Growing up in New York City, film director and animator Peter Sohn remembers visiting the American Museum of Natural History as a kid and being awed by the dinosaurs on display there.
"There was a barosaurus in the atrium," Sohn tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It was kind of standing on two legs, and it blew me away, that thing. ... It ignites the imagination to think that something that large could've roamed around New York."
Decades later, dinosaurs continue to spark Sohn's imagination. His new Disney/Pixar animated film, The Good Dinosaur, imagines a world in which the dinosaurs did not go extinct and people and dinosaurs now live together. At the center of the movie is Arlo, an 11-year-old dinosaur who becomes separated from his family during a flash flood and must find his way home with the help of a feral boy named Spot.
Together they confront predators and dangerous storms, which is especially difficult for Arlo because of his myriad fears. Sohn says that Arlo's tentative nature reflects his own disposition growing up. "I remember not having a lot of confidence because of the way I looked and being kind of a minority in New York," he says. "Trying to learn to be more confident and trusting yourself was a big deal for me. ... I feel like that test has been with me my whole life — trying to find ways to get through these little fears or big ones."
On coming up with the concept for The Good Dinosaur
When you make a "what if" like that, you could really go anywhere. It could be dinosaurs driving in cars and stuck in traffic or dinosaurs in space or whatever it was. In the early development, I was just doing some drawings and I started this one drawing of a long-neck type of an apatosaurus with his head in the ground plowing the earth, and there was something really kind of interesting about a dinosaur almost like a giant tractor and farming. ... [I thought,] "What if they evolved to become almost agrarian if they're herbivores?" And that started opening up other doors. If you're a carnivore maybe you're a rancher? There was something really sincere about this farming dinosaur.
On choosing to pursue a career in art
I was born in New York, and my parents were born in Korea, and they came here during the '70s and they would work very hard to create a life for us. So the life, I think, that was going to be made for me was that I was going to take over the [family grocery] store. And by the time I got into junior high, I found this love for animation. It was a really sincere love for it, and I began to try to fight for this world of art, if that makes sense, knowing that culturally my parents didn't understand how you could have a career drawing cartoons. ... I don't even think they really understand what computer animation is today. So they would really push for me not to go to that world of art, and the more I drew, the more confidence I found in trying to fight for that.
On going to the movies with his mother as a kid
[At] our parents' grocery store there would be a kind of weekly ritual where at the end of the week, around Friday or Saturday, ... my mom would get this big deposit bag. ... She would deposit the money at the bank, and if there was anything left over she would take me or me and my brother to the movies, like all the time. She loved them so much. ... It was a real experience for me because I remember that because she didn't speak English very well, she would always ask me to translate the movies for her. So we'd be sitting in some theater in the Bronx somewhere, ... there'd be an American movie playing and an actor or actress would say something and then she would lean over and ask [in Korean,] "What did that person say?" and I would try my best to explain what was on the screen or what the character had said. ...
But there were some that I didn't have to translate, and, honestly, the animated movies that we had seen were told so well visually that she didn't need any explanation. I remember clearly seeing Dumbo with her and there's that scene in the movie where Dumbo's mother was caged up and Timothy the mouse brings Dumbo over to kind of make contact — this beautiful animation of these two trunks trying to reach for each other, until finally the mother's trunk picks up Dumbo and swings her like it was a little bassinet. I remember my mom tearing up at this moment, and I didn't have to say anything.
On playing the older brother rat, Emile, in Ratatouille
I was a storyboard artist on that film and I remember [director] Brad Bird coming to me and saying, "Hey, you're perfect for the role." And I remember thinking, "OK. This is a rat that eats garbage and he's overweight," and going like, "Gee, thanks Brad. I don't know what you're quite saying there, but thank you so much." As we were kind of pitching boards, I would do the voice and the voice really isn't that different from what I'm doing right now, other than that I'd be a little more naive and more excited about what my brother, Remy, was doing. ...
Brad would always have me eating something, so I was talking with my mouth full. That was an interesting process because there are certain foods that sound good [on mic] and there are certain foods that sound absolutely disgusting when you're chewing it. The secret for me that Brad kept giving were Twizzlers or Red Vines. So I'd stuff my mouth with these Red Vines and try to go through the lines.
