Pete Docter came in on the ground level of arguably the most creative, technologically cutting-edge studio in filmdom, essaying a fantasy-filled childhood into some of the most spectacular and whimsical feature films of the late 1990s and 2000s. At just 21 years of age, Docter became one of the first employees of Apple Computer honcho Steve Jobs' boutique computer-animation shop, Pixar, going on to work as a writer and animator on the company's groundbreaking animated comedies "Toy Story" (1995) and "Toy Story 2" (1999). He conceived and directed "Monsters, Inc." (2001) and went on to originate two features that would earn the studio some its most glowing praise and most substantial profit - "WALL E" (2008) and the adventure-comedy spectacle "Up" (2009) which returned Docter to the director's chair. A self-admitted archetypal nerd growing up in the Midwest, Docter achieved every film geek's dream by boasting multiple award nominations and wins for his timeless tales enjoyed by both children and adults, as well as commanding the respect of the industry as one of the most admired creators of high-tech animated fantasy at the most celebrated movie shop in show business.
He was born Peter Hans Docter on Aug. 10, 1968, in Bloomington, MN to Rita and Dave Docter, a music teacher and a college choral director, respectively. Peter's two sisters followed the family's musical imprimatur, becoming accomplished in stringed instruments, but while Peter developed proficiency in music, he gravitated more towards visual storytelling. Tall and socially awkward from an early age, he became an introverted child, living largely in his imagination. Inspired by the cartoons of Disney, Chuck Jones and the Golden Age of radio comedy, he gravitated from an early age toward the visual, making cartoon flip-books and short animated films with the family's movie camera. More preoccupied with his art than his classes and harboring dreams of working for Disney, he was a poor student, though he did establish a comedy imprint at Bloomington's Kennedy High, where he and a friend turned the morning announcements into a regular comedy routine. After graduating high school, he attended the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, MN for a year before being accepted into the cartoonist's hotbed, the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA. There, he would win a Student Academy Award for the film "Next Door," a hand-drawn cartoon about a grumpy old man bugged persistently by an irrepressible neighbor girl. With two other animated shorts to his name, he was already fielding job offers as graduation neared in 1990 - most notably from Fox's fledgling animated sitcom, "The Simpsons" (1989- ) and Pixar, a small shop filled with computer-imaging techies that had once been a unit of George Lucas' Lucasfilm Limited, which had later been purchased by Steve Jobs in 1986.
Docter chose the struggling company Pixar, starting at the company's Emeryville, CA, headquarters the day after graduation as only the third animator hired. Headed by John Lasseter, the company proved to be a veritable creative cauldron that promoted talented minds to create while being uninhibited by typical Hollywood creation-by-committee. Docter worked on several commercials and, given the company's small staff, found himself doing more than just animation; he began writing, creating music, and eventually collaborating on the story for what would become the company's Lasseter-directed feature-film debut, "Toy Story." He supervised the animation on the pioneering computer-animated movie, a colorful tale of a cadre of children's toys who come to life when the child is out of the room, featuring the voices of Tim Allen as the brash new toy in the chest, Buzz Lightyear, and Tom Hanks as the once-beloved cowboy action-figure, Woody, whom Lightyear threatens to usurp. Picked up for distribution by Disney, "Toy Story" proved a blockbuster, fulfilling Docter's earlier dreams to boot. It also netted him his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, as well as an Annie Award for his animation work. He did storyboard work for the studio's next feature "A Bug's Life" (1998), and contributed the story treatment for the next year's successful sequel, "Toy Story 2," which would earn him another Annie Award for writing.
Docter's own vision would give rise to the studio's 2001 release, "Monsters, Inc.," the story of Sulley and Mike (voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal, respectively), two everyday pathos-ridden monsters who happen to make a living scaring children in the night. With Docter given directorial duties on the first Pixar feature not to be helmed by Lasseter, it entrenched the studio's ethos as an engine of ostensible children's movies that worked on so many layers as to be funny and entertaining for adults too. Subversive in its anti-establishment subtext, it gave Disney, as The New York Times observed, "the last leg up by stealing the style and speed of Warner Brothers cartoons, which used to ridicule Disney's do-gooder ethos." It also earned Docter another Oscar nomination; this time for Best Animated Feature, and another Annie nod as director, even as it won him the BAFTA Children's Award in the U.K. In the wake of Pixar's blockbuster, "The Incredibles" (2005), he made his credited voiceover debut in the special DVD add-on feature, "Mr. Incredible and Pals" (2005), playing the campy fictional voice of a TV-cartoon version of Mr. Incredible, to the chagrin of the real Mr. Incredible. He next penned the original story that Pixar would make into "WALL E" (2008), which would earn the company and its now official parent company Disney - which acquired Pixar in 2006 - widespread laud as a more fluid next-generation of CG-animation, telling the story of a lonely service droid left cleaning up the detritus of a since-space-bound humankind and the nearly silent love story involving him and a "female" droid sent scan the planet. The film was broadly hailed as not just an animated spectacle, but as a cinematic masterpiece, going on to garner Docter yet another writing Oscar nomination and win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film.
But behind the scenes, Docter, along with colleague Bob Peterson, had been working on another project as early as 2004, based on a simple sketch the former had done of a box-shaped scowling old codger. They conceived the story of Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner), a grumbling curmudgeon who, after losing his wife of many years, hatches a plan to attach enough balloons to their house to make it airborne, hoping to pilot the makeshift vehicle to a hidden tropical idyll in South America that they had always wanted to visit together. Docter's 12-year-old daughter Ellie, one of two children he had with his wife Sharon, lent the voice to Frederickson's wife as a young girl. With obvious overtones of Docter's student film, "Next Door," Docter and Peterson added a stowaway to the trip, a pestering, effervescent neighborhood kid attempting to earn a scout merit-badge by helping the elderly. In spring 2009, "Up," a far-flung adventure, a mismatched-buddy comedy and an introspective story of loss and mortality became the rave of the Cannes Film Festival. An advance notice of the film in Time magazine projected it to be "one the most satisfying movie experiences of its year... The story of a septuagenarian grouch who uses his cane, hearing aid and dentures to thwart all evild rs; a buddy movie whose pals are separated by 70 years; a love story that transcends the grave - has there been a movie like this in the history of feature animation?" By early 2010, "Up" had won two Golden Globes and earned eight Annie nominations, two of those to Docter for writing and directing. Due to the Academy's recent inclusion of 10 Best Pictures nominations, "Up" shockingly nabbed Oscar nods in two categories - Best Feature Film and Best Animated Feature Film - leaving no doubt as to the industry's appreciation for the unique crowd pleaser. To no one's surprise, Docter would go on to win in the latter Oscar category.