An Interview With Pete Docter

From Finding Nemo to Cars, The Incredibles to Ratatouille, one quality that has struck me in Pixar's films is their seamlessness, the way each narrative and visual element reinforces the others, underlining the same moral and emotional themes. A short while back, I had a chance to talk briefly with Pixar veteran Pete Docter--director of Up (my review is here) and Monsters, Inc., as well as a writer on Wall-E and both Toy Storys--and we discussed Pixar's process and how it is the studio gets its movies to cohere so elegantly. (Transcript edited for length and, yes, coherence.)

Without reducing Pixar films to a formula, it's clear that there are certain traits that tend to characterize the studio's films. To what extent do you guys think that there's a Pixar "style," and what do you think characterizes it?

Well, for better or for worse, I've never heard anybody in any of the meetings say, "Eh, that's not Pixar enough." But we're definitely looking for character-based stuff. That's first and foremost: that it's all seen through the main character's eyes and all motivated by the characters. Hopefully, all good movies are made that way. We're also trying to appeal to the animator in us. All of us so far, except for Lee Unkrich, who's directing Toy Story 3, come from an animation background. There is something about animation that makes you see things in a certain way, and I don't know what exactly that is, other than you start to see personality in almost everything. Like, just looking at this chair [he points to a plush, cushiony chair], I can see a certain personality to it that another chair wouldn't have. This one is a lot more sort of, [he assumes a gruff baritone] "Well, I'll get around to it when I get around to it." Just based on the design, it seems much more sedentary and overweight a little. That probably lends itself to how we approach design as a way of trying to express physically what's going on inside the character. Beyond that, I do think we try to think of ourselves as just regular filmmakers. We try to approach things the same way a live-action director would in terms of the way we shoot things.

For example, that last shot in Monster's, Inc., where you reverse the perspective so we see Sully opening the door through Boo's eyes, instead of vice versa. That's a cinematic decision, not an animation decision.

I think Pixar is a pretty unique place in that it's almost like the old studio system in Hollywood, where we have eight or nine directors under one roof who are all hopefully staying here beyond just one film at a time. The way Hollywood works now is that you make a deal with one studio, and when it's done, everyone just scatters to the wind. But we have people who have worked on all ten Pixar films--Up being the 10th--and they've gotten better and better at their craft. You also have the opportunity to show everybody what you're doing and get responses from other filmmakers as opposed to studio executives, which I think is really invaluable. That I can sit in a room and get notes from Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter and Brad Bird and all these other guys who I definitely respect ... I mean, look at their films. They're the best in the business. So I get this great benefit of hearing comments from them, and then they all go away. And as long as the film gets better, nobody's offended. Nobody says, "You didn't pick my idea." They're happy that the film got better.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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