On inspiring the character of Russell in Up
I did a lot of the scratch voice for Russell in the early production of that film, and I was in early development with them doing storyboards and I remember that there are these sessions when you're sitting around a table and you are coming up with ideas [and] a lot of artists will draw each other all the time and caricature each other. We would call [it] "jacking each other" — where you would flip a drawing at someone and your nose is huge or something. They kept drawing me like a giant thumb with a hat and these kind of little Asian eyes, and somehow that shape kept recurring until it became Russell, this Asian-American kid. I got to tell you, I'm so proud that there's this Asian-American kid in an animated movie.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. The new Disney Pixar animated film "The Good Dinosaur" opens next Wednesday, just in time for Thanksgiving. My guest is the director, Peter Sohn, who also worked on the animated films "Ratatouille," "Finding Nemo," "WALL-E" and "Up." He does the voice of one of the characters in the new film. The main character is an 11-year-old dinosaur named Arlo, who's afraid of the world, unlike his mischievous siblings. Arlo's father, in an attempt to toughen-up Arlo and help him work his way through his fear, takes him into the wilderness where an unexpected, fierce storm sweeps the father away, leaving Arlo alone and lost. The story follows Arlo as he tries to find his way home and has to overcome many predators and storms along the way. A feral boy named Spot, who Arlo had thought of as a rodent-like critter, befriends him and helps protect Arlo on his journey. Arlo and Spot meet a family of T-Rexs along the way. In this scene, the T-Rex father, voiced by Sam Elliott, has agreed to help Arlo get home if Arlo and Spot help the T-Rex family scare off the rustlers who have stolen their herd of cattle. Arlo, played by Raymond Ochoa, speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOOD DINOSAUR")
RAYMOND OCHOA: (As Arlo) So how far did you say that watering hole was?
SAM ELLIOTT: (As T-Rex father Butch) I got a job for you.
OCHOA: (As Arlo) I'm not really good at jobs.
ELLIOTT: (As T-Rex father Butch) I need you to keep on the dodge and side-lip the lob-lolli (ph) past them horn-heads. Just hooting and hollering and scare off them rustlers. We'll cut dirt and get the bulge on them.
OCHOA: (As Arlo) What?
ANNA PAQUIN: (As T-Rex daughter Ramsey) He just wants you to get on that rock and scream.
OCHOA: (As Arlo) But who's out there?
ELLIOTT: (As T-Rex father Butch) They'll come right at you. You hold your ground. Don't move.
OCHOA: (As Arlo) Don't move? What if they have claws and big teeth?
ELLIOTT: (As T-Rex father Butch) Don't over think it.
GROSS: Great advice.
PETER SOHN: Yeah. Boy, I love that Sam Elliott, jeez.
GROSS: Yeah I know, he's so great. Peter Sohn, welcome to FRESH AIR. And, you know, the movie begins by completely rewriting history, or prehistory. You know, 'cause scientists believe that 65 million years ago, an asteroid crashed into Earth, leading to the extinction of dinosaurs and many other animals and plants. But when the film opens, that asteroid just whizzes right past the Earth, so...
GROSS: ...Not only do dinosaurs survive, but millions of years later, they're living among people, which...
SOHN: That's right.
GROSS: ...Never really happened, except for in movies.
SOHN: That's right.
GROSS: So how did you try to imagine what life would be like if the asteroid missed the Earth and dinosaurs survived?
SOHN: When you make a what-if like that, you could really go anywhere. It could be dinosaurs driving in cars and stuck in traffic, or dinosaurs in space or whatever it was and...
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
SOHN: But in the early development, there was just - I was just doing some drawings and I found - I started this one drawing of a long-neck type of Apatosaur with his head in the ground, plowing the earth. And there was something really kind of interesting about a dinosaur having - almost like a giant tractor and farming. And so there was immediate, like, oh, what if this - they evolve to become almost agrarian - if they're herbivores. And that started opening up other doors. If you're a carnivore, maybe you're a rancher. And there was something really sincere about this farming dinosaur. And all it was was that. There wasn't a character attached to it, it was just this concept. And we would all start to connect to the kind of sincerity of a hard-working animal like that, trying to survive out in the frontier.
GROSS: Of all the dinosaurs that you could have chosen...
GROSS: ...As the dinosaur for the main family, why the Apatosaurus? And by the way, the Apatosaurus - for anyone who remembers the old Sinclair Oil logo, the dinosaur on that oil company logo is an Apatosaurus with a giraffe-like long neck.
