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A Closer Look at Pete Docter
by Joe Tracy, Publisher of Digital Media FX Magazine

Pete DocterOn November 2, 2001, Monsters, Inc. stormed into theaters and amassed nearly $63 million in its opening weekend, creating a flurry of media buzz and questions about the new director - Pete Docter.

Until Monsters, Inc. Docter's name hadn't been prominently associated with Pixar. When someone talked about Pixar the names that were usually tossed around were Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, and sometimes Ed Catmull. Yet Docter has been with Pixar from the beginning of its feature film division as he was the second feature film animator hired to work for the company. He immediately fit in, playing three big roles for Pixar's first animated masterpiece - Toy Story. Docter was a writer, storyboard artist, and the animation supervisor for Toy Story.

"Toy Story was so much fun and touched a lot of people because they could relate to it," says Docter. "I began thinking about other things that were true for me as a kid. One thing I knew was that monsters existed and they were in the closet, especially at night. My clothes would turn into different things - tentacles, claws, and eyes. We began thinking that there must be some reason why monsters scare kids and started playing with that notion."

And with that, the concept behind Monsters, Inc. was born and Docter began work on the movie even as other Pixar productions, which he also participated in (click here for Docter's bio), were born.

Docter's interest in animation began at the age of 8 when he made his first flipbook animation. From there, Docter continued to develop his skills and ended up at the prestigious CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), which has put out some of the best animators around.

Before joining Pixar in 1990, Docter was involved in creating hand-drawn animation for Disney, Bob Rogers and Company, Bajus-Jones Film Corp. and Reelworks in Minneapolis. Upon joining forces with Pixar he spent four and a half years working on Toy Story. However, he also worked on other Pixar projects, including TV commercials (like "Lifesavers Holes at the Beach").

Docter's directorial work with Monsters, Inc. has earned him high praise from Pixar executives, including John Lasseter.

"Pete and his team have done an amazing job with the characters and relationships on this film," says Lasseter, who was the visionary behind Pixar's first three animated blockbusters. "Not only is it a funny film, but it has a richness of emotion that resonates and gives the characters a life way beyond the boundaries of the screen."

Docter has also received Kudos from Disney executives.

"Pete Docter has successfully added feature film directing to his long list of accomplishments and this film reflects his gentle nature and sly sense of humor," says Thomas Schumacher, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation. "Audiences are going to love the fun and unbridled imagination of this film and will remember it for a long, long time."

Docter began extensive work on the film idea for Monsters, Inc. after he had concluded his production assignments for Toy Story. Docter's own experience and the inspiration of his own two kids provided assistance to the creative process.

"The intriguing thing to me about this subject matter is the idea that as kids we have these unnamed, unconscious fears, and we create monsters as a way to make them tangible," says Docter. "We began thinking, if monsters represent fears, what then are the monsters themselves afraid of? The obvious answer: children. Our own fears are afraid of us!"

Like with all Pixar films, Docter had to help guide the story through many changes from its initial concept (one of the initial central characters was a 32 year old man), which is discussed in a separate Digital Media FX feature article.

Docter surrounded himself with a strong team, including Lee Unkrich who, like Docter, had also been a supervising animator on Toy Story. For Monsters, Inc. Unkrich was a codirector.

"Working with Pete has been great," says Unkrich. "He is a brilliant animator and one of the nicest guys you can imagine working with. He really inspires the crew and has brought a tremendous sense of fun to this entire production."

Lasseter, who many think of as the "Walt Disney for the 21st century" agrees with Unkrich, saying, "Pete has done a great job. I knew from the beginning that he was going to be a great director. His instincts are remarkable and his sense of entertainment through movement is second to none. On Toy Story I always relied on him and there are many signature Pete moments in the film. We share a natural curiosity for things. When he first came to Pixar, he was always trying to figure out how computers could be used for practical jokes. One of the key fundamentals of directing is to have fun. And even though Pete has been working harder than anyone I've ever known on this film, he always had a smile on his face. You can't help but love Pete and that shows in the film. If you have a great attitude and everybody around you is having fun, it will show on the screen."

Docter can give out the compliments as quickly as he receives them.

"I really relied on John's experience and amazing eye throughout the process. John basically invented this medium, and he was such a help at every stage of the production, from initial concept to the final frame of the film."

After the mega-success of Monsters, Inc. at the box office, people should be prepared to hear a lot more from Pete Docter. As Pixar gears up to increase the rate in which it releases animated movies, it will heavily rely on the expertise of its visionaries. And Pixar has shown that businesses are always improved when there's a Docter in the house.

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