Rapid Learners: How Pixar Animators Created A Very Scary River

Nov 24, 2015
Originally published on November 25, 2015 3:40 pm

It's a heart-stopping scene: The protagonist of The Good Dinosaur, an 11-year-old Apatosaurus named Arlo is chasing a little thief who's been stealing his family's food. Arlo's not looking where he's going, and he slips and falls into a river. Panic-stricken, he gasps for air as his body goes hurtling down the raging rapids. The splashes, the currents, the rocks, the sound, the details are so vivid — you feel real fear for this animated dinosaur.

The new Pixar movie has been called "visually stunning" and "a triumph of creativity." The story takes place in a vast wilderness, inspired by the Tetons. The river is an ever-changing character that turns ferocious during storms and flash floods and dazzles in the movie's quiet and playful moments.

"This is a survival movie," says director Peter Sohn, and he knew he wanted Arlo's biggest test to come from nature: storms, cliffs, other dinosaurs and, especially, this river that snakes through the mountains.

But Sohn is a city kid. He grew up in the Bronx, where his parents ran a grocery store. "I'd never really experienced this type of rugged terrain, though I'd witnessed it through movies," he says. A lifelong movie buff, Sohn says the 1953 Western Shane was a big inspiration for The Good Dinosaur's landscape.

Supervising Technical Director Sanjay Bakshi says he was concerned when he realized a river was going to be central to the story. "That was a big kind of technical challenge for us," he explains, "because we've done movies where we've had rivers, but never to the extreme of every sequence [happening] in a river."

Rivers behave differently at different times. "Some scenes it's calm and placid, other scenes it's really rapidly moving and spraying," Bakshi says. To be sure they got it right, they studied videos of rivers in various temperaments, from flash floods to gentle currents. They looked at currents from above and below the surface. They studied how light penetrates water. And they even took two rafting trips.

On the Snake River they studied a river at its most peaceful. On the American River in Sacramento, they studied whitewater rapids. It was a "roller-coaster ride," Sohn says, with ice-cold water coming at them from left and right.

The paddlers included Sohn and Bakshi, as well as animator Kevin O'Hara, producer Denise Ream and lighting supervisor Jonathan Pytko. "I told a couple of people at work that I was going to do it and they were like, 'Make sure the oar doesn't bump your teeth out,' " remembers Pytko.

As he tells it, there were Class IV and V rapids. "The guide is the only person who knows what they're doing," he says. "They have six people who work at computers all day and probably don't get out that much."

The seasoned river guides deftly navigated their boats full of big Pixar fishes out of water, through turns with names like "The Widow-Maker" and "The Bus Crash."

Three people fell out, including Bakshi. Sohn says he reached out to help his colleague ... but Bakshi disagrees. Thankfully, they both had cameras attached to their helmets, so you can judge for yourself:

Once back at their computers at Pixar, the raft trip survivors consulted that footage when creating the "Swept Away" scene, when Arlo falls into the river. Sohn says their adventure convinced them that Arlo would be utterly terrified.

In The Good Dinosaur, Mother Nature is a formidable character, whether it's the river, heavy storms or flying carnivores.

"The idea of nature becoming that antagonist got very exciting for us, because you can't beat nature," says Sohn. "You could never defeat it, but you could survive it. And that was something that hit into what Arlo learns about loss and fear. You can't beat fear but you can find ways to get through it."

Ferocious or calm, the river is something Arlo must reckon with.

"He slowly realizes that this river can take him back home," Sohn says. "It essentially becomes our Yellow Brick Road."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

To make a really good animated film, you have to study the way humans and animals move, and sometimes you have to study nature. In this dramatic scene from the new movie "The Good Dinosaur," a young dinosaur named Arlo is chasing a little thief who's been stealing his family's food.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOOD DINOSAUR")

MCEVERS: Arlo's not looking where he's going. He slips.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOOD DINOSAUR")

MCEVERS: And falls into the river. Panic stricken, he gasps for air.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOOD DINOSAUR")

RAYMOND OCHOA: (As Arlo) Help.

