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Pete Docter's Amazing Animation

Soul Director Pete Docter Always Pushes Boundaries

Soul Director Pete Docter Always Pushes Boundaries


In modern animation, a few creators stand out as genuine auteurs. Movies by these filmmakers are instantly identifiable as their work, through content and theme, despite the fact that countless other artists and technicians work on these projects. This shortlist includes folks like Hayao Miyazaki, whose majestic, philosophical masterworks are rightly praised, and Henry Selick, a director who brought stop-motion animation into the realm of serious art.

And then there's Pixar's Pete Docter. It's hard to think of another modern animation master who so consistently pushes boundaries, in technology and storytelling. Docter was one of the company’s very first animators; he was courted by Disney and the team behind THE SIMPSONS before joining Pixar. He started at the studio when he was just 21 years old and has risen in the ranks to his current post as the studio’s chief creative officer. He's also the director of one of Pixar's two original films this year and one of the biggest movies of 2020: SOUL.

A Monstrous First Feature

Pete Docter's First Movie

Docter worked diligently on all of the early Pixar features – TOY STORY, A BUG’S LIFE, and TOY STORY 2 — and was ultimately the first filmmaker other than John Lasseter to direct a feature for the studio. That was 2001’s MONSTERS INC, the tale of an alternate universe just beyond your closet door where monsters live, work and play.

The movie was a major breakthrough in a number of ways. Consider that, up until this point, Pixar movies had mostly been concerned with characters who have a shiny, rigid exterior, like bugs and toys. That’s because these materials are easier to model using computer software. Docter wanted to change all of that, and MONSTERS INC fur and hair, along with squishier, more naturalistic textures and bold, bright colors.

It also featured a human main character. In the earlier Pixar movies, human characters had mostly been background players and were often obscured due to the technical and artistic limitations at the time. (Look at how TOY STORY 4 reworked sequences from earlier movies for a flashback, because the early version of Andy looks nothing like what the studio can do now.) MONSTERS INC. also intensified the story's emotion in a way that Pixar films had only hinted at before. At the time, the most potent emotional punch from Pixar was Jessie’s backstory in TOY STORY 2. That would ultimately become one of the studio’s calling cards. If you aren’t crying at the end of a Pixar movie, is it even a Pixar movie?

Moving Forward and Up

Up, by director Pete Docter

Docter’s next movie wouldn’t arrive for another eight years, during which time he would oversee an English dub of one of Miyazaki’s films, develop and abandon what would ultimately become WALL•E, and continue to work on all of the Pixar features in his position as a member of the advisory “brain trust.” Turns out, it would be worth the wait.

Docter's second feature, UP, was a bold new direction for Pixar. The story seemed so unproven that toy manufacturers and promotional partners shied away from it. It’s easy to see why, since UP is the tale of an elderly man and a boy scout who travel to a South American jungle where they encounter a mythical bird and talking dog, it’s not exactly the easiest sell. But it’s one of the most singular, profound pieces of modern American animation. That standing is exemplified by the nearly wordless “Married Life” prologue that shows a married couple as they deal with love, tragedy, and emotional and economic setbacks. It’s stunningly beautiful, accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s instantly iconic score, and sets a remarkably high bar that the movie ultimately clears, again and again.

Stylistically, Docter’s strong graphic sensibilities come to the forefront of UP, and his use of simple geometric shapes to further signify character traits and thematic undercurrents is particularly exciting. (That's been a pillar of his work since his 1990 student film “Next Door,” which shares some elements with UP.)

Docter also expanded his thematic concerns to encompass love and aging and death. UP was the first animated film since BEAUTY AND THE BEAST to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, a feat that would only happen one more time, with TOY STORY 3. It is largely considered one of the greatest animated films of the modern era.

Turning Inside Out

Pete Docter's Inside Out

Six years after UP, Docter took his biggest swing, with INSIDE OUT. Instead of a grand, globe-trotting adventure, the film focuses on the emotional inner life of a young girl and the emotions — Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger and Disgust — that scramble around inside her head. This personification of emotions was bold. The film's storytelling was even more so. Docter created a huge conflict inside of the girl’s mind while dealing with relatively minor stresses in her actual life. It’s brilliant.

INSIDE OUT also pushed Pixar's technology even further, with expansive environments that dwarfed anything Pixar had done before. At an early press day for the movie, one artist commented that the size of the “memory warehouse” was equivalent to that of South Korea.

The expansiveness is just one aspect of the film's groundbreaking technology. The emotions themselves are totally unique in that they are made up of smaller particulates that are each individually lit, giving the characters a glow and a complexity never seen before in CG animation. Docter also pulls at your heartstrings even harder: there’s a moment towards the end of the movie where the little girl cries in the arms of her parents, which is one of the most touching moments Pixar has ever produced. The scene is made even more powerful by its simplicity. Docter had always been a philosophical filmmaker who was deeply concerned with what makes us human, but INSIDE OUT was his first film to grapple with it so directly.

Finding New Soul

Pixar's Soul, from director Pete Docter

All of this brings us to SOUL. At the D23 Expo last summer, Docter joked that the movie was a metaphysical journey into one of life’s biggest questions: what makes you you? “Who would want to do something like this?” he asked. “We’re calling it SOUL.”

The movie follows a New York City jazz musician whose soul becomes disembodied. He finds himself at the You Seminar, where he meets another soul. They go on a cosmic journey to return to Earth. The concept art and trailer make the movie look like Pixar’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The brief teaser trailer exemplifies Docter’s willingness to tangle with thorny, complex philosophical issues, and his deftness when it comes to colors and shapes. The characters that are even more amorphous and abstract than the ones in INSIDE OUT, at least in shape. We expect they will ultimately feel as real as anything we've ever seen on the big screen.

The SOUL trailer suggests that Pixar has created a completely fleshed-out version of modern-day New York City, complete with tons of pedestrians, dogs, crossing guards, and everything else. This all feels like a genuinely new and revolutionary concept for Pixar. It is embellished with fresh ideas, like having Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (of famed industrial band Nine Inch Nails) compose the score. For a filmmaker consumed with pushing boundaries, SOUL feels like it could be Pete Docter's biggest breakthrough yet.

SOUL opens on November 20, 2020!

All images courtesy of Pixar Animation Studio.

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