Animated Shorts: Pixar's UP To Festivals, DVD

"Discovering a Lost World" Featurette

In the last column, Up’s co-creators expounded about what when into their movie’s main story and key characters. This time, it’s on to designing their breathtaking backgrounds and success.

While Pete Docter and Bob Peterson went nearly out of their way to make three of Up’s central characters—Carl Frederickson, Russell and Carl Muntz—symbolic and cartoon-y caricatures, they decided they needed to go the total opposite direction with their settings.

This meant a field trip to the Bolivar province of Venezuela; to the Tepuis, which no civilized man had seen until 1912. Their target, the tallest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls, where the descent is so far the water vaporizes before it hits the ground.

“We had a few drafts under our belt before we headed south,” Peterson admits. “We workshop all of our stories until right before the film comes out, so we had some key elements of the story that were still in flux…mainly Charles Muntz. We hadn't figured out why he would go to South America and stay there for so long. The idea of Kevin the bird therefore was still being developed. We wondered about making Kevin more magical; the bird who lays golden eggs, or contained the secret to eternal life. In the end, we went with a more ‘conventional’ primitive bird who's bones cause Muntz' Geographic society to doubt his credibility.

“We wanted our locale to reflect and resonate with Carl's emotional state in the film. The Tepuis, or table top mountains, of South America are old, isolated, rugged, dangerous but with a soulful beauty - a pretty good description of Carl! Going there gave us a good sense of what it would be like for Carl and his friends to be up there. In the film, we used a great many plants and rock shapes that we saw from the Tepui.”

This didn’t come without some risk to the Up team. The only way to get to the top of the mountains was by helicopter. After the team had loaded their sketchbooks with all manner of drawings and it was starting to get dark, it started to rain. The problem was the team was so large they needed two helicopter trips, going one at a time, to get them back to sea level. After the first team got down to earth, the storm became so intense the copter couldn’t go back up to retrieve the second team.

The second team ended up in a crevice inside the rock walls. It had previously been dubbed “The Lou,” in part for what the Pixar animators had used it for, and as a cut to longtime Pixar staffer Lou Romano.

“Bob and I were lucky enough to be in the first [of the] two helicopter trips,’ Docter recalls. “So we were already down when the storm closed in. I was in the last copter shuttle, and when we flew out we saw huge storm clouds closing in. The pilot said, ‘That's going to be the last trip up here for today.’ Uh oh... Once down, someone got us food, but we felt too guilty to eat, knowing our pals were still up there. I had stood in the Lou during an earlier downpour and it was pretty cramped quarters. I can't imagine anyone would have slept at all had they been stuck there; neither the group on the mountain nor the group back on the ground. All part of the adventure I guess.”

Then again, some of the research wasn’t anywhere near as dangerous. Docter and Peterson felt that their own pet canines were the proper stuff to base Dug and Muntz’s canines on.

“The reason for Dug being in the film is that we wanted to give Carl a new family after his wife passes on. We essentially gave him a family dog, a grandson...and a 12 foot flightless bird. You know, a family!,” Peterson jokes. “It is up to Carl to accept this new family in the body of the film, thus doing what his wife would have wanted, to move on and forge new relationships. Originally Dug and Kevin were with Carl alone. Carl had no one to talk with so we invented the talking dog collars!”

To top it, Peterson is the voice of Dug. “It was a thrill for me to voice him, mainly because I have been a dog owner/lover for my entire life. This dog collar idea let us animate Dug with true dog behaviors. I crafted Dug's voice around how I talk to me dogs. "Hiii you dawgs," I'll say with that Dug-like voice. I also love how my dogs are interested in the simple things in life; balls, treats, SQUIRRELS!! Dogs to me have a soul. They're very emotional and I'm happy to pay homage to dogs with this character!

