Capone chats with UP director Pete Docter about balloons, exotic creatures, and turning an elderly man into an action star!!!
Published at: May 26, 2009, 10:29 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey folks. Capone in Chicago here.
Some of my favorite folks in the movie world to interview or even just chat with are the men and women who work for Pixar, for the plain and simple reason that they tell the best stories about what went into creating every aspect of their films. When I got a chance to interview WALL-E director Andrew Stanton last year, he filled in a lot of what I consider crucial information about where particular ideas evolved out of in terms of both story idea and the look and attitudes of the characters--both robot and human. Some of those details showed up on WALL-E's DVD extras, but a lot of them did not, and it's those priceless bits of information that I love.
My only other previous encounter with UP director Pete Docter occurred on a cruise ship eight years ago ("I'm on a boat!"). I was attending Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper's Film Festival at Sea, which took place on a Disney Cruise Line vessel and attendees get to go to three or four film screenings while traveling to exotic destinations. Most of films at the time were unreleased, but Docter's MONSTERS INC. has already been out for a little while, so he supplemented his presentation with some great Making Of presentations that I ate up. A day or two after the screening, I ran into Docter on the ship, and we chatted for a while, mostly about what was to be the next Pixar masterpiece, THE INCREDIBLES. It was a fantastic experience overall, and I was pleased that when I interviewed Docter a couple weeks ago, he actually remembered our meeting so many years prior (although I'm guessing he remembered the circumstances more than the actual conversation).
Although some have said Docter is the Pixar founding father whose films are most geared toward children, I'm not sure I totally agree or that I totally mind that it might be true. MONSTERS INC. explored some pretty deep psychological, bogeyman-in-the-closet, nightmarish stuff…in the context of a fun and hilarious story. UP explores the very essence of adventure, as we follow an elderly man through a journey he'd envisioned for himself when he was barely out of diapers. And through the eyes of a young companion, he remembers what it was like to be excited about the unknown. Some moments in UP will likely make you weep. And while Pixar films excel in making us care about its characters so much that weeping feels like part of the standard film-going process with their movies, there's something kind of special and unique about UP.
Just a few quick things before I let Pete take over. I did actually see UP before this interview, however, it was a 2-D workprint (although for the life of me, I didn't see a single element that was unfinished, except for the lack of 3-D). Also at the time, very little was known about the Pixar short that was attached to the front of the film (which was not shown at the press screening I attended). I think that covers it. Enjoy Pete Docter…
Peter Docter: I forget, were you writing for Ain't It Cool back when I saw you on the cruise?
Capone: Oh yeah. I wrote up the whole weekend for the site.
Capone: This morning I was watching these UPisodes on the UP website. Those are pretty great. Whose idea were those?
PD: Oh yeah. That was initially just a bunch of us getting together and coming up with some quirky idea as a way of introducing the characters without giving away quite as much of the story away. It's a chance to get the characters out there. It was fun to do.
Capone: I was at Butt Numb-a-Thon last year when you showed the very rough first 45 minutes of the film. Have you every done anything like that, shown that much of an unfinished work to an audience of regular people? What was the thinking there?
PD: The thinking was that this is a bizarre movie, hard to describe. It doesn't have the sexy, one-sentence synopsis of "Toys really are alive when you aren't looking" or whatever. We thought, well, everybody feels bullish about the movie, let's show the movie and let people decide for themselves, instead of trying to sell it to them. It seems to have worked.
Capone: The reaction to the opening montage of the couple and their life together was interesting, because most of what you showed us were just sketches from that sequence. So I wasn't sure if the final product would be a series of photographs or moving images…
Capone: But it really didn't matter, because most people in that screening either cried or almost cried.
PD: [laughs] Which I take as an extreme compliment. That's awesome. We knew we had so much comedy and wacky adventure kind of stuff that the danger was, if it was just that, that it would be trifle and kind of light. One thing we were trying to get was some sort of weight that you get from caring about these guys, Carl especially, so you understand why he's doing this bizarre thing, trying get this house to Paradise Falls. It's such a weird idea that if we don't really care about it then you don't have much of a movie.
