High-Def Digest Attends Virtual Roundtable with ‘Up’ Filmmakers

Posted Fri Oct 30, 2009 at 02:16 PM PDT by

The folks at Pixar set aside some time from their busy schedules to answer a few questions for the press and we have the scoop!

By: Michael S. Palmer

Got an exciting invite to join a virtual roundtable (read: chat room) with the filmmakers behind this year’s funniest, most exciting, and most emotional movie, ‘Up’. On hand were Pete Docter (director / writer for ‘Up,’ as well as the director of ‘Monsters, Inc.’ and story collaborator on ‘Toy Story 1 & 2’, ‘Monsters, Inc.’, and ‘Wall-E’) and Bob Peterson (co-director/ writer / the voice of Dug for ‘Up’ and one of the screenwriters on ‘Finding Nemo’). Even over instant message, these two guys were charming, personable, and their enthusiasm was infectious.

I’d like to thank all the loyal readers for sending in such excellent questions to the forum over the last week. Sadly, with so many people involved with this chat from around the globe, most of the technical, HD-related questions were unanswered. Next time, I hope!

Here’s a full transcript of the chat session so you can read what the filmmakers have to say in their own words. Enjoy.

Q: What do you think it is the most important adventure in life?

Bob Peterson: The great thing about this film and any film we work on is that it contains truths taken from our lives. 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!!!!

HDD’s one answered Question: Was there a draft of the script before you took this research trip (as featured in the Blu-ray special feature “The Adventure is Out There”), or was it more of a treatment/outline, which was shaped by the locations?

Bob Peterson: We had a few drafts under our belt before we headed South. 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.

Q: In the ‘Up’ Blu-Ray, you talk about being inspired by a drawing of a grumpy old man holding balloons. At what point did you realize you had a movie, and not just a premise?

Bob Peterson: I think the first pitch to John Lasseter when we made him cry (with no visuals!) did we think we had the emotional underpinnings of the story!! Storywise we had finally cracked Carl's motivation for escaping life - that he had lived an amazing relationship with his life that ended in something not quite completed. It's a good feeling when you find that nugget of truth in your story. Humor and characters will come in and out of a story, but that nugget will remain.

Q: In conversations with Ronnie del Carmen and Peter Sohn, they both talked about the advantages of collaboration: animators adding stuff you wouldn't have thought of. Are there any scenes in particular where somebody gave you an idea that was better than you originally intended?

Pete Docter: ALL of the scenes got better in animation! But 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 storyboard 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.

Q: What was your favorite sequence in the film, and why?

Pete Docter: I personally like the part we call "Married Life" -- the wordless section showing Carl and Ellie's life together. I think it plays to the strengths of film and animation in general, letting the visuals tell the story. And it seems to hit home for people. The bookend to this sequence is also one of my favorites -- where Carl looks through Ellie's adventure book (towards the end of the film).

Q: One of the most amazing things in “Up” is the treatment of Carl and Ellie’s love story. How was this crucial storyline developed?

Bob Peterson: Great question. This love story was the spine of whole movie. When we develop these films we look for themes that guide us in how we tell the story. As the process of writing progressed, we realized that our main theme was "How does a person define adventure?" Is adventure out there in great deeds, or can it also be between people in the small moments that make up a life. Carl and Ellie's love story helped us tell that theme - that small moments lead to a life's adventure.

Q: Is there anything about the movie that you're still not satisfied with?

Pete Docter: We've trained ourselves to look for ways to improve our films at every turn. As John Lasseter says, we never actually finish our films, we just release them. So yes, every time I watch UP I see things I would change... cut out two frames here for better timing, add another gag there... but overall I am happy with it. (I'd better be after 5 years of work).

Q: What's the most rewarding thing you've learned or taken from making this movie?

Pete Docter: Hmm, tough question. Overall I'd have to say that the best thing was the experience of making it -- the research, the work, and most of all the amazing people we got to work with. Bob is a swell chap and an amazingly talented fellow.

Q: Which character from UP do you find that you most relate to?

Pete Docter: I relate most to Carl. I find myself griping about how they changed this or that, or how music these days is a bunch of noise. I'm going to make an excellent old man.

Q: I've read a lot about the character of Carl as inspired by actor Spencer Tracy, but not so much about the source of Charles Muntz. Could you confirm if, in some way, it is inspired by actors as Errol Flynn or Clark Gable, funny adventurers?

Pete Docter: Yeah, we looked at Spencer Tracy, Walter Matthau, James Whitmore... as well as our own grandparents. For Muntz we modeled him on strong, 30's era adventurous types -- Errol Flynn and Walt Disney were two inspirations, as well as real life adventurers like Roald Amundsen and Percy Faucett.