“We felt that dogs could play a wide variety of roles in the film just as dogs do in our lives - from loveable companion to enforcers. Ultimately a dog's unquestioning love fit well with what Carl needed in the film - to accept new relationships in his life

“Pete and I have always had dogs and they serve as the great inspiration for this character,” Peterson continues. “I've owned a lot of dogs in my life; Marcela, Rusty, Petey Pup, Precious, Rosy and Ava. Each was in love with life's simple pleasures. Being people in dog suits, as they seem to be, they each had a defined personality!  My dog, Rosy, is a huge fan of squirrels. Also, I love to fool my dogs into thinking that I see something interesting for them. They'll be sitting around panting, and I'll join in, and then pretend I see something, suddenly, stopping the panting. They stop. Then I go back to panting. They go back. I love dogs!”

Getting back on point though, Peterson wasn’t finished regarding the lessons Carl would get from Russell and Dug.

“We knew we wanted to give Carl a new family including a new ‘grandson’ and ‘family dog.’ It was a gauntlet laid down in front of him to accept new people into his life. Before Russell was invented, we just had Dug along for the journey and it turned out to a pretty quiet journey at that! So we invented the collars. We love comedy and we knew that the collars would provide plenty of laughs, peering into our beloved canine friends' brains. But more importantly, Dug is a mentor for Carl…that new relationships are always offered to us, it is up to us to act on them.”

Then with all the research done and over with, it was time to get animating.

“ALL of the scenes got better in animation!,” Docter proclaims. “There were certain parts that really came to life once we started in animation; like where Russell climbs up Carl in an attempt to scramble up to the house. All the business of him stepping on Carl's nose and stomach was stuff we added in animation. The Bird was another one that was fun to animate. Tony Rosenast was the story board artist, and he came up with really funny stuff for that scene where they meet Kevin, but pantomime characters like Kevin just come to life once you get them moving.”

Moving into the spirit, Docter also felt the need to praise other key members of his crew. The first on his list was writer Tom McCarthy.

“We had referenced Tom's film ‘The Station Agent’ as we worked out the structure of ‘Up’,” said Docter. “It's very similar; a guy who isn't really living, he's just walking through life, trying to stay removed and alone. Then he reluctantly gets drawn into this surrogate family. It's a great film, really well written and directed. We got Tom to come here to Pixar to screen it and talk about it, so we'd meet him. Bob and I were working together at the time, but then Bob was drafted on to RAT [“Ratatooie”—ED] for a while and I was left all alone. I cried a lot and talked to myself at first. I needed someone to spark off creatively, and so I asked Tom if he could recommend any writers he knew that might want to work on the film. He fell for it and said, ‘How about me?’ Ha ha! Sucker. He was on for 3 months, and it was in his draft that we added the character of Russell, which of course we kept once Bob came back on.

And these days it seems one can’t have a Pixar movie without a score by Michael Giacchino.

“Michael had worked with Brad on "Incredibles" and "Rat" and of course did a great job on those. He's a true collaborator. We started out talking through the film conceptually, discussing the things we were looking for, like paying homage to the films of the 40's and 50's, the Disney films and Frank Capra and films like that. We wanted to evoke that kind of a feel.  

“Then we went through sequences shot by shot sometimes and talked about the construction of the scenes and what I was hoping to achieve musically. Not necessarily like arrangements or anything like that, but more like, ‘OK, it should start really low here, sneak in, and then build to this point....and then jump out at us!’  We'd talk more emotionally like that and then I'd leave it to Michael to write the music.    

“He would play us these demos and we'd listen via teleconference, and anytime we'd have thoughts or suggestions, he would do changes, sometimes right on the spot. He was very open to whatever the film needed.  He's a filmmaker. Really thinks about the storytelling and how music communicates to people. He's got range that a lot of film composers either don't have or don't utilize. His ‘Ratatouille’ score doesn't sound like the ‘Up’ score, which doesn't sound like ‘The Incredibles’ or ‘Star Trek.’ Amazing.”

Then there’s one particular contribution from John Lasseter. It seems the man who now sits on the Magic Kingdom’s throne not only wanted to make “Up” the first of the “new” Pixar films, but also the first one in 3-D.

“We started the process for ‘Up’ in 2D, with the focus just on the story and the characters,” Docter recalled. “It was about three years in that John Lasseter came to us and said, ‘Hey, there are some really cool new developments that have happened with 3D.’ Of course Pixar had a long history of interest in 3D, John being one of the prime cheerleaders. He shot pictures of his own wedding in 3D, as well as ‘Knick-Knack,’ which is in 3D as well.