Capone: The moving of the house approaches Herzogian proportions.
PD: That's right. We were watching FITZCARRALDO and THE MISSION, where it's like a penance for him to be pulling this thing to relieve him of this guilt, this perceived guilt that he has.
Capone: There is a lot of that, a lot of non-gleeful moments. There's some heavy stuff going on here. Were you guys worried about showing the toll on a character who had lived a very full life?
PD: Yeah. I mean it's all about getting you to care about the character. If you don't have that, then it's going to be a tough haul through the second act. There are no real rules for what we're doing, so we put it out there. If anything, John [Lassiter], Andrew [Stanton], and Brad [Bird] were embracing it and plus-ing it. It's cool to be working at a place that allows everything to be different as much as you can.
Capone: The second act feels so bizarre and random in its construction, that it feels like one of those stories where one person writes a chapter and then passes it on to someone else to write a chapter and so on. Predictable it is not.
PD: [laughs] Cool.
Capone: This might be the purest adventure film Pixar has ever done--the exotic locations, the inspiration behind making the journey, the full-on action sequences at the end. And then you realize it stars a 78-year-old man.
PD: That's right, and that's what makes it interesting, the specificity of that and uniqueness that we're trying to do stuff that Indiana Jones might have done, but with a 78-year-old man.
Capone: Let's face it, Indiana Jones isn't that far off from 78 these days.
PD: [laughs] That's true.
Capone: And I love that Carl uses the things from his life in his action story--his cane, his garden hose.
PD: We had a bunch of gags like that, some of which we used and some we didn't, like using his sock garters to fire things at people, or a pill bottle thrown out to get somebody to slip. A lot of like that.
Capone: I love hearing stuff like that. When I talked to Andrew last year, he had all these great stories about stuff that was tried out and didn't work, in terms of the evolution of some of the characters. You guys seem to have more stories like that than any other animation house, and I love that. There are no dumb ideas at Pixar, just ones that don't get used.
PD: Well, there are a lot of dumb ideas. But fortunately we burn through most of those, and unfortunately we burn through a couple of the good ideas too that for whatever reason we couldn't get in or didn't fit or made the film weaker as a result even if it was a cool idea. You remember the scene where they're having dinner with Charles Muntz, and the whole scene has turned and Muntz is coming towards them, "That's right, you haven't had dessert. My Epsilon makes a terrific cherry's jubilee." In the original cut, we cut to a dog cooking cherry's jubilee--he's shaking it, flipping it over, and there's fire. And it was a great laugh, but it destroyed the build up, so we cut it out.
Capone: I do want to talk about the 3-D aspect, and that's certainly something new that Pixar hasn't done before. But with each new film, there are always some fantastic innovations that you all love talking about. What were some of the technical innovations that you're most proud of in UP? I'd say the look and the movement of the balloons was so realistic. Was there a team assigned to get that right?
PD: We did have a special balloon team, got a bunch of helium. We had a system that could handle 5,000 what they call rigid-body simulation, where they could bump into each other and knew where they were. But we needed something like 10,000, so they bumped it up quite a bit. It was mainly tricks to get it to speed up, so that it would actually work. It's pretty fantastic. You can vary the amount of wind interaction, turbulence, position of the balloons, even the way the strings move.
Even down to like the dog fur, which is obviously stuff we'd done before, but we kept refining it and refining it with every film. Weirdly, the most difficult thing technically on this film was the sense of caricature. It wasn't so much a technical problem as it was an artistic one, getting cloth to behave right on a guy who's three heads tall, because his arms at default, he can barely reach the top of his head. So we had to do a lot of stretching and cheating so that he could actually do the things he needs to do, slide down a hose or something like that. So then what happens to all the cloth in his jacket? Does it stretch, do you add more on? There are all sorts of little tricks and things we needed to work out. Even stuff like the balloons--we designed the house so that in a wide shot you have all these balloons above the house, and we scaled the balloons up so that it would read nicely as a big clump and not just a bunch of pinpoints. But then when you move this balloon down in front of the window, it's twice the size of Carl's window, so on a shot-by-shot basis, there's a lot of scaling and cheating and tweaking. Even Carl's hands, when he opens the Adventure Book, if we hadn't cheated it, his hand would have been the size of the entire book.
