Disney•Pixar’s THE GOOD DINOSAUR Evokes Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park

Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park provided the setting for a number of films: The Big Sky (1952), Shane (1953), even Rocky IV (1985) – now make room for one more.  In a world where dinosaurs never went extinct and live side-by-side with humans, Disney•Pixar’s THE GOOD DINOSAUR features a pair – Arlo (the dinosaur) and Spot (the boy) – on a journey along a river through a vast and powerful wilderness.  As director Peter Sohn and his filmmaking team told us around the campfire, at its core, THE GOOD DINOSAUR is a classic Western film, and they pull inspiration from, and lovingly recreate, Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.


Arlo ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

DISCLOSURE: I was hosted by Walt Disney Studios on an all expense paid trip to San Francisco, California including airfare, hotel accommodations, transportation, and meals to attend this press event and learn more about Disney’s films and shows. All opinions expressed are those of the author.

Sharon Calahan, Director of Photography - Lighting, at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, CA. Photo by Deborah Coleman, courtesy Pixar.


Sharon Calahan serves as director of photography-lighting on THE GOOD DINOSAUR, and has worked at Pixar Animation Studios for 21 years (her first movie was Toy Story).  She was thrilled to join Peter Sohn’s crew because she grew up in the American North West and Canada.  As a landscape painter Calahan spent many hours painting the landscapes in the Jackson Hole area of Wyoming, near the Tetons – the same region that inspired the look of the film.

Calahan brought a deep knowledge for the environment and how the filmmakers could bring it to life. “We want to support the film emotionally,” says Calahan. “It’s more than just the light. It’s how the weather and the colors and everything makes you feel.”

THE GOOD DINOSAUR lighting study by Sharon Calahan. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


It was this awe of nature’s beauty and power that inspired the filmmakers to make the wilderness a character and not just a setting for Arlo and Spot.  “The wilderness is Arlo’s main antagonist in the movie,” says production designer Harley Jessup. “Nature seems to help and challenge him at various times.”  However, creating these vast, wide-open spaces presented a number of difficulties for the production team.

Production Designer Harley Jessup presents at Pixar Studios. Photo by Marc Flores, courtesy Pixar.

Sets Supervisor David Munier at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, CA. Photo by Deborah Coleman, courtesy Pixar.


There was not a lot of time to create sets for the film, so Pixar tried using U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data as an initial framework.  Sets supervisor David Munier noted, “we needed to create a set where you can get big sweeping vistas and see 30 – 50 miles.”  Previous Pixar films, such as Brave, used one or two of these type of shots to establish their scenes, but THE GOOD DINOSAUR required the creation of a fully realized environment as faithful a reproduction as an Ansel Adams’ photograph.

Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River

Ansel Adams “The Tetons and the Snake River” (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service. (79-AAG-1) Public Domain


Director Peter Sohn challenged his filmmakers to utilize height field data from the USGS to see how much of the Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River image they could recreate, and it gave a shortcut for the type of terrain wanted for the film.  All and all, over 64,000 square miles of North American terrain were adapted from USGS data to tell Arlo’s journey in THE GOOD DINOSAUR.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


Disney•Pixar’s THE GOOD DINOSAUR opens in theaters on November 25, 2015; click here for more photos, news, trailers, and activity sheets for the film.

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About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.