Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ has strong personal and emotional origins for director Pete Docter

LOS ANGELES – For the first time in nearly a decade, Pixar Animation Studios is taking the year off. The Emeryville-Calif.-based company will not be releasing a film in 2014, and it also finds itself in an interesting position, striving to maintain its identity as a haven for bold original visions while at the same time seeing some of its biggest successes inevitably move into franchise and sequel terrain. Wednesday night representatives of the studio took over a theater in West Hollywood's Directors Guild of America (DGA) headquarters to present materials from one such original vision from “Monsters, Inc.” and “Up” director Pete Docter: “Inside Out.”

The film is set for release exactly one year from now, on June 19, 2015. Producer Jonas Rivera quipped that such a seemingly long lead is “dog years” in animation time, where projects typically move at a glacial pace for years on end. When he and Docter finished the long and rewarding journey of Oscar-winning 2009 effort “Up,” they wanted to keep pushing the limits of the medium and presenting fresh and exciting new narrative and aesthetic choices. “But if you do something too different and too new,” Docter warned, “you risk pulling the audience out of the thing. If the story has no relationship to them or the world we live in, people don't engage at all. The puzzler was, 'How can we take audiences to somewhere they can relate to but had never been before?'”

And those were the beginnings of “Inside Out,” a personal response to the natural, tangible, relatable world around Docter. He confided that his daughter, Ellie (who voiced young Ellie in “Up”), was so full of the typical energy of youth when she was a little girl. But when she hit the age of 12, something changed. The overcast of adolescence and the complex emotions that come with it had begun to take over. “It was hard for me as a parent because I felt at times that her childhood joy was gone,” Docter said. “I didn't want her to be withdrawn and sad. I wanted her to stay the way she always was. What happened to her? What was going on inside her head?”

That led him to conceive of a film where the central character is less a player in a story than its very setting. Riley Anderson is that setting, a young girl who, within the film's first five minutes – which were screened for press at the presentation in a mixture of completed animation and sketch concepts – ages to 11 and the kind of funk Ellie had experienced. We also meet a set of five central emotions that are responsible for how she relates to the world, each of them voiced by comedic talent. There's Anger (Lewis Black), who controls the valve of rage and justice within Riley. There's Disgust (Mindy Kaling), managing her tolerance for the undesirable. There's Fear (Bill Hader), keeping her out of danger. And there's Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who despite being demure, has a pretty strong grip on Riley's sense of the world. But the strongest emotion appears to be Joy (Amy Poehler), delighting in the day-to-day operation of creating and managing Riley's memories and particularly making pleasant new ones.

“We sort of thought of these guys as our seven dwarfs,” Rivera said. “That's the way we pitched it. They're these strong characters.”

For Docter, though, this direction represented an opportunity to stretch the Pixar status quo.

“One of the reasons I was so excited about this idea was these characters are all strong, opinionated, caricatured characters, exactly what animation does so well,” he said. “I've been directing the animators to really push things here. Historically at Pixar, we've tried to root our stuff in physics and real life, but here we are pushing to extremes that we have never done before and the animators are developing this wonderfully cartoony style. We're learning a ton by studying the masters like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery and Milt Kahl at Disney and John Sibley.”

The emotions aren't really flesh and blood “little people” in their design, either. They're made of little energy particles that “sort of roil and move,” Docter said, “because we wanted the characters to look the way emotions feel to us.”

The project led to a considerable amount of research, as both Docter and Rivera wanted this fantasy rooted in a sense of authenticity. They met with psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists to understand, as best they could, how the mind works. Big surprise: it's complicated. One of the things they learned, though, was that memories are “moved” every night from short term memory to long term memory as we sleep, and that's a concept they put into the film as well.

Design-wise, Docter didn't want the look to be one of dendrites and blood vessels, because the story really talks about abstract concepts like consciousness, memories, personality attributes – the things that make up who we are. The emotions work out of a sort of headquarters of Riley's mind that is “a combination of 'It's a Small World' and an Apple Store,” Rivera quipped. It is there that, as the narrative unfolds, Docter explained, the story of “Inside Out” plays out.

