The team behind Pixar’s Inside Out found inspiration for their strikingly ambitious trip into the human mind in some unlikely places, as Pete Docter tells Jeremy Kay.

inside out

There could have been seven voices inside the head of Riley, the 11-year-old protagonist of Inside Out, but director Pete Docter decided on five. As there is no consensus as to how many emotions a young girl experiences, Docter was able to roam freely around her head.

“I knew we wanted Joy as the main character and we liked her because it was a common name,” the director says. “We came up with Pride and Hope and we even had Schadenfreude and Ennui.”

Those last four were discarded and eventually Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger took their place alongside Joy, like tiny Greek gods battling for the fate of a human soul.

Inside Outfollows the story of a young girl who moves from the US Midwest to San Francisco with her parents while also charting the internal machinations that shape her.

“It evolved in stages,” says Docter of the story he originally pitched to John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar, in 2009. “The attraction was the idea of doing emotions as characters. Animation can do that really well — these extreme larger-than-life characters like Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck.

“We made a list of associative words like ‘I feel blue’, so that was a clue as to what [Sadness] would look like. Or ‘I’m going to explode with rage’. We designed them as a group. So Anger was pretty obviously red and Sadness blue. We chose purple for Fear because it balanced the group out nicely.

“None of them came immediately… Disgust was the longest search. We weren’t sure whether she should be disgusting or just disgusted. It wasn’t landing for a long time.”

Docter describes the film as Pixar’s “first big step in ‘cartoononics’”. “For this film we wanted to have these emotions move the way we feel when we’re happy or angry,” says Docter. “It always feels more intense [internally] than what comes out. So when Joy runs she can zip around and bend her arm in an S-curve and [do things] that normally you wouldn’t do anatomically.”

Docter was part of the development team of Toy Story in 2003. He says the goal then was to learn as much as possible about anatomy to render the characters life-like. Since then Docter has directed and won the best animation Oscar for Up in 2010 and animation has continued to advance, thanks in no small part to Pixar’s dazzling standards.

The Inside Out team, which swelled to 330 animators, designers and sound specialists over five-and-a-half years, created a special tool that allowed them to explore all this anatomical trickery. Depicting the character of Riley, meanwhile, was a more down-to-earth process and inspired by someone very close to the director’s heart.

“Early on [in making Inside Out] my daughter was about 11 and she was going through a lot of the same things that Riley was going through. She had an influence on the film. Watching her growing up was really what the whole story was about,” he says.

The film-makers spent months talking to scientists and conjuring up drawings to illustrate the inner workings of a young girl’s mind. The balance between science and entertainment took about three years to perfect as Docter wanted to avoid lecturing his audience. “We like to storyboard stuff, so we draw almost like a comic-book of what’s going to happen,” says Docter. “We almost look at it as an extension of scripting, but it’s visual. It helps us hone down the characters and get a sense of the plot. We film these drawings and cut them with music and effects, so by the time we have that we can sit in the theatre and get a sense of what works. Then we go back to the drawing board and repeat that process. Then we start building it [in the computers].”

3D clay figures

Docter worked closely with production designer Ralph Eggleston, another Pixar lifer who joined in 1993 and with whom he worked on Toy Story. “We do the same thing as live-action production designers because everything is from scratch,” Eggleston says. “Every model, every design, every character, every hairstyle, every texture is designed within the art department and there are long conversations with the director and a lot of drawing.”

Eggleston spent the first year drawing, painting and sculpting characters. “If it looks good in clay it will look good on a computer,” he says, adding that clay is the only time the film-makers get to see their characters in three dimensions.

Eggleston and his core team of 12 did their research and scoured reference materials. All the while he strove to impose boundaries, noting that it is easier to design based on actual things precisely because of real-world limitations. They visited a jelly bean factory, observed eggs rolling into boxes to get inspiration for the memories rolling along tracks and stopped by a train museum to realise the ‘Train of Thought’ sequence.

“I came up with the idea of memories being little orbs based on microphotographs of dew drops on a spider web,” he says. Eggleston and his team created 23 separate concepts for what the mind might look like. “It was a big guessing game,” he says.

Imagination land

The imaginative wonders contained in the film have drawn plaudits but the film-makers were always aware it could have gone horribly wrong or merely seemed pretentious. The sequence in which Bing Bong leads Joy and Sadness through a short-cut that turns out to be the part of Riley’s mind that generates abstract thought is a case in point. The film-makers decided to morph the characters into grotesque cubist figures before snapping into two-dimensional shapes and finally surrendering to the simple form of a coloured line each.

“It just seemed like if we could not do it here when would we ever be able to do it?” says Docter of the ambitious visual sequence. “We had to work really hard to make sure it was necessary for the story. We created this thing where Joy was following Bing Bong and this was proof that maybe he was not that trustworthy, so we ended up creating a ticking clock as they went through the various stages of getting more and more abstract.”

It was also critical to ensure the emotions were well-rounded and not slavish representations of their names. The writers worked hard to create the sense of fully fleshed-out protagonists. Once the characters had been designed and rendered in the computer, the roles were cast and recorded to enable the animators to embellish movements and gestures to incorporate the actors’ personalities.

“Amy Poehler was helpful,” says Docter of the actor who voices Joy and who spent a day contributing ideas during a read-through. “In some of the early drafts [Joy] was annoyingly peppy.”