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Your Brain on Pixar

The studio tackles its most ambitious story yet—explaining what goes on inside the mind.


Courtesy of Pixar

Over the past 20 years, the creative masterminds at Pixar have brought to life some of animation’s most imaginative films, from Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., to Wall-E and Up. After some slightly uninspired releases—three of the company’s four films since 2010 were sequels—and a two-year break, the studio is back with perhaps its most ambitious effort yet: the June 19 release of Inside Out, an exploration of human emotion in a preteen girl.

Diablo takes a look behind the scenes with director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera at the story development and inspiration—including a very influential East Bay girl—for what should be one of summer’s biggest blockbusters.


Pete Docter

The Back Story

Though Pixar began working on Inside Out in 2010, its story begins more than two decades ago, with the film’s director-producer duo. Docter, who grew up in Minnesota and moved west to attend the California Institute of the Arts, started his career at Pixar in 1990 as its third animator. Rivera, who was born in Castro Valley and went to San Francisco State University, joined four years after Docter as the company’s first production intern. The two crossed paths on Toy Story and bonded over their love of old animated films and passion for the future of the medium. “We knew animation was capable of so much more than just musicals,” Docter says.

As Docter moved on to directing and producing, Rivera worked his way through the art department to marketing, management, and finally, production. The friends first partnered as a director-producer duo on the Academy Award-winning Up.

Jonas Rivera

Up and Inside Out share not just their creative team and production studio, but also one very important thing: Docter’s daughter, Elie. At age nine, she served as the voice for the girl of the same name in Up, whom the main character falls in love with and eventually marries. Like her wild-haired, gap-toothed counterpart, the real Elie was a cheerful and silly kid, Docter says.

But by the time she hit 11, her sense of childhood joy had diminished. “When I saw her, I recognized my own rough journey,” Docter says. He wanted to understand why children’s personalities start to change during adolescence—and take a creative peek inside his daughter’s head. Literally. “What if we told the story of a girl,” Rivera says, recounting Docter’s pitch, “but she’s not the main character?”


All Pixar 
movies involve
concept drawings like the one above / Courtesy of Pixar

The Script

The film follows Riley Anderson, a goofy hockey-loving 11-year-old whose life is turned upside down when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Complicating things even more are Riley’s emotions, which are personified by Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith from The Office), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (comedian Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).

With Joy as their relentlessly optimistic leader, the emotions work together in the mind’s Headquarters to motivate Riley and help her derive meaning from her everyday experiences.

However, when Joy and Sadness fall out of Headquarters to another part of the mind, after Riley’s move to California, Fear, Anger, and Disgust struggle to keep Riley stable. Meanwhile, the two lost emotions must navigate through the deepest recesses of Riley’s mind, from Long-Term Memory to the Subconscious, back to HQ.


Designing the Mind

Pixar is known for enlisting the help of experts for project research. The team behind Ratatouille, for example, shadowed Thomas Keller at The French Laundry and enlisted his help to create a menu for the film’s fictional restaurant. To refine Docter’s concept for Inside Out, Pixar worked with Paul Ekman, a professor emeritus at UCSF and an expert in facial recognition, who was also a consultant for Toy Story. For Inside Out, Ekman helped identify six core human emotions: happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust. Each was pulled out as a distinct character for the film, with surprise and fear consolidated, and happiness renamed Joy.

Though all but Joy may seem like they have negative connotations, the five emotions work in concert. “Emotions are guardians,” codirector Ronnie del Carmen says. “They help you navigate through the world.” Yes, Anger may encourage Riley to yell or storm off, but it’s to ensure that she is treated fairly. Fear, on the other hand, may make Riley hesitant to make friends at her new school, but it also ensures that she avoids real danger. “I’ve had good times with the people I feel closest to, but those are also the people I’ve been angry with or suffered loss with or been scared for,” Docter says. “Emotions bring us closer together in our lives and connect us. That’s what the film speaks to.”

Once characters were chosen, the team painstakingly designed their physical characteristics. Because moods don’t have physical forms, the designers had to invent them and make sure they looked different than the human characters. After closely studying champagne and Alka-Seltzer, the designers decided to make the emotions effervescent, as though they are composed of energy particles, with soft edges and a glow.

Creating the inside of Riley’s mind posed a challenge, too. The designers didn’t want it to look like they had cut open someone’s skull and plopped down some characters inside, production designer Ralph Eggleston says. After all, the film is set in Riley’s mind, not her brain. The team ran with that abstract concept, constructing the mind as a physical location with objects inside. Headquarters is a brightly colored room with an emotional control panel at its center; Long-Term Memory is a labyrinthine library of memories, which are shaped like orbs and glow in different colors to represent the emotion they’re affiliated with; and Imagination Land is a kaleidoscope of clouds, stuffed animals, and dream boyfriends.

There is inherent drama in this physical infrastructure: The mind is always under construction, and locations can be altered. In Long-Term Memory, for example, characters known as mind workers vacuum fading memories for disposal. They mostly trash things like phone numbers and every song Riley learned during piano lessons (except for “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul,” of course).

Courtesy of Pixar

Setting the Scene

Though many of Pixar’s past films have been set in ambiguous locations, the creative team wanted to focus on a specific city for Inside Out. They chose San Francisco not only because they envisioned Riley’s father moving for a tech job, but because the city played on their concept of the mind as a place of energy and connectivity.

“San Francisco is this city under wires, with tracks in the street and fog that rolls in, almost like the fog of the mind,” Rivera says. “It seemed like they are cousins in a way. As we cut from inside to outside the mind, they echo one another.”

All of Pixar’s films, though, are imbued with a Bay Area flavor. “When you make art, movies, or music, it will look and taste and smell like where you’re from,” Rivera says. “The Red Hot Chili Peppers make a record, and it sounds like palm trees and tacos. Pixar’s origin is as this tiny punk rock band of an animation studio: It shares DNA with the East Bay.” Local references are standard, from Fentons Creamery in Up to the Oakland cranes in Wall-E.

Bay Area viewers will have plenty to keep their eyes peeled for in Inside Out. There are some obvious landmarks, such as Lombard Street and the Ferry Building, as well as some more hidden references. (A hockey scene features the voice of San Jose Sharks announcer Randy Hahn.)

So what do Docter and Rivera’s kids, including the girl who helped inspire the film, think about Inside Out?

“Along the way, I showed it to her,” Docter says of Elie. “She was like, ‘Meh, good movie, Dad.’ ”

“Our kids are totally unimpressed,” Rivera adds with a laugh.

Fortunately for Docter and Rivera, their audience is likely to think otherwise.

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