Q&A: Pete Docter


CANNES -- A Cannes virgin, Pete Docter will unveil Pixar's 10th movie, "Up," as the festival's opening-night film -- and first ever in 3-D. Docter, who joined Pixar in 1990, tackled his fears about what lurks in the dark in 2001's "Monsters, Inc." But with his second feature, the lighter-than-air "Up," he turns to fantasies of escape: Carl, the film's hero (voiced by Ed Asner) is a crusty old widower who embarks on a long-delayed adventure by hitching his house to thousands of helium balloons. The Hollywood Reporter's Gregg Kilday talked to Docter about Pixar's development process, how 3-D changes the equation, and why he steers clear of pop culture jokes.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What inspired the film?

Pete Docter: It's not a total, straightforward linear answer. Basically, Bob Peterson, who became the head writer and co-director, he and I were given the chance to develop some ideas, and something that seems pretty common among animators is the idea of escaping the world. So when we came up with this idea of a floating house, it seemed really intriguing, and we just pursued it. Plus, the idea of doing something with a grouchy old man always appealed to Bob and I, both from an entertainment possibility and, as we got into it, from an emotional standpoint.

THR: There have been a few news stories about a guy who flies by attaching balloons to a lawn chair. Did that catch your attention?
Docter: We had started into it when suddenly those started popping up everywhere. I think every kid imagines when you get a helium balloon at the zoo or whatever, wow, if I got enough of these I could float off into the sky. We probably went more off of that than anything else.

THR: A number of Pixar's movies have gone through major overhauls during the production process. Did you go through any of that?

Docter: We did. It was early '04 that we started writing on this concept, and pretty quickly we locked into the basic structure and even thematically where we are now. But then Bob got pulled onto "Ratatouille." Here at Pixar the films are a reflection of the people working on them, and so when he left, I was looking for somebody to collaborate with and I hooked up with Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor," great, wonderful movies. With he and I working together, the movie took a little bit of a different turn. We added some elements, including the character of (the young boy) Russell, who was not in the original. But at the heart of it, it was still the same story of an old man who slowly steps back into life.

THR: There are already skeptics, who have questioned whether you can build a commercially successful movie around the character of an old man.

Docter: My thinking is -- and (Pixar chief creative officer) John (Lasseter) has been very clear on this, as has (Disney CEO) Bob Iger -- just make good movies. Jonas Rivera, the film's producer, he talks about merchandise as a souvenir of the movie -- if you really have a good time, you want a souvenir. So our job is to make the best movie we know how. You know, we heard it as far back as "Toy Story," (people saying) we don't see the commercial possibilities in that. So you just have to make good movies.

THR: Each Pixar movie seems to take on a new technical challenge -- with "Monsters, Inc.," for example, it was animating fur. What did you face here?

Docter: Probably the biggest thing is using tools we've already developed in new ways, different ways. In this movie, we really made a concerted effort to stylize things more -- when you have a house attached to balloons floating in the sky, it demands a certain stylization to my eye. So Ricky Nierva, the production designer, and I really set out for a much more pushed look. The main character is three heads tall, so it's definitely a stylized world. We had to relearn how things like cloth would behave in our world.

THR: But at the same time you went all the way to Venezuela to research the Tepui mountains.

Docter: That was a blast. We needed somewhere where this guy could get stuck with this kid with no hope of palming him off on the cops or anything. We initially set it on a tropical island, but that felt like you'd seen it so much. We then found these tabletop mountains, that I'd never heard of before, in South America. We tried to find photographs and did as much research as we could. But it just seemed we needed to go there. It was such a far-out place in design, as much as we could we needed to base it on reality before we started caricaturing it. So we took a group of 10 of us down there, got to sketch and photograph and sleep up there and hike and live as much as we could like the characters in the movie.

THR: When it came to Carl himself, how did you go about creating the character?

Docter: We cast the character by designing him from the ground up. We drew bald-headed guys, we looked at our own grandparents and older people in our lives. All sorts of actors -- Spencer Tracey, Walter Mattheau, James Whitmore. In the end, as we kept drawing him and thinking about who this guy was -- we were trying to get a physical manifestation of who he was inside. We decided he was a closed-off, set-in-his-ways guy, and that felt like a square. So his head ended up square, his body is very square, he's very angular. Even in the set design, the pictures in his house of Carl are all in square frames, while his wife is in circular frames. You get this really pushed shape language for all the characters in the film.

