Interview with Pixar’s Sanjay Bakski about “The Good Dinosaur”

The Good Dinosaur

Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

“The Good Dinosaur” is the latest Pixar film that comes out on Wed. Nov. 25th nationwide. What if the asteroid that caused the dinosaurs to die off, never hit earth and humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time? An Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) has been separated from his family, and he enlists a human boy named Spot (voiced by Jack Bright) to help him complete the tough journey home.

Pixar’s Sanjay Bakshi gave a talk to film students at Emory University about the state of animation and how Pixar used the latest technology to create “The Good Dinosaur.” Bakshi is the Supervising Technical Director of “The Good Dinosaur” and I got to sit down with him after his lecture to talk about the film.

You came into the film two years after production began. What was it like coming in and taking over a project after it had already been established?

Sanjay Bakshi: A lot of our movies go through changes. Actually, in the last few years I would say most of them have. It’s not uncommon. I think part of it is because to make the movies takes so long, so a person who originally started out is the right person to come up with the idea and kind of nurture it but maybe not the right person to execute the film. For this film, a few of us came in to help out. For me, I wanted to be a part of it because I wanted to help out. Pixar, I felt like, needed to have some new energy on that film and some people who didn’t have all the legacy baggage. I was excited to be a part of it. I looked at it as an opportunity to help Pixar out. I was able to come in fresh and didn’t have any of those hang-ups and tried, as a leader, tried to just say, “Pixar has been successful so many times before, it’s going to be successful again. Let’s not worry about any of the past histories.” That was my attitude towards that.

Pixar films always ask “What If?” Talk about the “what if” of the film?

Sanjay: The dinosaur film has been done before, and we wanted to do a different take on it. That idea I think is really interesting of if that meteor hadn’t hit Earth and destroyed the dinosaurs and humans hadn’t been able to flourish as scientists talk about; the absence of the dinosaurs was an opportunity for mammals to flourish. If it kind of switched. Like if the dinosaurs developed language and culture and farming and the humans weren’t able to fill that place in the social structure than what would those relationships be like? We’re being quite mysterious about the humans. We’re not delving into it too much. They’re not necessarily cave people. We don’t know a lot about them, and I think that’s also the fun of it. Then the film becomes about the relationship between this specific dinosaur and this specific human.

The Good Dinosaur

Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Talk about your process for creating the emotion of the dinosaurs? How do you capture that perfect balance of human and animal? Do you constantly look at a mirror to see what they look like on yourself?

Sanjay: It’s that. The animators are essentially actors. Their job is to convey their performance. Even more than the voice actors I would say the animators are the actors. They spend time in front of mirrors. Every animator will have a mirror beside their desk. They’ll have a room they can go to record themselves to convey their performance. If it’s a physical performance, then they’re acting it out and physically remembering the weight and the attitudes of the movements as the scene is being performed. This film is unique in that there’s not a lot of dialogue so those characters have to be so expressive, and you have to be able to convey so much through just their facial expressions and their body movements. It’s so satisfying to see a sequence like with the first meeting of Spot and Arlo, which has essentially no dialogue, and to see an audience get caught up in that physical performance and feel empathy for Spot and Arlo. The animators, they’re masters of being able to convey emotion through acting.

When you talked with the students earlier, you said that a lot of the animation for the setting is procedural in that you can create this one element and manipulate it to fit the need of the scene. Were there certain things that you used for the dinosaurs that you could transfer over to the humans?

Sanjay: Typically the main characters that are performing, they’ll all be hand crafted, puppeteering, and very careful frame-to-frame animation. But we do use procedural techniques, and we did on this film for the herds of the bisodon we call them, the cattle. When you have hundreds or thousands of characters, we’ll animate one of them doing a run cycle and then procedurally apply it and vary it, so an animator doesn’t have to animate each single character.

Another sequence that we showed the students uses this is the birds that are flying and reacting to Arlo and Spot running through them. For the birds, we developed a flocking algorithm to procedurally animate them because they would just be too hard to animate by hand. Then we’ll pick out certain ones to put that extra love in, you know. It is funny how you can kind of, maybe not fool the viewer is the right word, but just give the sense that all of them are carefully animated. That’s the trick of the crowds, too.

The Good Dinosaur

Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Talk about using real geographical surveys to make the film and how you used Wyoming to make this film.

Sanjay: The first thing Peter Sohn told me when I got on the movie is, “I don’t want this movie to feel like a walk in the park.” I didn’t understand what he meant. Over a bunch of conversations, I figured out he really meant was he didn’t want the audience to know that Arlo is going to walk through the forest, and that’s the path he’s going to take because everything had been set up to make that easy for the animator to make him walk along that specific path. He wanted the natural world to feel like nature does; unorganized and chaotic. That’s one thing I think he meant.

