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The Oscars: Going 'Up' Again with Docter

Pete Docter tells us about Up's breakthrough best picture Oscar nomination and its tremendous impact on viewers.

Check out the Up in the 2010 AWN Oscar Showcase!

Pete Docter (r-l), with Ed Asner and co-director Bob Peterson, says it's pretty profound sometimes to hear about how their movies affect people. All images courtesy of Disney/Pixar.

With Up finally getting a best picture Oscar nomination for Pixar yesterday (along with four other nods, including best original screenplay and best animated feature), I caught up with director Pete Docter one more time. We discussed the significance of the Oscar breakthrough along with the emotional impact of Up and, of course, Toy Story 3.

Bill Desowitz: Well, congratulations on the Oscar nominations and the tremendous success and love for Up.

Pete Docter: Yeah, very cool, thanks.

BD: Fifth best all-time for animation and second best for Pixar with nearly $300 million: All that early marketing anxiety for nothing.

PD: Exactly.

BD: What's it mean for you being nominated for Best Picture?

PD:

It's great that they've been able to shake things up, and I think [it's a great opportunity] to show how similar the process is creatively to live action: story and character and motivation, cinematography, the language that we use and how we approach things. I know on WALL·E they had Roger Deakins come by and was able to talk with our DPs and lighting folks in the same way that they would talk amongst themselves on a live-action show. So it's very, very equivalent.

The heart-warming and hilarious Up marks Pixar's first entry in the coveted best picture Oscar race.

BD: Now the academy can get more comfortable looking at animation as just a movie.

PD: We certainly look at them that way: we don't expect to get a free pass just because it's animated. They have to do the same heavy lifting as any film, and that's, as you mentioned, to affect people, to get in touch with their own experiences and find some emotional truth that speaks to them.

BD: Carl has certainly struck an emotional chord with a diverse group of people.

PD: Yeah, it's been fun getting to talk to a branch of people that might not have otherwise responded. I got a couple of great letters from retired folks: one woman who had her husband pass away a year ago and said she was looking to cheer herself up. "I went to the theater to see Up and…" And I thought, "Uh-oh: How is the rest of this letter going to go?" But she wrote that she really felt closeness to her husband and it was a great experience for her, and she just wrote to say thank you. So, that was pretty cool to be able to do that for somebody.

BD: And I read about the little girl who was dying and wanted to see the movie. And you had a DVD sent to her house and she watched it just hours before passing on.

The father-son elements have helped the film come alive.

PD: Yeah, that was pretty overwhelming. One of our post-production supervisors went down with the DVD and screened it and was there with the family… You forget -- and maybe it's [a good thing] -- how much the films mean to some people. They mean a lot to us -- we sort of act as though we're doing brain surgery or something. Of course, we're not, but it's pretty profound sometimes to hear about how they affect people.

BD: Reminds me of something Dr. Eric Haseltine said last fall at the VES Production Summit: Storytelling should be an emotional experience that makes us feel more alive.

PD: Exactly, you just want to affect people and, for me, that's mostly done through character and character interaction. Obviously, there are a lot of ways to reach people and different people are poked by different things and respond to different things: the visceral quality of a race or an explosion.

BD: The kids like the adventure and the antics of the dogs and I think they're ultimately moved by the father/son story.

PD: Yeah, to me, what movies are really about are characters interacting with each other and changing each other.

Pixar's trip to Venezuela was the foundation of shaping the events and look at Paradise Falls.

BD: Was the most difficult writing challenge figuring out what happens when they reach Paradise Falls?

PD: Not really, we had some ideas and the trip to Venezuela with about 10 of us helped a lot as well, not only from a design point but also giving us some story ideas: the introduction of characters, being mistaken for rock shapes and things -- that all came out of our experiences down there. Once we had the dots to connect to make the story arc work, how exactly and where those dots were, how it all happened was negotiable. It's funny: the parts of the story that were hardest to land in terms of those sections where they meet the different characters, they didn't change much. The more difficult ones were Muntz, which is discussed on the DVD.

