Pixar filmmaker talks about his reverse ‘boy and dog’ story.

Pixar animator, director, voice actor and storyboard artist Peter Sohn — who was part of the team behind The Iron Giant, playing at this year’s TIFF in its remastered and extended form — spoke yesterday in Toronto about his soon-to-be-released film, The Good Dinosaur.

Sohn, who’s worked on such beloved films as Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004), said that The Good Dinosaur follows in the Pixar tradition of taking a “what if” scenario and bringing it to life.

“Pixar asks a lot of ‘what ifs,” Sohn said. “What if the toys come alive when you close the door? What if monsters did live behind the closets? What if a rat could become a famous five-star chef?

“Here, we ask the biggest ‘what if’ of all.”

The Good Dinosaur imagines a world in which that fateful asteroid many millions of years ago just narrowly misses Earth, saving dinosaurs from their imminent decimation.

The film centres on Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), a young dinosaur who, shortly after the death of his father, is separated from the rest of his family after falling into a river and getting swept away by the current. He eventually meets and befriends a human boy named Spot (voiced by Jack Bright), and they set off together on a quest to get Arlo back home.

According to Sohn, at the heart of the film is a “boy and dog” story.

“I love the simplicity of that type of story,” Sohn said. “It’s always about that kid who has a hole in his life and this dog kind of filling it.”

In The Good Dinosaur, the “kid” is Arlo, the dinosaur, and the “dog” is Spot, the feral human boy who walks on all fours.

Sohn explained why, of all the animals he could have anthropomorphized, he chose the dinosaur.

“At the beginning, it was always about, ‘Yeah we love dinosaurs!’ he said.

“But for me, some of the themes in this movie about a kid who’s stuck in his fear and trying to find a way to move forward, there was some interesting metaphor to the idea of being a dinosaur, and then trying to get out of that into finding out what he’s made of.”

The Good Dinosaur is set for a wide release in November.

The road to Pixar

Sohn began his presentation on a personal note as he reminisced about going to the cinema with his mother, who instilled in him a love of movies at a young age.

“She would take me to the movies and see these American movies with her. And most of the time, she didn’t understand them, because she didn’t understand English very well.”

Sohn’s parents, who are of Korean heritage, immigrated to New York in the seventies and started their own business running a grocery store.

When Sohn went to see movies with his mom, it was routine practice for him to whisper translations into her ear.

But for certain films, the language barrier didn’t matter.

“There were movies I never really had to explain anything for, and those were the Disney movies,” Sohn said.

“I remember seeing Dumbo with her. There’s a moment in that movie where they had his mother locked up in a cage and Dumbo’s trying to reach out to her hand … I remember my mom really feeling this moment. It hit me so hard, you guys, I can’t tell you what a crazy scene that was because I didn’t have to translate anything.

“The power of the visual storytelling and how the animators not only gestured to me but also getting her to emote like that, blew me away. She could connect to this really kind of goofy, animated elephant and how universal that was.

“From there, I wanted to learn everything I could about animation.”

He attended the School of Visual Arts in New York for a couple of years before moving out west to enrol at the California Institute of the Arts.

According to Sohn, this relocation caused a shift in his self-perception.

“I remember thinking about my race a lot growing up, my identity and being like a ‘yellow person’ or whatever,” he said.

“But then when I got there [the California Institute], finding these people at school and in animation, I found a different kind of race. I found this tribe of film nerds that I would — you know what, this is who I am.”

It was at the California Institute where he met Brad Bird, with whom he worked on The Iron Giant.

One day, Sohn joined Bird on a trip to the Pixar studios, where he met the director of Finding Nemo.

“I did some drawings that the director Andrew Stanton really loved and he pulled me into the story department, and that was my first taste of the Pixar story process and learning to trust that.”

Sohn has been working at Pixar ever since. Other projects in which he was involved include Brave (2012), Up (2009), WALL-E (2008) and Ratatouille (2007).