SOHN: Yeah. And that name keeps changing around. It used to be Brontosaur and then, you know, Paleontologists discovered, no, that's not a Brontosaur, it's an Apatosaur. And then - now, it's two different species. But, you know, I grew up in New York, and my family would take me to the Natural History Museum there all the time. And there was a Barosaur in the atrium there. This kind of - it was like standing on two legs. And, you know, it blew me away, that thing. I think one of my cousins or someone said, you know those things used to walk around here? And it ignites the imagination to think that something that large could've roamed around New York when you're a kid. And so there's always been a fascination for that. But there was - you know, there's always - they've always been presented as this like peaceful, you know, graceful animal. And there was something that I connected to that to start this story off with - you know, about a farming dinosaur.
GROSS: My favorite character in the movie is actually the Styracosaurus, which...
SOHN: Oh yeah.
GROSS: Which looks like a hybrid of a rhinoceros and a dinosaur, but with, you know, with a lot of horns. I think there's what, six horns or more?
SOHN: Yeah, there's a lot of them. I feel like there's maybe a dozen horns - what we would call the crest of the Styracosaur. And it's essentially shelves that were made for all these animals.
GROSS: Yeah, 'cause the Styracosaurus in your movie collects animals to help him negotiate the wilderness. So there's like little birds and - I don't know, squirrels and all kinds of little creatures that have their job in helping the Styracosaurus protect himself. And so he's like the pet collector.
SOHN: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: Would you describe creating this character?
SOHN: Yeah. Our head of story, Kelsey Mann, did this one drawing of what looked like, you know, a moose or an elk and its antlers were covered in red birds. And we kept thinking about a character that could represent Arlo, our main character, if he had been thrown out into the wilderness and was trying to survive out there. So it was what we'd call the end-of-the-line Arlo. So he was gone crazy, and he's so terrified of the world that he would collect these animals as these kind of talismans to protect him from all the fears around him.
GROSS: So I want to play a clip from the movie with the Styracosaurus. And you actually do the voice (laughter) for this character...
GROSS: So I'll ask you about the voice after we hear the clip. But just to set up this scene a little bit, Spot, the little boy, has been helping Arlo, the dinosaur, negotiate this, like, hostile environment - helping him find food and keeping him safe from predators. And so in this scene, Spot is helping Arlo again, and it's witnessed by the Styracosaurus who's hiding camouflaged in the woods with all these animals on his horns. And so the Styracosaurus steps out of the trees and startles Arlo and starts explaining how these different animals - the lizards, a fox, groundhog, a little red bird named Debbie perched on his horns are actually helping him. And he points to Spot and he says, that creature, you know, that creature protected you - like, we need that creature. So here's the scene with my guest Peter Sohn, the director of "The Good Dinosaur," also playing the role here of the Styracosaurus. The Styracosaurus speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOOD DINOSAUR")
SOHN: (As Forrest Woodbush) That creature protected you. Why?
OCHOA: (As Arlo) I don't know. I'm going home. Do you know how far Claw Tooth Mountain is?
SOHN: (As Forrest Woodbush) Good idea. We want him.
OCHOA: (As Arlo) Why?
SOHN: (As Forrest Woodbush) 'Cause it's terrifying out here. He can protect me, like my friends. This is Fury, he protects me from the creatures that crawl in the night. This is Destructor, she protects me from mosquitoes. This is Dream Crusher, he protects me from having unrealistic goals. And this is Debbie.
SOHN: (As Forrest Woodbush) Yes, we need him.
SOHN: Oh, my goodness. That sounds even more crazy without the picture. Oh, my goodness.
GROSS: That's my favorite line in the film, when he describes - when the Styracosaurus describes the Dream Crusher, who he needs to protect him from having unrealistic goals.
GROSS: So how'd you come up with your voice?
SOHN: John Lasseter was like, OK, you're doing the voice. And then I was, like, no, no, we can find a real actor, you know? This was my first time directing something, so I was just like, no, no, no, we'll find someone to do it properly. And then he was just like no, no, no, no. You're going to do it. And I'm like, oh, yeah, OK. And so much so that he would direct me to - the performance. It was really funny 'cause as I was doing it, I didn't realize that - where my voice was when I was pitching it. I wasn't thinking about it. And so every time I would go, you know - Spot, I love him - John would go, lower. Spot, I love him - lower, lower. Spot, I love him. And I would just try to get as low as I could.
GROSS: Did you base that on any horror movie characters? Or maybe Peter Lorre?
SOHN: (Laughter) No. But, yeah, he is kind of a Peter Lorre - Rick, Rick we'll get you to Morocco. Yeah, there's totally a Peter Lorre thing in there.
