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How a Father's Day stroll helped Pixar's Pete Docter crack the code for 'Inside Out'

The characters of
The characters of "Inside Out," Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness.
Disney Pixar

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Pixar's Pete Docter is no stranger to taking outlandish ideas and turning them into surprising and inventive movies — after all, he directed and co-wrote the 2009 film, "Up."

But his latest movie, "Inside Out," is even more out there.

It takes place both in the real world and also inside the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl whose parents have just uprooted their family to San Francisco. Riley's emotions become characters in the film: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear.

Of course, it's one thing to have an idea; it's another to turn that complicated idea into a world that audiences of all ages can understand.  
While we were recently at Pixar's campus in Emeryville, just outside of San Francisco, we sat down with Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, a storyboard artist and co-director on "Inside Out," to find out the origins of the movie and the challenges they faced in trying to make everything click.

On the personal roots of the story:

Docter explains that there were two major moments that led to the story of "Inside Out," and the first of them grew from his role as a father.

My daughter was around 11 when we started. And when she was a kid she was one of those kids who would run up to people and spin and talk — she always active and goofy. And then she started changing, so it made me think, Whoa, what is going on inside of her head?

That idea reminded him of other movies, ones that "take place inside the body."

But, Docter says, "We've never seen the mind in that abstract way. What if we pair these ideas and try to figure out using emotions as characters — [explore] why people change and what happens when you grow up?"

The other turning point? Stress and personal anxiety.

They were trying to center the story around a journey between Joy and Fear, but Docter said, "As we got in there I realized, I don't know what Joy is learning on this journey and what she's going back to solve. How is she going to change the way she approaches life and what she wants for her kid?"

So Docter took a walk — fittingly on Father's Day — where he thought about getting fired, or quitting, or just running away. And that's when he started thinking about the things he would miss most from his life: 

I could do without my house and all my stuff, but my friends and my family would be something I would definitely miss. And then I thought, The guys and people I'm closest to... what is it about them that makes them so important to me? That they were people I've been happy with, for sure, but they're also folks I've been angry at, and scared for, and sad with. It was really that realization that these emotions, which are the main subject of my film here, are the key to the most important thing in our lives. That powered us through and led to the film as you see it now.

On the changes made to the film as it developed:

So Docter's moody walk confirmed that Fear would need to be changed to Sadness, which complicated and changed Joy's growth over the course of the movie.

At the beginning, she's like, 'Why would you want your kid to be sad? I don't understand why Sadness is even here.' But by the end she comes to understand what that's all about and adjusts what she thinks is best for her kid.

Even the name "Inside Out" took years to find. Originally, Docter confesses with a laugh:

We called it "Cake," because we figured everybody likes cake. I don't know, there was no real reason for that. Along the way, we struggled to really find a good title that would be clear about what the film was about but also seemed fun. It was about three years in when we came up with "Inside Out."

They needed to find a perfect name for the movie because, as Docter was finding out, some people just didn't really understand the premise of the film: A movie about an 11-year-old girl that uses her interior life as the setting as we watch the emotions in her head?

Docter said: "People would either go, 'Whoa, cool!' Or they would kind of look at me and tilt their head funny and go, 'What? I don't really get it.' For me, I felt like this was a no-brainer, like this is going to be great."

But it's one thing to come up with a great idea — it's another to actualize it, and Docter admits:

I totally underestimated how hard it would be to find how these characters were going to look, how the world was going to look, and how to build two stories that are parallel but unrelated that still have to contact each other. That was way harder than I thought.

Fortunately, Docter had some help from a familiar face at Pixar — story artist Ronnie del Carmen, who had worked with Docter on "Up."

On taking Docter's story and making it work:

When Del Carmen first heard Docter's idea for "Inside Out," he had two immediate, conflicting responses:

My initial reaction was, Wow, that's going to be amazing, and also, That is going to be so hard to make. The inhale and the exhale of that was all in the same moment, because I knew how difficult it is to make these movies, and to make a movie about abstract concepts and ideas was going to be even harder.

The two had their work cut out for them from the beginning — where do you even start with an idea like this? Del Carmen says their conversations at the beginning of their work together took place in small rooms, the two of them just staring at each other.

Here, according to Del Carmen, is a typical piece of one of their early discussions: "'Yes, okay, so what are we going to do? The lead emotion's going to be Joy...uh, wait, how is she going to say what she's going to say? What's she going to do? If they're working, what does it look like when they're working? What does it look like outside?'

"The very first questions about the concept were between Pete and myself," Del Carmen recalled. "Then we'd start riffing and inventing, and after a point I'd go, 'Okay, that's as far as we can talk about this. I'm going to go away and render this, and then we'll see if it works.'"

And how do you know when it's working? Del Carmen remembers showing off a particular scene around the office that left his colleagues speechless — generally a good sign that you are on to something.

"For 'Inside Out,'" Del Carmen said, "It would be Joy's moment when she has to realize that Riley has been growing up all this time: 'I haven't been listening because I don't want to hear it. I don't want to hear that Riley is changing and I have to let go of all of this, but it is too late because I'm in a place where I won't be able to correct my mistakes.'" 

"[My colleagues at Pixar] would say, 'Okay, let's figure out the other problems of the movie.' We have very efficient advisors, friends and colleagues here, and they know that it's a compliment already when they go, 'Okay, well, what is the third act going to be?'"

On developing some of the key visual motifs of "Inside Out":

Of the countless abstract ideas that Docter and Del Carmen needed to visualize, memories stand out as one of the most potentially challenging to pull off, but Del Carmen says that the idea to store memories in some sort of physical container took hold early in the process.

They weren't in glass orbs back then. They were in jars, like Mason jars. That was what we did back then — there was some way that memories were being created inside these Mason jars on a conveyor belt. But even back then, we knew that we wanted to look at a memory, inside an orb or a glass jar, and see it play as a loop because that is how we believe we experience memories, even though they actually don't work that way in the brain. We wanted to make sure we could look at memories as these self-contained, little loops of events.

There were other ideas that were pitched early in the process of creating "Inside Out," and it turned out that some of them proved central to the final product. For example, Del Carmen said Docter went back and forth on which characters would be central to the story: would the film be about about the journey between Joy and Fear or Joy and Sadness?

Pete's knee-jerk idea was that Joy and Sadness should go on a trip together. But then he kind of re-calibrated — we're constantly afraid, we're fearful. Human beings, man, we have a lot of fears, so why don't Joy and Fear go on a trek? We have to explore that. You know how this concept is: you just don't know until you try it. So we tried Fear and Joy for a very long time until Pete just decided to pull the breaks on all of that and was like, "I can't do it. It has to be Joy and Sadness."

Which is to say that, particularly with this movie, the two of them just had to try out ideas to see if they worked. Even if their ideas were eventually scrapped, Del Carmen asserts:

If you don't try it, that hunch will nag in the back of your mind. You always think [there's] a hidden solution to what we are looking for. But if you don't uncover it and experience it, you won't be able to comfortably say goodbye to it. You'll always feel like, I don't think we've thought about everything else yet. And if that's something we have to see, if we have to go down that road, let's do it now rather then later.

"Inside Out" opens in theaters on June 19.

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