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Animators Conquer Unique Challenges in 'The Good Dinosaur'

Pixar’s latest 3-D animated feature, The Good Dinosaur, is the story of a quest. Viewers follow Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), a timid and clumsy young Apatosaurus who must overcome numerous obstacles as he tries to make his way home after being swept away in a flash flood.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR

An Apatosaurus named Arlo makes an unlikely human friend in Disney•Pixar’s 'The Good Dinosaur.' Directed by Peter Sohn, 'The Good Dinosaur' opens in theaters nationwide Nov. 25, 2015. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Like Arlo, the animators behind this visually stunning and unusual movie also had to deal with special challenges in their journey to bring the main character and his nemesis-turned-friend, Spot (Jack Bright) —a feral cave boy who behaves like a dog—to life.

“This is a different type of film for Pixar, with a unique tone and feel,” explained Mike Venturini, the film’s supervising animator who managed a 90-person crew comprised mainly of animators during the five years it took to complete the project. “It doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. Whole conversations between Arlo and Spot happen without a single word being spoken. In the last 15 minutes of the film when they’re saying good-bye to each other, there are maybe two or three words. The animators had to convey the characters’ emotions through their eyes and body language. It was a huge challenge that pushed us in a great way.”

Another challenge the animation team faced was capturing the spirit of an 11-year-old “boy” in a mega-ton reptile’s body. “Dinosaur movements are slow and heavy,” said Venturini, whose previous work at Pixar includes Up, Ratatouille and Toy Story 3. “But when we did tests with Arlo’s character moving that way, they didn’t have the vitality of a young boy. We had to make him heavy and massive, but at the same time his energy had to be vibrant and young.”

In the early phases of making the film, Venturini was part of a group that visited a family of cattle ranchers in eastern Oregon. The purpose of the trip was to experience that lifestyle first-hand and then apply what they learned to a comical family of T-Rex wranglers that Arlo and Spot befriend. (Butch, the patriarch of this zany clan, is perfectly portrayed by rugged-voiced Sam Elliott.)

“The original inception was for Butch to be a rancher with two ranch hands,” Venturini said. “But when we visited the family and went on a cattle drive with this father and his kids, their dynamic was fantastic. We knew the T-Rex characters had to be a family, so we made that change to the story.”

THE GOOD DINOSAUR

'The Good Dinosaur' – Pictured: Spot. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Venturini worked closely with the film’s director, Peter Sohn, to ensure his team understood Sohn’s vision and priorities for the movie. His other key responsibilities included overseeing the quality and timely production of animation, and making sure all of the animators worked together in a cohesive way to create work that looked similar.

“The crew collaborated incredibly well,” said Venturini. “They helped each other grow and rose to challenges. More than any other movie we’ve made, this one depended on the performance of the animation to tell the story. It’s a shining example of what animators as actors can accomplish.”

In addition to his film work, Venturini has been an animation instructor at Academy of Art University. He offered this advice to those who dream of making movies at Pixar: “Students spend so much time trying to learn their craft that sometimes the labor of making animation becomes a distraction. You don’t want the craft to overshadow the performance of the animation. Step back and think about the characters you’re trying to bring to life and let those drive the animation you’re doing.”

According to Venturini, when Pixar staff members watch reels submitted by students, they’re looking for strong ideas. “We’re very forgiving when it comes to the craft of animation—we understand young students,” he remarked. “When we see a good thinker or performer, we get excited about bringing them in and continuing their education.”

Venturini also encouraged students to avoid trying to do everything themselves and to learn from each other. “Get other people’s opinions and perspectives. On this film, we had animators working with other animators they wouldn’t normally work with, and it really helped the movie.”

He added that students should always pay attention to the world around them. “What you’re ultimately trying to do is bring characters to life that people will relate to and identify with in a way that’s both original and familiar,” he said.