Pixar’s Pete Docter on soul and animated by life’s big questions

Few filmmakers can say that their first three features have brought together a universally acclaimed reputation and box office takeover of more than $ 2bn. One of them is Pete Docter at Pixar, a writer-director of animated films Monsters Inc., Up and Inside. But if the success has gone to his head, it doesn’t show. The self-described “geeky kid from Minnesota” showcases a boy’s easy charm and commitment to his craft even in his relatively new role as chief creative officer at the Disney-owned company.

“You’re taking me out of a management meeting,” he said with gusto as he joined me on a video call from the San Francisco Bay Area, where Pixar enjoys a half-distance romance with Disney ”.

We are here to discuss his latest film Anam, the idea he was born five years ago when, after finishing and collecting the second Oscar for him Inside, Docter experienced an unexpected dip. “It felt like the result of a life of vibrant animation,” the 52-year-old recalls. “And I still thought: ‘I still don’t feel like everything is settled and I’m at peace with the world. Why?’ I thought the story was that you will find what you like, that you will do that and that you will feel happy. ”

'Anam' Pixar
‘The Great Before’ as seen in ‘Soul’, directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers © Pixar

That small crisis became an issue at heart Anam, the story of Joe, a middle-aged New Yorker who made him think of his true purpose in his life when he is facing death and becomes a mentor to a soul that is still without birth. No small promise for a cartoon. “At different stages of the production, I was like: what we are doing? This is unusual, ”laughs Docter, before he dispels his self-doubt. “On the other hand, there’s no reason why animation can’t take the big questions – it’s as valid as the novel or animated or theatrical films.”

It is this combination of solemn concept and hilarious adventure that has made the best Pixar movies with toddlers and experienced critics, and provided a panacea for parents who are grateful for the adult gags that are introduced as contraband. Anam as an exception, with jokes coming courtesy of Copernicus (“The world doesn’t turn around!”) and at the expense of hedge fund managers (represented as the last “lost souls”).

After consultation with clinical psychologists for Inside, who highlighted the emotional work of a teenage girl, this time Docter and his team turned to spiritual counselors for guidance. “We did a lot of research, talking to priests and rabbits, looking at Hinduism, Buddhism, all sorts of different cultures to see what they could teach us about the nature of the soul,” he says. saying. However, when it came to visual productions, they hit a dead end. “It simply came to our notice then. He said they are not visible. And we thought: well, great but we have to make a film something! ”

In the production of 'Inside Out' (2015), Pixar consulted with clinical psychologists to gain a better understanding of the emotional function of a teenage girl.
In the production of ‘Inside Out’ (2015) Pixar advised psychologists to better understand the emotional functioning of a teenage girl © Alamy

Looking within themselves instead, the animators devised a solution in which the film courtes with a summary of how the action moves from the world of time to the ethereal landscapes of “The Great Beyond”. , “The Great Before” and the “Councilors” who live there.

Here they turned to art history for inspiration. “We looked at a lot of modern Scandinavian sculptures, Alexander Calder’s Picasso wire sculptures. We were thinking about the [line-drawn] Counselors like the universe let themselves down so that people and souls could understand it. ”

The result is some of the most ingenious and enjoyable sequences in the film, more remarkable for their simplicity. Docter cites a similar experience when he takes a look at the debut of his 2009 heartbuilder Up in which an elderly widow looks back on his long, happy marriage in a wordless four-minute montage. “When we started there we had scenes with dialogue pieces, and as we developed we made more and more moves to the place where there is just music and cuts, so the audience is invited to bring their own details required. That’s something we lose sight of all too often: much of the mystery is more interesting. ”

Docter 2009 'Up' Heartbeat
Docter 2009 ‘Up’ Heartbeat © Alamy Stock Photo

From 1995’s Toy Story (for which Docter wrote the story) to this year Forward, Pixar movies have often revolved around loss and it wasn’t hard for them to touch on death. Anam It can be said to be even deeper, setting a cosmic traveler carrying people away from this world – a visual reversal of Powell and Pressburger’s stairs to heaven in Matter of Life and Death. There are also aspects of It’s an amazing life as Joe has to think about his mortality and the life that could be taken away – appropriate themes for a film to arrive at the end of 2020. Docter admits the strange serendipity: “All this was thought of five years ago but it feels as if he’s got into something about what’s happening in the world around us. ”

But in one important aspect, this is a departure from film and gin classes of Pixar so far: he has a black man as the main character. Although the concept arose from Docter’s personal experience, it was not long before the idea of ​​making Joe an animator was rejected (“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anyone animate – not that’s the most interesting thing ”) and an actor was also considered famous. Eventually, the creators decided to make it a jazz musician because “You don’t go into jazz to get rich and famous. ”

Co-director Kemp Powers, second left, at the 'Soul' meeting
Docter, left, with co-director Kemp Powers, second left, at a Pixar meeting

It was at this time that Joe became an African American. “It was just right that we make this character black and we knew we needed to help with that because the team at that level was very white,” Docter recalls. Playwright Kemp Powers came in, first as a co-writer and later as a co-director, to make sure the character (heard by Jamie Foxx) was authentic, writing in a number of key scenes including one in a black support shop. “Kemp worked hard to push us to make sure Joe goes through what he calls ‘black places’,” says Docter. “While the film is not specifically about being an American American, it can only help to be – and must be.”

Anam the first for Pixar in another way. “This is the first of 23 features that we’ve made that won’t appear in a theater and that’s heartbreaking. It’s a film we made especially that can be seen on the big screen, so it felt awful, ”says Docter. Currently, the film will only be available through the Disney Plus membership service but it is hoped that it will be possible to run a limited cinema once screens reopen.

Powers added a number of key scenes to 'Soul' to ensure Joe's character was a reality, including one in a black shop
Powers added a number of key scenes to ‘Soul’ to ensure Joe’s character was a reality, including one in a shop © Alamy

However, there was a compelling reason to push Anam out now. “We have eight more films in the works that look like planes waiting for the runway. If we stop, everyone else has to wait, ”said Docter, whose role as CCO brings shepherding projects to production (he accepted the position in 2018 after John Lasseter leaving the company after allegations of sexual harassment).

“We have these new voices and ideas from people who haven’t directed before, and that’s going to add a lot more diversity and wonder to the films that we make,” he said. “My job is to make sure that everything we do is the best it can be. It’s not just me – Andrew Stanton [maker of Finding Nemo and WALL-E] in the lead voice. It’s very appealing of old school people who made a couple of those and a handful of newcomers who don’t know who they don’t know. ”

As in the film, it’s a matter of the new souls rejuvenating the veterans – and even teaching a lesson or two to their advisors. “I look at them and think: ‘Oh yeah, I remember facing this when I was first directing, and sometimes things that I thought were for unbelievable they find solutions for them. So I’ve learned to close for a while, let them explore and see what happens. ” Perhaps that is where the key to happiness and satisfaction lies.

‘Soul’ has been on Disney Plus since December 25th

Lean @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first

Listen to our podcast, Call Culture, where IT editors and special guests discuss life and art during the coronavirus. Subscribe him Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen