Pixar director drawn to animation early
Disney’s Dumbo illustrated power of film
TORONTO — Before The Good Dinosaur was even finished, the film’s director, Peter Sohn, visited the Toronto International Film Festival in September to give journalists a kind of preview of this coming attraction from Disney’s Pixar studio, in the form of a live presentation.
Sohn proceeded to demonstrate that Disney animators can bring a tear to the eye as skilfully as Disney movies. The Bronx-born Sohn, the son of Korean immigrants, recalled going to movies with his mother, whose grasp of English was limited. Time after time, she would be emerge baffled by dialogue-heavy Hollywood movies.
For Sohn, the penny dropped when the two attended a screening of the Disney classic Dumbo, especially the scene in which the baby-elephant hero is comforted by his caged mother. Such scenes require no words. From that moment, Sohn says, his career as an animator may as well have been predestined.
Fortunately, it worked out well. After attending the California Institute of the Arts, he started his career at Pixar in the art and story departments of the 2003 film Finding Nemo. He made his directorial debut on the short film Partly Cloudy. And between those films, he was the visual inspiration for Russell, the pesky Cub Scout from the movie Up.
We had a chance to interview Sohn. Here’s what he had to say:
Free Press: At your presentation, you gave a shout-out to the movie Dumbo as an example of a movie you could see with your mom that transcended language. Were there others?
Sohn: It wasn’t just animated movies. There’s a plethora of live-action movies that are just so well done, visually. But in high school, I was a big video-cassette guy. I used to tape everything and I found my mom would only respond to things like Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin movies. (Chaplin’s silent classic) City Lights is still one of my favourite movies of all time, in terms of the simple lessons of camera and that final close-up at the end of that movie.
I would always watch (her) from the corner of my eye. My wife hates that I still do this. I’ll be watching the movie and my eyes will slowly go to her. I did that a lot with my mother, gauging at what point they would start to react.
Free Press: The Good Dinosaur seems to be a throwback to older movies of the boy-and-his-dog variety, except in this case, the dinosaur is the boy and the boy — named Spot — is the dog.
Sohn: Some of the movies we referenced were things like Old Yeller. There’s a frontier quality to Old Yeller that was very interesting. There’s definitely a survival story on the farm that was influential. Also The Black Stallion, Carroll Ballard’s film, the way he shot nature with (cinematographer) Caleb Deschanel, so pensive, so beautiful and so focused on this small relationship. It’s so classic. I love that movie!
Free Press: Is it a blessing or a curse that The Good Dinosaur is coming out the same years as Inside Out, which is one of the strongest Pixar movies ever?
Sohn: Actually, that’s my favourite Pixar film. It really is. You know what it is? I have a daughter who is five years old, so I connected with it on such a personal level that I wasn’t expecting, to be honest. I’d seen early reels that just destroyed me.
Pixar has a high bar in all of their films and to try to live up to that would crush me. But you still try to do your best.
I’ve been there for 15 years and I can’t tell you what a family it is, to me, and how I love everyone there. So when Inside Out came out, I was just so proud, These are our brothers and sisters and they put out an unbelievable movie and at the other end of the year, the other side of the family, we’re trying to do our best as well. Will we live up to that? Who knows?
Director Peter Sohn at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif.