What if the giant asteroid that theoretically killed the dinosaurs missed? The Good Dinosaur answers that question in this classic boy-and-his-dog tale with a twist: The boy is an apatosaurus named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), and his dog is a feral human kid named Spot (Jack Bright). Longtime studio artist and first-time feature director Peter Sohn took over not long after Pixar decided to give the movie a rethink two years ago, and before the movie hits theaters on Nov. 25, we talked to Sohn about the design process and the story’s evolution.
From what we’ve seen so far in the trailer, the art, especially the landscapes, is absolutely gorgeous. And it’s interesting because there’s this kind of contrast: Arlo has more of a playful, cartoony design, while the environment almost seems more hyper realistic. It’s very detailed. What was the thought process behind that?
In terms of the world, it all started with these early research trips going out to the northwest, to Wyoming and Idaho, and being really inspired by those huge and epic landscapes. I grew up in New York myself, and I had never really been out there. It struck me in a really emotional way, how beautiful all of it was. But as we ventured deeper into the terrain, the guides that were with us just kept showing us how beautiful it was and how dangerous it was at the same time.
I read that you said that the environment is a character in this story. How so?
Nature itself becoming a character was a big deal. Everything that we want to throw at Arlo, we can do externally but also internally as well. And what I mean by that is when a storm hits, it can affect Arlo in a real external way, but we also tried to find ways that it can affect him emotionally. His big issue is that he’s afraid of everything, and he isn’t capable. When he’s in front of these natural backgrounds, it’s important that he feels outside of that.
We really wanted nature to also parallel Arlo’s journey in a way. For example, when Arlo is in really tough trouble, the river can be white and roiling, but when Arlo becomes more peaceful and connecting to Spot, we can have the river be glass. And trying to capture all those looks was part of that early research trip. When we got out there, it wasn’t just the landscapes that became inspiration. It became the people that we met and the kind of lifestyle out there that also affected the film in a great way.
You said you had guides that went with you?
The different types of people that we met were so inspiring. We referred to them as these kind of mountain men. They understood the terrain very well. But as they took us around the Snake River and started describing some of the landscapes, we started to learn more about them as individuals and how much they respect the land, how dangerous the land could be, and at the same time, they showcased it.
This is a silly kind of a story, but some of our team that went out there, we had two boats, and a camera had fallen into the river, and it was fast moving enough that the other boat was searching for a while. And we were in our boat just waiting for a while for them to find it, but they couldn’t find the camera. After an hour or so, we went on our way, and our guide just slowly went down the river and then jumped in and pulled the camera out. And this was hundreds of yards from where we had lost it. And he began talking about reading the river, reading the landscaping and understanding how it moved. And he could predict that this possibly could’ve been the place where the camera was. And he found it. It was incredible.
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That’s impressive. So, I wanted to switch gears a little bit and talk to you about character design, specifically Arlo’s character design. He’s an apatosaurus, right? How did you decide on that kind of dinosaur?
This started early on with Bob Peterson, the original director on this. He came up with this idea of the story of an apatosaur, and more than other dinosaurs, that was something with which he greatly connected. And then he brought me on as well, and I shared the same type of love for brontosauruses and apatosauruses. In his early pitches, it was kind of this boy and dog concept and always this fun of being with a dinosaur like this and riding it. And early on, the apatosaur was a little older, much older, and had a different look. But when I started getting into the project, I really wanted to focus on the boy and his dog story. We started aging Arlo down, so he became a younger character, and in that design, bringing in this 11-year-old boy, some of those design changes started to influence the wider eye and the more innocent look.
I know in addition to aging the character down, there were some casting changes, and Raymond Ochoa, who voices Arlo, is much younger than the original actor. When you cast him, did you find that in any way influenced the character design?
Yeah, absolutely. What’s interesting was the casting changes really happened a while ago. I feel like that press release happened, and it felt like all those casting changes were much later, but once we started the project with the boy and dog story and making Arlo much younger, immediately, all the siblings had to be younger and the world and the characters that he started to meet in the world all had to change to focus on the boy and dog journey. It was as simple as that. Once the main character changed, everything else around him had to reinforce what Arlo’s main journey was.
We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of Toy Story in November, which is right around when The Good Dinosaur comes out. Are you thinking at all about this kind of Pixar legacy?
I have to tell you, when I was in school, Toy Story had come out, and it was greatly influential. I went to Cal Arts to go study 2-D animation, and my first year at Cal Arts, John Lasseter and Pete Docter and some of the other directors here had brought down Toy Story to show some of the students, and it had blown everyone away. It’s incredible getting to work with these people here. Because the people here are what Pixar is. It’s a real inspirational thing for me. This is my first time directing a feature like this, and it has been overwhelming for me.
As a first-time director, were you anxious at all? Was there any sort of self-doubt going into this?
Yeah. It’s interesting because some of the parallels of the story totally connected to my own insecurities about what it was to bring this child up properly. You know what I mean? But there are so many people here that have great experience that are so willing to help and guide and give great advice. I have found that this is a total collaborative effort, so any time that I feel like I am in trouble or scared of something, there have been great people here to help.
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