Dinosaurs are BIG. They are also extinct. Science is continually seeking similarities between animals that exist today and perhaps their prehistoric ancestors. Headlines like Fossilized Feathers Reveal Similarity Between Dinosaur And Ostriches, appearing on the Huffington Post this week remind us often. It isn’t just science seeking similarities, for Disney Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, animators were also exploring the similarities between today’s animals and dinosaurs.
While in San Francisco for a press junket, we had the opportunity to sit with Pixar Animators Kevin O’Hara and Rob Thompson and see first-hand how they made Arlo, an 11-year-old Apatosaurus, the main character in The Good Dinosaur, come to life as realistic as possible. While the animation of a human is simple, they do this type of animation every day, but when we’re talking the largest creatures to roam the earth, dinosaurs, how do you study?
For Pixar Animators, the answer was the zoo and, for comparison purposes the largest terrestrial animal of today, the four to seven-ton African Elephant.
“When we started working on The Good Dinosaur, the challenge was, how can you be a dinosaur? You can’t go outside and watch a dinosaur. You can’t go to the zoo and observe them with your own eyes. You can see elephants. We made a research trip to the zoo to watch the elephants; to get the scale of these dinosaurs. We pulled what we could from the elephants. We broke down what it is like to be an elephant, and to walk like one.” shared Rob Thompson.
Kevin O’Hara continued this thinking process. “The elephants were massive and roughly the same size as Arlo, the young dinosaur. One of the most frightening things to an animator is a quadruped. The four legs have so much going on you could easily get lost. Nothing is simple about the quadruped walk.”
And then we watched the elephant at the zoo walk. To my eyes, it looked simple. One foot, then the next. It was at this point that it was mentioned that an animal so massive would seem to slam its feet. Suddenly, that elephant on the projector seemed far more graceful than our cat.
The animators broke the elephant’s stride down into four poses. Right Front, Left Front, Right rear and left rear. It was incredible to learn how the hips come into play as each leg rises and makes contact with the ground.
We then watched the elephant’s movements overlayed with Arlo’s movements was fascinating to see it all come together.
We then saw the four poses applied to Arlo in a short scene that took about 24 seconds.
With the four poses in place, production was able to begin. It begins with blocking, which is four-day process.
Blocking leads to an In Process section that can take one and a half weeks. Now imagine how many scenes are in a movie that takes 3 to 5 years to create!
Polishing is the final part of production and adds another week to the scene.
Imagine almost three weeks to perfect a scene that plays out in a brief 24 seconds!
You may have heard, The Good Dinosaur is about a boy and his pet. What you may be surprised to learn is Arlo, the dinosaur, is the boy, while his pet is a human, named Spot.
Fun Fact: “In the original version, the boy, SPOT, was not on all fours. He was able to walk on two legs. When we created the boy on all fours, the boy and his pet story really solidified.“- Rob Thompson
But before, the research comes character development. To understand this better, we met with Pixar’s Production Designer, Harley Jessup, who shared how artists create a model beginning with wire and adding clay until the character takes shape. In true Pixar standards, there were research trips to actual dinosaur digs so artists could study the structure and body of the dinosaurs.
The room we are in is an artistic masterpiece. Various sizes of paintings and drawings depicting various scenes in The Good Dinosaur. As the eyes navigate around the room, the art seems to break down into character behaviors of each character. There is a board for Spot, a board for Arlo, one for Nature and the T-Rexs. It’s all enchanting.
Jessup shares that the world in The Good Dinosaur needed to be large (it has to fit dinosaurs), but not so large that it loses the size difference between Arlo and Spot. The trees, the mountain range, it all has to fit and make sense to the viewer’s eyes and imagination.
There is so much research in a Pixar film. For The Good Dinosaur, 85 animators were involved. They studied everything from the smoke rolling off of mountains to the texture of a leaf. So much detail that you can tell what kind of tree it is, you can see the texture of the dinosaurs’ skin. It involves great detail as the movie’s timeline is a span of three seasons–how does the landscape change for each season?
It was mesmerizing to hear how Arlo’s house was inspired by a Montana homestead sometime in the 1950s. He brought more life to Peter Sohn’s evening around the campfire, and the stories from the Wyoming Research Trip.
I loved my time at Pixar and these small workshops were so much fun. I loved learning how the movie progresses from an idea to the final product.
See the completed work of Pixar November 25, when The Good Dinosaur arrives in theaters everywhere!
Disney-Pixar paid for my visit to Pixar in San Francisco as part of the #GoodDinoEvent.