Behind every great dinosaur is a great director. Peter Sohn, director of Pixar Studios’ latest creation, is in the Mar del Plata International Film Festival and he gave a Master Class in the framework of the presentation of his directorial debut.
A Great Dinosaur tells the story of Arlo, a brontosaurus whose life changes after his father dies. When the 11-year-old protagonist falls into a river, he must find a way back home. He will undertake this adventure aided by a curious pet: a human child.
Peter Sohn explains that all Pixar films start from the premise "what would happen if…” In this case, the idea of the film was: "what would happen if the meteorite that caused the extinction of dinosaurs never had fallen”. This was followed by a second idea: "what would happen if the dinosaur was like a child and his dog were a human”.
However, these are only the starting points to go deep into two issues the director is interested in: overcoming fears and, mainly, the communication between beings who do not speak the same language.
Sohn said that all the family conflicts in the film are inspired in his own life experiences. Son of Korean parents, he worked from a young age at their shop, where he served as his mother’s translator, who did not speak English. Later on, he went to Art School and, thanks to several animation works, he met Brad Bird, who gave him his first opportunity in the Art Department of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Already inside Pixar, he became friends with Andrew Stanton, who invited him to be part of the team of Finding Nemo.
The director declared that he learned many things from each Pixar director. From Stanton, the ability to narrate through Storyboards. "It’s not that important that the drawings are perfect, but that we understand what we want to do”. From Pete Docter, director of Monsters Inc., he discovered the value of putting a lot of yourself into the character: "It’s important to know what happens inside each character”.
Peter Sohn says he is a fan of animation since the age of 4. "Cartoons have a universal language. I couldn’t do other types of movies”, he confirms. However, he also says that in order to belong to Pixar you need to know about all types of films, and that his influences are David Lean, John Ford and Billy Wilder. He even mentions Lawrence of Arabia as a reference when it came to designing the landscapes in The Great Dinosaur. Next to Sohn was Gastón Ugarte, animator from Tucumán, supervisor of the background of each frame. They both admitted how difficult it was to give realism to each setting, and that they have to design a special program inspired in topographic images so that each scene gave the impression that the characters walked on a wide and giant land.
The film marks a new challenge for Disney / Pixar. The director says that it is not easy to get to the production company created by Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, but that it takes a lot of patience to be the head of a film. Peter Sohn came in as director when the project had already started, and he was afraid of many things. However, right away he put himself in charge and worked for five years until he finished the film two weeks ago. Sohn explained the different stages a film by Pixar goes through. From the storyboard with draft music and voices from the cartoonists until reaching the final version.
"Each project is made with a lot of love. You must follow your heart and intuition, but then you have to analyze each decision with your head. The three pillars on which Pixar’s films are based are: story, characters and the world. However, a character may change with the arrival of a definite actor, like the case of Toy Story, where Tom Hanks gave kindness to Woody, who was absolutely unpleasant and didn’t create empathy with the audience”.
A fan of Hayao Miyazaki -especially Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro-, Peter Sohn still remembers his experience in the short film world with the rewordedPartially Clouded.
Now, The Great Dinosaur is a personal challenge and he has put a lot of humbleness and honesty in it. Sohn states: "I’m interested in the emotional scale and the conflicts characters must solve. Arlo overcomes his fears. He has to learn, grow up and survive. Dangers are in nature and small things can kill him. All the beautiful things can be dangerous”.
The film premieres in a couple of weeks and the director’s expectations regarding audience reception are visible. For him, watching the film is watching the face of every technician in every detail, frame by frame. An entertaining film, filled with adventure and magic. Smart and ingenious. Technically innovative. Pixar’s new film takes us to prehistory, but with timeless and universal values.