Q: Of all the exotic locales in the world, why did you choose South America as the place of Carl and Russell's big adventure?

Bob Peterson: 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.

Q: It isn't the first time Pixar has used an old man as its main character (‘Geri’s Game’). Could you talk us about the challenge of the conception of a character like Carl, a lonely old man, in this film?

Pete Docter: Yeah, Geri's Game was great -- I got to animate a shot on it and was surprised by the challenge of animating an older guy. One of the biggest problems was to break habits we have as animators; we generally try to loosen up movement with things like overlapping action and nice fluid movements. Watching real old men, we noticed there is a stiffness that comes with age -- your bones fuse and you tend to be less flexible. So we came up with some rules for ourselves: Carl can't turn his head beyond 15-20 degrees without turning his upper torso, for example. He can't raise his arms too high. Then we also wanted to have him grow more flexible at the end, so he transforms into an action hero and rejoins life.

Q: Where did the character of Dug come from? What inspired that character?

Bob Peterson: 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! 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 (before Russell was created). Carl had no one to talk with so we invented the talking dog collars!

Q: Bob, did you model Dug’s character after any real dogs you own?

Bob Peterson: Of course! I've owned a lot of dogs in my life - Marcela, Rusty, Petey Pup, Precious, Rosy and Ava. Each were in love with life's simple pleasures, but being people in dog suits, as they seem to be, they each had a defined personality! Rosy, my present dog is very interested in squirrels!!!

Q: Bob, Dug is definitely an interesting character. Do you have fun voicing him? His characterizations are very engaging and likable. Do you ever see a feature film around Dug?

Bob Peterson: Thanks!! 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 my 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!

Q: Did you consider using other animals than dogs as companions for Muntz?

Bob Peterson: Not really. 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. And simply...DOGS ARE THE BEST!!!

Q: In an earlier interview, Pete Docter said he modeled Russell after Pixar's Pete Sohn and a boy in his son's Boy Scout troop. Has the "real" Russell seen the movie, and if so, what does he think of it?

Pete Docter: 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. (This is why I didn't show it to him until we were finished.) Jordan seemed to like it as well, though said he didn't really recognize his own voice.

Q: Watching one of the special features titled “Adventure Is Out There”, I was surprised to find out that six of the crew were left behind until a helicopter could return after weather conditions cleared up. Curious, were you guys scared out of your wits having to stay huddled inside the “Lou” during the storm, or did you all embrace the weather conditions and think "how are we going to incorporate this into our film”?

Pete Docter: Bob and I were lucky enough to be in the first two helicopter trips, 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.

Q: How do your children feel about your job?

Pete Docter: My kids don't seem to think it's unusual or unique. 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…

Bob Peterson: I have 3 kids who each feel differently about my job. My 14 year old has now grown up with 10 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 7 year old is a good story sounding board for what is funny to kids. He loves to analyze the humor in our films. My 4 year old is confused when she hears my voice coming out of dogs and monster slugs!!!

Q: What was your experience like taking the film to Cannes?

Bob Peterson: It was like Alice going through the looking glass! Or another metaphor, it was like Pixar is a space administration and they sent us as astronauts 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.

Pete Docter: 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. And being selected to open the Cannes Film Festival showed us that the film community feels the same way. It was very gratifying.

Q: Can you give some advice to young people who would like to work in animation?

Bob Peterson: Several things. First of all, just start animating! Don't wait for someone to say it's ok. When I was younger I drew a comic strip that appeared everyday in my college newspaper - I got to draw a lot and get a ton of feedback from readers. This was invaluable to me as a storyteller today. Always carry a notebook to do sketches. Watch and analyze animation. Go to conferences and get to know people - it is who you know sometimes that does get you the job. The best advice is to make sure to get good life experiences - we draw from our experiences every day in story and animation!

Q: With “Up” being so adventurous and exciting, if there was a ride or attraction for “Up” at Disneyland or Disneyworld, what would you both like to see?

Bob Peterson: Pete Docter is so tall, that I think we could build a ride around him! Just string a gondola or ski lift up over his head, and you've got a great ride!! So far no plans for an UP ride, but of all of our films, with its adventurous flying and travel, UP seems like it would be a natural. As the voice of Dug, I'd love to have Dug appear in the theme parks somehow!


Pete Docter: Well folks, it looks like it's time for me to get back to work. I'm back over in the development department, working on another original film. It's due out in 2014 and I'm already behind schedule. (Just kidding.) Nice talking to you all -- see you soon!

Bob Peterson: Thanks everyone! Great questions! Talk to you soon.

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Discs mentioned in this article: (Click for specs and reviews)
Up (Blu-ray)
Tags: Disney, Michael S. Palmer (all tags)