Good Dinosaur: story supervisor on Pixar’s next hit

Kelsey Mann tells us what to expect from Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur

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This year is a very special year. It’s the only year ever to gift humankind with two (TWO!) full-length Pixar films. After Inside Out‘s massive success this summer, we’re already gasping for The Good Dinosaur, a story that explores an alternate history in which the dinos were never wiped out and, subsequently, the unlikely friendship between an Apatosaurus named Arlo and a human child named Spot.

We spoke to The Good Dinosaur‘s story supervisor Kelsey Mann (Monsters University) about what to expect from Pixar’s next adventure.

What was the thinking behind the story?

We were excited about this idea of doing a boy-and-dog movie but we were really inspired by switching the roles where the boy is a dog and the dog is a boy. We thought that would be a really fun twist. We were like, okay, how can that happen? And then the idea of the asteroid, you know, what if it actually missed the Earth? How would dinosaurs evolve? What would they become? And then how would we fold into that world when we came round? They would probably advance and then when we appear we would be the more animalistic, primitive beings, and we thought, wow, we could actually have it so that a dinosaur’s pet could be a little boy. That’s so fun! And then the scale – we just thought, oh man! If your best friend was a dinosaur! There were just so many opportunities to tell a great story so we got really excited by that.

Can you tell us about Arlo and Spot’s relationship in the film?

I work in the story department so I see things like the dinosaurs evolve and change. Over the years, their relationship has evolved too to what is appropriate to the story. We wanted Arlo to be thrown into a situation where—most of the boy-and-dog movies, they are all coming of age stories, so what we wanted was to tell that type of story. We wanted Arlo to be around 10 or 11. We wanted him to go out and have this kind of vision quest. We looked at a lot of cultures that have this where when the boys reach a certain age they are sent out into the woods, you know. Like, here’s a stick: come back in a week! Come back a man! And so we thought we could do that with Arlo, except it’s not a planned thing. It’s more by accident. He’s forced into this situation. We thought it would be really great for him to look to a character to support him. This often happens in boy-and-dog stories. The boy has some sort of event that he needs healing from and the dog enters the boy’s life and helps him deal with that, so we always knew that Arlo and Spot would have that relationship. We thought it would be equally interesting to have this huge dinosaur to be the ill-equipped one to survive out in the wilderness, and then a tiny little boy who you’d think would be the most vulnerable, but he is more tenacious. He looks to Spot for guidance and how to survive in this world.

What does being a story supervisor at Pixar entail? 

I’m on the movie from the very beginning to the very, very end and we’re always improving the story up until the final release date. There’s always an opportunity to improve the story. I work in the story department and oversee a team of story artists, and what we do is we take the written word from the script and we are the first ones to visualise it and put it up on the screen. We’re the first ones to create an image for the film. We basically just draw the movie from beginning to end. We end up being a blueprint for all the departments to follow. We’re also very involved with the writing and the story. It’s not like we’re given a script. It’s more of a collaboration.

Arlo and Spot in The Good Dinosaur's concept art
Arlo and Spot in The Good Dinosaur’s concept art

Has the storyline changed since you started work on The Good Dinosaur?

What I love about working here at Pixar is that we never settle for something that’s okay. We always want it to be great. Pete Sohn, our director, he’d always say, ‘I want to get that A plus, I want to get that A plus!’ To get that A plus, you have to go through a lot of changes and when you’re working on a story, that is your life. Your life is reworking something, but it’s always in the vein of improving the movie. Our drawings get cut left and right, but it’s because we have another idea that will improve on the previous idea. Usually you’re excited! Usually you’re like, ‘Yeah! That’s a much better idea! I want to try that!’ We’re doing it over the course of many years and we get the luxury of getting to see the film before we shoot it, which is very different from live action. Here we have the luxury of drawing out the movie before we actually shoot it. It’s great because then we can road test the story and road test the movie to see if it’s working. They’ll be areas that work and areas that don’t and we’re like, how can we improve that area? Let’s start over in that section. Usually there are wins and losses in each screening. We were looking at the movie every six weeks. It was all in vein to make the best movie that we can.

The wilderness is going to be the film’s main antagonist. Can you tell us more about that?

