Fortunately for Docter, Pixar is an uncommonly patient employer, and as he and his team hashed out a viable story, they were also able to hash out the science undergirding that story. They consulted neuroscientists, psychiatrists, developmental psychologists, and brain imagers. The goal was to make certain that the mental landscape they were creating was as believable as possible, within the bounds of artistic and comedic demands.
Circumstances in Docter’s own life gave the effort personal meaning. When he began Inside Out, his daughter, Elie, was 11, and beginning a painful transition to adolescence. Her natural childhood exuberance, Docter said, “kind of took a vacation.” Overnight, or so it seemed to him and his wife, she became morose, reclusive, distant, moody. Watching her brought back powerful memories of Docter’s own adolescent awkwardness and alienation. “I didn’t find a tribe for a very long time,” he told me. “I was off by myself a lot.” Not until years later—after he went to CalArts to study character animation, and even more so after he was hired by Pixar, in 1990, as the studio’s third animator—did he feel he was in his element. “So when I watched my daughter go through that,” he said, “I was like, Oh, crap.” He also found himself wondering, like so many parents on the receiving end of an adolescent’s hard stare, just what in tarnation was going on in there.
In the movie, “in there” takes the form of a sleekly apportioned headquarters—a sort of psychic Space Needle—overlooking the vast terrain of Riley’s mind, where the color-coded Joy (yellow), Sadness (blue), Anger (red), Fear (purple), and Disgust (green) influence and are influenced by Riley’s actions in the real, physical world. They observe her struggles and her successes, call up her memories, keep watch over her dreams, and contend, sometimes fractiously, for control. (Fear: “All right! We did not die today. I’d call that an unqualified success!”) Docter, who has also done voice work for Pixar, playfully impersonated for me some of the other emotional candidates he and his collaborators considered. There was Pride (Docter raises his nose in the air: “You know, like Thurston Howell III”), Schadenfreude (in a pinched German tenor: “Oh, zat’s your pain? I could just scream vith joy”), Ennui (Joy: “Hey, we’re gonna have a great day! You okay with that, Ennui?” Ennui: “Eh”). Other contenders included Awe, Surprise, Shame, Embarrassment, and Contempt. No small part of making the movie, Docter said, was figuring out which emotions to keep and which to jettison.
He pared down the possibilities with the help of two psychologists: Paul Ekman, whose pioneering work on facial expressions inspired the Fox series Lie to Me, and Ekman’s protégé Dacher Keltner, of UC Berkeley. Ekman and Keltner are leaders in what is known as “basic emotion theory,” arguably the dominant theory in the study of emotions. The theory, which has its roots in Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, posits that certain emotions are universal, evolutionarily determined, and functionally discrete. Keltner told me that he was deeply impressed by Docter’s team. He’d assumed they’d have relatively narrow questions (“What shade of green should Disgust be?”). Instead, he found himself in an ongoing conversation about the relationship between emotion and consciousness, the tensions among different emotions, and how emotions live on in memory.