Meet Riley in Pixar’s new film “Inside Out.” This 11-year-old girl is more than a character; she’s the film’s main setting. Yes, much of the action happens inside Riley’s mind, in a place called “Headquarters” and Riley’s emotions are the main characters in the story as she deals with her family’s relocation from Minnesota to San Francisco.
Think of Riley’s five emotions in “Inside Out” as a cross between the conscience of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” and the septet of miners in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” each with their own distinct design and personality. Instead of Happy and Grumpy, “Inside Out” brings us “Joy” and “Anger” along with “Fear,” “Disgust” and “Sadness.”
Back at Pixar Animation Studios’ headquarters in Emeryville, Domee Shi was one of the hundreds of artists who helped bring “Inside Out” to the big screen. Born in China, her family moved to Toronto, Canada, when she was two. She was hired as a story artist not long after a beginning an internship at Pixar in June 2011. The internship followed her graduation from Sheridan College in Toronto.
“Inside Out” is Domee’s first professional film credit. She joined the production very early on, after director Pete Docter and his team decided to narrow the film’s scope to five emotions but the story remained a work-in-progress. Scores of scenarios were examined and explored as the story was perfected. Domee was one of three women in the core group of seven or so story artists who spent the most time on the production.
One of Sheridan’s instructors, Nancy Beiman, called Domee “one of my first, and best, students here.” Beiman was in the legendary 1976 CalArts class with John Lasseter, John Musker and Brad Bird among others.
“She’s too kind,” Domee said, after learning of Beiman’s comment. “It was actually her class, in second year at Sheridan, that got me interested in storyboarding. I didn’t even know what it was before her class. I owe a lot to her.”
Domee also credits the school’s animation program for teaching her “about working collaboratively. At Sheridan, we have to do a group film in our third year. We’re all divided up into groups of 11 or 12 people to make one film. It’s a different kind of beast than making your own student film because you actually have to work together with people who don’t have the same tastes as you, who have different opinions than you and who are just different from you. And, you have to maneuver these social situations. It’s something that I really valued, something that I was able to (experience) at Sheridan so that I wouldn’t make similar mistakes in the real world. Working collaboratively with people at Pixar is a big thing here and I kind of learned how to do that at Sheridan.”
The education continued at Pixar and even challenged some of Domee’s preconceived notions about the unrivaled hit-maker.
“When I first started during an internship in story at Pixar, I was terrified of pitching and talking in front of people, but I learned more about pitching here, actually. I learned that you didn’t have to describe everything that’s happening on screen. In the beginning, I would pitch ‘Riley comes into a room, she picks up a book, she looks at it, she gets sad, she puts it down, she walks out.’ I learned about using sound effects in your pitch and about the art of silence” from “Inside Out” co-director Ronnie Del Carmen. “Ronnie can just scroll through boards and you get the feeling and emotion even more if there’s no words or sound at all sometimes.”
“I think the biggest thing I learned working on ‘Inside Out’ was you just never know how anything is going to turn out,” she continued. “You can’t plan things too much. A lot of the great stuff that was in the movie, we just came up with on the fly. And as we were boarding the movie, we boarded so many different versions of it because we were trying everything out.”
“Pete (Docter) always had this feeling that he wanted to express with the movie,” inspired by watching his daughter grow up, seeing her change and trying to figure that out. “But everything else around that, like the plot,” Domee said, “changed so much.”
“Going into Pixar, I assumed they had made so many movies that they had it all down, like a well-oiled machine. I’m just going to go in and be a happy little cog in this machine and it’s all going to work smoothly and perfectly. But I soon found out, ‘no, everyone is still learning, everyone is still making mistakes and growing. It’s just a matter of trial and error in figuring stuff out.’ ”
“I had to learn to be open to that, because I’m kind of a Type-A personality,” Domee continued. “I like to plan things out and execute them as efficiently and successfully as I can. But coming into this chaotic, amazing mess was pretty awesome — learning how to be spontaneous and how to change things last minute and to work with other people and produce something so amazing.”
“Everyone contributed so much to the film sometimes I wonder if I did that much at all,” she said. “I’d like to think I added a bit of perspective as a person who for most of her life has kept her emotions dormant from the people around me. I come from a place where I could learn the most from this film that I’m working on which is being in tune with your emotions and being OK with expressing them.”
In creating her storyboards, Domee was also able to draw from the parallels between her life and Riley’s story in “Inside Out,” as the normally joyful girl struggles with her family’s move and contemplates running away and returning to Minnesota.
