Up, the 10th feature from John Lasseter’s unbeatable hit-making studio is described as a ‘coming of old age’ movie and travels to some unchartered territories.
Sometimes the most amazing animated projects simply begin with just a single image. ‘We were goofing around and someone drew a house with a bunch of balloons floating it,’ says Pete Docter, who shares directing honors with Bob Peterson for Disney/Pixar’s latest feature animation, Up. ‘As animators, we aren’t always the most social people, although we can be, and sometimes we like to get away,’ notes Peterson. ‘So, we do what anyone would do, which is tie balloons to our house and fly away.’
But who lives in the floating house? As Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and Peterson (story writer on Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and story artist on Toy Story 2) searched their imaginations for an unusual character, they realized that a senior citizen, the kind of character Walter Matthau might play or The New Yorker cartoonist George Booth might draw, had never starred in an animated feature.
‘The thought of a cranky old guy with brightly colored balloons made us laugh,’ Peterson says. And thus began the animated life of grumpy old Carl Frederick, retired balloon salesman and widower, in 2004. For the next three years or so, Docter, Peterson and storyboard artist Ronnie del Carmen pulled Carl back through his childhood and propelled him forward into his future. In Up‘s opening scenes, we learn that Carl and his wife had wanted to have a great adventure like their hero, the pilot Charles Muntz, but life always got in the way. So, when Carl finally adventures off in his balloon-powered house, he pilots toward his long-lost dream. An enhanced version of Pixar’s dynamics program made it possible for 10,000 balloons to interact in the wind’and crash land at exactly the right place.
‘In our first draft we had him crash land on a tropical island,’ Docter says. ‘But, that’s been done so often. The table-top mountains in Venezuela gave us everything we needed. They could be stuck somewhere in a way we’d never seen before.’
‘They’ includes Russell, an excitable eight-year-old boy who accidentally stows away on Carl’s floating house. Russell isn’t the only member of Carl’s new family, though.
‘Most characters have empty parts that the other characters can help fill,’ Docter says. ‘Carl lost his wife and he’s not connected to life in any exciting way. Russell is all excited about everything, and he doesn’t have a father. But, Carl is a tough guy to turn. We needed more than just one character.’
The other characters include a 13-foot tall exotic bird and a goofy dog named Dug who talks via a high-tech collar that translates his thoughts into words. ‘Pete and I are lifelong dog lovers and big fans of fantasy movies that keep you surprised,’ Peterson says. ‘So when the idea of a talking dog came along, we decided to try it. It’s more emotional to hear the thoughts of a dog, and the collar afforded us a way to have natural dog behavior while their thoughts were coming out.’
Dug, a Golden Retriever/Lab mix voiced by Peterson, has a big nose and an extra floppy tongue. He’s a nerd and eager to please. Though when we meet the rest of the talking dog pack, led by Alpha, a Doberman also voiced by Peterson with an electronic assist; Beta, a Rottweiler; and Gamma, a Bulldog, we soon realize they would rather hunt than please.
‘We barely exaggerate anything with the dogs,’ says Scott Clark, supervising animator. ‘The way we animate them is dog-like. But, they have almost human expressions built into their rigs that add a little flavor. I loved cracking the code with the dogs.’
Kevin the bird, on the other hand, a giant flightless creature with an orange beak, long blue neck and purple tail feathers, gave the animators a way to stretch their wings.
‘We gave it realistic motion, but it can do silly things,’ Clark says. ‘We had a lot of fun animating Kevin. It cradles Russell like a baby and throws him up in the air like a monkey. Pete came up with the idea of having the bird’s eyes always stuck in the middle to give it a dumb quality.’
For the human characters, Pixar leaned toward caricatured versions of real people, and those caricatured designs affected the performances. ‘Ricky and I tend to be attracted to simplified characters,’ Docter says, referring to production designer Ricky Nierva.
For example, Carl, voiced by Ed Asner, is only three heads tall. He has a square head, square liver spots, and stocky arms and legs. His default expression is a scowl. ‘He’s an old man who has shriveled into his suit,’ Clark says. ‘He’s so short, it looked like he didn’t have elbows and knees, so for certain poses we lengthened his arms and legs in the rig. It’s like the kind of cheat we’d do in drawn animation.’
The caricatured design also had an impact on cloth simulation. ‘We have an amazing tailoring system, but we’ve never had a character quite this pushed,’ Docter says. ‘We wanted the cloth to look real, but we didn’t want a ton of wrinkles when he bent his knees. It took a lot of back and forth.’
To create the 78-year-old’s performance, the animators concentrated on ‘less is more’ as well. ‘The key to his success was not moving him,’ Clark says. ‘I remember something Chuck Jones told me as an intern, that animators most of the time think of over-pushing things. You can exaggerate. But sometimes, ‘exaggerated’ is how much you don’t move.’ Sometimes, for example, the animators would leave Carl’s face sculpted into one pose and just have him blink.
Russell, by contrast, is in constant motion. Pixar found Jordan Nagai, who provides Russell’s voice, through a multi-city casting call that resulted in 400 voices to consider. ‘[Jordan] was talking about activities at home and he made me smile just by talking,’ Docter says. ‘But, he wasn’t an actor and wasn’t very interested in pretending. So, we did a lot of physical activities with him. I’d hold his arms and tell him to see if he could wriggle free while saying, ‘Let me go.’ Or, I’d have him run, run, run, up to a microphone before he’d say a line.’
The animators loved the result. ‘We had the same quality as from an improv performance, or a Nick Park film,’ Clark says. ‘There was something about having a non-actor that makes Russell seem more human. I love the dogs, but I also love it when something quirky and human comes through in a character. That’s the hardest thing to get’true human acting and emotion. This film has it in spades.’
The Simple Art of Blocking
Working with Clark were three directing animators, Shawn Krause, Dave Mullins and Michael Venturini, who cast groups of animators by action and emotion’an animator who is particularly good with acting would work on subtext; another who excels with physics and weight would handle action shots.
All the animators started by presenting a first blocking pass during dailies. ‘They show a basic series of poses,’ Clark says. ‘A palette of acting ideas. The best animators have an elegant sense of blocking. They use the fewest amount of controls and poses to tell the most.’
Clark believes that constructing the scenes in this slow way through dailies builds the best performances. He uses a scene with Muntz, voiced by Christopher Plummer, as an example. ‘Something’s not quite right in Muntz’s head but we didn’t want to play him crazy, just suggest that in a subtle way. We did that through dailies, through animators seeing each other’s work. It’s like Brad Bird says, ‘The best animator is all of us together.”
Pixar is known for creating animated films that tell new and interesting tales, that open audiences’ minds to an art of animation that extends beyond cartoons. Up is a masterful extension of that tradition.
‘This is some of the most fun I’ve had working on a Pixar film,’ Clark says. ‘I really enjoy the fact that we’re making new stories that will be around in 50 years, not just cranking out merchandise.’
Disney/Pixar’s Up was the opening-night movie at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (May 13). The feature is currently playing in theaters nationwide.