THR: Was the film designed from the beginning for 3-D?

Docter: No. We started out with a traditional movie, and we really remained focused on those core elements -- storytelling, character. The 3-D group almost came to be like another department, like the art department, the animation department. Once a sequence was pretty much through animation and even lighting, then the 3-D department would start setting the convergence points. We tried to use it fairly conservatively so you're not popped out of the film by things sticking in your face. I tried to do as much research as I could, and when I'd watch 3-D movies where things jump out in your face ooga-booga, I'm always reminded that I'm watching a movie. For me, it's really important that audiences lose themselves in the journey. It's like a dream -- you wake up an hour and a half later and say, whoa, that was cool.

THR: There are two approaches to 3-D. Some filmmakers like to bring objects out into the auditorium, right in the audiences' lap. Others are using 3-D to create a window the audience looks into. Where do you fall?

Docter: I try to be conservative. It's more like a window. We tried to use it artistically as well. When the character is closed off, alone, we confined the space and squished it, so it would feel more claustrophobic. And in contrast to that, when his house pushes off, we really pushed the depth so you'd have a sense of freedom. It's another tool to help tell the story and push the emotions. For me, it's almost like when my dad was growing up -- he had a huge record collection and he had a lot of those stereo demonstration records where it was like bongos on the right, trombones on the left. It was really extreme. One guy here calls it dual mono. It almost seems like 3-D is kind of like that at first -- it's more about demonstrating 3-D than telling a story. We're trying to use it more organically, more in support of the story instead of the story being in support of 3-D.

THR: Does 3-D create problems when objects come up against the edge of the frame?

Docter: Not when it's a window looking in, but when things break forward and then go over to the edge, that totally destroys the illusion. Bob Whitehill, here at Pixar, who became the creative head of that 3-D group, did tons of research and came up with do's and don'ts, things that really work and things that break it, so it was a learning process for us.

THR: Could you yourself go back to just making a 2-D film?

Docter: Oh sure. The future of 3-D is hard to tell now. I think it's largely in the audiences' hands whether they accept it whole-heartedly. Some folks are excited by it, others are put off by it. So it's kind of up to the audience.

THR: A lot of animation being done now relies on pop culture references for humor. But you seem to avoid that in this film.

Docter: That was very conscious. I don't know if there are any rules here at Pixar as to whether we do or don't do that. But for this film, it just felt like that was not something that was appropriate. I don't know that there's a right or wrong, but we wanted this film to be about these characters and not pop the audience out -- oh, I know they are referring to "Dancing With the Stars" or whatever -- we just wanted it to be about the characters.

THR: But you do seem to enjoy a few visual jokes, like the quick scene of dogs playing poker.

Docter: Yes, there was a lot of discussion about whether that belonged there or not, but it seemed old enough, since it was from a painting from the '30s. It at least kind of fits with the style of the film that we're making.

THR: And when the house is being tossed around by storm clouds there are echoes of "The Wizard of Oz."

Docter: I think that's because it's so strongly in our subconscious. We'd find ourselves getting into situations where things referenced "Wizard of Oz" too strongly and we had to step back and say how can we do this in ways that are not quite as close.

THR: You've worked on this film for the better part of five years. How do you pace yourself over that long haul?

Docter: In the beginning, you are struggling, kind of reaching around in the dark for something. We don't start with templates, but hunt around till we find it. Bob and I, for a long time, had no idea exactly where we were going, but then we started building on that. And right at the time that you start feeling really sick of it, after about three years, that's when new people come on, artists who have developed to this amazing level, and they bring their own ideas in. Part of my job as director is to give them enough information to do the job, but enough freedom to bring their own ideas in. As I'd come in every day, there would be these fantastic ideas to add to the show and just make it better and better. We view every phase of production as a chance to improve it.

THR: So how do you think a 3-D animated movie will play as Cannes' opening-night film?

Docter: I'm curious to see how people respond. I have no idea what to expect. I've never been to Cannes. A lot of people who really love it feel that 3-D brings them deeper into the experience, so with all these movie experts there, it will be interesting to see.