Steven LEVITT: Monsters, Inc., Up, Inside Out, and Soul. All four of these movies, critically acclaimed box office smashes, are the brainchild of Pete Docter. Fresh out of college he took a job as an animator at a small, struggling firm that built computer hardware and made TV commercials. Thirty years later, that same firm, Pixar, is one of the most successful film studios on the planet. And Pete Docter is its chief creative officer.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: Pete Docter already has two Academy Awards and he’s nominated for another this year for directing the movie Soul. How does a mild-mannered Minnesota boy rise to the pinnacle of the film industry? I have no idea. I’m also a mild-mannered Minnesota boy, almost the exact same age as Pete Docter. And it’s really hard for me to imagine how he pulled it off. And I have to say, I’m a little bit jealous.
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Steve LEVITT: Pete Docter, it is an absolute joy to get to talk with you today. I’ve got six kids and I suspect I’ve spent more time watching your movies than just about anyone else. Thanks for being here.
Pete DOCTER: It’s a pleasure to be here. Man, I’m sorry — six kids is a lot of kids.
LEVITT: I started over, which is a really unique situation where I’ve got four teenagers and two toddlers. So I’m one of those rare people who gets the second chance to do better than I did the first time.
DOCTER: Is it different the second time? You feel like, “I’m a different parent?”
LEVITT: I really expected to feel very different, and I thought that I would be so much better, but the reality is I was so sleep deprived the first time through I can’t remember any of the lessons I was supposed to have learned. I think I’m just repeating almost all the same mistakes, unfortunately.
DOCTER: Well, that’s the thing I would think I’d be maybe more relaxed or go, “Oh yeah, they’re not dead or on fire, so it’s O.K.”
LEVITT: So I was pretty relaxed the first time around.
DOCTER: Oh, O.K., maybe that’s not a good idea then.
LEVITT: But I will say, the thing that’s different is I did worry about: would they learn how to read, and write, and do math? And this time around, I realized every kid learns how to read, and write, and do math. The two things I don’t think every kid learns how to do is, number one, be happy and content, and the other one is to have ideas and be creative.
So that’s really been my focus is how to create a really loving environment where that safety allows them to explore on their own. I guess, that might be the difference in how I do it. So you had two kids, and they’ve grown up. Would you do anything differently if you started over?
DOCTER: Well, yeah. I mean, the irony is in making films for kids and families, I barely get to spend any time with my own. So I would probably try to shake myself free more often to go to the Halloween parades and stuff like that than I was able to the first time around. But that’s why you have grandkids, right?
LEVITT: Yeah. We all know Pixar today, it’s one of the most successful film studios in the world, and has huge box office revenues over $14 billion. But when you showed up at 21-years-old on the first day of work at Pixar in 1990 — I think it was — I suspect it would have been hard to imagine, even for someone as creative as you, what the future would hold for Pixar. Could you just paint a picture of what Pixar was when you got there?
DOCTER: Yeah. So I went to this school called the California Institute of the Arts. It actually was started by Walt Disney in the late ’60s before he died. They actually had an animation program — one of the very few at the time. Friends of mine, they were getting jobs at Disney and Warner Brothers. And they were like, “Why are you starting in this small warehouse in Northern California? What is this?”
It was a computer company. They made an image computer that was pretty revolutionary. That was used by medical imaging and military, stuff like that. As a studio, it was pretty unknown. The first time I saw Steve Jobs it was like two months in, and he came to fire half the company. So it was a very all-over-the-place company. It was a cool community feeling within the animation group, because there were only, like, 10 of us.
LEVITT: And so you went to CalArts, hoping to learn more about animation?
DOCTER: Obviously, like most kids, I loved the Disney films and Warner brothers and stuff like that. And I wanted to learn how to do that. I just loved making animated films. I figured that out in high school and made a lot of short, dopey cartoons. And I really wanted the classic Hollywood cartoon knowledge.
LEVITT: Going back to Steve Jobs for a second. There’s such a cult of personality around him. Did you glean any life or business lessons from him?
DOCTER: Yeah. And I really have to credit my wife for this. She said, “Do you think anybody calls Steve Jobs and asks him to go to lunch?” And I was like, “I don’t know, maybe I’ll try.” I went to lunch with him maybe a half dozen times and would just sit and pick his brain and just talked about life and business and film.
