Pete Docter – Exploring Emotions

“It’s okay to feel sad, but when you do, make films, draw, make things. It’ll make a world of difference.”

– Pete Docter

Some filmmakers love to make a career out of making emotional films, and Pixar is extremely infamous at making people cry at movies. Probably the one person who has been able to make movies that consistently make people cry is Pete Docter.

Pete Docter has so far made only three films at Pixar.

Which each of these films, Docter has managed to create at least one emotional moment that has infamously made people cry

Remember this little moment?
Or this sequence that flooded theaters with tears

And most recently….


Before Docter was pulling at your heartstrings, he was but a simple animation fan as a kid like most. He’s gone on record saying that he was a shy kid growing up that liked to watch Disney films and Warner Bros. cartoons.

He then decided to go to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) to study animation.

Have you noticed a lot of successful animators have gone to this college?

He then got hired as an animator for the slowly-growing production company Pixar, shortly after fellow Pixar director Andrew Stanton, the guy that made the clownfish movie. 😛

Anyways, when Pixar’s first film, Toy Story, was entering in production, Docter helped write the story for the movie and was one of the key animators for the film. He was responsible defining the animation for the little army men.

He understand their movements, he had the animators film themselves walking in a pair of sneakers with a wooden board nailed to them. Yes, they really did that.

While wrapping up Toy Story, Pete Docter had lunch with three other Pixar employees with what their next film would be if Toy Story was a success. Docter said he wanted to continue the theme of childhood beliefs like thinking your toys were alive when you weren’t around. Docter decided to go with the approach that every kid believing that monsters were hiding in their closet.

So, after finishing up Toy Story, Docter decided to expand this monster concept and make it that monsters scare kids not because they’re evil, but because it’s their job. Docter also became a father during production, and he decided to incorporate themes of parenthood into his first movie.

I think you know what happened next.

Thus, Pete Docter became the first Pixar employee that was not John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, to direct his own animated film for the studio.

After Monsters, Inc., he realized how stressful it is to direct movies, and growing up as an introvert made it especially hard, so it made him wish he could just go away from all this work like if he had a floating house. Add to that, he did a little drawing of a grumpy old man with a bunch of bright balloons because he thought it was funny.

Docter then thought that maybe the old man would live in that flying house and use his bright balloons to make his house fly. Soon he started hashing out a concept with fellow Pixar employee, Bob Peterson and created this…

A heartwarming animated film that won Docter his first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature

For his next movie, he actually found inspiration in his daughter, Ellie (and yes, he named the Up character after her). Ellie was becoming a teenager at the time, and when you become a teenager, you start to act differently. Docter noticed his daughter wasn’t as cheerful and outgoing as she was as a child and was becoming more withdrawn. That made Docter ask, “what is going on inside her head?”

Docter thought back to when he moved from Minnesota to Denmark as a child, and how it was emotionally challenging and caused him to be more withdrawn. That gave Docter the idea to explore the emotions of a young kid moving to a new home on the verge of adolescence.

This was the result

I feel what makes Docter’s movies so captivating and emotional is that he touches on themes that most family films don’t usually tackle.

Monsters, Inc. has themes of unexpected parenthood, positivity being more powerful than negativity, and learning that something you used to be afraid of isn’t really scary.

Up has themes of coping with the death of a loved one, forgiving yourself with what you thought were mistakes, and realizing that life’s real adventure is experiencing things with people you love.

Inside Out has themes of accepting change, leaving behind childish things you don’t need anymore, and understanding that all your emotions have a purpose of making you a better, more-rounded person.

Docter makes you emotional because he understands emotions, he made a whole a movie about it for crying out loud. He knows what it means to be human, and he demonstrates it through non-human characters.

Whatever Docter has in store down the road, I can’t wait for it, and I’m sure it will be quite an adventure when his next movie comes out.


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