“When I was a kid … at the beginning of school, my mom would drop me off and I’d be so upset at the situation and all these new people that I’d just run away and try to find her. She’d end up having to take me to her workplace because I would refuse to go to school. That happened again when my mom and I went back to China for half a year when I was six and I had to be re-enrolled into Chinese school, which was like a culture shock for me because I had been growing up in Canada. I ran away … every time I went to a new school. So I can definitely relate to Riley in being a kid in a new place.”
Domee also recounted a change in her own personality that came as she grew a bit older.
“There was a point in my life where I was super-talkative, a really bubbly social little girl. And then when I was around Riley’s age, 10, I started to get more quiet. I think a lot of it had to do with I had developed a stutter and a didn’t want to talk. That sort of worked in my favor in the long run because I started to draw more. I thought if I could draw what I want to say, I wouldn’t have to say anything. And I drew more and more and that’s kind of how I ended up here at Pixar.”
Dealing with some of Riley’s emotions was a bit harder for Domee and other members of the team. Joy was particularly difficult.
“I identified a lot with the character Sadness and I tried to infuse as much as I could into her character from my own personal experiences in being kind of a shy, quiet, self-deprecating girl. I tried to get into that character and really bring her out. I guess that’s what I contributed. I think Joy was the hardest one for all of us to crack. It took us a while to figure out her character. She’s joyful all the time but having a character that’s only happy is kind of boring. So we had to figure out what her deal was and I’m not like her at all. In real life I’m not really that bubbly. I’m kind of a Sadness and a little bit of Disgust, too, but definitely not that much of a Joy. That sounds kind of bad. I do have joyous feelings and stuff. Her character was just hard for me to get into, but I eventually got it.”
The simple but elegant message of the film is how humans need all our emotions — and the film does offer us glimpses of the Headquarters for Mom, Dad and some other characters. For Riley, Joy’s mission is to keep her happy. Fear heads up safety. Anger ensures that all is fair. And, Disgust prevents Riley from getting poisoned — both physically and socially. But Sadness? Would we know Joy without ever experiencing sorrow or disappointment? Is the human condition like a cookie dough recipe that requires a pinch of salt to help bring out the sweet?
Pixar has a great record of making emotionally-charged movies that entertain families. Think of Jessie’s Song in “Toy Story 2,” the goodbye scene of Sully and Boo in “Monsters Inc.,” Andy and Bonnie playing in “Toy Story 3” and the tour-de-force of the Married Life montage in “Up.” Children enjoy the characters and comic relief, but adults often find something far more meaningful in the story as they tear up. That’s true for “Inside Out” as well. Children will love these characters — Anger, Fear Disgust and Sadness have has never been so funny — but adults recalling their own childhood woes as well as those they see their children experience will take home a deeper appreciation of Pixar’s storytelling skills.
Domee talked about her favorite emotional scenes as “the ones that feel real. The moments that I feel like I have experienced in my life.”
“My favorite emotional scene from a film is probably in ‘Spirited Away’ when the character Chihiro just kind of crouches on the floor and she’s really lost and sad and she starts crying. That moment always felt so real and emotional for me because it actually felt like she was a little kid, lost and she was overwhelmed with her emotions. And then Haku, (a boy in the film) crouches down beside her and offers her some food. She’s crying and eating at the same time. I thought that was really funny and sad. It just felt so real. Even thinking about that moment gets me emotional.
“And in terms of ‘Inside Out,’ one of my favorite emotional scenes is probably near the end,” she continued. “It’s actually a sequence I boarded … after Riley has a fight with her parents and her dad comes into her room and tries to talk to her but she turns away from him. When I was boarding that, I was really looking into my own experiences when I fought with my parents, how I would kind of lock myself in my room. They’d come in and there was always this thing where I would ignore them when they tried to talk to me. They’d leave and then I’d slowly come out of my room and talk to them again. So that moment felt really real for me.”
Domee currently lives in Oakland, California, and notes that her love of animation is only rivaled by her love of cats. She grew up watching classic Disney films like “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” and “The Lion King” and was highly influenced by Japanese animation and manga; especially the works of Hayao Miyazaki; “Sailor Moon;” and “One Piece.”
“Inside Out,” rated PG, opens Friday. June 19. An early screening across the country with a Q&A with Amy Poehler (the voice of Joy), Director Pete Docter and Producer Jonas Rivera is scheduled for Tuesday, June 16, through Fathom Events.