I remember he said, “I hope I come back in my next life as a Pixar director because I really am jealous of what you guys do and the storytelling.” And at the same time, I admire him, of course, for many reasons, but he left us alone. He didn’t try to come in and take over. He was like, “You guys are the experts; you know what you’re doing.” And then he’d proceed to give us a bunch of brilliant notes that would make our films better.
LEVITT: Was he a nice guy or a jerk?
DOCTER: I’d always heard he was a jerk, but he was totally nice to me, with one possible exception — not angry or mean, it was just more brutally blunt. This was the first film that I was working on, Monsters, Inc. And all the films we’ve ever done have gone through these periods where you’re like, “Who thought of this idea? This is awful. This is just not going to work.” That’s where Monsters was. And it was also heading towards these deadlines.
So I had just had a screening, and it was like the third or fourth in a row that just was not looking very good. And I was so worn out so I went to Hawaii and the producer said, “Wait, you got to cancel your plans because I just found out Steve Jobs is going to be at the same place you’re going.” And I went to talk to my wife and she said, “No, I want to see. What’s Steve like on vacation?” So we ended up at the same place, and I’m sitting on the beach every day and I see Steve walk by and, of course, my heart goes up a little bit. And then one day he comes up and he goes, “Hey, Pete, do you have a minute? Let’s go for a walk.”
So he asks me, “How’s Monsters going?” And I proceeded to tell him, “Well, I know it’s been bumpy but I have a good feeling about stuff.” And I explain what we’re going to change, and how it’s all going to turn around. And he says, “The jury’s still out with you as to whether this directing thing is going to work.” And then he proceeded to kinda undress a bunch of stuff that was going wrong.
And he said, “You just don’t seem to have the right demeanor and enough testosterone.” And then he said, “So I suggest this be your last vacation for a while.” And, of course, I didn’t sleep the rest of the trip. I had so much stress as a result of that vacation. And when I got back, I told that story to the president, Ed Catmull, who had worked with Steve quite a bit, and he said, “Oh yeah, that’s Steve’s idea of a pep talk.”
LEVITT: So Pixar had been around for over a decade by the time you started and, as you said, it still wasn’t well known as an animation studio. But that all changed pretty quickly once you partnered with Disney. How did that come about?
DOCTER: John Lasseter, who was the chief creative officer, he had been courted by Disney for quite a while. They basically said, “Instead of hiring John, why don’t you just hire the whole studio and we’ll make a film here?” They said, “Great. Let’s do a film.” And then we all looked at each other and said, “What should we do?” It was a total opposite of what most people go through, which is writing a script and shopping it all over town. We got a deal first. And then we had to make up a film. We had to make up a story.
LEVITT: So you just told me that there were 10 animators, and you signed a deal with Disney to do a feature length movie. I know Toy Story cost $30 million to make, so I don’t really see how 10 people could have made a $30 million movie.
DOCTER: No, we had to scale up. We had to expand to — we were guessing around 70. It ended up being 170 people that made Toy Story, which sounds like a lot until you hear the numbers that we need to make these films today. The studio now is at 1,300 people. The grand thing about it all was how little anyone knew. None of us — save for Joe Ranft, who was our head of story, he had worked at Disney before — but none of the rest of us had ever done anything this scale, certainly nothing with computer-generated imagery for a feature film. So it was a complete unknown.
LEVITT: And this was the first fully C.G.I. movie, is that correct?
DOCTER: Right. That’s what I’ve read.
LEVITT: So was it a surprise how successful Toy Story was both at the box office and with the critics?
DOCTER: Yeah, totally. We purposely chose toys because whether we intended it or not, a lot of the early imagery tended to look like everything was made out of plastic. So we were like, “Let’s just embrace that. It’s a limitation we have at this point.” The subject matter was really chosen out of limitations of the technology.
But all that said, once we got into it, to me, it just felt like a bunch of guys making this in their garage or like an extension of school. It was the first project I had ever been a part of that had such a wide distribution. And so driving down the freeway, “Holy cow, look, there’s a billboard for Toy Story!”
LEVITT: You were hired at Pixar to be an animator, but on Toy Story, you’re also credited as a writer. Why did anybody think you’d be any good at that?
