During my visit to Pixar a couple months ago, I not only got to see 30 minutes of The Good Dinosaur as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. I also got to talk with the movie’s producer, Denise Ream.
For those who are unfamiliar with the film, it’s set in a world where dinosaurs were never wiped out and have remained the dominant species on Earth. The story follows Arlo, a young Apatosaurus who gets separated from his family and befriends a 6-year-old human boy to get back home.
Ream came on board in June 2013, and has followed the project through its long and at times rocky development. During our conversation, she admitted to me flat-out that the reason the movie was delayed was “that the story was not working, period, full stop, it just was not where it needed to be.” We also talked about how they managed to reset and simplify the story, bringing in an almost entirely new voice cast, and more.
Question: I wanted to talk about the history of this project, how it transformed because it started with Bob Peterson and now Peter [Sohn]’s directing, and so if you could talk a little bit about the transformation of the project and what changed from early versions to what we’re about to get.
DENISE REAM: Yeah. I wasn’t on the early versions. Pete’s definitely the guy to talk to. I came on in June of ‘13, John Walker the former producer left to go work with Brad Bird because they have a long standing relationship and he had an opportunity. So I came on and they were in the middle of starting to tear the story apart. I had been on another movie and had taken a lot of time off so I never really saw the early screenings. But a couple of things that did change were like that the siblings were a lot older, they became younger, it was a much more complicated story from the little that I know of the previous history. And when we reset the movie a lot of it was about stripping away what had existed before or had gotten overly complicated and going back to the real true essence of the boy and dog story. So I came on and kind of shut the whole show down, which was very nerve-racking to a lot of people, but we shut the show down and literally Pete spent September, October, November and December solely working on the story and kind of iterating treatment forms, script forms, and then we started re-boarding toward the middle of December of ‘13.
Can you talk a little bit about that this film brought on an entirely new voice cast as well, can you talk about assembling that new cast and what they brought to this?
REAM: Yes. That was difficult because the prior voice cast was incredible, they were amazing. But when we decided to simplify the story we lost a lot of characters basically, once it had been built and we had been animating too, and again, the age change demanded basically recasting all of the siblings. Spot stayed the same, because he was always Spot, and then Frances McDormand was the only parent that we kept. Basically everyone else was recast and we just had a lot fewer people. Basically the casting process here is pretty organic, we sit there, we look at the designs and we look at the models and we just literally listen to a lot of voices up against pictures, and a lot of the times we don’t know who we’re listening to. Obviously some people are identifiable but we just sort of listen and you just get this gut feeling if someone’s going to work or not.
This film, from a technical perspective, the animation is very real, it looks gorgeous. Can you talk about some of the challenges that you faced that were unique to this film from a technical perspective?
REAM: I think, as you saw from the research discussion last night, trying to get that expansive world and having to build everything was quite demanding. And form the get go Pete basically said, “I don’t want it to feel…” –You know, a lot of times when you’re building you focus on the foreground and then the background are less detailed out, you kind of stay in sort of this limited area and he kept saying, “I don’t want it to feel just like a walk in the park. I want it to feel really expansive, like it could go on and on forever.” And so that’s when Sanjay Bakshi, our supervising technical director, came up with the idea of using the USGS topological survey data, so we used that as sort of the starting point to get this really expansive feeling. And so of course that’s not hard but then getting to dress it all with trees or rocks, it looks photo-real but it is slightly stylized, so we still had to build and create everything. So how we had to dress and populate all of that terrain was complicated, and so that was a big challenge. This is also the first time that we’re using volumetric clouds in every single shot, usually a lot of them are map-painted or you pick moments when you’re gonna use the volumetric clouds, but in this movie, again, because we were outside we wanted it to feel immersive we made the choice to do all volumetric clouds. Even ILM said we were crazy to do it when we talked to them about it. And I was a little skeptical but it ended up being the right thing to do and we ended up kind of building this huge library of these 3D clouds and we kind of set-dressed them and they did a really amazing job; so that was a big challenge. The other thing, honestly, was I felt because there’s not much dialogue as we typically have in a Pixar film, I wanted to give an animation as much time as possible to create the performance, so carving out that time. We actually did something different how you sign the work so people could have continuous runs of footage rather than sort of piece meal, in order to create this consistent performance, which I think once you see the whole film you’ll really be able to recognize that.
In giving animators more time, was that part of the decision to move the film back from last summer to this Thanksgiving?
REAM: The primary reason to move it was just the story was not working, period, full stop, it just was not where it needed to be. And God bless Disney and the executives at Pixar for kind of realizing the movie was just not what any of us had wanted it to be. So that was largely the reason of why the date changed.
Now that it is where you wat it to be, where do you feel it stands alongside other Pixar films, what do you feel Good Dinosaur brings that you guys haven’t done before?
REAM: Well, I’m personally excited to see a new filmmaker from Pixar directing a movie. I think Peter Sohn is incredibly talented, and so for me, I’m excited for him and sort of what he’s accomplished with this movie. I mean, I’m proud of it, it’s beautiful, I think it’s emotional, I think it’s fun that Pixar is sort of quote-unquote doing dinosaurs. It’s just different, and I’m proud of the studio for releasing two extremely different original films in one year, I think that’s exciting for me as a member of this studio, as a crew member of the studio, to work for a company that is willing to take those kinds of risks. So hopefully other people will feel the same way.