Behind the Scenes: Making ‘Inside Out’

By Phill Powell

Jurassic World may have set the record for all-time biggest box office opening weekend, but the real winner was Pixar’s Inside Out, which earned a whopping $91 million its first weekend. That’s the biggest opening ever for an original film (read: not a sequel).

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Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) is just one of the emotions at work inside Riley’s mind. (Image: Pixar)

The film shot past the former record of $77 million, set by Avatar back in 2009 and also ranks as the second-biggest opening in Pixar history. Only Toy Story 3 had a bigger opening weekend at $110.3 million.

Inside Out is the story of an 11-year-old girl whose family moves to San Francisco and how she deals with her emotions during this major life change. The film has won praise from both audiences and critics alike, who have called it “one of Pixar’s best.”

Pixar is known for going the extra mile to create its films. For Inside Out, the creative team met with psychologists to help define the five emotions that would become the film’s key characters.

We took a look behind the scenes of Pixar’s latest blockbuster to see how the movie was made:

Creating the Story

At the heart of every Pixar film is the story. To develop it, Pixar has a process the production team follows as ideas and character concepts evolve.

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Early production sketches, like this concept drawing, help the writers visualize the characters they are still developing. (Image: Pixar)

  1. Ideation Writers and artists pitch ideas and the ones they feel are strongest get developed further.
  2. Creative Inspiration Pixar gets stories from employees about children in their families. The most interesting of these anecdotes are integrated into the script. Pictures of employees making faces help develop characters.
  3. Character & Story Development Ideas and inspirations are turned into storyboarded sequences. The best storyboarded scenes are turned into animatics (short, roughly animated sequences).
  4. The Pitch Storyboarded sequences are shown to other members of the production team for creative input, and those ideas and concepts are tweaked and played with. For example, an early concept drawing of Joy showed her with huge pony tails.
  5. The Production Ideas are continually refined until the entire story has been figured out and scripted.

Did You Know? For all Pixar films, there’s a braintrust. This is a group of people who offer ideas and consult to the production team. For Inside Out, that braintrust consisted of 35 people.

Creating the World

For Inside Out, production designer Ralph Eggleston had to design two worlds, one set inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley and one that Riley personally experiences in real life. Eggleston’s production design challenge required more than five years of work, the longest Eggleston had ever worked on a single project. In an interview, he called it the hardest assignment he’s ever had.

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Early concept art helps the production team see what the finished film will look like. (Image: Pixar)

According to co-director Ronnie Del Carmen, some of the environments that didn’t make it into the movie will become levels in the Inside Out portion of Disney 3.0.

To create the worlds for the film, Eggleston developed design briefs or specifications for different settings. For Riley’s “real” world, designers focused on “flat and hard surfaces, reduced palette of colors and low-contrast lighting.” For Riley’s mind: a way-out color scheme and lighting pattern.

Part of the inspiration for Inside Out was a 1980 dramatic musical called One From the Heart, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It also featured eye-popping visuals and colorful tones.

Did You Know? According to the production designer, Joy is exactly 4 feet 2 inches tall. Meanwhile, the film’s canyon of the mind is 10 miles long.

Capturing the Characters

For animated films like Inside Out, the Layout Department (and Director of Photography) work out the camera angles and character movements for each shot.

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Camera movements are pre-visualized for each scene. (Image: Pixar)

The world of Riley’s mind is shown through very controlled camera moves that use dolly, boom and crane shots. The real world she exists in, on the other hand, is depicted through zooms, handheld and steadicam shots – a little more chaotic and freeform, just like real life.

Another area where the worlds differ involves focus. Did you notice, the shots in Riley’s mind retain perfect focus at all times? Meanwhile, Riley’s real life sometimes gets crazy, and things temporarily slip out of focus, especially during action scenes.

Did You Know? Originally, Pixar considered using the jumbo-frame IMAX format for the scenes that take place in Riley’s mind, but the plan was later scrapped.

Animating the Action

In the Animation Department, art comes to life. Despite the overall complexity of the project, Inside Out required the services of only 45 animators, which is half of the number typically used on a Pixar film.

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Animation sketch artist Tony Fucile watches film clips and makes sketches from the director’s notes that may include repositioning screen characters, or making changes to their facial characteristics. (Image: Pixar)

A small army of animators divided the various shots of the film and used professional animation techniques to place the film’s characters within the screen settings and bring those characters to life.

Did You Know? The entire creative team reviews dailies (the ongoing production), and an animation sketch artist sits in to listen to director Pete Docter’s spoken production notes and make on-the-fly tweaks and sketches. These are saved with the animations for future reference.

Lighting an Animated Movie

At Pixar, workflow is described as, “Camera, action, light.” After layout and animation join forces to produce a final shot, that shot is brought to vivid life by the Lighting Department. For Inside Out, that was a team of 35 people.

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This comparison shows a basic image, and how the Lighting Department prepares it for final output. (Image: Pixar)

The Lighting Department takes direction from the Production Designer, who helps establish the mood of the lighting. Working on each shot, the Lighting Department making subtle adjustments to the overall lighting, as required by the different scenes.

Lighting is especially important to Pixar films; because there is so often so much facial detail to be communicated to the viewer, lighting is used to guide the viewer’s eye to the visual information they need to notice and remember.

Did You Know? The shots that took place in the mind’s “Dream Production” movie studio were especially complex. One of these shots required the use of 175 individual lighting sources.

Putting Careers into Motion
Computer animation looks a lot easier to create than it is. Producing a major animated film like Inside Out actually requires the creative work of hundreds of film and animation professionals.

Bring a ton of “joy” into your life by attending one of Digital Media Academy’s animation tech camps and discover what’s involved in animation or an animation career.