DOCTER: Good question. No, I think it was basically just because it was such a small studio, everybody had to do everything. And that’s a real advantage even now for people who ask me, “Hey, I really want to work at Pixar, and I want to make films.” I’m like, “Find a smaller place where you can contribute more.”
Because at a big place, you end up being a specialist. But at a small place, by necessity, somebody’s got to design the characters. Somebody’s got to write the script and figure out how they move and all that stuff. So, “Hey you, come here.” That’s how it happened.
LEVITT: So things usually don’t go very smoothly the first time around, and you must’ve crashed into all sorts of barriers trying to make Toy Story. Do any particular struggles spring to mind?
DOCTER: There’s a bunch. We initially thought we wanted to write it ourselves but Disney said, “No, no, no, no, you guys have never written before.” So they signed us on with two other writers who were very — they just didn’t have the same vision for the film that we wanted. That was a struggle. And then we would go to Disney, we’d show them stuff, and they would give us advice. And we took it very literally sometimes.
And all of this drove us to a place where they basically said, “This film is not working. We’re going to shut it down.” It was Ralph Guggenheim, who’s the producer, who said, “Give us a couple of months, give us a last Hail Mary to figure this out.” So that gave us the freedom to say, “All right, this is our last chance. If we’re going down, let’s go down doing something that we believe in.” And we put together this very rough set of reels, an extension of the script, basically, that showed what we wanted to do more fully. And it worked well enough for people to say, “All right. Keep going.” But that was a real lesson in trusting our gut, not ignoring notes from people, but not slavishly following things and suggestions.
I think when people suggest stuff, generally, creatively, they just want it to be better. It’s more an effort to improve what they’re seeing and make me care more. That’s been something we’ve been trying to follow ever since, is that when any of us gives notes, it’s not mandatory. It’s not a dictum. It’s just a suggestion to push things forward, and then you try to unpack it and go, “O.K., why is this suggestion being put forward? How is that going to make me care? Make the audience care?”
LEVITT: So I’m curious about feedback along the way, because it feels like the typical director has a vision and doesn’t want to be swayed by anything. Are there good feedback mechanisms built in so you know if it’s working or not and can adjust on the fly?
DOCTER: O.K., this is not an easy thing. So as you say, directors oftentimes — and you would hope for this, right? If you’re paying somebody to come up with this vision of a story in a film, you hope they have something in mind, otherwise, what are you doing? On the other hand, I think it’s really important for those of us in this business to remember these movies are not for us. Therapy is cheaper if that’s what you’re in it for. It’s for the other people, it’s for the audience.
We have these — it’s almost like product testing. What we do is we draw the whole thing, almost like a comic book. And then we do our own performances of dialogue, we grab music from other movies, and we put sound effects together. And then basically we try to convince ourselves, O.K., this is the movie. We even cut at the beginning where there’s the Disney castle and then the Luxo lamp pops out. We put all those at the front so that it feels like a real movie’s starting. And then we watch these comic books, these drawings, and it gives you a very good sense of: am I bored? Am I excited? Am I confused?
All right. This person was confused. They didn’t like my main character. Let me have the story back. I’m going to retool it now and try that whole thing again. And then we show it a second time and a third time. We usually do like between seven to nine versions. But it basically gives us a sense of the movie we’re making before we shoot anything, before we animate anything, before we spend the millions of dollars that it’s going to take.
LEVITT: Do you have an estimate of how many person-years go into creating a Pixar film?
DOCTER: Let’s see, early on it was fewer, and then it’s grown and shrunk, but somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 person-weeks to put together. Does that make sense?
LEVITT: That’s only 400 person years. I guessed it was much more than that. So you’re not spending all that much on labor then.
DOCTER: Well, what happens is early on you have very few people and then it stays low for a while. And then later, it grows to these giant crews, but that’s only for a short amount of time. Monsters was a five-year project. So the first, I’d say three years, it was under 20 people-ish. And then only in the last nine months did it grow to — I don’t remember what our peak was 325, or something like that.
LEVITT: Here’s something I just don’t understand. Almost always when a firm is producing something, the first unit is really expensive to make because they haven’t figured out all the tricks to producing it. Then the second unit they make it a little more cheaply and quickly, and after a while production gets optimized. And, of course, the not so formal economic term for this is “learning by doing.”
