Matt Nolte, a character art director for Pixar Animation Studios, came to the University of Cincinnati yesterday to give a presentation previewing Pixar’s new feature film, “The Good Dinosaur,” which comes out Nov. 24.
Nolte began his career at Pixar in 2004 working as an animator on “Cars” and moved on to be a character designer for the film, “Ratatouille.” From there he took on the lead role of character art director for the film “Brave” and now, “The Good Dinosaur.”
This latest project that Nolte took part in centers around an Apatosaurus named Arlo who is separated from his family when he is swept down a river. The movie is described as a twist on the typical boy-and-his-dog flick, with Arlo representing the “boy” and Spot — a wild human child that he meets on his journey home — representing the “dog.”
The News Record spoke with Nolte about Pixar’s upcoming film, the changes that it went through during production and Nolte’s job as a character art director.
TNR: How would you sum up the story of “The Good Dinosaur?”
Matt Nolte: It’s a boy and his dog. It’s an adventure, a journey home. And kind of a growing up and finding confidence in yourself thing.
It touches on themes of family and facing fears for the things that you love. That’s one of the themes I like in it.
TNR: What kind of changes have the characters in “The Good Dinosaur” gone through since the beginning of this production?
MN: Quite a bit, because this story had a change during production. And so, some of them were designed for the first story and worked great for that story. But, then the story changed, so there were, like, modifications in age of some of the characters — Arlo was one of them. And even behavior.
Spot was designed and worked perfectly for the previous story, but when we gave him the personality of a dog, or essentially a dog, we had to change him. So, there were some pretty drastic changes to some of them, and some of them barely changed at all.
A lot of Arlo’s family were very minor originally, so they were hardly touched. Then, some characters were brand new.
TNR: Was the original story completely scrapped?
MN: I wouldn’t say it was entirely scrapped. A lot of it is still there. The spirit of it is still there. It definitely wouldn't be what it is now without the original story.
Even though big changes can be rough, Pixar and the people involved made the best of it. It actually helped us a lot, too.
TNR: Arlo the Apatosaurus is a pretty simplistic character. What are the advantages to having a simpler character design?
MN: You can really focus on the key points of it. You don’t get confused by any extra details. It just says he’s young, he’s vulnerable. Those are the main things that the director wanted it to say. It just hits it quicker.
It’s more appealing than something hyper-detailed in that situation. You’re just trying to get to the point, almost like a short sentence describing something.
TNR: For a production like this — if you had to guess — how many sketches do you think you do?
MN: Probably, a thousand. Hundreds, for sure. It could go into the thousands on a long production.
TNR: What is the process of taking a character on paper and bringing it to life on the screen?
MN: It starts off from just sort of drawing from my gut or emotion. I hear from the director, what he wants. Take Arlo for example: it’s like ‘oh, he’s young, he’s a runt, he’s 11 years old.’ I just get these little queues, right?
So, I just try to relate to them, try to think of things that I know — like my son, for example. Then I start drawing sketches from it. I have no idea what it should look like either, I just do all kinds of shapes that I think might be able to tell that story, that character. And then the next step is to just show it to the director.
From there, it’s like opening day. You get your first round of notes, he targets some things he likes or doesn’t like. All that is valuable.
I take all that information and I go back and it just starts to kind of hone in, you know? My next showing should have some of that incorporated, so the director should start to respond and get closer and just — over a few weeks, sometimes quicker — he’ll usually have one drawing that he’s like, ‘OK, that’s hitting it.’
Once that happens, my job is to just start turning it around, putting it in poses, trying to see how it will work in all kinds of story situations and show him all those. If he likes all of those, then you start to think about it in 3D. I’ll sculpt it, or somebody else will.
Then, people smarter than me start to build them on the computer and articulate them and all that.
TNR: What sort of research do you do when designing characters?
MN: Whatever we can in the time allotted. We go to the zoos, museums, we go to cafés and look at people if that is what we’re doing in the film. You look to your family and memories of friends. Emotional memories too, like ‘oh, that person reminded me of this character.’
And then Google is huge. That wasn’t the case in the old days, but we rely on that sometimes. But, there’s nothing like seeing the real thing. Getting to know it on a more emotional level.
Did you have kids when you started working at Pixar? And, does having kids now change the way you feel about work?
No, I didn’t. It changes everything, and makes it more meaningful and way easier to find reference for things. It makes it — for me as an artist — way easier to find emotional ties to characters, which is a huge thing for me.