“So we did a ton of research, watching other 3D films, and made a list of things we liked and things we didn't. I wanted to use 3D in a more subtle way than the usual, "WOAH! THERE'S A BIG BANANA CREAM PIE COMING OUT TOWARDS THE AUDIENCE!" thing you often see in 3D. We used 3D as another tool to communicate the emotion of the scene, like you would use color, lighting, or cinematography. In the end, we didn't let it affect the way we approached the story at all. I didn't want to compromise the 2D version, which is the way it will be seen most often, considering DVD and Blu-ray.”

Then Disney pulled one final bit of magic, they managed to convince the powers-that-be in France to have “Up” open up this year’s Cannes Film Festival. If being the first of the “new” Pixar films, and the first in 3D wasn’t enough, “Up” would be the first animated feature to ever lead off the internationally renowned film fest.

“We were very honored to be the first animated film to open the prestigious Cannes Film Festival,” admits Docter. “Walking around there, I kept picturing Hitchcock, Coppola, Truffaut; these big time directors... and US?!?! It seemed like some sort of mistake! But we do look at our work as filmmaking, just like any other film. It's nice to see the world looking at it that way as well.

“Cannes was amazing. It was overwhelming, like something out of a fever dream. Here we are, a bunch of geeks who draw cartoons, being mobbed by reporters and fans, at one of the most prestigious international film festivals in the world. I kept thinking, ‘You've got the wrong guys!’ But we think of what we do as filmmaking …not anything more or less. We don't think we should get any special free pass, or be seated at the little kids' table, just because we use animation to tell our stories. Being selected to open the Cannes Film Festival showed us that the film community feels the same way. It was very gratifying.”

“It was like Alice going through the looking glass!,” Peterson adds. “Or another metaphor, it was like Pixar is a space administration and they sent us to another planet. We kept pinching ourselves that it was real. Cannes after all welcomes amazing live action films with unique content. To be the first animated film to open the festival was an honor! The standing ovation after the film ended will be a memory I will always cherish.”

Fortunately for both men, they had people to bring them back down to reality, their friends and families.

“I have 3 kids who each feel differently about my job,” Docter said. “My 14 year-old has now grown up with ten Pixar films. She loves what I do but doesn't want to brag to her friends. She wants to keep it ‘cool.’ At the same time she is taken by the glamour of Cannes, and the Oscars and wants to go with me to these events! My seven year-old is a good story sounding board for what is funny to kids. He loves to analyze the humor in our films. My four year-old is confused when she hears my voice coming out of dogs and monster slugs.”

“My kids don't seem to think it's unusual or unique,” Peterson retorts. “They probably think EVERYBODY works at a company where they ride scooters and eat candy. They're going to have a rude awakening when they graduate...”

“Russell's namesake, my son's friend, was happy with the film but told me we should add dinosaurs and a spy subplot to the story,” Docter quips back. “This is why I didn't show it to him until we were finished. Jordan [Nagai—the voice of Russell] seemed to like it as well, though said he didn't really recognize his own voice.”

“It is interesting watching the movie for the first time at our wrap parties with our crew,” Peterson continues. “We don't ever get to see our movies like a regular audience member because we lived through the creation of the film and see the memories brought forward by each shot and movement we see. When I look at my 14 year old--who I don't want to grow up and go to college!!-- I see her as a 3 year old at the pumpkin patch, the 5th grader at the spelling bee. Those memories are there. When our movies leave us we hope we've given them enough love and sense to do great things in the world!!

“The great thing about this film and any film we work on is that it contains truths taken from our lives,” Peterson concludes. “Pixar lets the directors create an ‘autobiography.’ In other words, things that are important to us make it into the film. I do believe that the greatest adventures happen between me and my kids, my wife, and in small moments. A morning around the kitchen table eating breakfast is an adventure in my house!”

And with “Up” coming out on DVD this week, it sounds like the adventure will continue for some time to come.

Twitter activity