But the strange thing about Pixar is that every movie you made for, I don’t know, the first eight, was more expensive than one before it. And now you’re at the top of the cost structure of any of the movies you ever made, which is really surprising to an economist. I would have thought the opposite pattern would hold.
DOCTER: I will say this — if I could look now and see what you know, the last film I did was Soul. If I could look at it now and know exactly what shots are in, I could probably make it for half the cost. But the problem is every one of these movies is a completely different thing and it’s not like you’re making Toy Story again, you’re trying to do something different to surprise people, to surprise ourselves.
And what happens is every movie we make, our appetite grows. We want things to look better. We want more complexity and more diversity. All of that stuff costs money. Only in the last maybe 10 years, I guess, did we realize if we stayed on the trajectory we were on, we would have priced ourselves out of any profit. So we’ve really had to put that into the equation as well. It’s like, let’s really try to keep a lid on things.
LEVITT: So when you look back at Toy Story, do you look and say, “Oh God, that’s a $30 million movie,” disparagingly?
DOCTER: Oh yeah. It looks totally clunky. Totally awful.
LEVITT: So it’s funny. So I don’t see the difference at all and I think your competitors, Dreamworks and Illumination, both spend much less on their movies. I think they’ve made just a different corporate choice about how to do that. Do you look at their movies and think they don’t look quite as good as yours?
DOCTER: Generally, as a director, I look at films based on the storytelling. And you’re right. There are films that are very beautifully designed and use limitations in clever ways that you don’t notice. There’s a film called The Red Turtle and it was very low budget, but it is beautiful. It’s exquisite. I think there’s no dialogue in the whole thing.
I don’t know that I would look at a film like that and say, “Boy, if they just poured another $100 million on that, it would have been a better film.” I think what people have come to expect from Pixar, is that this is going to be visually something I’ve never seen before that has a richness that knocks my socks off. That’s what we’re shooting for anyway. If we’d stayed with the technology that we had on Toy Story, you’d be missing a major component of what goes into our films.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Pixar filmmaker Pete Docter. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about developing story ideas and the movie moment that changed Steve’s life.
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LEVITT: I still don’t understand how they managed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars making an animated movie, but I’ll leave the answer to that question for another day. I’m obsessed with storytelling and movie directors are arguably some of the best storytellers on the planet. So I’m eager to see what I can learn from Pete Docter on that subject. And it’s a little bit embarrassing, but believe it or not, I had a spiritual awakening watching one of his movies, and I’m curious what his reaction will be when I share that with him.
LEVITT: So we’ve talked a little bit about the process. I’m also really interested in the initial idea. Let’s take Monsters, Inc. which was the first movie that you directed. What was the idea in your head when it started?
DOCTER: I think, I basically said, “What if monsters really do exist? And they scare kids for a living. That’s their job. They clock in; they clock out. They eat donuts.” This fantasy and the scariness of monsters coupled with factory work seemed really fun and funny. I didn’t really even have a good sense of who the characters were or what specifically was going to happen. But then I did think, “O.K., kids are really integral to this whole equation. So somehow this monster and a kid, and maybe a little kid that gets stuck there by accident.” Actually, early on we looked at — are you familiar with the Peter Bogdanovich film, Paper Moon?
LEVITT: I’m not, actually.
DOCTER: That’s worth watching. It’s a great movie. And it really inspired us a lot at the beginning of Monsters because there’s this guy, he’s a con man who comes in like he knows everything, and he gets stuck with this kid. But she ends up being the expert. Early on we thought we would mirror that kind of relationship. But then things change and evolve. These stories I always feel are as much discovered by us, the storytellers, as they are by the audience.
LEVITT: I suspect a good ending is often the hardest part. I don’t know if I have to do a spoiler alert on a movie that’s 20-years-old, but spoiler alert: When did you figure out this punchline that laughter’s 10 times more powerful than fear?
DOCTER: That was John Lasseter, who came up with that. And I, actually, fought it for a while because I was like, “Look, you can’t say that everywhere around the world now monsters that are going in and making kids laugh at night; that’s not happening. Kids are still scared by monsters.” But he was right. It’s emotionally what you want for the story.
