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The Dream World Of ‘The Good Dinosaur’ Is Based On USGS Surveys

“When Arlo’s in danger, you feel in danger. The environment is really the antagonist in the film.”


Believe it or not, Pixar’s1 “The Good Dinosaur” — which centers around the friendship between a human and an Apatosaurus — takes place in an alternate reality. The landscapes, though, are being praised for their hyperrealism. The film is effectively set in what’s now the American West and Southwest, and more than any other Pixar film, this one relies on sweeping vistas to tell its story, featuring a highly detailed foreground, mid-ground, and background.


Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur”

©2015 Disney/Pixar

In a shot like the one above, there’s a level of landscape detail that’s unprecedented for Pixar. That detail rests on the back of terabytes and terabytes of data. One scene in “The Good Dinosaur” involved as much data as the entirety of 2011’s “Cars 2.” Also, Pixar used actual U.S. Geological Survey information to render the landscapes that Arlo and Spot (the titular dinosaur and his pet human) traipse around in. This data allowed the animators to re-create actual mountains, streams and horizons, which in turn let director Pete Sohn compose the wide-open shots he was looking for.

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, David Munier, sets supervisor for “The Good Dinosaur,” discusses how he and his team crafted the film’s virtual world. Then, Derrick Clements of “The Pixar Podcast” talks to Mike Tischler, director of the USGS National Geospatial Program, about how his agency gathers its data.

To listen, stream or download the full episode above. A partial transcript is below. You can subscribe to “The Pixar Podcast” here.

Also this week, a significant digit on the decline of holiday office parties.

Framing for the landscapes

Jody Avirgan: Why is this [film] different? I feel like I’ve seen wide-open shots in Pixar movies before, right?

David Munier: Normally, a lot of our time and effort in a film is [focused] on the foreground to mid-ground. A lot of shots are inside rooms or in a city or some kind of environment where you don’t see very far. When we do have a big wide vista shot like in “Ratatouille,” where there’s a shot of Remy the Rat standing on top of a building in Paris, the sets team would build a small portion of Paris and then they would start manipulating that final shot to add more and more [detail] to flesh out the whole shot.

“Ratatouille,” “Black Stallion,” and “The Good Dinosaur”

But for this film, at the very beginning, our director, Pete Sohn, said he wanted to have these sweeping vistas for potentially every shot in the film. He had grown up watching nature-type photography in films like “Black Stallion” or “Never Cry Wolf.” In those films, while the camera is following the characters, it’s also seeing the natural landscape and the background, and [the filmmakers] are framing for that natural landscape. Every shot has these sweeping vistas. So we needed to let our cinematographers virtually, inside the computer, frame and compose to that background.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.


  1. Pixar is owned by Disney, as is FiveThirtyEight.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.