Capone: I also remember noticing the stitching in Russell's merit badges is really detailed.
PD: That's all part of the fabric design. Carl's coat, the thickness of the coat is triple or quadruple real clothe, but that all kind of part of the design idea of the film. We were trying to make it look like it were handmade in miniature, so that there was a comfortable, cozy feel to Carl's house. And the textures add a lot to that.
Capone: So how early in the production did you decide 3-D was going to be a part of this film?
PD: It was probably--I'm trying to remember the dates, I should probably go back and look--but we were well into the film as a story before that came up. It's something that Pixar's been interested in for a long time. You're probably seen KNICK KNACK, the short film, they did that in 3-D. I know John's always said he took pictures at his wedding in 3-D; he's really passionate about it. So he came and said we'd love to do this in 3-D. We set up a team that would basically take a lot of the same things we were trying artistically and apply that to 3-D, so it's not just a simple matter of, "Okay, here's the left eye, render it, go, you're done." We tried to make it part of the storytelling, so that when Carl feels alone you really squash the depth and keep it confined and small, and when he takes off in the house, we really push depth. It's just another tool for telling the story.
Capone: As much as I hated to do it while I was watching the film for the first time, I was trying to imagine certain sequences in 3-D. I was thinking the thunderstorm sequence was going to look really spectacular in 3-D.
PD: Yeah. I'll be interested to hear your take on it because we tried to make it no a deliberate thing like, "Ooooo, 3-D!" We didn't do any cheap, gimmick kind of shots. I think it's important to have 3-D be in support of the story and not the other way around.
Capone: Was the idea to do this in 3-D come together at about the same time the discussions about making the TOY STORY films in 3-D happened?
PD: This was before that. Even as we finished TOY STORY, there was talk of doing TOY STORY in 3-D even at that point. I guess he economics didn't work out, plus it would have been polarized or some passive system like that point. But they didn't do it then. So fast forward to now, you have digital projection and things, and it's just easier to do now and easier on the eyes. So this came up first, and then TOY STORY. But they're doing TOY STORY 3 in 3-D, you know.
Capone: Sure for next summer. But my understanding is that 1 and 2 are coming out this year in 3-D, correct?
PD: Yes, they're going to do a double-feature toward the end of the year, building up to TOY STORY 3. It'll be fun to see. It's weird going back to look at those films again.
Capone: I bet. Does it look like amateur hour today?
PD: It does to me. [laughs] But I look at it and go, "Uhhh, lame." But actually, after about three minutes of that, even me, I get caught up and go, "Hey, those guys are funny." Which is good, that's what we were trying to do.
Capone: Was UP a tough sell to the other decision makers at Pixar, especially with this older guy at the center of the action? And if you think about, it the villain would have to be damn near 100 year old.
PD: He was a young man back in the day, but even so, he'd have to be in his 90s or something. It was a little bit of a tricky, well… When we developed it, we pitched like the old, creakiest, bone-crunchiest fight you'd have at the end. And that got a big laugh from John and Andrew; they could see how that could have some real entertainment possibilities to it. But in the end, I credit Pixar to trust the filmmakers to really do something that could not be done elsewhere. It doesn't have a sexy synopsis that you could go to a distributor and say, "Hey, toys come alive" or "It's BAMBI meets STAR WARS" or whatever. It's kind of its own thing, and they let us play with it until we got it somewhere that was appealing.
Capone: Why do neither of your leads have necks?
