The animators, writers and computer wizards at Pixar Animation Studios have sent us into outer space with “Wall-E,” on a deep-sea adventure in “Finding Nemo” and taken us inside a French kitchen with “Ratatouille.” But all of those places actually exist in the real world. In its new film, “Inside Out,” Pixar had to create a place where no one had ever been before: the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley.
Shawn Krause is the supervising animator for "Inside Out." We met with him along with a number of other artists who worked on the film while visiting Pixar.
“I think it's fair to say that was probably the toughest nut to crack as a film,” Krause says. “We had to invent every aspect of this world because it is the mind, not the brain.”
Because we’ve all seen MRI images or anatomical drawings of the brain. But for “Inside Out,” Pixar needed to depict the mind — and specifically the separate emotions of one young girl. The Pixar team thought about the ways we describe phenomenons in our mind, and those metaphors became a reference guide. Ideas like long-term memory were then visually depicted as real aspects of Riley’s internal mental world.
Here’s Joy and Sadness trying to navigate through Riley’s memories:
Pete Docter is the director and a screenwriter of “Inside Out.” And he’s a dad, too. Being around his daughter sparked the idea to tell a story that was largely set inside a girl’s mind, but he knew it wouldn’t be easy to pull off.
"It was really interesting on this one because, obviously, everyone is familiar with these concepts of long-term memory and dreaming, but no one has ever visualized it before. The truth is, there is no visualization of it — it is all an abstract concept. In fact, we had to visualize 'abstraction' on the film, which is fun," Docter says.
"One of the cool things about this idea was that we approached this 11-year-old girl's mind as the biggest set we ever built," says "Inside Out" producer Jonas Rivera.
This may have been fun and cool, but it was also frustrating, and it took a long time to figure out. All told, it took five years to make “Inside Out.”
"This is the thing that kept me going for four years, is it was just such a great idea," says Josh Cooley, head of story on the film and one of the writers. "Just being inside this head, it’s a world we’ve never seen before, characters we’ve never seen. The story would change and flux, but that idea was always solid for me."
To help make that idea a reality on the screen, Pixar did what the studio always does: research. A lot of research.
"So on this film, we started by talking to psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, as many people as we could that could give us clues to what is going on inside the mind for real," says Docter. "We learned a ton, not only about the wiring of the brain, but more usefully, we learned a lot about emotions. And not only which ones there are, but why they’re there and what purpose they serve and what job they have for us."
Understanding and visualizing those emotions became one of the central challenges in making the movie. The Pixar team decided that the main characters inhabiting the girl’s mind would be emotions. But which emotions could they turn into talking characters?
“They alternated a lot," says Cooley. "It's all based on actual research of the emotions that exist. Some researchers would say there are 21 emotions, but some say will say a completely different number like three or seven. At one point, we would ask, 'What if there are 25 emotions in Riley's head?' and unfortunately it would become a big mess. We simplified it down to what felt best for the story, and ended up with five emotions.”
They settled on fear, anger, disgust, joy and sadness.
"Some researches would say that 'surprise' was an emotion," Cooley says, "but we would already have 'fear,' so we thought, 'Why not just combine those together?' So we have a character called 'Fear,' and he gets kind of freaked out and surprised a lot."
Cooley says there were characters that were left on the cutting room floor.
"Like we had a little Schadenfreude, which was like this little German emotion that would just laugh at everyone's pain," Cooley says, laughing. "I thought it was really funny."
Supervising animator Krause said there were certain challenges to figuring out the look of the emotions.
"Joy landed pretty much when I came on, but the other characters really vary," Krause says. "The longest I think to land was Disgust, because we didn't know where to take that. As with all these characters, you didn't want them to be one note. With Joy, Pete never wanted her to be just happy. There is nothing more annoying than someone trying to cheer you up all the time. Disgust was like, 'How gross do we make her? How big, or small do we make her?'“
Equally important, the emotions had to appear both a little bit human and a lot whimsical — cartoonish caricatures of reality, in other words.
“One of the characters, Joy, looks kind of like a normal person, but glows and has sparkles, almost pixie dust that trails off of her," says Evan Ostby, Pixar's director of technical artists. "This is not something we ever needed to do before because, of course, most characters don't do that."
As the Pixar creatives worked to build the world of the mind and create the characters, Krause said that a key question remained.
"What do they do all day? They are standing in the counsel headquarters, but what do they do? Do they actually influence Riley, or do they tell her what to do? Does she say what they say to do?”
Producer Rivera says they came up with the conceit of "Headquarters."
“'Headquarters' is a way to describe how the mind works," Rivera says. "We didn't want it to be 'Innerspace.' Emotions work up here in Headquarters, and in Headquarters they see what you see, and when you have an experience, a memory is recorded and stored in short-term, or long-term. Outside Headquarters is the vast ocean of the mind."
Docter says that they would give the team an idea and let them have at it, and with a lot of time and work, it led to great results.
"We also have this embarrassingly rich stable of amazing artists here, so we just said, 'All right, here are the things that we are going to be dealing with. We are going to travel on the Train of Thought and we are going to cross the Stream of Consciousness. What does that all look like?' And they would just go off and draw."
The amount of time ends up being a lot more than a non-animated film.
"Animation is glacial; I spent five years on this film and only this film for the most part," says Rivera. "In the course of producing one film through all the story iterations and animation, people in live action could probably produce four films.”
And then there’s the story. In “Inside Out,” Joy tries to keep Sadness at bay, worried that she will make Riley miserable. The point of the movie, though, is that feeling both happiness and sadness makes us fully human. So, the filmmakers needed to make Sadness sympathetic.
"Sadness can get annoying," says Meg LeFauve, a screenwriter on the film. "She can just be a whiner, and you don't just want a whiner. So then as a writer, I have to try to find them and think things like, 'Sadness really cares. She has a really big heart; that is why she is sad.' It is not just whiny sadness, it is real sadness, because she is concerned. Then I can feel that, and love her for that. It’s like, how do we admire and love them?”
The actors voicing the emotions naturally also had to match the look of the emotions they were playing. Supervising animator Krause was in charge of the character Joy.
"I just thought that would be a fun character to work on, so Pete let me have at it," Krause says. "We didn't have a voice at the time, so when we got Amy Poehler, the character really landed. It was a little late in the game, but when we got her it just clicked."
Krause says that each piece affects the others.
“Our biggest challenge is, 'How do we keep the intended performance down the pipeline?'" Krause says. "If we animate her and her dress is going around, can we creatively exaggerate her dress to give it more of an attitude, or do we want it to be more naturalistic? Same goes for hair and energy."
Finally, a lot of small kids will talk about their imaginary friends, but parents might have absolutely no idea what such a friend looks like. Pixar didn’t have that option. The film has an imaginary friend named Bing Bong.
"He is part cat, elephant, and he claims that he is part dolphin, even though we don't really see it," Rivera says. "He is made out of cotton candy — in fact, he even cries cotton candy. Bing Bong is cool, because he is from Riley's imagination, but she's 11 now, so she hasn't really thought about him in a long time, so poor Bing Bong is kind of a hobo who's just hoping for another shot of relevancy."
As the movie opens in theaters, we’ll see if Pixar’s new movie will click with audiences. Some critics are calling it the best movie Pixar has ever made.