The thing I usually look at is less the very ending and more what I call the emotional punchline. So in this case, for me, that was this monster who is scared of kids grows to love and care so much for this one kid, and now realizes, “Oh, the best thing is to get her home.” That goodbye scene where he has to put Boo back in her room and then close the door knowing he’s never going to see her again, and the door is shredded? That was something that we found halfway through the film and really aimed for and built the rest of the film around that.
LEVITT: So Monsters, Inc. felt like a kids movie to me that adults happen to love, also. But it seems like all the movies you’ve done since then, I feel the opposite. I really feel like they’re movies for adults that happened to appeal to kids, like Up. It’s much more serious. It’s much darker. And it starts with this incredibly touching portrayal of a love story told with very few words in maybe 10 minutes.
And honestly, I think about the beginning of that movie all the time. To me, it’s the most compelling film love story I’ve ever seen, which probably says something about how child-like I am that I react better to animated figures than real people. But look, it’s obvious you’re a master storyteller, and most of us are really awful storytellers. Do you have rules or tricks or tips for telling stories well?
DOCTER: Nope. Just try it and see if it works. Obviously, the world is full of all these books, especially in regard to screenwriting. “Here’s what you should do, and the three-act structure.” And when you step back and analyze films, they do have these undeniable things that always need to happen by a certain point. But I feel like if I’m conscious of that stuff when I’m starting out, I’m going to end up somewhere I already know. And that’s not very fun.
I’d rather get lost. I’d rather start walking into the forest and then lose my way and discover cool stuff along the way and use those tools then later, to find my way back to some road that — my analogy is getting messy here. But my point is just that I really feel like a crucial part of my process, anyway, is allowing for experimentation with no real clarity on how all this is going to fit together. It’s kinda like playing, I guess. And we take a lot of wrong turns. So it’s not wasted effort, it’s essential, I think.
LEVITT: Are you basically a kid at heart, yourself?
DOCTER: I do think I have a kind of innocent outlook on life, which sometimes bites me in the butt but other times is really enjoyable. I do have a sense of curiosity for things that allows me to lose myself, much to my wife’s chagrin sometimes. “Hello, pay attention.” But I spend a lot of time in my own head imagining things.
LEVITT: So you seem surprised when I suggested that Up was a movie written for adults but the issues you’re discussing there — you’re talking about old age, and senescence, and dreams deferred, and finally letting go of possessions to free oneself from the past. Those are the most adult themes I can think of, basically.
DOCTER: Yeah. I guess, I’d say I’m not targeting kids in any of the films that we’ve done, including Toy Story, or any other ones. It’s just what appeals to me. As an animator, first of all, what would be intriguing? What do I want to move and see on the screen? And what’s going to be fun and funny? But the longer I live with these things, the more I want to dig deeper and figure out, “O.K., what’s something that I could say about my own life and my own struggles as a human being that would be reflected uniquely in the subjects that I’ve chosen?”
So Monsters, it’s going to be something about fear. It’s going to be about facing your fears. And in this particular case, my wife and I had our first kid as I started on Monsters and I recognized pretty early on this movie is about my own struggle, trying to come to terms with: how do I be a professional and a parent at the same time? Which I don’t know if you can tell that in the movie, but —
LEVITT: No, I wouldn’t have guessed that at all, actually.
DOCTER: Yeah. And things like Inside Out was about my daughter. She actually was the voice of young Ellie in Up. There’s this spunky kid with a bad haircut, who yells a lot at Carl. And she was a lot like that character but then she turned 12 and 13 and she started getting very quiet and more sullen and I was just like, “Oh, I remember that in my own life. Why? What’s that about?” That’s kind of become the heart of what Inside Out was about.
Soul has a similar story of just diving into my own life and recognizing, “I’m not going to be around forever here. How many more of these movies am I going to do? And what’s really bringing me joy on a daily basis?” Somehow I was expecting more closure or a fulfillment in the finishing of these projects. Every one of them, I get to the end, and I’m like, “Wait, why isn’t my life all figured out now?” Which I know is completely irrational but Soul became really about that, of, “What is life about?” in some way.
