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'Inside the mind': Pixar film represents new and personal frontier for veteran producer-director team

Over the years, Pixar has explored places as vast as the earth’s oceans and the infinite frontier of outer space. But according to producer Jonas Rivera, “the biggest set we’ve ever produced is inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl.”

Pixar’s 2015 headliner “Inside Out” debuts this weekend, and it takes place almost entirely between the ears of a preteen tomboy named Riley. We see portions of what she is experiencing in her everyday life, but Riley is more of a set piece than a protagonist. Most of “Inside Out” is played out in a sophisticated, complex Neverland that represents the inner workings of Riley’s mind.

But this isn’t a CGI “Fantastic Voyage.” Rivera and director Pete Docter created the world of “Inside Out” as a metaphor for Riley’s mind, rather than trying to re-create blood vessels and nerve bundles in a literal sense.

The mysteries of Riley’s mind are characterized as more familiar items. Her memories are interpreted as glowing orbs, stored on towering racks in her long-term memory like 10 billion bowling balls. Her emotions — joy, sadness, anger — are animated characters voiced by the likes of Amy Poehler and “Office” alum Phyllis Smith, and fight over a control board that looks like it was pulled from an old “Star Trek” TV set. Her train of thought is a literal train, meandering through Riley’s mind from her abstract thought to the amusement park of her imagination.

The five-year, start-to-finish process of producing the film was inspired by Docter’s own 11-year-old daughter.

“She was just going from a bubbly, busy, happy kid to being more quiet and sullen,” he said. “And it started me thinking, ‘what’s going on inside of her head?’”

Docter didn’t realize how on track he was. “We talked to some psychologists who told us there is no one more socially aware and attuned than an 11- to 17-year-old girl.”

“It seemed like a good arena,” agreed Rivera.

Riley’s emotions get plenty to react to — at the beginning of the movie her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, and a nightmare of a first day at school drives her to buy a bus ticket back to the friends and amateur hockey team she left behind.

But “Inside Out’s” effectiveness lies in its ability to recognize the chaos in the small things. Even deciding what to have for breakfast is enough to cause internal chaos, according to Docter.

Just as with other Pixar movies, “Inside Out” tackles the challenge of producing a film that will be equally entertaining for kids and adults.

“We kind of make the film for ourselves, knowing that our kids are going to see it,” Docter said. By making repeated passes through the story — one to focus on the complexity of the mind metaphor, another for something like pure physical humor — the team is able to cover all its bases.

“That’s why the thing takes five years to make,” Docter said.

He should know. A look at Docter’s IMDb page reveals Pixar's unofficial production poster child. Prior to “Inside Out,” Docter directed “Monsters, Inc.” and “Up,” and before that wrote the original stories for the first two “Toy Story” films, as well as “WALL-E.” Rivera produced “Up,” and has contributed to Pixar films as early as the first “Toy Story.”

Parents will be happy to know the company is in such good creative hands. Docter and Rivera beam when they talk, looking as if they wish they could leap into their own films. Animation is a deep passion for both men.

“I love the artifice of it,” Docter said. “On one level, your brain knows this is completely made up, none of this stuff exists. And yet, if we do it right, you’re sucked into the story to the point where you’re laughing at these guys and crying and rooting for them.”

“I think animation is the greatest medium in the world,” said Rivera. “It’s the medium of my choice.”

“(It’s) like a weird magic trick that I have never gotten tired of,” Docter said.

It may be a trick, but it comes from the heart. Halfway through production, Docter was so frustrated with the project that he almost walked away.

“The film was not quite working,” he said, “and I was literally walking around and thinking I should just quit.”

But after considering the connection between his memories and the people who helped him make them, Docter had an epiphany that got “Inside Out” back on course.

“I realized, wait a minute, the friends that I have the deepest connection with are those that, yeah, I’ve had happy times with, but also people I’ve been angry at, and sad with, and scared for,” Docter said. “The emotions in our lives are key to the most important thing to us, which is our relationships with each other.”

Those relationships, and the way different emotions shape them, form the heart of “Inside Out.”

Docter is sad to see the industry’s conversion from hand-drawn to CGI animation take away some of the personal connection between animator and audience that he enjoyed growing up. But thanks to the director’s epiphany, “Inside Out” should still make a very personal impact on its audiences.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.