Interview with Pete Docter

(from Radix Vol. 26:1)

Buzz Lightyear's alter-ego and the director of Monsters, inc. 
talks about his work and his faith

Pete Docter is the director of the new hit movie Monsters, inc., by Pixar for Disney. He was also a writer and supervising animator for the movie Toy Story. Doug Bunnell and I interviewed Pete at a Mexican restaurant in Berkeley shortly after Toy Story was released.
—Sharon Gallagher

Radix: How did you start working in animation?

Docter: I guess it's something I've been interested in since I was really little. Bringing something to life that is really just a bunch of squares and wedges is like mimicking God. Making these images move was the first thing that got me hooked. Then when you get good at it, the drawing is not only moving but it's thinking. It looks as though it's alive, a thinking being. And that's what's kept me hooked—that kind of acting, of creating a character that does not really exist. In hand-drawn animation it's a bunch of drawings. On the computer it's a bunch of digital information, but it doesn't really exist anywhere except in the mind of the artist who puts it together, so I guess it's a desire to "play God" and all that.

Radix: Did you ever think you'd be doing what you're doing right now?

Docter: I didn't think about that at all. I just knew I liked doing it. People always look at me and say, "You're so lucky. You've had this goal throughout your life. You always knew what you were going to do." But I never really thought about it. I got out of high school and went to the University of Minnesota and took philosophy classes and a couple of art classes. Even the next year when I ended up going to the California Institute of the Arts, I wasn't thinking long term. It was just, "This is cool. I want to learn how to do this better."

I was lucky that when I got out of school the industry was expanding. People who graduated before me, were having to bag groceries. There were no jobs available for years, except for My Pretty Pony and other lame-o stuff, that wasn't creatively satisfying. When I got out of school, there were a couple of jobs open for me. So it turns out I was born at a good time.

Radix: You've described your journey as being in the right place at the right time. That's only one experience. Are there other experiences in which you've seen that?

Docter: Even hooking up with Pixar. I came out of school and had a chance to go to several places. I don't know why I chose Pixar, because it was kind of the dark horse in a way. Hand-drawn animation was what I had always been interested in and so I thought I would probably go into hand-drawing, but Pixar caught my eye. When I joined it was small. I think I was the tenth person in the animation group. Now, eight years later, there are 400 or 500. I came on before Toy Story, so I was a part of that. A couple of years later I would have missed the boat. But it's not me planning these things.

Radix: Did you have favorite animators when you were growing up, or do you now?

Docter: Oh, both. Animators are not usually people that the public is generally aware of other than Walt Disney, who actually did very little animation in terms of the actual craft of taking a bunch of drawings and making them come to life. He was a great story-teller, which is, of course, why his films do so well—and having a good manager. Artists are usually a pretty odd bunch, and they often times have egos. You want to say, "I made that painting. There it is on the wall, and it's mine."

But in animation you have to get hundreds of people to work together, to co-own this thing (we're kind of socialists in that way), which is hard for a lot of people.

There were a lot of animators I really loved. Disney, and then other guys like Chuck Jones. He did a lot of Warner Brothers cartoons. It's kind of hard even at that studio to say that anyone was personally the creator of a character, because they traded directors back and forth, but he did a lot of my favorite cartoons. And then there are other guys. One of them is a man named Bach. He lives alone with one assistant on a farm in Canada somewhere, and he makes these really great, very personal films, mostly about environmental issues that say, "Technology is going to take you over and any spirituality that we have." There is another one who approaches the subject of God, the creation of animals, and so on. It's not overtly religious, but you get a sense that spirituality is important to him and his work.

Radix: How much animation do you get to do now?

Docter: Zero. It seems that throughout the business, when you get good at something, you don't get to do it any more. You rise up to a point where you're managing other people, even though you're still getting to do a lot of cool stuff.

Radix: What is it that you do now?

Docter:  Right now I'm directing a film that I can't really talk about yet. It's coming out probably in the year 2000.

Radix: This will be your third full film?

Docter: It will actually be the fourth. Toy Story, then Bug's Life, which will be out in November, and then Toy Story II, which comes out in ‘99, and then this one.

Radix: In making Toy Story you were one of three writers?

Docter: Three of us came up with the concept, and then eventually there were another three writers that we brought in, script writers. Technically I did some script writing, but more story plotting, character development, and things like that.

Radix: So having the three of you work together—did that work out? It clearly worked in terms of what you produced, but what about the process?

Docter: All along the way there was a struggle with taking ownership for material but not feeling that you have to get your name on it. One of the ideas put out there is "It's no longer yours; it belongs to the group or the film." If you're saying, "That's my idea," so that you're protecting your idea, it's not going to work. You really have to be giving and let things flow. If it doesn't work, it's not an insult to you personally, which it usually feels as if it is, at first.