LEVITT: So a lot of people loved — they love all your movies — but Up, for instance, was nominated for an Academy Award for best film, which is the only the second time that an animated film had been nominated. Do you care what Hollywood thinks about you?
DOCTER: I would love to say, “No, I don’t care,” but, of course, you do. You want the affirmation, and you want people to like you. At least, I do. I don’t make the films for that. But once you get there, and you’re like, “Oh, nominations. Oh, wow. Oh no, we’re not on the list or whatever,” I think it’s just human nature.
LEVITT: And I imagine that even though your films consistently out earn almost everyone else’s, that the snobs in Hollywood probably look down on what you do in some ways?
DOCTER: Animation — it’s in a strange position in Hollywood because I think so many people look at films as being about actors and the focus on people. And for us, we look at filmmaking as the craft of telling a story, of taking imagery and putting it together with sound in some way that compellingly tells a story. And we’re doing that just as validly with computer graphics as you could with a camera.
But I do think there is a little bit of a prejudice towards thinking animation is — it’s not really filmmaking. Some of it, we’ve done to ourselves because by association, you look at the other animated films that have been done and there’s fart jokes and desperate humor and loud stuff. And you’re like, “All right, if that’s what animation is, then you go sit over there.”
LEVITT: I don’t know what other people think about animation, where it fits in the hierarchy, but I will say that the single most powerful experience I have ever felt watching a movie was watching your third film, Inside Out. It’s a story of a girl growing up told from inside her head. And this experience was so special — I don’t have the words. But what’s interesting is the special experience I had was the third time I watched it, and I was not in a theater. I was watching in my house and I had my four-year-old daughter sitting on my lap, and I had three of my teenage daughters on the couch next to me.
And it was so powerful, the telling of the story and how you capture, so amazingly, the innocence of the four-year-old and the changes that happen. And somehow it was like this moment of truth for me, where I understood how fleeting life was, and exactly what kind of father I needed to be. And it was weird. I haven’t been able to shake it. It’s fundamentally changed the way I’m raising my two young kids. So anyway —
DOCTER: Wow. That’s pretty cool.
LEVITT: I had no idea who you were at the time. And I said, “Whoever made that movie, I hope that someday I have the chance to talk to them so that I can tell them that they changed my life.” I really wanted to have you on this podcast where I could tell that.
DOCTER: Wow. That’s amazing, Steve. Thank you.
LEVITT: Do you get that kind of feedback very often?
DOCTER: The weird thing is to think that I’m sitting here in Emeryville, California, probably in a dark room, because that’s where most of the movies are made, in these dark rooms staring at monitors, having never met you before. And yet through this weird medium, I’m able to speak to you in a way that you respond like that. That’s crazy. Isn’t it?
LEVITT: Movies are so immersive. It’s such an amazing medium for touching people. But almost always, it’s very ephemeral — that’s my own experience with movies. I’m a 100 percent in the movie, and I walk out of the theater, and I’m a 100 percent out of the movie. And what was different about this experience is how persistent it was, which I found really interesting.
DOCTER: A lot of people have talked about movies as like dreams, and I think even cuts and the way this sort of logic of movies, it is a lot like a dream. And some dreams do go away as soon as you wake up, but then other ones will stick with you for a day or two. And I don’t know. There’s some equivalent there that I wonder if that’s been studied.
LEVITT: Probably not, my experience with academics is they all study the same things, and they are usually not the interesting ones that take real creativity.
How do you research your movies? Because you build these alternate realities. So you’re inside of Riley‘s head in Inside Out, or in Soul, you create this pre-life and after-life. Do you just make that up or do you research it in some way?
DOCTER: In the end, it’s all, of course, made up. But any bit of research or anything we can grab a hold of is usually helpful. We spoke with a couple of different behavioral psychologists and other scientists for Inside Out. When I pitched it, the only emotions I was really cognizant of were anger and fear and happiness. The rest of them, like disgust and figuring out what emotions are and what they do and why we have them and all that stuff, all of that went into the film. Even how memories were — of course, we totally fudged the way science tells us memory works. It’s very different than the way that we needed it in that film.
