How Pixar Made an Apatosaurus Look Small in 'The Good Dinosaur'

Director Peter Sohn used Wyoming's Grand Tetons as inspiration for the film's larger-than-life scenery: "What an interesting place to make something as large as a dinosaur feel tiny."
Courtesy of Pixar/Disney
'The Good Dinosaur'

This story first appeared in the Dec. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

What does the classic 1953 Western Shane have to do with The Good Dinosaur, the new Pixar animated movie about a timid, young dino, Arlo, lost in the great outdoors? Director Peter Sohn says it was one of his sources of inspiration since it was shot in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park. "A big thing for me was to create an open world that dwarfed Arlo so that his journey would be long and treacherous and beautiful at the same time," he says.

A sample of the footage shot in Wyoming as part of the field research for the movie.

A native New Yorker who only knew the great expanses of the American West from the movies, Sohn admits that after a scouting trip through Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, he was "blown away. A lot of it has to do with the scope of the landscape. It's horizon to horizon, and the graphic quality of these mountains is so huge. What an interesting place to make something as large as a dinosaur feel tiny."

Pixar didn't use traditional matte paintings to depict the environment. Instead, explains Sharon Calahan, the film's dir­ector of photography and visual designer, her team utilized data from the U.S. Geological Survey to create the terrain and then customized it, adding trees, rocks and other elements by employing software created for the film as well as existing tools such as the tree-generation software that Pixar developed for 2012's Brave.

Concept art for a finished scene in The Good Dinosaur. Says Jessup of the 18-foot-tall dino Arlo, "He is really dwarfed by this environment."

"We are talking about adding millions of trees and rocks that heightened the awesomeness of nature," says production designer Harley Jessup. "The basalt rock formations are really important and added a very rich, coppery color to the scene." Calahan, who had painted similar landscapes as a hobby, adds, "I approached the lighting on Good Dinosaur like a painting, where you see color in a different way than how a camera captures it."