GROSS: Did you love dinosaurs as a kid?
SOHN: Yeah, absolutely. And my dinosaur love really came from the movies and this museum. The mounts that they have at The Natural History Museum in New York was spectacular. It's - it was almost like action figures. There were so many different types, the - you know, the species were so varied, and you would just learn every little detail you could about each one.
GROSS: I know your parents are from Korea, did they understand your preoccupation with dinosaurs? Were dinosaurs popular toys, or dinosaur movies popular movies, in South Korea?
SOHN: I don't know. I've really - they're - you know, my parents' childhood in Korea was - was all war-torn. They had just come out of the Korean War and, you know, they would always kind of - my mom would always tell me these kind - I would call them like apple-slice stories where she'd be sitting there slicing an apple, and she would describe these things to me about their childhood that was very bleak and tough. And so, you know, the things that they talked about that was, like, fun was like, we got an extra egg for breakfast. And you're like, oh, my goodness. But at the same time, my mother, her biggest thing was going to the movies there and seeing whatever was playing in the local theatre. That was her escape from all of that and she has a lifelong obsession for movies and that has completely infected me, you know.
GROSS: Well, I want to talk with you more about your movie and about your family. But, first, we have to take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guess is Peter Sohn, he's the director of the new Disney Pixar animated film "The Good Dinosaur." We'll be back after this break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Sohn, the director of the new Disney Pixar film, "The Good Dinosaur." The dinosaur - the young, 11-year-old dinosaur, who - he is afraid of everything from the moment he's hatched from his egg. He's afraid to come out of the shell. You know, as he starts to grow up, he's still afraid of everything. Could you relate to Arlo, the young dinosaur? Were you a physically confident boy? Were you a brave boy? Did people try to toughen you up?
SOHN: Yeah. I was a chubby kid. I'm still a little overweight (laughter). But it was, you know, a life living in shame of, you know - you know, I grew up in a grocery store. There was nothing I could do. There was just Twinkies every day. I mean, that's how, you know, gained this weight. But I remember not having a lot of confidence because of the way I looked and being a kind of minority in New York. And so trying to learn to be, you know, more confident and trusting yourself was a big deal for me. And my father would get me into sports. You know, he was such a busy man working at the store that he would still find time to push me into these things that could hopefully give me more confidence. And, you know, I feel like that test has been with me my whole life, trying to find ways to get through these little fears or big ones. And, yeah, absolutely - and so, you know, I owe it all to that processed corn syrup, I guess.
GROSS: (Laughter) Did - have you felt, at times in your life, that you had more artistic courage than physical courage?
SOHN: Yes. You know, what's funny is getting into the arts - I was born in New York. And my parents were born in Korea. And they came here during the '70s. And they would work very hard to create a life for us. And so the life that - I think that was going to be made for me was that I was going to take over the store. And by the time I got into, you know, junior high, I knew that that was going to be my future. But I found this love for animation. It was a really sincere love for it. And I began to try to fight for this world of art, if that makes sense, knowing that culturally, my parents didn't understand how you could have a career drawing cartoons. My parents didn't understand what art school really was or - just 'cause they had, you know - they don't know - they don't know what that is, you know? It was just such an innocent kind of understanding of what - what is animation? You could describe - I don't even think they really understand what computer animation is today. And so they would really push for me not to go into that world of art. And the more I drew, the more confidence I found in trying to fight for that.
GROSS: Well, your parents came to the U.S., to New York in particular, in the 1970s...
GROSS: ...From South Korea. And you and your brother were born in New York. You lived in the Bronx?
SOHN: Yeah, that's right, the North Bronx. And my dad had a grocery store there. And we would live there and...
GROSS: You lived above the grocery?
SOHN: No, we lived close by it. But the hours are ridiculous. It would be, like, from 4 to 5 in the morning till 11 o'clock at night. So essentially, you know, the school bus would drop us off at the store. And then we would be essentially living there. But we wouldn't sleep there. Yeah, and...
GROSS: So describe the store. How big was it?
SOHN: Boy, it was - I remember it - I don't know. It must be the size - a little bit bigger than your average 7-Eleven. And half of it was kind of the vegetables and the other half were just aisles of canned goods and boxed goods. And, you know, there would be always the classic kind of, like, security round mirror at every corner. And my mom was the cashier. She's been the cashier for, you know, like, 30 years. They've since moved away from the grocery store. But I remember, you know, the big box above the cashier of cigarettes and everything and then sitting next to her all the time drawing or playing on the cans or whatever that was. Yeah, I mean, boy, talking about it like this - my father would take me wherever he needed to go. I remember going into the Bronx Terminal Market and remembering that stick-shift to - that truck that he had was, like, 8-feet tall, you know, and him working so hard to put all these boxes of vegetables into the truck while I was just sitting there playing with toys and how hard he fought for our family to survive. He's an incredible man, Terry. I have unbelievable respect for what he did to come here. He came here with nothing.
