"The Art of The Good Dinosaur" panel discussion at D23 on Saturday offered a good grounding in the design of the agrarian dinos and the world they inhabit in the upcoming Pixar feature directed by Bob Peterson (opening May 30, 2014). Daniel Lopez Munoz (production designer), Daniela Strijleva (character art director), and Noah Klocek (set art director) emphasized the importance of scale in creating a new kind of dino and buddy story.
The premise of The Good Dinosaur (Pixar's first prehistoric tale) is an alternate reality in which dinosaurs not only avoided extinction but also evolved into an agrarian society of friendly herbivores. In fact, they are a meld of machine and character consisting of five types: Apatosaurus (plowers), Stegosaurus (threshers), Triceratop (bulldozers), Ankylosaurus (truckers), and Parasaurolophus (pickers).
Arlo (Lucas Neff from TV's Raising Hope), the protagonist, is a teenage Apato who wants to explore the wilderness beyond the farm. He meets an orphan boy named Spot who joins him on his adventure into unexplored, dangerous territory.
In designing the dinos, Pixar drew on realism, scale, texture, quality, and romanticism. They dug back to the roots of the animatronics at Disneyland and other animated icons and fused it with science ("Truth in Materials") in taking advantage of skin with organic patterns. In fact they drew on patterns and colors in plants to figure out how they relate to animals. They found similar soft patterns as well as triangles. This connected with shaders and skin quality. Arlo looks lifelike as well caricatured in a unique way. He's not only green like a forest but also has a goofy smile, large snout, and big eyes.
In terms of farming, Pixar came up with a form of genetic engineering: a palm tree with corn, scaling up corn as well as wheat in conjuring a Midwest type of farming community for the dinos.
Beyond that was the issue of scale: How to get Arlo and Spot in the same frame? Thus, it was all about coming up with dynamic contrasts between a 70-foot dinosaur and 3-foot child to continually raise the visual and dramatic stakes.
They also wanted to fool the viewer in melding nature with character: "Could the Redwoods be a dinosaur leg?" Munoz offered.
A waterfall overwhelms Arlo, engulfing him in the forest and making him vulnerable. There are lots of metaphors such as this. The design was intended to make Arlo and Spot either come together or pull apart. There's a gorgeous piece of concept art of Arlo next to a snowy mountain. It's another instance of conveying vastness and vulnerability.
A piece of test footage offered a stunning aerial view of the patchwork farming community and the dinos tending to the hybrid crops in a familiar way. It looks like The Good Dinosaur is a fun adventure. But with Pixar, there's always more than meets the eye. This is much more intimate than either the Ice Age franchise or The Croods.