Exclusive: ‘The Good Dinosaur’ Peter Sohn is Pixar’s ‘director of new generation’

October 30, 2015
"The Good Dinosaur" Director Peter Sohn is photographed on October 7, 2014 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

“The Good Dinosaur” Director Peter Sohn is photographed on October 7, 2014 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

By Brian Han

Peter Sohn represents the latest in Pixar’s new generation of home grown directors. The studio’s upcoming film “The Good Dinosaur” will be his way of illustrating to the public why he deserves to be at the helm of the latest project.

The 38-year-old animator-turned-director has been with Pixar for 15 years. In the company’s 29-year history, the role has been kept mostly within a few filmmakers including founder John Lasseter, Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton.

Now the studio is extending its trust to a handful of its most talented and loyal creatives.

For example, director of “Monsters University” (2013) Dan Scanlon spent 14 years before he took on the job. Mark Andrews worked at Pixar for over a decade before directing the Oscar-winning film “Brave” (2012).

But Sohn is a little bit different from those that came before him.

“One of the highlights of working on this film is that Pixar has a new storyteller, a new director of a new generation, quite honestly, who’s not a white guy,” “The Good Dinosaur” producer Denise Ream (Harry Potter, Cars 2) told the Korea Times.

“There’s some diversity. I’m really excited to hear what he wants to do and what stories he wants to tell. That’s what I’m looking forward, too.”

It’s true.

The Korean American director is the first lead director of color, and it goes to show you that the studio isn’t mired in tradition like its Hollywood counterparts. It doesn’t hurt that charisma and warmth are two of his most evident qualities.

“He is extremely beloved at the studio,” she said. “I think he’s one of the most loved individuals. People are inspired by him. They really pour their heart and soul because of him.”

But what has carried him up the ranks is his artistry.

“Peter first came on with [director] Brad Bird in ‘The Incredibles,’” recalled Pixar director, animator and writer Pete Docter (Up, Toy Story).

“He’s definitely been someone you could see the potential in his stuff very early on. Seeing his story boards, I was like, this guy, there’s something about his sensibility. There’s something special about this guy. I need to see more of his work on the screen.”

Peter Sohn also happens to be a talented voice actor and has been featured in a few Pixar films. In "The Good Dinosaur" he plays a character known as the Pet Collector. (Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Peter Sohn also happens to be a talented voice actor and has been featured in a few Pixar films. In “The Good Dinosaur” he plays a character known as the Pet Collector. (Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

These comments on Sohn come from one of the key figures responsible for Pixar’s unrivaled consistent success.

Docter joined the studio over 25 years ago as its tenth employee and third animator. The studio has over 600 employees today. He’s part of what is informally called Pixar’s “Brain Trust” which refers to a core group of creative leaders that oversees every single project.

So when he said he needed to “see more of his work on the screen,” that’s exactly what happened.

When Sohn joined Pixar in September of 2000, he began making his contributions to the story and art departments for “Finding Nemo.” The film went on to set a new record for the studio at the time by bringing in almost $1 billion in box office revenue.

He gradually climbed up the ladder and earned director and writer roles in 2009 for a short film titled “Partly Cloudy” which debuted alongside “Up.”

Now after years of developing his chops, the Korean American filmmaker is on the cusp of showing the world what he is capable of when he’s the driving force behind one of Pixar’s feature films.

But that wasn’t necessarily the plan from the get go.

In fact, the studio originally had another “Brain Trust” member Bob Peterson (writer for “Finding Nemo,” “Up”) take the reins as the writer and director of “The Good Dinosaur.” But when it became clear that he had run into issues with the third act of the film, Pixar called for a replacement.

Sohn was promoted from the role of co-director to director. It was intimidating to say the least.

“I was terrified,” Sohn recalled. “I was scared. But I loved the story and I loved the heart of it for sure. I wanted to continue to protect that original heart that Bob started with that boy and dog concept and being really sincere with it.”

Ream wasn’t sure of the decision in the beginning because she had never worked with him before. Over a short period of time that all changed.

“Within two weeks, I was like, this guy can do it, he’s got it,” she said. “There’s no one like him at the studio. He’s an amazing artist, character designer, voice actor, story teller. I don’t think there’s anyone here who has that breadth, so I was really excited to work with him.”

Luckily he had someone looking out for him the whole way through.

“He was a total natural, but I made sure to surround him with an experienced editor, lighting, DP, effects person, production designer, so that he could just focus on the story, because that’s what needed to be good,” Ream said.

Her help extended far beyond that and none of it went unnoticed.

During a day in the life of (center) Director Peter Sohn and "The Good Dinosaur" with (left) Producer Denise Ream and (right) Story Supervisor Kelsey Mann on June 2, 2015 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

During a day in the life of (center) Director Peter Sohn and “The Good Dinosaur” with (left) Producer Denise Ream and (right) Story Supervisor Kelsey Mann on June 2, 2015 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

“She has been a defender and protector during my first experience as a director on a feature,” Sohn said. “The years and years she’s spent producing movies and effects, she was great at trying to move everything forward in a way and she taught me a lot about that kind of leadership.”

So even though Sohn is held in high regard within Pixar headquarters, how will the rest of the world react to his work?

Consider that although the studio’s films perform well almost anywhere in the world, its last release “Inside Out” found a surprising response from South Korea, which yielded the third-highest box office figures in the world behind the U.S. and the U.K.

Having a Korean American director at the helm can only help generate more excitement in a country that already loves Pixar films.

Founder John Lasseter traveled to Seoul back in 2014 to thank fans for their unbridled support, and similarly Sohn plans to visit in February.

“I cannot wait,” he said excitedly. “I haven’t been since I was a kid.”

Sohn was given the Korean name of Tae Yoon and given his parents are immigrants, the trip will mean a lot more than promoting a film.

“My parents went five years ago and told me that the culture has changed drastically,” he said. “The new food, the new culture, the children, the younger generation is very different. It seems like they’ve become more open minded in good ways.”

That same open-mindedness didn’t exist as much during Sohn’s upbringing. He was born and raised in Bronx, New York, and helped his parents out at their grocery store.

“It was a fight,” he recalls. “Becoming an artist in the 70s was not a way to make a living. It helped define me, not that I was very rebellious, but I fought to go to art school.”

When he finished class assignments that were in the form of drawings, tensions would arise.

It’s the classic immigrant trope of parents simply wanting their children to have more secure career opportunities.

But as Sohn stuck to his craft and developed a skillset recognized by the best in the world, his parents have reconsidered their outlook.

“Now they’re very proud of the arts and everything,” he said with a big grin. “They run an art supply store in White Plains.

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“The Good Dinosaur” will be in theaters on Nov. 25.

 

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