GROSS: Those little markets always seem like such targets to me for robberies. Was your parents' store robbed?
SOHN: Yeah. I remember that my father had a kind of - a handgun placed underneath the register that was, like, the barrel of it was soldered. Someone melted - I don't know - some sort of metal inside the barrel so it could never be used. But I remember playing with that, and I remember, you know, growing up with that idea that - would my father ever use this? And there were some occasions that I remember - but he never used the gun. But I remember that there was always this symbol of danger and protecting ourselves in the store. And, you know, my parents used me, essentially, as kind of a young security guard. If there was someone that they thought was, you know, shoplifting in the store, they would yell across the store in Korean like, you know, follow that kid around and - or follow that person. And I'd have my little action figure and kind of go toward an aisle with - and, like, play in the cans. And, like, it was so obvious that I was following someone, and the person would be, like, you know, eyeing me on the side knowing that, like, why are you following me, kid? And, you know, I'd just be playing around until they got out of the store. And sometimes I would catch someone stuff something in their jacket or under their hat, and I would go tell my parents. I'm like, that guy put this thing in his hat, and he put that thing in his jackets. And then my dad would rush over there and say, hey, you know, my son kind of essentially ratted you out. And sometimes I'd be for the store, but then sometimes I'd be for, like, the kid taking something. It would be - it was a weird existence but - yeah.
GROSS: Why would you sometimes side with the kid taking something?
SOHN: I don't know. You know what? I remember because, you know, there was - there was, like, kind of want - I feel like there was some want in me to fit in somehow. And so, like, this kid was closer to my age and so, like, yeah, you know, like, of course I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to the store. But sometimes you could feel that some of these kids weren't, like, just doing it just to do it. You could feel like some of these kids were hungry. And you're like, you know what? And my dad would, you know, offer up things like that once in a while. But it was, you know, a back and forth.
GROSS: So I'm wondering if growing up, you felt very different in the sense that - in so much popular culture, you're white or you're African-American. But particularly, like, when you were growing up in the '80s, I think there's more Asians represented...
SOHN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...In popular culture now than there was then. Did you feel like you just kind of were neither here nor there - like, you weren't white, you weren't black and there wasn't really a place for you in popular culture?
SOHN: Yeah. It's funny that you say that. And I think, you know, there was "MASH" and then there was, you know, the Asian kid from "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom." I think those were the two, like, things that my brother and I would, you know, like, really, like, band against - like, Indiana Jones has an Asian friend, yay.
SOHN: And - but, yeah, there - but there wasn't really a lot to connect to in that way. But because of that, you kind of find yourself kind of empathizing with other cultures or whatever movie that you were watching, you know, that it was just, like, - you know, a lot of great stories could connect to you universally. So either whatever race it was, if they found a way to, you know, make you empathize just on a human level, they were great. You know, my brother and I completely connected to, you know, Marty McFly when we were kids or whatever. And so we felt like those were - those could be our stories as well, but it wouldn't be exactly. You know, we didn't grow up in suburbia or anything like that. But definitely those adventures we would share and - but then there were the animated movies, I mean, like, you know, a lot of the animated movies were, like, animal characters, anthropomorphic characters that you could - that weren't any kind of, like, connected to any race. And so those were a big deal for sure.
GROSS: My guest is Peter Sohn. He directed the new Disney Pixar animated film "The Good Dinosaur." After we take a short break, he'll demonstrate voices he's done in animated films and tell us how he became an animator instead of taking over the family grocery like he was expected to. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Peter Sohn. He directed the new Disney Pixar animated film "The Good Dinosaur." It opens next Wednesday. It's about a boy dinosaur who gets separated from his family and has to overcome his fears to find his way home. Peter Sohn does the voice of one of the dinosaurs. He also worked on the animated films "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille," "Finding Nemo," "Wall-E" and "Up." Sohn's parents came to America from South Korea in the 1970s and opened a grocery store in the Bronx where Sohn was born and grew up.
I know you loved movies growing up.
