The Good Dinosaur is revving up to hit theaters in just a few short weeks (November 25th to be exact!), but it makes you wonder, how can Pixar make a dinosaur movie without knowing how dinosaurs walked and acted? I’ve already told you that Pixar does research when making their films, but they obviously couldn’t just go down to the zoo and see a dino as a living breathing creature. During my recent press trip, I learned just how Pixar made The Good Dinosaur as true to life as possible.
Disclosure: Disney, Pixar, and Disney Junior have sponsored my travel, accommodations, most meals, and activities during this event. All opinions (and fun) in this article here are mine unless noted otherwise.
Before you can animate a dinosaur you need to create a dinosaur. For that Pixar looks to it’s Art Department. Harley Jessup is a production designer at Pixar and one of the artists who worked on creating the characters and their surrounding environments for the film.
“We are never trying to create perfectly realistic sets, but they have to be believable.” said Jessup. For scenes in the film, you’ll see the art department’s version of Jackson Valley in Wyoming.
When they go on these research trips they also bring back “souvenirs” (in addition to the MANY photos taken). Jessup told us, “We have to create everything you see on the screen from scratch, on these research trips we have to bring back, leaves, grass, bark all of this folds into the final look of the film”. They take those things and recreate them but in a way that doesn’t look real but also not completely fake either.
All of the designs start with a simple pencil and paper design. From there the characters are modeled to wire armature. Slowly clay is added until the piece takes shape, and ultimately creating the final maquette.
Jessup explained Arlo’s design evolved from that of an actual Apatosaurus into more of a stylized version of the prehistoric creature. These characters live in a farm and even though the film is set around “What if” that doesn’t mean Pixar wanted dinosaurs to be too human-like. When it came to building their house Jessup explained that things need to be authentic. That the dinosaurs had to make their home without the use of real arms so they’ll use their head and the homes are made with trees and sticks.
One of the most important things to an animator is to get the movement of something correct. As I mentioned before, you can’t go down and SEE a dinosaur move so the animation team needed to find an animal relative in size and mass. As a quadruped, elephants are the closest thing to a dinosaur (and roughly the same size as a young Arlo) that we have available so trips to the local zoo were in order. O’Hara and Thompson took many trips to the local zoo to watch the elephants walk and play. They studied how their weight and scale affected their locomotion no matter what they were doing. Apparently it’s not an easy thing to animate. “One of the most scariest things to an animator is a quadruped. Because of the four legs. There is so much going on you could easily get lost. There is nothing simple about a quadruped walk.” said O’Hara.
The animators finally realized that elephants move with only about 4 easy graceful poses. Locomotion is all about efficiency. Being so large one would assume you’d want to slam the feet to make to feel heavy. But as you look at an elephant move, they could probably sneak up behind you without a sound because they are light on their feet. If they were to slam their feet down that wouldn’t be good for the arm so the weight has to go somewhere else.
Kevin O’Hara uses a software called Presto to draw over a video to easily show us the 4 poses that an elephant takes as he is walking.
- Head up, chest down with front legs in full stride position. Hips up with back right leg in crossing position.
- Head down with crossing position in front, chest up. Hips down with full stride in back.
Pose 3 and 4 are almost mirror images of the first two. With those 4 poses and the image we saw, you could actually see how the elephant’s body moves with each step. It was incredible. I never noticed that so much went into just taking a few steps.
Once they bring it to their programs there are 3 stages of animation. A shot begins with “Blocking”. That’s when our four key poses are used which can take around 4 days. Then the “In Process” selection happens. They take the notes the director made on the “Blocking” piece. That’s when they make the scene a bit more fluid. This progress takes one and a half weeks. And finally, they finish up with “Polishing”, and this takes one week. The scene we saw was only about 25 seconds long and it alone took about 1 month from start to finish!
Definitely made us all realize how much goes into these amazing films that Pixar makes for us to enjoy. If you haven’t heard me talk enough about it (of course you haven’t!), I’ll have even MORE next week! For now, check out this all new (super sweet) trailer.