Calgary-born artist oversees story on blockbuster Pixar film, Inside Out 2

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It sounds like a bad pun. But the filmmakers behind last weekend’s box-office champion, Inside Out 2, had a lot of anxiety around the character of Anxiety.

The Pixar film, which broke records over the weekend with the best overseas opening of all time for an animated film, is a sequel to the 2015 hit. The original film introduced a high-concept premise involving the inner workings of an 11-year-old named Riley, namely the emotions in her mind or “headquarters” that influence her actions. That included Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger, all of which spring into colourful life when Riley and her family move to a new town. The hook of the sequel is that Riley is now a teenager and, upon discovering that her friends will be going to a different school, is suddenly overcome by an intrusive set of new emotions led by Anxiety (voiced by Maya Hawke.)

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“Her puberty alarm goes off,” says John Hoffman, the Calgary-born story supervisor of Inside Out 2. “Chaos ensues, as any of us who were teenagers or are teenagers will remember. Unfortunately for Riley, one of the new emotions that shows up is anxiety. So a lot of the movie is about dealing with that new character in headquarters and how do we help Riley through. She was supposed to be going to school with her best friends, she is starting high school and all of a sudden those friends aren’t going to be there anymore and how do you get in with a new group, make new friends. That only amps up the character of Anxiety more.”

The initial film is now regarded as a beloved classic with a significant cultural reach, placing concepts such as “core memories” into the lexicon and giving parents a new language to talk to their children about dealing with and expressing complicated emotions. So following it up was a daunting prospect even without the tricky question of how to introduce teenage anxiety into a funny family film. Experts were consulted so the film didn’t downplay the seriousness of it and other mental health issues.

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“That put a responsibility on us and the extra pressure of ‘Alright, we’re bringing in these new emotions and one of them is this emotion of anxiety and this feeling of anxiety,” Hoffman says. “Yes, we want to entertain the audience and we want it to be super fun and super funny but, at the same time, what can we say about dealing with anxiety and how you live with anxiety? It was finding that balance.’”

As the story supervisor, Hoffman works with screenwriters and the first-time director, Kelsey Mann, to develop the plot and characters. He also worked with the film’s team of 15 animators, helping storyboard sequences and developing various versions of the film ahead of time by adding temporary voices and music. As with all Pixar films, it’s a long and multi-stage endeavour. Mann had begun working on the concept in 2020 and Hoffman signed on. The lengthy gestation period provides plenty of opportunity for in-house test screenings to judge the film’s progress.

John Hoffman
Story supervisor and Calgary native John Hoffman worked on the blockbuster hit, Inside Out 2. Courtesy, Walt Dinsey Company Canada. cal

It was during this process that Hoffman and others discovered that Anxiety required a delicate balance.

“She is the antagonist of the movie but she is not really a villain,” Hoffman says. “Everything that Anxiety is doing is trying to help Riley. The problem is that she is anxiety and the way she is going about helping Riley is actually making things worse for her. So we got a lot of feedback in early screenings of the movie of ‘This movie is making me feel too anxious.’ So it was finding the balance of the character and part of that balance was Maya Hawke. When Maya was cast, the thing she really brought to that character that just dialled it in was she brought in her performance so much empathy to her character. It just sort of balanced out all of the anxious, frantic energy that the character had.”

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Hoffman was not involved in casting, but Hawke – the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman – is among the new high-profile actors who provide voices. Anxiety comes to “headquarters” flanked by other new teenage emotions, including Envy, Embarrassment, Ennui. They are voiced by Ayo Edebiri, Paul Walter Hauser and Adèle Exarchopoulos, respectively. Amy Poehler returns as Joy, Phyllis Smith is back as Sadness, Lewis Black plays Anger and Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan return to voice Riley’s parents.

Hoffman did not work on the original Inside Out. He joined the sequel in 2021 after finishing work on Pixar’s Luca, where he also served as story supervisor. The Henry Wisewood High School graduate’s original ambition was to be a film animator and not involved in the story side of production. He took the animation program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., and was hired by Fox Animation in Phoenix, Ariz. He eventually went to work for Don Bluth, serving as the veteran filmmaker’s assistant animator for a video game project.

“He asked me one day ‘What do you want to do?’ ” says Hoffman. “I said ‘I want to be an animator.’ So he took a stack of scenes and put them on my desk and said ‘Alright, you’re an animator.’ ”

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Eventually, Hoffman went into a bit of “panic” when he realized reaching his dream wasn’t satisfying. At Sheridan, animation was still being hand-drawn when he graduated. But by the time he was at Fox, the industry was shifting to more digital animation and Hoffman wasn’t particularly interested in learning computer-generated tools. He realized he was interested in helping Bluth develop story ideas.

“Going into story and getting to draw storyboards and tell stories I think was what I was always supposed to be, I just didn’t know right off the bat,” he says.

He joined Pixar in 2013 and his first project was to work as a story artist on the blockbuster Cars 3. So Hoffman is used to the pressure of working on franchises that come with heavy expectations.

After watching the film slowly progress over so many years, Hoffman finally got to see Inside Out 2 in more-or-less final form in April when the final mix was being done at George Lucas’s Skywalker Sound.

“It was really cool to see the final movie, but at that point everything is locked in and you’re like ‘Well, I hope I like it,’ ” Hoffman says. “It was daunting, just because of how beloved the first movie is and then also I think there is a little extra responsibility because you are making a statement about what’s going on in people’s heads and how to deal with different elements of mental health.”

Inside Out 2 is now in theatres.

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