent,”
The movie took five years to finish, which os not atypical for a Pixar production. When Docter was working as the supervising animator for “Toy Story,” the project took four and a half to six years. In early stages, Docter and co-director Ronnie del Carmen had to consult with scientists and psychologists to understand how the mind works.
According to their findings, as every child turns eleven, they are suddenly aware of other people's judgements and are required to establish a larger family. For Docter, this experience will resonate with a lot of people. He believes the universal theme will easily appeal to audience. Just like the majority of films from Pixar, “Inside Out” is one that entertains and speaks for both child and adult viewers.
“Moving becomes a symbol of everything,”said del Carmen, who was involved in the story team for several Pixar productions including Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Up.
“It is sad for us as parents to watch our kids change, but only because we know it's difficult to grow up,”
The most crucial part of the production was the scriptwriting, which happens in conjunction with the reading by voice actors. These directors said they often add to or take out a few things from a character after listening to their recordings. Docter and del Carmen said they ended up with dozens of versions for each character before settling on the final one.
For Docter, the design of the mind was difficult to tackle as they have no visual references. A scene in the trailer of the movie, for example, features 18 different characters as Riley, Mom and Dad talk and react to each other.
“If you look at Cars or Finding Nemo, you can look at pictures of cars and fish, and you know where you're coming from,” he said. “With Inside Out, I had to dig deep and do a lot of experimenting to figure out not only the characters, but also the mind world look like,”
Docter took hints from his experiences in making Monsters Inc, another hit from the animation studio where they were required to make the audience feel familiar with characters in a fictional factory.
“Early on, I thought the more general we make things, the more people will be able to relate, it's actually the opposite,” Docter said. “The more specific you make something, the more people are able to project, because it feels more truthful and authentic,”
For entertainment purposes, Docter thinks it's important to create as much contrast and as wide range of voices, sounds and shapes, as possible. This is why he cast actors in different genders to fill the voice for Riley's Emotions. Docter said differences in gender and shapes in the film are made more for comedy than any statements.
Docter, who is also vice president of creative at the Pixar Animation Studios, said that his position does not guarantee the pass from the studio to produce his pitch.
“Every film should go under the same [phase of] testing,” he said. “When I first pitched this film, the potential was recognized, but it was a long hard road to finally reach that potential,”
For Docter and del Carmen, the level of abstraction in Inside Out makes it the toughest film that they have ever worked on.
“When I was a kid, I used to fear monsters under my bed, but I have seen Monsters Inc and it's wonderful to think how the film help so many kids around the world not to fear those monsters,” del Carmen said.
“Hopefully, after people see Inside Out they would know better not to be afraid of their emotions, because emotions are scarier than monsters,”
Looking back, Docter said the main challenge for animation these days no longer lies in the visual department.
“Twenty years later [after the release of Toy Story], most of the technical difficulties have gone away, and the next breakthrough is how to continually surprise people from the story telling stand point, so we don't fall into patterns and routines,” he said.
Inside Out opens in Indonesian theaters on Wednesday, Aug. 19.