BD: Right, it was difficult figuring out when and how to dispose of him so that it didn't overwhelm Carl's journey.

PD: Exactly.

BD: What would you say is the biggest improvement you've made as a director on Up?

PD: Hmm, that's a good question. Well, I think I got better at communicating and understanding what everybody brings to the party and what information they need to do their job. It became more efficient, I was able to speak more clearly about what I was after and also, hopefully, allowed to artists to bring more of their own ideas to the table. You start to realize these guys -- I knew this all along -- are talented folks and they have great ideas, so, instead of saying, "I want this on frame 7 and then on frame 20 it should be here," I can say more generally, "I need a sense of anxiety here. How do we get that?" And help bring better ideas to the table.

BD: It's been an especially great year for animation, and such a diverse group of nominees. What are your impressions?

PD: It's always fun to see films that have such a different point of view, and the stamp of the person making them. I feel that with Coraline Henry Selick is a great filmmaker and has such a strong sense of design that shows up in his films. It's always fun, and I really think that's what makes for a vibrant art form is to have that. And the differences from one filmmaker to another are a positive thing to see. I love to go to movies that I would never had made, you know, because it's really fun to see what artists will do with the same basic raw materials and how differently they approach things.

Docter was skeptical at first about Toy Story 3, but huddling with his colleagues again at the house in Inverness provided the right creative mindset to continue the story organically.

BD: Toy Story 3 is coming this summer. What's it been like revisiting that?

PD: Yeah, well, as usual, I kind of approach things with a certain amount of skepticism. I feel like the first one worked. The second one, thank goodness, we were able to get Toy Story 2 in a place that everyone was very happy with. Let's just leave it alone. Then we had this off site and came up with another idea that really felt good [Woody, Buzz and the gang are inadvertently dumped at a daycare center after Andy departs for college]. And Lee Unkrich has done such a fantastic job. One of the guys who produced Up, Jonas Rivera, saw it and felt as though this was an idea we came up with along with the other two and has just been in the vault. So it really feels of a piece. It's all the characters you've gotten to know and love from the other films plus some new ones [including Ken and Mr. Pricklepants] and it's just a lot of fun and very emotional, too.

Docter sketches with Pixar artists in South America.

BD: Talk about the brainstorming retreat.

PD: Yeah, I think it started on the first Toy Story where a very small number of us went to this place in Inverness up in the Bay Area and rented this house for three days and we just sat with each other and talked story the whole time. And a lot of the stuff came out of that meeting. We went back there on Toy Story 2 and then again on this one. The idea of the film was born there and it just helps to get away and shake things up. You settle into a certain kind of thinking sometimes in different places, so to go back to that same place as though our brains could click back into where we were. And I think it's really important, too, to have most of the people that were involved in the first couple involved in this one, at least tangentially, though, unfortunately Joe Ranft is no longer with us. And in Lee's case, he's heavily involved as director. But the films are always a reflection of the people that make them and so it's nice to have [that continuity].

BD: And what about your involvement?

PD: Well, I was pretty busy on Up, so, as usual, we'll have these brain trust screenings where we all get together and poke at it and offer suggestions and ideas, but it's mostly Lee and his fantastic story crew that has put it together.

BD: What are you doing next?

PD: I'm back in development on another idea. It's really early on, so it's nothing I want to talk about yet, but back to the drawing board.

BD: An original?

PD: Yeah.

BD: Anything at all about the direction you're going in?

PD: Well, it's definitely story driven, so this particular one takes… Well, I can't say. It's going to be pushing in directions and places we haven't gone before, which is always the exciting part. You know, doing something new and trying not to repeat yourself.

BD: Is this something that you've been thinking about for quite a while?

PD: No, it's a pretty new idea.

BD: Well, that's great to jump right on it.

PD: Yeah, exactly. So, hopefully, I'll be talking to you again in fewer than five years.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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