But on Soul, we started by talking with religious experts and reading as much as we could about different traditions in the way that people have historically looked at or feel they understand the soul, like what is a soul? And most of them talk about it being ephemeral and ethereal, non-physical, shapeless, formless, and all right, that’s interesting, not very directly helpful, but we did try to make the souls look like they hinted at that. That they’re foggy. They’re translucent. And all that research ends up really affecting the storytelling in big ways.
LEVITT: Are you either religious or spiritual, yourself?
DOCTER: Yeah, I am. And I’ve gone up and down in how much and my belief systems through my life, which I think is probably common for most people. But working on this film was really a gift because it allowed me for every day for four years to think about that stuff. And of course, a lot of it we tried to avoid directly in the film. We don’t want to do something that will inadvertently offend half of the population of the world.
But I think it really expanded my head in terms of what’s possible and how people see. I think a lot of it comes down to: “O.K., when you talk about what happens after we die, what’s really important is how is that affecting the way I live right now? How’s that changing the way I’m spending my time and my day?”
LEVITT: And did you find any answers?
DOCTER: Well, I’m a Christian. I’ve hesitated to call myself that in the past, because I’m not always sure that I believe in all the right things. And, of course, I think one of the things that we discovered in researching this film was, there’s a brand of everything. There are Jewish people who believe in reincarnation, even though that’s not mainstream Judaism. And whether I’ve found what I believe in and I’m now going to hammer that, nail it to the wall, like Martin Luther or anything — I don’t think so. I think it’s constantly growing and changing, and my brain is constantly being expanded.
LEVITT: So you’ve turned out to be incredibly good at what you do. Did you always know you had special talent, or when did you start to realize that?
DOCTER: No, no. In high school or even in elementary school, there was always that kid who could draw dragons and a horse and you’d be “Whoa, I wish I could draw like that.” That was not me. I wanted to be that guy. I was super frustrated by my draftsmanship and my drawing abilities and painting and so on. I worked hard to get better at it, and I think I have.
But in a way, maybe that frustration or limitation — my perception of it being a limitation — brought me to where I was having to lean on other things. In other words, because I couldn’t draw a super well, I had to have the subject matter more impactful. You know what I mean? In a perfect world, what you do is — and so much of this is luck, but you find a situation where your particular passion and abilities plug into what’s exactly needed. And that’s, of course, I think it happened for me. And I can’t really take credit for that. I was in the right place at the right time. And, wow, I’m thankful.
LEVITT: What kind of life advice would you give the 20-year-old Pete Doctor knowing what you know now?
DOCTER: One thing I still struggle with and I tried to excise this demon, in the last film, Soul, which is this sense that I need to be good enough and accomplish these things otherwise I’m a failure. And maybe part of that is driving me — and I think a lot of people are driven by certain things that maybe are not always healthy — but that you can focus and direct in a certain way to produce good stuff.
So it’s hard to tell. I don’t know if that’s something you could convince a 20-year-old of just by talking to them. I’d probably tell myself, “Draw more. Just get outside and draw,” because your draftsmanship skills are always handy. But more importantly, I think drawing for me really connects me to stuff. It forces me to see things. I can walk past a house every day. But then if I stop and draw it, I suddenly notice details and things about it that I had never paid attention to before. So I feel like drawing is a way to slow me down and really connect me to the world that I’m inhabiting that I’m not always fully paying attention to.
LEVITT: Wow. It’s not at all what I expected, so interesting.
DOCTER: How about you? What would you tell your 20-year-old self?
LEVITT: The thing I happen to love more than just about anything is getting my hands on a big pile of data and finding insights. When I started in academics, it was just pure joy because that’s what I did all day long. And then I got a big budget to hire a bunch of people and I did, and it turns out the only thing I could really delegate was data work, because I couldn’t delegate writing, or managing co-authors, or committee meetings.
And so, in the end, I gave up the thing that I loved. I ended up basically stopping doing data work. And I will say, the joy of academics leaked away pretty quickly. That’s what I’d say to myself, “Hey, sure you can get a big budget and you can write 50 papers and maybe have more career success. But don’t let go of the thing you love, always make sure you’re doing the thing that brings you joy, not the thing that brings you success.”