When Riley hits 11, her family moves from Minnesota to the big city of San Francisco. Suddenly she has to relate to her world differently, and as a result, Joy and Sadness get into it on her first day at a new school. As they struggle in the headquarters of Riley's mind, they're suddenly thrust out into its furthest reaches. The two conflicting emotions, learning to understand each other along the way, then have to make their way back to headquarters by traveling through a veritable Oz of neurological concepts.

There's Imaginationland, a massive amusement park full of everything Riley has ever daydreamed about, for instance. Much to Joy's chagrin, “some of the old favorites like Princess Dream World and The Stuffed Animal Hall of Fame are being torn down due to disuse,” Docter said. “They're being replaced by The Imaginary Boyfriend Generator and The Swear Word Library.”

There's also Dream Productions, a sort of Hollywood film studio responsible for creating Riley's dreams and nightmares every night. “All under the strain of limited time and budgets and, of course, last-minute rewrites due to the day's events.”

The Train of Thought is able to go where it wants through Riley's mind, though as ever, it's in danger of getting lost. The Subconscious is full of Riley's deepest, darkest fears, while Long Term Memory (one of the biggest digital sets ever built at Pixar, Rivera said) is full of all the memories she has stored over the years. Those are represented by little luminescent spheres (color-coded to the specific emotions associated with them), which can be replayed and projected at headquarters as Riley recalls them. The more vibrant memories are bright and colorful, while duller, more faded memories represent those in danger of being tossed out by The Forgetters at any given moment.

Joy and Sadness are to trek through this cerebral terrain (which sort of recalls Michel Gondry's “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), while, back at headquarters, Anger, Fear and Disgust are in control of Riley's faculties. You can imagine the disorder, and indeed, another scene was screened detailing the fallout as even something as seemingly simple as a family dinner can turn into a battlefield of emotions. (This scene was previously shown to audiences at Disney's D23 Expo in August of last year and again at CinemaCon in March. Here is Greg Ellwood's report from the latter.)

Naturally, the entire concept is rife with creativity. And what makes it so quintessentially “Pixar” is its filmmaker-driven vision. “Inside Out” is a story that began with Docter's trepidation over his daughter growing up. And that idea is curiously a theme that has been represented in different hues throughout much of the studio's product. “It's based on a strong emotional experience that I had,” Docter said. “There's something that happens when you grow up, something that's lost.”

One might argue the same danger for Pixar itself as the lure of franchise appeal represented in films like “Toy Story 3,” “Cars 2,” “Monsters University” and “Finding Dory” – however accomplished they may or may not be – threatens to dilute a strong legacy of originality. I asked Docter about that specific dichotomy at the end of the night. He is a filmmaker drawn to fresh concepts and, being someone who has been involved with the studio since coming on board as an animator in 1990, sees that as Pixar's flesh and blood. How to square that with the opportunities evident in going back to the well of what has worked before?

“John [Lasseter] has always said these [sequels] aren't just cash grabs,” he told me. “And one of the great things about the studio is they're excited about pursuing whatever excites the filmmakers. It just so happens that I'm interested in new concepts, but it could have been a sequel and they would have been just as interested, as long as they thought there was something new to explore.”

That may have become the company line, but as long as projects as singular as “Inside Out” remain on the offering, there's no reason to doubt its sincerity.

Also worth noting is that Pixar animation head Jim Murphy was on hand to present his directorial debut short “Lava.” An Israel Kamakawiwo'ole-influenced musical love story about a volcano longing to share the sea, it is unique in Pixar's catalog of shorts. Like “Inside Out,” it stemmed from the filmmaker's personal emotional connection to something: his love of Hawaii and Hawaiian music that was born on the Big Island when he honeymooned there once upon a time. The film will accompany “Inside Out” in release next year.

“Inside Out” will hit theaters on June 19, 2015.