MCEVERS: Under water, his legs flail. His body goes hurtling down raging rapids. To understand what the scene would look and feel like, Pixar animators and a special effects team took their own trip down some rapids. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The splashes, the currents, the rocks, the sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOOD DINOSAUR")

OCHOA: (As Arlo) Mama, Mama.

BLAIR: The details are so vivid in this movie you can feel the fear when Arlo gets swept away by the currents.

PETER SOHN: This is a survival movie. How could we test Arlo?

BLAIR: Peter Sohn directed "The Good Dinosaur." He knew he wanted Arlo's biggest test to come from nature, especially this river that snakes through the mountains. But Sohn is a city kid. He grew up in the Bronx where his parents ran a grocery store.

SOHN: I'd never really experienced this type of rugged terrain before and - although, I had witnessed a lot of it through movies.

BLAIR: Supervising technical director Sanjay Bakshi says he was concerned when he realized a river was going to be central to the story.

SANJAY BAKSHI: That was a big kind of technical challenge for us because we've done movies where we've had rivers but never to the extreme of every sequence happening in a river and the river behaving so differently. In some scenes its calm and placid and in others it's really rapidly moving and spraying.

BLAIR: For research, they looked at images of rivers in various stages, from flash floods to gentle currents. They studied how light penetrates water. They took two rafting trips, one to study a river at its most peaceful and another to experience rapids.

SOHN: You know, the roller coaster ride where you are just being, you know, hit left and right with, you know, big wafts of ice cold water.

BLAIR: For that experience, Sohn and a team of animators and special effects artists headed to the American River in Sacramento. Lighting supervisor Jonathan Pytko went along.

JONATHAN PYTKO: I told a couple people that I was going to do it at work and they were like, oh, yeah, make sure the oar doesn't, like, bump your teeth out.

BLAIR: To hear Pytko tell it, there were Class IV and V rapids.

PYTKO: And the guide is the only person that knows what they're doing. They have six people who, you know, work at computers all day and probably don't get out that much (laughter). And, you know, he's like, when I tell you to row, you all row at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And forward, and lean in, lean in.

BLAIR: Pete Sohn and Sanjay Bakshi cameras to their helmets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Whoa.

SOHN: They had all these kind of terrifying names for little areas that we were going to go to, you know, like, this is the widowmaker turn. And you're like, what? And this is, you know, the bus crash.

BLAIR: Three people fell out, including Bakshi.

BAKSHI: Pete Sohn claimed to reach out to help us, and we're like, no you didn't try to help us (laughter) right?

SOHN: I guarantee you, if you look at that footage you will see my hand reaching out and grabbing, you know, Kevin O'Hara, the animator's, leg trying to do something. And I did try to help.

BLAIR: In the footage from the trip Sohn gave to NPR, he even slowed down the part where they fell out. You can see it at npr.org and judge for yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Oh.

BLAIR: Once safely back at their computers at Pixar, the raft trip survivors say they consulted that footage when creating the scene when Arlo falls into the river, a scene they call "Swept Away." Peter Sohn says the adventure convinced them Arlo would be utterly terrified. In this movie, mother nature, from storms to carnivores, is formidable.

SOHN: The idea of nature becoming that antagonist got very exciting for us because yeah, you really can't beat nature. You could never defeat it, but you could survive it. And that was something that started hitting into what Arlo learns about loss and about fear that, you know, like, you can't beat fear, but you can find ways to get through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOOD DINOSAUR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Where are you going?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I need to get home.

BLAIR: Whether it's ferocious or calm, Arlo must reckon with the river.

SOHN: He slowly realizes that this river can take him back home, and it kind of essentially becomes our yellow brick road.

BLAIR: For these digital wizards, these animators and special effects artists, making this river was quite a journey. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.