PD: Well Carl has a neck, but he's so hunched over…like looking at old people, you get the osteoporosis of the back, so his shoulders go like that [hunches forward]. When he straightens up, you can see that he has a little neck. Russell, we wanted him to be more like a balloon shape. Carl is a square, but Russell is this balloon-shaped character that we designed to have his neck go straight into his body. I think he looks pretty appealing that way. We had the same sort of shape…Ellie's head is like a balloon too, she has more of a neck. But we tried to develop a pretty strong shape language, where Carl is a squared-off, stuck in his world kind of guy and Ellie, for example, is a circle, even down to the frames hanging in their house. The pictures of him are all in square frames; pictures of her are all in circular frames. We're trying to create a visual manifestation of who they are inside.
Capone: Is it easier to design characters that are not human rather than have to figure out which human characteristics you're going to exaggerate or make realistic?
PD: That's a good question. Overall, it's a lot easier when you have something to start from. Carl was difficult because this [points to an image of Carl on the UP poster] kept looking like Carl's jaw. What we'd intended and what I think comes across now is that this is saggy flesh here that creates kind of a frown expression. Things that we made up, like the bird, were really hard, but that was more for story reasons. Actually, the ones that are the most difficult to design are the ones that aren't clearly nailed down in story. When you know exactly what their role is--and we have some really amazing character designers and you can explain to them, okay this is who this character is: he's eight years old, he's a peppy Wilderness Explorer, he's all about trying new things and going out and being really adventurous. You have kind of a limited pallet of where you're going to go but with still plenty of options, but you have a much clearer sense of who he needs to be and what he should look like. The bird, she had a lot of different roles in the film in terms of the story. There's one version, where she was this almost gold creature, and another version where she was a link to dinosaurs, and that was why Muntz was after this bird. So all of those things take it in different design directions, because you have to make it clear visually. Because if it is a dinosaur, it has to have some visual connection to dinosaurs. All that was in an effort to explain why Muntz has devoted 50 years of his life to go after this thing. In the end, we decided maybe it was more about Muntz than the bird. It's more about his point of pride of having been stripped of that badge. "I'm going to bring that thing back and prove them wrong." So it was less about the bird specifically, although we still wanted it to be worthy of collection with the iridescent feathers.
Capone: You do feel for Muntz on a certain level. You realize he might not have been so villainous if people had believe him.
PD: I always think about George Sanders who played Shere Khan [the tiger in THE JUNGLE BOOK]. One interviewer asked him what it was like playing all these villains, and he said, "Villains? I have never played a villain." Because he thinks of them in terms of, nobody in real life acts like villains. To them, what they do makes sense, and that's how we approached Muntz in this film.
Capone: When I first started to hear about UP, two things popped into my head as reference points: one was the [Pixar short] GERI'S GAME, because it also was about an elderly man, and also [Hayao Miyazaki's] HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. I know that the Pixar guys are freaks for Miyazaki, so it wouldn't surprise me that there was a bit of inspiration drawn from there.
PD: What's funny is that we had already developed the basic idea when John asked me to do the English dub of HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, so I got to work with Lauren Bacall and all of these fantastic actors, which was fun, as well as watching that film over and over again. And the things I kind of took from it were that Miyazaki is so great at that specificity of great observation--little things like her trying to catch up to the castle and cracking her back or paying attention to the reality of what's happening. I tried to put that in this film, just little details of real truthful observation in our own way.
Capone: You do acknowledge Carl's physical limitations.
PD: Yeah, I worked hard with the animators to get him more hunched over and feeble at the beginning and as the story goes on he loosens up and becomes more the action hero by the end, but he's still limited by being 78 years old.
Capone: What can you tell me about the short that comes before UP?
PD: It's going to be directed by Pete Sohn who kind of inspired the Russell character, and it's going to be called PARTLY CLOUDY. I haven't even seen the short in 3-D yet, should be exciting.
Capone: Well, I can't wait to see the finished film and the short. It was great seeing you again.
PD: Yeah, great talking to you. Thanks.