Docter keeps Pixar magic on the Up
He has a passion for animation, but the director of Monsters Inc tells Aine O'Connor it's all in the story
PETE Docter's love affair with animation has been lifelong. Growing up in Minnesota, he was a shy child interested in adventure stories and cartooning, making his hand-drawn flip books into movies with the family camera.
By the time he graduated from the California Institute of Arts in 1991, however, animation was coming into its own and The Simpsons was colonising the world. His choice to take a job with a small commercial house in San Francisco was not immediately obvious, but Docter, then 21, was the 10th person to be hired by Pixar. Together they have made movie history.
The company's 10th film, Up, released next week in Ireland, has already grossed nearly $500m. It's Docter's second directorial effort, after Monsters Inc. Despite the love of animation, he believes story is key: "Without a good story and engaging characters you could have brilliant animation and spectacular special effects but nobody really cares."
It is at the story stage that most of the editing is done. Inevitably chunks of a slaved-over script have to go, he says. "We call it killing our babies, but we don't usually cut them once they're animated because that's way expensive." From one person's idea, 375 people end up working on the animation. Up is officially Pixar's first 3-D film but in fact all Pixar films have been made in 3-D, just not projected that way until now.
There is also something of Pete Docter in the characters he creates. "I was working on Monsters Inc right as my wife had our first kid. And so that was a very personal story to me even though it was about fuzzy monsters with horns. It's a story of a guy who has eaten, slept, breathed about his job, that was certainly me and then you find yourself with this kid and his whole world is upside down."
The entire Docter family -- Pete, his wife Amanda, Nick, 13 and Elie, 10 -- have come on the European travels for the film. He says, "We thought we'd like to be able to show them a bit of the world." Up has taken five years to make ("they all just seem to take that long") and his daughter Elie, who voices one of the characters, is a little baffled by the delayed praise for something she did three years ago. "It was fun because I knew what she was capable of," he says of working with her. "I could say, 'Remember what your brother does, pokes at you, bugs you. Imagine that's happening and now say the line.'"
The central character in Up, Carl Fredricksen, is an elderly man who, lost in grief for his wife, decides to attach balloons to his house and float off in search of a dream he and his wife held but never fulfilled. Carl's unplanned sidekick on the trip is the boy scout Russell, apparently daft but in fact "wise beyond his years". It seems adult viewers are the ones keenest to find out where Russell's missing father is, something Docter played on, "because if we tell you everything you sit back but if you hint at it, you're working, you're leaning forward as opposed to leaning back, you're trying to discover things and the audience becomes more of an active participant."
There's something Beckett-esque about a man dragging his sorrows around. "We did look at Fitzcarraldo, and the mission where he's dragging all his junk with him, that's his sense of self-punishment that he's done something wrong and he needs to get over that guilt." There is a great fairy-tale tradition of the dead parent, but this kind of look at love, loss, life and death is unusual in the genre. "We realised that it's a time where life starts to take things away from you and there's some beauty and poignancy and sadness to that, it's what life is."
A devout Christian, Docter says he is wary of lecturing people, telling Christianity Today, "I don't think people in any way, shape or form like to be lectured to. When people go to a movie, they want to see some sort of experience of themselves on the screen. They don't come to be taught."
Still, Pixar films have a message, and Up is no exception. Its creator says, "to me the message is that we all have these dreams of things we're going to do, accomplishments, we're going to run a marathon or start our own business. There's nothing wrong with that but things that I look back at most fondly, that mean the most to me, are what I thought were little insignificant things. Holding my daughter's hand crossing the street or playing checkers on the train together." The adventure is every day? "Exactly."
UP opens this week, Cert G