The second was that if I’m shooting Arlo from this angle and I move the camera over here it might expose this miles and miles of terrain like in the natural world. That’s what’s so cool about hiking up a cliff and seeing this beautiful vista. He wanted to have those opportunities in the movie. To not necessary plan out the shot so carefully but to be able to move the camera and be like, “Wow, that’s amazing! Let’s shoot that.” That’s so hard in computer graphics since we hand build everything that goes into the movies.

Because of those desires we knew we had to do something different. I don’t think its the first movie that’s done this. It’s the first Pixar movie that’s done it for sure, and I think it’s the first movie that’s done it as extensively as we have, but it’s a real rich resource. The data itself varies in quality depending on the region. The data that we downloaded I think it’s only one data point everyone meter, for instance. It’s actually quite lumpy, but we then put all of this other detail on top of it, like the rocks and just a little bit of displacement to make it feel more detailed than the actual data is.

The cool thing that happens when you use real data is you get these side benefits. Like when Arlo and Spot are having a moment together, the terrain is actual terrain, so they won’t be on this flat plain that we would naturally build and might put in a few bumps, but it might be a 30-degree angle and animators have to react to that. You might not notice it when you’re watching it, but hopefully the natural world in the movie feels even more real because it’s all actual, physical terrain.

The Good Dinosaur

Photo courtesy of Disney – Pixar

How did you find the right balance between these realistic environments and these stylized characters?

Sanjay: It’s a real challenge for us, and we were worried about it because we wanted to make these terrains out of necessity. You have to be there with Arlo when he’s in the wilderness, and he’s alone, you have to feel empathy for him, and you have to understand his situation. So, the natural world has to feel like something we’re familiar with. The scale of all the trees, the scale of the bushes, the leaves, we tried to get that all right so that it feels immersive and real to you.

Then we always caricature our characters because we want them to be able to do non-physical things. We want to be able to use “squash” and “stretch” to make the animation feel, at times, comical and funny and use all of the techniques at our disposal. It would look weird if Arlo was a Jurassic Park level of detail dinosaur doing these outrageous things. Sometimes he’s leaping over rocks and his body’s stretching out in a cartoony way. And he is so expressive in his face; he goes from this tiny little mouth to this huge mouth. I view it as my job to marry those two. That’s why whenever we had to kick up dust from them walking through dirt I was like, “Let’s do it.” because that will ground them. Whenever they’re moving through vegetation, I said “Let’s do it.” I didn’t shy away from that stuff like we do on some movies because I felt that was a tool we had at our disposal to tie them together.

And then there’s the lighting. We do light them together. They respond to the same lights, and hopefully that grounds them as well. I think after you watch the movie you’ll get sucked into it. This is my hope. I don’t think you’re thinking about that dichotomy. I think you’re feeling, hopefully, like it’s a unified visual experience.

The Good Dinosaur

Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

When a live-action film is shot, there are usually changes to the story. You mentioned to the students that it’s the same with Pixar animation in that you’re evolving the story as you’re going along.

Sanjay: I think that’s the biggest challenge for the technical crew, but also if we can do it right we’re providing a real luxury to the story team to have the opportunity to make the film as good as it can be. We’re careful about when we put something into production we make sure that we feel like it can go into production. And if it can’t, not putting it into production, but invariably, we’ll put something into production, and the story will still change. Because we have this layered approach where we do layout, basically, and that’s where we just do rough staging of the characters and the camera. We can do that and throw it away and redo that pretty quickly. Boarding is obviously the easiest place to do that, and as it moves down the pipe, it gets more and more expensive. Because it does take a while to get it through all the different departments, it actually affords you even more time. You could say, “Okay, this is ready to go into layout” and then you still have like six weeks to make a change. Then it’s ready to go into animation, and we do rough blocking. If you change that scene, it’s probably okay. We’ve gotten really good about having those conversations and having like a handshake between the director and the technical crew. Invariably things blow up, and we have to change them, but we also are good about honoring people’s work when they’re shot and deleted, having a conversation explaining why it had to be done. We all know the best way to make a great film is constantly asking “can it be better?”

Were there any scenes in particular that you were hung ho about but were disappointed when they eventually got cut?

Sanjay: There’s a scene where they’re herding the bisodon that was out and then in and then out and then eventually got back in and I was thankful because it was this really beautiful scene of thousands of cattle. So that was one that was out for the longest time and at the last minute got back in because there was a good story reason to have it back in. I think we were pretty lean. I was in the story room sometimes accessing technical things, and I pitched a couple gags that I usually don’t do and none of them made it into the movie. Pete at that time was like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea” and they boarded it up. I was like, “Wow, I might actually get a tiny little joke in the movie.” Then over the course of the movie it evaporated because of lots of reasons. So yeah, in that way I did experience something getting cut I would have liked to be in the movie. Overall, we’re pretty lean. It was done essentially in two years; production was done. That kind of tells you we were pretty careful about what we put on the screen.

