Is ‘Inside Out’ The Most Ambitious Movie Pixar Has Ever Made?

It’s a beautiful afternoon at Pixar’s Emeryville campus, located just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco’s bustling downtown, and Pete Docter is tired. The Academy Award-winning director of Disney Pixar’s Up has spent nearly six years developing his latest film, this summer’s Inside Out. It’s a couple of months until the film’s release, and Docter’s demeanor reminds one of a marathon runner’s determination with the finish line in sight. “In the end, this turned out to be the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on,” he confesses.

Don’t blame production problems; the long gestation of a project like Inside Out was mainly due to the film’s unique concept. Docter’s daughter –who served as the inspiration for the goofy, happy character of Young Elie in Up– had entered that stage every kid eventually reaches, the moody period that precedes middle school. Docter came up with the idea of making a film about that change in his daughter by telling a story that would take place inside the mind of a girl going through that same transition. “Watching my daughter and a lot of kids go through this, including myself, there’s a childhood joy that goes away once you’re exposed to the brutal reality of the world. It’s a rite of passage, and there’s something beautiful and necessary but sad about that loss,” he says.

When Docter approached Jonas Rivera, his producing partner in Up, with the idea in late 2009, Rivera immediately responded to it. The two pitched the concept to Pixar’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter, as a movie that would balance two interconnected narratives: the girl’s real-life experiences and the story taking place inside her mind. Lasseter immediately connected with the idea, and that’s when the challenge began.

“What didn’t?” answers Docter when asked what exactly made it so difficult to get the film off the ground. “The characters: what do emotions look like? The setting: what does the mind world look like? These two stories that connect to each other was really tricky, because usually what you have are several different subplots that connect in different areas, but this was on another level.”

“It took brute force to get this movie made,” agrees Jonas Rivera. “You get a concept and believe in it –but that’s little more than a tagline on a movie poster. Then you need to dramatize it, and this movie is basically two movies that need to be woven together. That’s just the narrative part of it. For the visual part of it, what would this world look like? What does the mind look like?”

“It took over a year and a half of work to get it out of the concept stage. Even the way people would refer to it around the studio; they’d always say it was a great ‘idea.’ I needed to have them say, ‘movie,'” says Rivera.

The eureka moment in crossing the bridge from concept to film, according to Docter, came as soon as the project came together as an ensemble comedy. The film features a large cast, including the central family –Riley and her parents– who move cross-country from the idyllic (albeit frigid) suburbs of Minneapolis to San Francisco. Inside Riley’s mind, the narrative is driven by an ensemble of characters that represent her emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black).

“I think I called her Optimism in that first pitch,” Docter says, referring to the character now known as Joy, who emerged as the film’s lead from the outset. “I thought of it as an ensemble comedy, so that was always the intention as we cast and wrote it, and she was always the one driving character.

“Any movie is about relationships, and Joy was hard to land as a character,” he continues. “Even later when people were acknowledging it as a movie, they would say, ‘I don’t like Joy. I’m not rooting for her.’ That was bitter medicine to swallow since she’s our main character! But she’s a tough one to write for; you can’t make her too chipper, and getting Amy Poehler was just a huge pivot point for the film. She had the ability to know how much enthusiasm to balance with little bits of sarcasm and undercutting.”

In early drafts of the script, Joy was paired with Fear as the two embarked on a journey deep within Riley’s mind. During development, the decision was made to replace Fear with Sadness –changing the focus of the story to become more about Joy’s journey and relationship to Riley’s emotional state. Weaving the two narratives together proved to be crucial in making the story work.

“We found out that the more we connected the two stories, the better both of them became,” Docter says. “We cared more about Riley’s story if her decisions affected Joy’s journey and vice versa. We had early stories with plots including traumatic events, and Joy’s journey, like in Lord of the Rings, was about going to go destroy that memory. But that didn’t really affect Riley at all, so we really searched for ways to design the world that connected both characters more fully.”

