Chasing The Good Dinosaur

FX director Jon Reisch on Pixar's newest animation

From lakeside antics with Winsor McCay's Gertie, across The Land Before Time, through the gates of Jurassic Park, animators have always been fascinated by dinosaurs. So why does Jon Reisch, effects supervisor for Pixar's new The Good Dinosaur, think we're so fixated on our ancient predecessors?

Magic in the details: FX supervisor Jon Reish calls the engrossing world of Disney/Pixar's The Good Dinosaur "not photo-realism in terms that it looks like someone went out and shot it. It's this heightened painterly realism." (Image copyright Disney/Pixar 2015)

"It's got to be something about the imagination it takes to make a story about these dinosaurs," he said. "The scale of them is so impressive already, there's something about that that really sparks the childlike imagination."

The Good Dinosaur is the latest addition to that long tradition. Set in a parallel timeline in which the dinosaurs never went extinct, it follows a young Apatosaurus called Arlo (voiced at varying ages by Jack McGraw and Raymond Ochoa) who finds himself separated from his family. All seems lost when he stumbles upon a fellow stray: Spot (Jack Bright), a feral cub from this strange species called humans.

So what inspired Reisch to become an animator? For the Dallas native and Texas A&M Visualization Laboratory alum, it was the double whammy of 1993's Jurassic Park and 1995's Toy Story that lured him in. Then one visit to a Dallas film festival sealed the deal. "I was 15, and Dennis Muren, who was the senior special effects supervisor from ILM, was there. We were watching all the original Star Wars trilogy back to back, and he would introduce the films and talk about the work. That had a huge influence on me."

Reisch started his Pixar career as an intern on 2006's Cars, before getting hired full-time on Ratatouille, and graduating to effects supervisor on Monsters University. Now he's part of the team that helped this long-gestating project to screen.

It may seem odd to talk about special effects in animation: After all, a moving illustrated world is the original special effect. However, as the technology becomes more complex, and CG animated films become more detailed, there is a clearer divide than ever between the background animators, the character teams, and effects artists like Reisch. They're the ones that make a bubble flow the right way, or waves lap just right, or even make a swarm of insects or a flock of birds rise into the air with the perfect sense of splendor and magic.

It turns out there's a lot more to designing dinosaurs than just teeth and scales and claws. Reisch said that, behind the scenes, there was a lot of discussion with paleontologists, "learning about all the different kinds of dinosaur, which ones we could cast in our movie in certain roles, and how to take those and Pixarify them in terms of design and how to use them in our story."

That Pixarifying process is its own complex evolution, and his team had to balance creating a world that was convincing against making one that felt too real, or too (for lack of a better word) cartoonish. Reisch said, "The more that we caricatured the environment, the less threatening it actually felt, so we really took the choice of making it as realistic as it could go, with this idea that it's not photo-realism in terms that it looks like someone went out and shot it. It's this heightened painterly realism."

Making movies is a long and slow process, and increases in computing power are changing the game for animators. Put simply, the faster the tech, the bigger and more detailed the animation can be. In the case of The Good Dinosaur, Reisch and the rest of the team had a render farm of 30,000 cores available, plus a whole host of tools available. However, the challenge was to make sure that the machinery didn't push them beyond that painterly realism and into a simple recreation of life. He said, "There's definitely times that we've been right on that line."

To ensure the team could design the world exactly the way they wanted, they worked closely with Side Effects Software, responsible for 3-D animation software Houdini. Reisch said, "We had their engineers out on site, and gave them a lot of feedback in terms of, 'Hey, we need this to be faster, we need this to be higher quality,' so it's really a collaborative effort."

Liquid simulation has become a particular focus of that research, and that's a pivotal part of the narrative for The Good Dinosaur. "The river plays this huge role in the film," Reisch said, "and one of the first big sequences we worked on in effects was this really epic, bombastic white water, sweeping Arlo down the river and away from home."

That's something that can't just be dreamed up in an animation studio, so to get the real feel for the uncontrollable dangers of the torrents, Reisch and his team went on a rafting field trip. "Having that shared experience was really great, to feel the visceral sense of having the water push you down and holding on for dear life, hoping not to fall off the boat – which our producer Denise Ream actually did."

The river was so fast and dangerous that, while they pulled Ream out of the deluge, she'd lost the GoPro camera strapped to her helmet. However, like Arlo's immersion, that was not the end of the story. "A couple of days later, it washed up somewhere down the river, and the rafting company sent it back to us. So we got all this great footage of this thing tumbling underneath the water, which we used as some reference for the effects."

The Good Dinosaur opens Nov. 25. For review and showtimes, see Film Listings.

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