We were really inspired by the Northwest region, and we knew that we wanted this to be part survival film, where Arlo was thrown out into the wilderness and had to survive to get home. We went out there to visit – we’re really big on research here at Pixar, so we’d actually go out and see these places, and what struck us was the beauty of the place. We’re a bunch of artists, so when we were thrown out into the wilderness, we had to depend on the experts we were with, so there was an element to the places that we went; yes, it was beautiful, but if we messed around we could die! [Laughs] We were like, what an interesting combination of beauty and deadliness and we thought most dinosaur movies end with ‘defeat the big, giant dinosaur’, you know. We thought what if we didn’t do that? What if we did something different? What if our character had to face not a giant scary T-rex, but nature? In my opinion, that’s scarier than a giant dinosaur we could ever come up with. We were really inspired by that idea.

Is The Good Dinosaur going to make us cry?

Always with these movies, you want to have a mix of emotions. Our number one job, I think, is to make your care, make you feel something. Sometimes that is sadness, sometimes that’s being afraid or being thrilling and fun! It’s all about finding that right emotion, and what I loved about working on this movie was that Pete [Sohn], he was always wanting you to put your soul into the film. He kept saying, ‘I need your love! I need your love in this scene!’ Whatever he handed out to an artist he always wanted them to put a little something into it. So when I watch the film I just see everyone’s heart and everyone’s passion poured into it.

Probably my favourite scene that I’ve ever worked on is in this film and I don’t want to ruin it for you but it’s near the end of the movie. These start with drawings, you know? They’re just little sketches. If we feel something in sketches, oh my goodness, when it becomes realised and goes through rendering and lighting and texturing, it just becomes more and more real until the end, you’re like, Spot is a living, breathing character with feelings. It’s a really bizarre feeling to work in story and see that progression. I just saw the final scene the other day and I was watching it scored, and I was just moved by the emotion of the scene. That’s what we do here. We try to make ourselves feel something and it usually means someone else is also going to feel something out in the real world.

Arlo is confused by a triceratops
Arlo is confused by a triceratops

Do you constantly find yourself being amazed by your team’s work, and seeing the story progress?

You know what it’s like? I’ve got kids and Christmas is one of my favourite days, and Christmas morning is magical. I love it when in know I’ve got them an awesome present and I think, they are going to love this thing! This is going to be so perfect for them, their little minds are going to be blown! And it’s that excitement of knowing what is under the tree for them to open, and the anticipation for that. I’m always like, oh my gosh, I can’t wait for you to open that! It’s kind of the way I feel about working here. The great thing about working here is I get to see everything we are doing, and the bad thing is that I can’t tell anybody about it. I get excited for Christmas! I can’t wait until the world sees this! I feel like I have a great Christmas present for audiences to open. That sounds cheesy but it’s truly the way I feel!

There’s been a bit of trouble during production, which is why the release date was pushed back. What happened there?

These movies, on every movie, it’s funny. Whenever you start a new movie, you’re like, I’ve learned from the last movie! I know what I’m going to do and we’re not going to make any mistakes this time! And then it’s a whole new set of circumstances, especially here at Pixar. We’re not trying to just do what we did on the last movie. We’re trying new things, which means we’re going to stumble and it’s going to be hard. Each one of these movies has some sort of thing that’s hard to crack. We always say it’s a story nut that you have to crack. These movies aren’t easy, which is why it takes so long. Making a movie that the whole world loves is not an easy task, and so it does take a lot of work on every film and this film is no exception. It’s like all of our other films where it goes through a problem period. Every film goes through the same kind of thing.

How did you end up working for Pixar?

Oh my goodness, it took me a long time, to be honest. I applied in 2000 and didn’t get a job, and then it took me another 10 years to actually get a job here. I worked really hard to get here and in some ways I’m really jealous of some people that instantly come out of school and come here, but honestly the more I think about it, the more I’m like, I’m glad I had that experience. I worked at other places and I know how special it is to work here. I value not only the campus and the space and the cafeteria, but the people and how they run the company is just so radically different to every other place I’ve been. It’s a fantastic place to work but it took me a lot of work to get here and I don’t plan on leaving for many, many years.

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The Good Dinosaur is in UK cinemas from 27 November. Get all the latest sci-fi news with every issue of SciFiNow.