GROSS: Where did you get to see movies, on a VCR, in the theaters, on television?
SOHN: There would be a kind of weekly ritual where at the end of the week around Friday or Saturday - I don't remember - my mom would get this big kind of deposit bag from Chase Manhattan or whatever. And she'd - we'd go to the bank with this cash on some elevated train somewhere. And then she would deposit the money at the bank, and then if there was anything left over, she would take me or me and my brother to the movies, like, all the time. She loved them so much - I can't tell you. She was such a cinephile. It was a real experience for me 'cause I remember that because she didn't speak English very well, she would always ask me to translate the movies for her. And so we'd be sitting in some theater in the Bronx somewhere or Westchester - I don't remember the exact theater. But there'd be an American movie playing and then an actor or actress would say something. And then she would lean over and ask to say, you know, in Korean, like, (speaking Korean), like, what did that person say? And I would try my best to explain what was on the screen or what the character had said. And usually she kind of, like, turned away and shrugged or she just kind of gave me a blank stare and just kind of went with the film. And so - it went like that a lot that she would watch movies like that where she would kind of understand stuff or not understand any of it and then walk out. But there were some that I didn't have to translate. And honestly, the animated movies that we had seen were told so well visually that she didn't need any explanation. I remember clearly seeing "Dumbo" with her. And there's that scene in the movie where Dumbo's mother was caged up and Timothy, the mouse, brings Dumbo over to kind of make contact. And they - there's this beautiful animation of these two trunks trying to reach for each other until finally, the mother's trunk picks up Dumbo and swings her like it was a little - like, kind of bassinet. And I remember my mom tearing up at this moment, and I didn't have to say anything. And I remember, boy, she's really feeling this. And it wasn't like I understood what I was seeing with my mother at that time, but definitely I remember it affecting me.
GROSS: Since you had to translate the dialogue for your mother when you went to see movies 'cause she didn't speak English very well, did you feel in part like you were participating in the creation of the movie like you were almost, like, one of the screenwriters because you had to comprehend what was being said and then translate it?
SOHN: Holy cow, Terry - you know what? I never thought about that. But, you know, that - this idea of, like, verbalizing stories to my mother is something that I really loved. Yeah, you know, I'm sure it has a lot to do with the love for storytelling. Yeah, it must be all connected to that - that translation aspect. I don't know.
GROSS: When did you start getting really serious about animation and moviemaking?
SOHN: It was pretty early on.
GROSS: Especially considering, as you said, like, your parents were very skeptical that this could actually be a career. They expected you to take over the grocery.
SOHN: Yeah, it must have been, you know, junior high - late junior high, ninth or 10th grade. Like, I had been making flipbooks before that or trying to learn as much as I could about it. But I think it was around junior high. You know, my mother was a huge - I mean, she was really against the idea of doing any art as a viable career. And so we fought a lot about that. But, boy, I don't remember the turning point of it. I just remember that my father saying, you know what? Oh - you know what it was? There was a guy that came to the store that my father met that worked in TV animation. I think he worked for a show called "The Real Ghostbusters" or something like that. And he told my father that you could make a living in animation or whatever that was. And I remember that - I remember my father asking about schools. And I can't tell you how much that meant to me. Oh, my God, Terry, yeah, that was when - then he said, you know what? After high school, you know, you should start taking some life-drawing classes 'cause that's what that guy said that was working in that TV show. And it was really from there that I started taking it seriously. And so, like, around the 10th grade, I would go into Manhattan to School of Visual Arts at nighttime or on the weekends to do life drawing or animating. And I made a small film, I don't know, in the 11th grade that was, like, I don't know, like, 30 seconds long. I remember painting the cells, like, each inking - each cell, painting each cell shooting it and making this little film about a kind of, like, a mugging at a candy shop. And that was literally when it all started there.
GROSS: So when you were fighting with your parents 'cause you wanted to draw and they thought that it was, like, not a useful preoccupation, that you needed to study for your SATs. Did you feel guilty fighting with them 'cause, you know, they'd made their way as immigrants from South Korea after the war? You know...
GROSS: ...They were poor. They'd managed to, like, create a home for themselves and bring you up in a better environment. And, what are you doing? You're letting them down, and you're fighting them about the future. Did you feel really awful about that?
SOHN: Jeez, Terry, yeah, you're laying it on. Yeah, no.
GROSS: I mean, you were right. I mean, you certainly have, you know, risen to the top.
