The film hitting theaters in November centers on Arlo, a young dinosaur who is swept down a river and has to make his way back to his family. On his way he encounters a human boy named Spot, who becomes his companion and protector in somewhat of a reverse boy and his dog story.
Throughout the cut of the film Pixar shared with TechCrunch, Arlo faces down an imposing antagonist. But unlike the Pixar films we’re used to, that doesn’t come in the form of a bully like Toy Story’s Sid Phillips or a dentist’s evil niece like Finding Nemo’s Darla. Arlo is constantly confronted with nature, and Pixar upped its already impressive arsenal of special effects to bring the landscape surrounding Arlo to life.
“Nature can overcome anything,” said the film’s producer, Denise Ream, “including a massive dinosaur.”
From the rapid river that sweeps Arlo away to the towering mountains he must learn to climb, much of the set of “The Good Dinosaur” looks so real it feels more like a photograph than animation. To achieve this realism effect, the Pixar team spent time in the American Northwest, immersing themselves in landscapes they wanted to recreate in Arlo’s epic journey. Director Peter Sohn and his team traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Juntura, Oregon and southern Montana.
While on these travels, the team lived the fantasy they were trying to create. They rode boats down rapid, winding rivers and went on a horse riding expedition. During their boat ride, they lost the GoPro camera that was capturing their journey. Luckily their guide later retrieved it, and the team was able to use the solo footage of the river.
“The area has a fantastic variety of landscapes, ranging from the Jackson Valley and the Tetons to the amazing geysers and waterfalls in Yellowstone,” said production designer Harley Jessup. “We studied the grasslands of Montana and the Red Desert, then incorporated all of it in Arlo’s journey.”
Then it was time to make a movie. To recreate the landscape they had just seen, the filmmakers relied on data from the U.S. Geological Survey. They downloaded the terrain for Wyoming, and using the Survey’s height data and satellite images from Google Earth, they were able to bring Arlo into the landscape they had just seen.
The geographical data provided a foundation the team could then build on, first with vegetation, dirt and water.
“This gave Peter the freedom to shoot in any direction he wanted to make the world feel big and real,” said Sanjay Bakshi, the film’s supervising technical director.
By the end, Pixar’s team had painted on enough of the landscape that it was totally unique. But there were still more technical challenges in store. They wanted to create 100% volumetric clouds or the first time. Usually Pixar just paints clouds into sets, but by creating a new cloud library, Pixar would be able to light them and insert them in many scenes. This was particularly important for stormy scenes.
“These storm clouds are almost like a villain in the film,” said Sharon Calahan, the movie’s light and photography director. “Plus, it’s very labor-intensive to paint clouds, and they’re in almost every scene.”
Then the effects team worked its magic. One of the greatest challenges for the team was a river sequence in which Arlo is swept away. The film features more than 125 shots of the water alone, more shots of water than in any other Pixar film. To achieve this, the effects team broke down the river into different pieces, and then repeated those pieces. The effects for the river scene take up more storage space than the effects for the entirety of Pixar’s “Cars 2.”
“The Good Dinosaur” hits theaters November 25. Though aspects of its plot seem derivative of other Disney and Pixar movies, the prescreening revealed a touching, coming-of-age narrative that we’ve come to expect from Pixar. And even if you don’t fall in love with the studio’s goofy green dinosaur, the technical achievements of the Pixar screen team will keep your eyes glued to the screen.