Upon meeting Peter Sohn, a Korean-American with a round, childlike face and infectious smile, I immediately think, “I’ve seen this person before.” We all have, really. It’s only later that I’d learn Sohn served as the inspiration for Russell, the young Wilderness Explorer who embarks on an epic adventure with a crotchety grandpa, in Pete Docter’s Up.
Back in 2009, around the time of that film’s release, Sohn began work as a co-director on The Good Dinosaur—a 3D computer-animated Pixar film that imagines a world where the asteroid missed Earth, and the dinosaurs never became extinct. The film centers on Arlo, a young Apatosaurus who, after losing his father in a tragic accident, becomes separated from his family and must make the voyage back home. Along the way, he encounters a dog-like human caveboy, Spot, and the two lean on each other during the arduous trek back to the Clawed-Tooth Mountains.
Bob Peterson, who served as a co-director on Up, was originally slated to direct The Good Dinosaur, but was removed from the project in August 2013 after running into third-act problems, and replaced by Sohn.
“It started in 2009, and there was great energy building the project up, but then the story got stuck to the point where people didn’t know how to dig it out, so then I was asked on,” said Sohn. “Once I got on, I changed some big plot points to fuel Arlo’s character, and that’s been the past under two years of working.”
Sohn, 47, was on hand at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival where, amid the art house fare, he made an early-morning presentation of about 30 minutes of awe-inspiring clips from The Good Dinosaur, featuring stunning mountain vistas and a panoply of expressive, soon-to-be-indelible characters voiced by the likes of Frances McDormand, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, Steve Zahn, and Jeffrey Wright.
“As you make these stories and try to solve story problems, you always dig into your personal life,” said Sohn, seated across from me in a hotel following his presentation. “You can feel the directors in their movies. Andrew Stanton is very nervous as a father about his son going off for the first time, Brad [Bird] rails against mediocrity.”
For Sohn, the theme is a long, character-enriching journey, and Arlo’s journey across the treacherous landscape pales in comparison to his road to director of the next big Pixar joint.
His father moved to New York City from Korea in the 1970s, and got a job as a hot dog vendor by Central Park. “He told me he learned his English from Star Trek and Bonanza, because watching TV was the only time he had to rest,” recalled Sohn.Mom soon followed, and the couple worked their way up to managing a Korean grocery store in the Bronx. Sohn and his older brother would spend their days reenacting films, and some nights, he’d accompany his mother—who spoke very little English—to the movies. Because of the language barrier, the only films that would really resonate with her were Disney’s animated movies.
So Sohn became a storyboard artist, and enrolled in California Institute of the Arts—a school that’s produced some of the world’s finest animated filmmakers, including Tim Burton, Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), Brad Bird (The Incredibles), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), and Pixar chief John Lasseter (Toy Story).
During his sophomore year, he and a group of friends began cold-calling animators they loved, and Bird answered, and invited the fellas over to his place to discuss movies. “He was so accommodating and got us riled up about why we loved animation,” said Sohn.
“In my second year, my portfolio made its way to [Bird] through the school’s job fair, and I got to work on The Iron Giant,” added Sohn. “Everyone wanted to go to Disney and DreamWorks, but we were the ragtag group of rebels working on a Warner Bros. animated movie.”
Through his mentor Bird, his portfolio made its way to Pixar, and Sohn landed a gig as a story artist for Stanton on Finding Nemo, crafting characters. He was now a part of the Pixar family, and followed up Nemo with work as a story artist, animator, and voice actor on Bird’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille, as well as a storyboard artist on WALL-E and Up.
“The mentorship is fantastic,” said Sohn. “I’ve been there since [Nemo] so it’s been, what, 15 years now? It’s grown into quite a family. Everyone has been so supportive.”
His breakthrough year came in 2009, when his short Partly Cloudy, about cloud people who sculpt babies to deliver to storks, who then deliver them to families. It played ahead of Up, and on the strength of the short—as well as his years of behind-the-scenes experience at Pixar—Sohn was hired as co-director of The Good Dinosaur.
“I’m so excited! This has been a lifelong dream for me,” said Sohn, beaming. “Over 300 people worked on this movie, and every time I watch a clip of it I’m reminded of all the hard work put into it by the whole team.”Sohn is not only the first director of color at Pixar, but also one of a growing number of Asian filmmakers in Hollywood, including Justin Lin (Fast 5), James Wan (Furious 7), Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), and Jon Chu (Jem and the Holograms).
“When I was a kid there was just… Bruce Lee, you know?” said Sohn. “And even he wasn’t directing movies. Being a minority in New York, it’s always been about trying to find universal themes. Mickey is a mouse—what race is he? Anyone can find themselves in these characters.”In addition to its long road to the screen, The Good Dinosaur bears the distinction of being a part of the first year where audiences will receive two Pixar films, following on the heels of Docter’s brilliant June release Inside Out.
And Sohn’s movie, interestingly enough, will also be released a month after the biopic Steve Jobs, about the late Apple cofounder and Pixar founder. Since he’s been in the Pixar family for so long, Sohn’s gotten to experience many a meeting with the famously volatile Jobs.
“There were a lot of meetings early on with Steve,” said Sohn. “Some of those meetings on The Incredibles, I remember he had some great ideas on how to make the movie better. He was a very intense person. I remember one meeting on Ratatouille where the movie was done and I was so proud of it, and I said, ‘Boy, this film turned out so great, and Brad did such an amazing job,’ and he turned to me and yelled, ‘It wasn’t just Brad! It was the entire studio!!’ He had so much faith in the entity, and now, having gone through the whole process, I know what he was talking about.”