SOHN: No, no, as a kid, I really didn't think about that. I was such an ignorant kid. It was such a, you know, classic teenage, like, rebellion. And now as a parent have I been thinking about that. The last five years, I have been so emotional over the incredible sacrifices that my parents made for us, my brother and I, and the family. Like, I can't tell you how, you know, the kind of pillow-talk phone calls that I've had with my brother about everything that they had done. You know, my father came to the United States with nothing - essentially $150. He spent $50 or $75 to rent, you know, a pretzel cart in Manhattan and the other $75 for, you know, rent in some seedy apartment in Harlem somewhere. And he came here literally with nothing and then made this life for us. And in my high school days, I was such a rebellious teenager. I just didn't know. I didn't have a way to empathize with it at the time. But, boy, now especially since Vivian (ph) was born, have I just completely flipped that around and just - the love for my mother and father has, you know, is, you know, obviously incredible for all the stuff that they've done.
GROSS: Your parents must be very proud of you now.
SOHN: I hope so. I don't - they're very - in the classic Asian way, like, loving and they talk about you in a positive way and - which is great. But, like, it's, you know, it's not like we're hugging all the time, you know
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, right.
SOHN: There's never like a pat on the back but absolutely. But more than anything, you know, my brother and I always talk about how our pride for what they have done has grown. You know, it's just like the classic American dream and to be connected to that and to say, you know, I love this country because of these types of possibilities.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Sohn. He directed the new Disney Pixar film "The Good Dinosaur." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Sohn who directed the new Disney Pixar animated film called "The Good Dinosaur." It opens next Wednesday just in time for Thanksgiving. He also worked on "Finding Nemo," "Wall-E," "The Incredibles." One of the characters in "Up" was kind of visually based on him, and he did a voice in "Ratatouille." So you did the voice of Emile in "Ratatouille."
GROSS: And Ratatouille is a kind of rat foodie (laughter).
GROSS: And you were the older brother.
GROSS: So can you tell us about the voice and demonstrate it for us?
SOHN: Yeah, absolutely. It was - I was a storyboard artist on that film, and I remember Brad Bird coming to me and saying, like, hey, you're perfect for the role. And I remember thinking, OK, this is a rat that eats garbage, and he's overweight, and going like, gee, thanks, Brad. I guess - you know...
SOHN: ...I don't know what you're quite saying there, but thank you so much. But, you know, as we were kind of pitching boards, I would do the voice. And the voice really isn't that different from what I'm doing right now, other than that I'd be a little bit more naive and more excited about what my brother, Remy, was doing. And so it was always like, you know, he really wanted to find that the rats had more of, like, a kind of urban texture to them. And the humans would have more of the French accents and everything except Linguini, who was a little bit more urban and connected to the rat world in that way. And so knowing that I was from a city, Brad really kind of pulled that out of me. And it was basically, you know, getting really excited about hey, Remy, how's it going? And like, you know, why are you doing that? I don't know, Remy, Dad's going to really hate that. And then, you know, Brad would always have me eating something so that I was always talking with my mouth full. And that was an interesting process because, you know, there's certain foods that sound good and on - recorded, and there's certain foods that sound absolutely disgusting when you're chewing it.
SOHN: And the secret for me that Brad kept giving me were Twizzlers or Red Vines. And so I'd stuff my mouth with these red vines and try to go through the lines and block the inside of the mouth to get that feeling of something in there without sounding so - like I was chewing on a body part or something.
GROSS: (Laughter) And also there was a character in "Up" - in the animated film "Up"...
GROSS: ...That was modeled on you - it's the character of Russell, who's the boy who's trying to earn his merit badge as a wilderness explorer by helping the elderly. So he helps the older man who's - who wants to go on a final adventure. And so...
GROSS: ...The older man's house takes off, held aloft by balloons, not realizing that he's taking the boy Russell with him by mistake. So you have a great adventure together and really bond. It's such a beautiful film. It's one of the few animated films where I've actually had tears in my eyes watching it.
GROSS: But in what sense - is this the chubby theme? - in what sense...
GROSS: ...Was the boy Russell modeled on you?
SOHN: The chubby theme - oh, yeah, I did a lot of the scratch voice for Russell in the early production of that film. And I was in the early development with them doing storyboards. And I remember that there are these sessions when you're sitting around a table and you are coming up with ideas that, you know, a lot of artists will draw each other all the time and caricature each other. And we would call them kind of jacking each other where you would, like, flip a drawing at someone and your nose is huge or something. And they kept drawing me like a giant thumb with a hat and these kind of little, Asian eyes. And somehow, that shape kept, like, recurring until it became Russell, this kind of Asian-American kid. And I got to tell you, I'm so proud that there's, like, this Asian-American kid in an animated movie.
