From Doodling in Programs to...Pixar?

by Kari Jane Docter, cellist

Growing up in the Docter household was a musical experience. My parents were choral musicians: my father (Dr. Docter, no joke), a college professor and choir director; my mother, a music educator and children's choir director. All three of us Docter kids played instruments and were chauffeured around by my incredibly organized and dedicated mother to lessons and group musical activities. She practiced with all of us religiously and, when we were old enough, forced us to get up before school to practice on our own. We were destined for this life, really; my sister, who is now the violist of the Cavani Quartet and teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and I complied quite (well, mostly) readily.

My brother, Pete, however, had other plans. He was the one my mother was worried about, because he didn't like to practice and learned most of his lesson pieces "by osmosis,” as she put it. Somewhere around age 15, he finally managed to convince my mom to let him quit the violin and play the double bass. (He was already well over 6 feet tall.) His interests, however, extended beyond music. Every summer, we made a trip in our VW pop-top van from our home in Minnesota to visit relatives in California. One perk of this annual trip was a day at Disneyland, which we all came to love. One year, inspired by our trip, Pete came home and made his room into a tiki room, complete with animatronic singing totems and parrots.

Fast forward twenty years, and Pete is the Oscar-winning director of three Pixar films - Monsters, Inc.; Up; and, most recently, Inside Out. Did our musical upbringing influence him in any way? Really, can we take any credit for helping him become who he is today? I asked him a few questions as he headed home from one of countless promotional trips he's made in the past few months.

Classical music was central in our childhood home. What influence, if any, did that have on you as you carved your path toward the creative world of animation?

Well, it’s hard to say what really got me into animation, or why I didn’t follow you guys into a career in music - other than the fact that I doubt it would have been an option for me, given my sloppy playing and dislike of practicing.

Pete pulling Kari in a wagon at Suzuki camp

Pete pulling Kari in a wagon at Suzuki camp

But I always loved bringing life to stuff, be it drawings or clay or puppets, and now that I work at Pixar the musical background comes in very handy. Obviously, it helps with the actual making of the film, seeing as music is such a huge element. I think music also helped shape and refine my sense of timing, both as an animator and a director. When I’m animating, I tend to hear the movement in my head, which I then work out with a stopwatch to time the movement. As a director, when we’re looking at a cut, I can feel when the rhythm of dialogue or picture editing is off. I can’t explain exactly why something feels on or off, but it’s largely an assessment of rhythm and tone, which of course is what music is all about.

Do you remember any specific concerts or musical incidents that you've since used as inspiration?

Mom and Dad used to take us to a lot of concerts - to which I partially credit getting into animation. Programs make good drawing material if you forget to bring paper. I’d draw cartoons to entertain myself, inspired by the music or by scenarios like, “What if all the horse hair came loose on the violin bow?” (I didn’t say they were good cartoons.)

Could you compare music-making to movie-making, especially in terms of collaboration?

Very much so. Working out a story is a lot like jazz, where one person throws out an idea, and the next person responds with an addition or variation, and so on. The story grows and develops as we talk it through. Who’s in the room affects the work; to swap people in or out of the team is to change the film itself.  

The Docter children (mid-1970s)

The Docter children (mid-1970s)

Film production - where we actually set up the shots, animate, and light the film - seems similar to an orchestra. As the film’s director, I’m like the conductor, only better because I don’t have to wear a tuxedo. Well, I guess I could if I wanted to. Anyway, I don’t actually play any of the instruments, but it’s my job to tell the players what we want from them so that the piece as a whole will have a certain effect on the audience. Actually, because of the nature of animation, it’s as if I’m conducting each musician in isolation, trying to keep in mind how they’ll all sound once they’re all combined, which doesn’t happen until the end. I have to kind of guess how it’ll all fit together until we can see it all rendered and cut together.

How did music influence your career as an animator and a director once you got to Pixar? Do you feel any special connections to your film score composers because of your unique connection to music?

Well, too much knowledge can actually get in your way at times. On one film I worked on, I was trying to solve a problem and I told the composer what I thought would make the cue work better - to tacet the violas or whatever it was - and the composer got kind of angry with me. In retrospect, I can see that I was kind of stepping on his toes. He thought I was trying to do his job. I was just trying to help, but I’ve learned that it’s better to speak in emotional terms and let the composer figure out how they want to solve the problem. I’ll say, “Can we make it sound less active?” or, “We’re giving away the surprise early,” or whatever. Some composers are happy to hear my suggestions to problems, but either way this approach more clearly expresses why I’m giving the suggestion.

I actually have to be careful not to fall in love with the music being written. It’s my job to judge the musical cues in terms of whether they work for the picture and story, not as to how catchy or musically interesting they are. I used to listen to the music in my car as we’re making the film, but I stopped doing that because I think you hear very things very differently when you’re familiar with something. I try to make myself see and hear the film as though I’ve never heard it before - like the audience.

Compared to the slow pace of the rest of the film, the music comes together fast. We recorded all of Inside Out in something like six days. I don’t know how many weeks it took Michael Giacchino to write it, but making the rest of the film took five years.

Music has such a huge effect on the film. That’s a lot of pressure on the composer.

Michael and I are good friends in part because of our connection through music, but mostly because he’s an awesome guy and fun to hang around.

Animation speaks to the everyday public. Are you able to feel that connection, as a singer, an opera director, or a musician might feel?

Unfortunately, the connection is more remote. Of course, once the film is finished, I can sit with the audience and see what they laugh at, but by then it’s too late to change anything.

As a filmmaker, though, you really need that feedback. So often, what you think you’re saying isn’t what the audience takes away. At Pixar we’ve developed a way to pre-visualize the film using drawings, which we cut together with dialogue, music, and sound effects. When you watch this played back, it gives you a rough but pretty decent sense of how the film is going to come off. These story reels are kind of tricky to watch for people who aren’t used to them, so we only show them to each other at Pixar. Based on our reactions, we make adjustments - sometimes really big adjustments. It’s kind of like rehearsing a play off Broadway.  

That said, my primary tool as to how something is working is my own intuition. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong. You never truly know how a film will land until the film comes out, and even then sometimes I’m surprised by what people talk about a year later and what they’ve forgotten.

Photo by Debbie Coleman

Photo by Debbie Coleman

Do you still play?

I guess you can call it that. I don’t practice, so that gives you a sense of my skill level.

Actually, Michael Giacchino was nice enough to let me sit in with the bass section for a few cues on both Up and Inside Out. I chose the cues with lots of whole notes.

Do you have favorite composers, pieces, or performers that have influenced your creative work?

I’ll often assemble a playlist of music that I listen to as I write. It helps me get into a scene if I’m really feeling it - kind of like the silent film makers used to hire musicians to get actors in the right mood, I guess.

More directly, we routinely rely on music to set the tone and pacing as we put together the film on story reels, as I mentioned earlier. Most of the time we use cues from other scores, but for Up we cut that montage of Carl and his wife growing old together to Ferde Grofé’s Alice Blue. We also used Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel during the part when Carl mournfully looks through his unfinished Adventure Book. And we used George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for the busy city section of A Bug’s Life - just to give a few examples. Obviously, these are all replaced in the final score.

The only trouble with using my favorite pieces in this way is that they are now forever associated with the pain and suffering of trying to make the film work.

Any desire to direct an opera?

Can I get the opera singers to use alum and make their heads shrink while they sing, like in the Bugs Bunny cartoon? If so, I’m in.