DOCTER: Yeah, that’s a common theme, isn’t it? I mean, I’m kind of in that situation now. I got into this because I was shy and I felt awkward and weird talking to people, so I started drawing. And I love making films. And now I find myself in this position where I am supervising the creative efforts of the studio. And what I’m paid to do has shifted from making things myself to helping to enable other people to make stuff. And that’s a completely different muscle.
LEVITT: Have you ever thought about a different venue for what you’re doing? Creating curriculum or content that would make kids want to go to school the same way they want to go to movies?
DOCTER: That’s a tricky thing, because it could be a trap. I’ve been on the hairy edge of this a couple of times on films, like Inside Out, where you’re like, “I feel like I’m being lectured at. I feel like somebody is trying to teach me something.” And I think for most people, your brain either rebels or turns off at that moment.
But let’s play around for a minute. What I’m always interested in, and what I’m convinced personally, is at the heart of every story is a relationship. And even if it’s a film about an action adventure, a burning building, a boat race, whatever, it always comes down to some people that I care about and that are affecting each other and causing change in some way. So I’m curious for you: as you fell in love with data and analysis, what was it that caused you to fall in love?
LEVITT: I fell in love with data because I was losing so much money as a college kid betting at the race track. The daily racing form had all this data in it, and it just seemed like there should be patterns. I just became obsessed with trying to program in a way that I could eventually make money. And actually for half a summer, I did make money. And that gave me the great idea that I should start a little hedge fund and raise money from my friends and family to fund my betting at the racetrack, because it would be a lot more fun if I could bet lots of money than a little bit of money. And that did not have a happy ending.
But that was really when I started to fall in love with data, because, for me, data science, data analysis, is very artistic. There’s a question, or you don’t even know the question, and it’s hidden. And so much of what I’ve tried to work on in academic work is, for instance, looking for cheating and corruption, where the people involved are actively trying to cover their trail. So it’s really a mystery of: how do you look for the contrails that are left behind as people try to do these illegal behaviors? In the end, there’s a real storytelling component to it, as well, although it’s a very different kind of storytelling.
DOCTER: That sounds almost like a mystery or a detective novel or something where you’re trying to uncover truth.
LEVITT: So much of my time now is spent thinking about how can I change K-12 education to engage kids in a way they’ll be excited? I think that Pixar is perhaps the single best advertisement for STEM. The math and the science underlying the animation techniques — could you talk about that a little bit?
DOCTER: That was what made Pixar so exciting to me when I started was: I looked over at these computer scientists, and I didn’t understand what they were doing but I could play with what they were doing and probably surprise them with stuff that I was bringing to it. So it was this real merging of science and art. The other thing that, I guess, has been a journey for me — I got into this because I loved creating something that looked like it was alive, that was moving. Anything that was moving, that was animated, I was in.
You come into this a lot of times from a very mechanically minded, technological, like a love for that. And then as you get into it, you realize none of that really matters, unless you’re saying something. If you’re using it to communicate in some way that’s impactful for other people. That’s what this is all about.
And it’s fun because I’ve had a chance to talk to musicians, like Yo-Yo Ma, for example. He, himself, talks about this as being an incredible technician early in his life. He could play things that no one else could and hear a piece once and it would be committed to his mind. And only later in his life recognizing, “Wait a minute, this is about expression. This is about me talking to you through this music. And that’s where the joy is.” That’s where the emphasis is, for me as well, in making these movies.
LEVITT: Reflecting more deeply on the advice I said I would give my 20-year-old self, I like that advice, but I think there’s something I left out that is even more important. I’d tell my younger self to always be on the lookout for new experiences and to give lots of things a try. I’m terrified of new things. I often have to get dragged kicking and screaming into them, but more often than I expect, I end up enjoying that new thing. Sometimes it’s even life-changing. So actually the best advice I could give my younger self is simple: Don’t be such a scaredy-cat. Actually, that would be pretty good advice for my older self, too. And I’m pretty sure my older self is just as unlikely to follow that advice as my younger self would have been.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and coming soon Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This show is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Morgan Levey is our producer and Dan Dzula is the engineer; our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Mark McClusky, Greg Rippin, and Emma Tyrrell. We had help on this episode from James Foster. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com. That’s P-I-M-A at Freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
DOCTER: I know I wanted to be a baseball player for a while because I had pajamas that looked like a baseball uniform, but I was not very good at baseball, so…