by Karl Cohen
By the time Inside Out opens at theatres across the US on June 17, the advance publicity campaign for it will have caught the attention of almost everybody who loves Pixar’s features. John Lasseter and other top Pixar administrators have come out from behind their desks and appeared at major events, even the Cannes Film Festival, telling the world about this and other great films that Disney is releasing this year. If you are a serious film person, you’re probably aware that making a film is only half the work. The other half is getting people to want to see it.
One group that Disney has tried to get excited about Inside Out is the young adult market. Since that group includes college students studying filmmaking, Pixar sends people who worked on the movie to colleges to give educational pep talks about the production. What intelligent film student would want to skip a chance to learn something about how Inside Out was made?
Pixar’s speaker at its San Francisco State event was Eric Langley, the art department manager. He worked on the film for over four years, starting when Pete Docter, the film’s writer/director, was beginning to discuss the look of the unusual visuals. His work ended after the last details were designed.
Eric supervised a crew of about 15 artists. Part of his job was to make sure all their work was properly scheduled so that the production moved smoothly. Remember, everything in the film had to be designed and approved—from doorknobs and the color of a wall, to the shapes of characters’ hands. Eric’s department is small, but it played an important role in the production.
Eric began his presentation by showing a behind-the-scenes video that portrayed Pixar’s younger staff members having fun. We were shown some of their cool, personalized work spaces; people goofing off in the company’s social area; director Pete Docter explaining something to an artist; and a lot of other images suggesting Pixar is a great place for young adults to work. There were a few shots of John Lasseter and other key officers in the company, but the emphasis was on youth enjoying being part of Pixar’s team.
Next, Eric told us that his career at Pixar began in 2004, working on Cars . He was a young assistant in the production office. He’d previously been turned down for a job at Pixar when they were working on The Incredibles, but now he was in an office where he could learn the ropes. A bonus was the opportunity to watch John Lasseter in action several times a week.
After Cars , Eric moved on to other departments, as Pixar wants their promising young crew to have a wide range of experiences as they develop their careers. Now that his work on Inside Out has ended, he has become the manager of the lighting department.
Eric introduced us to Inside Out by talking about the thousands of decisions that had to be made in designing the key characters. He explained that while the film is about Riley, a cute 11-year-old girl with big eyes, the main characters in the film are actually somewhat unusual: they represent five basic emotions inside her mind. He was careful to point out that they reside in her mind and not in her brain, since most people think of brains as squishy gray matter while minds are an undefined abstract space in our heads. Can you pinpoint where your mind is located?
What does an emotion look like? One of the art department’s first big jobs was to design the five key emotions inside Riley’s head. Before talking to us about these creatures, he showed the first seven minutes of the film, which introduces the emotions to the audience.
Those seven minutes bend over backwards to make our understanding of who the five emotions are as simple and clear as possible. To help us remember who each creature is, each has different shape and color. Yellow is happy, blue is sad, red is angry, green is disgust and purple is fear.
Eric told us that a great deal of time was spent deciding which emotions should be represented in the film, what they would look like, and how they would act. The writers and artists needed to make each an interesting and distinct character so no one would be confused.
How many characters would be in Riley’s head? They decided four didn’t seem enough, five or six sounded OK, and more than six or seven might be too confusing. While they knew there are actually more than four or five emotions in our minds, they wanted to keep the script simple. They consulted with psychologists and other experts on how best to represent human feelings visually.
Even though experts differed on how many basic emotions exist (research revealed that adults have anywhere from 7 to over 25, depending who you ask), Pixar settled on five for the film. They are: Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler; Fear voiced by Bill Hader, Anger, voiced by Lewis Black; Disgust, voiced by Mindy Kaling; and Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith. In the question-and-answer portion of Eric’s presentation, he noted that Pixar considers the five emotional characters as its equivalent to Snow White’s seven dwarfs.
Deciding how to represent what the mind looks like was another big challenge. Was there architectural detail, or is it some kind of cosmic void? In the end, the mind is depicted as a rather abstract space dominated by a chamber called the “control center.” In that space, individual memories are stored. The design team decided that memories could be represented by colored balls stacked on racks. Nice memories are bright happy colors, while bad memories are dark balls. Each represents an individual memory, and he showed us a scene in which a vacuum cleaner-type of device was sucking away old balls, memories that were no longer useful, to make space for new memories.
As for the film’s plot, we learned that Riley was uprooted from her comfortable Midwest life when her father accepted a new job in San Francisco. She must adjust to a new life, so she suddenly finds herself on a bumpy road. Her emotions help guide her, giving advice as needed. At times there are conflicts between her emotions—they struggle to adjust to situations she faces.
Joy becomes Riley’s main and most important emotion. She tries to keep things positive, but when conflicts arise, Riley must decide on how best to navigate through her life in a new city, new house and new school.
Eric’s talk covered a great deal more about the film. He discussed what some of the other departments at the studio did, and the steps each scene in the film goes through before it is ready to be seen by the public. He touched on designing minor characters; adding graphics to backgrounds; modeling; rigging wireframes, cloth and hair; lighting design, and other things that were needed.
Some students were surprised to learn that Eric was a pre-med student in college, and that before Pixar he worked in administrative jobs in a TV station and talent agency. He hinted that your personality and enthusiasm are important both to getting hired and advancing within the corporation. He also pointed out his job is not a creative position, it is administrative.
Based on the few clips we saw, Inside Out looks like it will be a fun film for older kids and adults, and another impressive critical and box-office hit. I’m not sure if younger kids will really understand the film once it gets underway, but I suspect it will be a lot of fun for them even if they don’t. At what age do kids really understand what emotions are all about? Will they worry that little creatures are living in their minds, or will this all just be a wacky and enjoyable film they don’t quite fully comprehend?
Opens Wednesday, June 17 in theaters nationwide.
Karl Cohen has been teaching animation history at San Francisco State University since 1993, and has been writing about it since the late 1970s. A notable collector of animated films, he is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America. As the president of ASIFA/San Francisco, he edits and writes for the ASIFA/San Francisco, read by animation fans around the world. He is currently writing a book on animated propaganda.