Linking the two narrative strands was an important priority for Ralph Eggleston, the film’s production designer. “If you don’t care about Riley, you’ll never care about her emotions,” he says. Since the bulk of the film technically takes place inside the mind (and not the brain), Pixar’s creative team had a range of options to consider in how they wanted to go about distinguishing Riley’s real world with her interior one.

“One thing we found most interesting between the two worlds was the contrast between them. We wanted to come up with a visual language that could clearly define these worlds, but at the same time separate them. The outside world is based on real locations, so it’s imperfect and flawed. The inside world is imaginative; it can look perfect because it’s virtual,” says Inside Out’s director of photography, Patrick Lin.

The film’s color palette reflects that approach, depicting foggy San Francisco in muted colors while Riley’s interior world is dominated by bright, saturated hues. Each of Riley’s emotions is assigned a color, and the creative team briefly considered having each of them change color throughout the film, according to Eggleston, “because different colors mean different things in different cultures.” The idea was ultimately scrapped at the worry that family audiences would find the fluctuating character colors too confusing and disorienting.

Inside Out producer Jonas Rivera cites Eggleston as responsible for developing the characters’ distinct look. “I go back to Toy Story with Ralph Eggleston,” says Rivera. “He really loves the classic Disney animation, and we talked a lot about Fantasia; we wanted light to be abstract and play a little bit differently. Ralph was the one who came up with the idea of energy, something that we couldn’t necessarily build on a model, the characters as these sources of light. If you get the right people, you know they will mine in the right wells to bring great work.”

The effect Rivera refers to is the effervescent look of Riley’s emotions. The ensemble inside Riley’s mind lacks the gummy aesthetic of other CGI characters, instead exhibiting a sort of fizz (think of the bubbles rising from a champagne flute), an idea that Eggleston says was inspired by the sort of sparklers you might encounter on the Fourth of July. Eggleston’s team worked on the effect for eight months in order to perfect it for Joy’s on-screen presence.

For Docter, the film really started to take shape after getting positive feedback from one of their early scenes, one involving a dinner-table argument between Riley and her parents. Docter refers to its first screening within Pixar as a big moment during production. “We showed people what the movie could be and everyone reacted positively. That was a big turnaround for us.” An early version of the scene was screened for exhibitors at CinemaCon and CineEurope last year, eliciting a tremendously strong reaction from those in attendance: those entering Disney’s presentations at the two conventions walked in thinking about Star Wars and walked out talking about Inside Out.

Part of what makes Pixar films so successful around the world is the studio’s commitment to detail when handling international versions. Family films like Pixar’s are traditionally dubbed in foreign markets, making it easier on kids who don’t feel up to reading subtitles. Pixar’s hands-on approach doesn’t only influence international casting, it can also modify visuals and key plot points in the film.

“We’ve got an international team in our post-production department, so we look at movies very early on and spot for things —wherever there is a plot point, signage, a graphic, or a line of dialogue that doesn’t directly connect– we flag and try to correct it. Some things work and others don’t,” explains Rivera. “For example, in Japan there is no real translation for ‘train of thought.’ We couldn’t really do anything about it; it’s central to the story, so we’re hoping they just accept it as a train that goes through the mind. But wherever we can, we try to add pieces of flair-dialogue and signs and those things. In this one, during the dinner scene, the dad is distracted watching hockey in his mind, and in Latin America and Europe that’s actually going to be soccer. We even thought of going in and working on specific uniform colors, but there were too many variants. We told our markets to reach out to their local sports announcers so we can include them in that scene, because even though it’s quick, they pay off and help make the movie feel more authentic.” That collaboration also helps in securing that the right local talent in each market is tapped for a role in each film. “Lewis Black is a great example,” says Rivera, referring to the hot-headed comedian playing Anger. “It seems like every country has someone like Lewis Black.”

If Disney’s glimpse of the film at last year’s CinemaCon was like a tantalizing appetizer, the studio decided to serve the full main course at CinemaCon 2015 by closing its presentation with a screening of Inside Out presented in Dolby Vision. It made for a curious sense of déjà vu for those in attendance. For the second year in a row, people walked into Disney’s CinemaCon presentation thinking about Star Wars. Once again, they walked out talking about Inside Out.