Radix: You've said that each of you three writers on Toy Story identified with a different character. Which character were you?

Docter: I'm part of Buzz. He was the character I identified most with, at least in the writing of the film, because I get lost in my own world a lot of times. I remember once as a kid I was playing in the playground at school, and I looked around, and everybody was gone. The bell had rung, and everybody else went back to class. So I actually got in trouble and had to stay in the principal's office. It wasn't intentional at all; I was completely lost in my own world.

Radix: I think that Buzz's moment of self-knowledge was one of the more powerful moments in the film, a very painful moment, because he was not who he thought he was.

Docter: Yes. The thing I find interesting about that is he finds out the truth about himself from television. I don't know what that says.

Radix: Tell us a little about the different  stages   you  go  through, starting  from ground zero with an idea.

Docter: Well, that's the difference, I'd say, between an artist versus an entertainer in some ways. I'd say Eastern European films are more art pieces. I don't know if people there see animated films as art, but I do, and those are really expressions of a personal vision. Whereas what we do is more like vaudeville or entertainment.

There's some amount of personal vision, but we also keep the audience in mind at all times. What will play, what will they respond to? Like a good actor, really—stage actors will change their performance as they go, to reach the audience—to make them laugh, to make them cry. We're trying to do that. If we were trying to do art, we'd just sit in our office. We'd do it, and it would be done. But the way the studio is set up is you do something, and present it to another person. They make changes. You change it, and you present it to another person, and they make changes, and you make changes. So there's always a fresh eye coming in and mucking with it.

Radix: That's very Presbyterian—lots of committees.

Docter: Yes. The executives want to make their mark on the film. But ultimately, I think, there's a good and a bad side to that. It can become very bland and mushy if too many people say, "Ah, I don't like that. Take that hard edge off" or "Smooth this out." It becomes this big blob. But if there is someone strong behind it who can stand up for the project, then the collaboration can actually sharpen the process.

Radix: When you were working on Toy Story, were you envisioning certain actors in the parts?

Docter: Yes. It usually helps to have someone in mind, as you're writing the dialogue or drawing the pictures for the story boards. If you have in your head how someone would work or talk or move, it helps to nail down the character.

Radix: I know you've been a fan of Disney's work throughout your life. Do you have a favorite Disney film?

Docter: It depends on what I'm watching for. I like the nice simplicity of Dumbo. There are a lot of fantasy elements of Peter Pan that I like. Especially I like One Hundred and One Dalmatians until the puppies get kidnapped. Then it gets boring for some reason.

Radix: How has having a child changed who you are as an artist?

Docter: Work-wise, I definitely see things differently. There are things I would find kind of quirky or weird, that might have a tinge of violence to it, but as a single guy, or even as a married guy, I'd think, "It's funny." But then when you have a kid, you think, "Oh, he'll be watching this. I don't know how I'd feel about that." As a Christian, having my son has made me even more amazed by the whole Creation, when I watch him grow and start to connect things in his brain. I say, "That's amazing." It leaves me speechless.

Radix: How would you say that being a Christian affects how you do your work?

Docter: Years ago when I first spoke at church, I was kind of nervous about talking about Christianity and my work. It didn't really connect. But more and more it seems to be connecting for me. I ask for God's help, and it's definitely affected what I'm doing. It's helped me to calm down and focus. There were times when I got too stressed out with what I was doing, and now I just step back and say, "God, help me through this." It really helps you keep a perspective on things, not only in work, but in relationships.

At first you hire people based purely on their talent, but what it ends up is that people who really go far are good people. They're good people to work with, and I think God really helps in those relationships.

Radix: I know you do a lot of praying, and that's a big part of the artistic part of what you guys do.

Docter: Yes. You could probably work on a live-action movie that takes maybe six months hating everybody else and you'd still have a film. But these animation projects take three or four years, and it's really difficult to do without having a good relationship with the people you're working with.

Radix: Do you ever see yourself making a more explicitly Christian movie?

Docter: Not at this point. I don't know that that's really me. I don't feel so comfortable with that. Even if you have a moral to a story, if you actually come out and say it, it loses its power. Not that we're trying to be sneaky or anything, but you have more ability to affect people if you're not quite so blatant about it. Does that make sense?

Radix: That seems right in line with what Jesus' parables were too. He tended not to come right out and explain, "This is what I was trying to say."

Docter: To me art is about expressing something that can't be said in literal terms. You can say it in words, but it's always just beyond the reach of actual words, and you're doing whatever you can to communicate a sense of something that is beyond you.