GROSS: You directed - you wrote and directed the animated short that preceded "Up" in movie theaters. It's called "Partly Cloudy." And it's a wonderful little short. It's about how, like, storks deliver cute, little babies and the babies are made by fluffy clouds in the sky. But there's, like, one stork that gets all these, like, not-so-cute animals.
SOHN: The tough babies, yeah.
GROSS: The tough - like the crocodile baby and the...
SOHN: Yeah, right.
GROSS: ...Porcupine baby with all of its, like, quills. And so he's stuck, like, delivering these really, like, problematic babies. What made you think about that? What I like about it is that, like, not every young thing is necessarily adorable and...
GROSS: You can't measure the world by adorable.
SOHN: (Laughter) Yeah. I love that, you can't measure the world by adorable. Yeah, you know what? The - it all kind of started, again, with my mother and some of the arguments that I had had with her about miscommunication, you know, where I would be speaking English and she would be speaking Korean and there would always be some sort of misunderstanding. And trying to figure out a way that these two characters, even though they were great friends, but there was a misunderstanding where one became more jealous about the other. And it just - it really started stemming from that type of relationship of one thinking one way and the other thinking another way just because they just can't communicate. Like for example, I remember in high school, some of my friends would call the house to see if I could play. And, like, you know, like, is Peter - you know, my mom would pick up the phone and my friends would tell me the next day - they're like, look, I called the house and your mom picked up. And I asked if you could come out, and then my mom would respond like, he's running. He's running. And my friends said, he's running? Where is he running? And my mom's like, he's running, running, bye. And then, like, my mom would hang up. And my friends were, like, the next day asking me what were you running from? What were you doing? And I was like, oh, no, no. What? I don't understand what you mean - running? No, no, no - oh, you know what she meant? - that I was learning. I was doing my homework. I was learning and they'd be like, oh. And so there were always these little, tiny miscommunications over the smallest things that could grow into these big things. And so that's where that idea kind of stemmed off of - and also my love for Dumbo. It all kind of - you know, the opening of that film is a bunch of storks delivering these - the cutest babies in the world. And it just hit me like, where the heck do these babies come from? And then who - where do the, like, dangerous kind of unloved babies come from? And that was kind of the seed for that short.
GROSS: So you have a 5-year-old daughter and - how old's your other child?
SOHN: Sam (ph) is 3 years old. And they were both born under - I mean, during this production and - yeah.
GROSS: So it's, in some ways, a kind of violent film. I mean, it's not like it's realistic violence but...
GROSS: ...You know, this poor 11-year-old frightened dinosaur...
GROSS: ...Meets like one adversary after another, plus nature's pounding him with storms and...
GROSS: ...He's got a tough deal trying to...
GROSS: ...Find his way back home. Would you take your kids to see it, or do you think they're too young for something that could be frightening to a kid?
SOHN: Yeah, both my kids did see it. My wife took them to what we call, like, these kind of friends and family screenings at work. And, yeah, there are intense moments. And my kids loved it. I asked my wife that same question like, did Vivian (ph) or Sam get scared at any parts? And there was a part that my son got scared at. He's 3 years old, and I remember my wife saying that, like, yeah, you know, there's that storm section in the middle of the movie that he really started to kind of grab onto me during. And then I kind of held him and kind of worked him through. But then when he made it through the other side, you know, he was so happy. He really loved the movie. And it really hit me again, you know, like, when we were making this film, trying to find that balance where, you know, this film is about getting through your fears and how do you honor that in a way to make you feel what Arlo needs to go through? And so, you know, we would look at older movies and into our past. And I remember seeing movies like "Bambi" or "Pinocchio." And there were these intense moments in those films, too. And I remember them. And I remember, like, that feeling of, like, surviving a movie and how that felt. And it just reminded me that I, like many other kids, are resilient. But as long as the film was being honest about it without being, you know, gratuitous or anything like that.
GROSS: Peter Sohn, I have really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much.
SOHN: Terry, this has been an absolute honor. Thank you so much. Thank you very, very, very, very, very much, Terry.
GROSS: Peter Sohn directed the new Disney Pixar animated film "The Good Dinosaur." It opens next Wednesday. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews a new Amazon Prime series that he says is better than the new dramas on the broadcast or cable networks. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.