The Good Dinosaur

Photo courtesy of Pixar

You talked to the students that when technology gets faster and better usually costs come down, but in Pixar’s case the costs are going up. Why do you think that is?

Sanjay: I think the appetite for just visual spectacle and making the films as visually rich and beautifully as possible is not diminished at all. Not only the story people and the art directors are striving for that, the technical crew want those challenges, as well. There’s always a new challenge we want to take on. We haven’t reached where we’ve done everything we want to do. I think every film is a step forward in some filming of it, but I know the films that are in production now and some of them are going to be super hard and require even more processing power to match the desires of the crew to make a more beautiful experience. The next film is using a whole new rendering pipeline that even models the physicality of light bouncing even more accurately. That’s going to require even more processing power.

I think there is something to that. When you go to a Pixar film you expect a great story, an emotional story, and a story you can relate to, and you also expect to be wowed visually. I think that’s part of the experience.

There are some amazing scenes visually in the film, scenes that if you showed someone without telling them that it is animated, they would say were real. They wouldn’t know it is animated. There are some shots of leaves being hit by rain that are just incredibly realistic looking.

Sanjay: Yeah, It’s amazing how shots like that can convey emotion. We are inspired by movies like “The Black Stallion”, movies that are observational. Movies that kind of take a moment to set a mood, not always having to go quickly to the next plot point. It’s a fun challenge for us to be able to set the mood by using just visuals. I hope you feel that with this movie. That the pacing of the film reflects that. There are moments in the film where you just reflect on nature. The difference between a live-action film and an animated one is the filmmaker had to go and find a location and then shoot hours and hours of footage to find that perfect take in nature. We can design those moments. Some ways there is an advantage in doing it with a computer.

The Good Dinosaur

Photo courtesy of Disney – Pixar

Since you’re designing everything, do you ever get the perfect shot?

Sanjay: Yeah, there’s no shot in the movie that’s perfect, and that satisfies everybody. We have this process where we fill a room, and we watch it. We encourage people to point out flaws. Left to their own devices, we would show it, point out flaws, bring it back the next day, point out flaws, and we would do that.

And we would never see the movie.

Sanjay: Exactly. So we have to apply this discipline. We use principles that filmmakers have been using for decades of drawing the eye. Where you eye should be over there so that little intersection over there let’s let it go. So we’re always trying to view the movie as an audience member would as well. There are moments in every movie we’ve made that I’ve been a part of where I still cringe like, “Oh man that could have been better.” I still see that problem, and I expect the same from this movie.

Since you’re designing everything from scratch do you ever get the perfect shot or perfect emotion? How much retooling do you go through?

Sanjay: Yeah, there’s no shot in the movie that’s perfect, and that satisfies everybody. We have this process where we fill a room, and we watch it. We encourage people to point out flaws. Left to their own devices, we would show it, point out flaws, bring it back the next day, point out flaws, and we would do that.

 And we would never see the movie.

Sanjay: Exactly. So we have to apply this discipline. We use principles that filmmakers have been using for decades of drawing the eye. Where you eye should be over there so that little intersection over there let’s let it go. So we’re always trying to view the movie as an audience member would as well. There are moments in every movie we’ve made that I’ve been a part of where I still cringe like, “Oh man that could have been better.” I still see that problem, and I expect the same from this movie.

Talk about how nature is the antagonist in the film.

Sanjay: We set up Arlo as a character that is not self-confident, and that is someone that has a lot of doubts. Because his family is farmers, they are at odds with the environment, and we showcase that at the beginning of the film. Argo rarely feels comfortable and is always fearful and a lot of us can relate to that. The movie is this journey where Arlo matures and grows up. He has to figure out where he fits into this environment. So we had to convert how beautiful the natural world is but also how scary it can be. Something can happen in the natural world and all of a sudden, you are in danger. We are reminded that almost every day with all the natural occurrences that happen that cause harm. We wanted to be true to that. We worked on making everything natural. We worked on how clouds work and rivers can flood at a moment’s notice. We wanted to convert all that and make it feel real. There is a moment in the film when a wise character tells Arlo “You will never conquer nature, but you can get through it.

Thank you so much, and I hope it’s a big hit.

“The Good Dinosaur” opens nationwide on Wed. Nov. 25th.

“The Good Dinosaur” Website

For more of Mike’s interviews and reviews click here

 

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