A Dug’s Life: Ronnie del Carmen Chats About His New Pixar Short

Just in time for the November 10 release of Disney/Pixar’s much-loved feature Up on DVD and Blu-ray, we had the chance to chat with acclaimed story supervisor and storyboard artist Ronnie del Carmen (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille). Del Carmen joined Pixar in the summer of 2000 during the production of Finding Nemo as a story supervisor on the film. He did production design on the Oscar-nominated short film, One Man Band and story work on Oscar-winning Ratatouille. Del Carmen worked as Head of Story on Up. He also directed Dug’s Special Mission, a new short, which gives us more insight into the life of the lovable canine and is included in the DVD and Blu-ray release of Up.

Q: In what way did your work as an artist help you with the work on the movie?

Ronnie del Carmen: I do production design, write and direct; all skills good to have for the job of being a story person. When we started we had no job demarcations, we just started trying to solve creative problems. That means I’d draw, design, do camera plans, write and illustrate. It helped all of us touch on all parts of the movie at once. Ricky Nierva and I would sit next door to each other and we’d discuss production design problems as well as complete story sequences in the movies. Throughout production I would draw up solutions and do designs on the fly, from editorial to layout, as well as provide help writing. It was a blast! I miss it.

Q: What’s your favorite scene from Up?

Ronnie del Carmen: My favorite scenes were the silent ones, “Married Life,” where we tell the whole life story of Carl and Ellie, and the scene at the end of the second act where Carl sits in his empty house at Paradise Falls to leaf through Ellie’s adventure book. I tend to get all the dramatic scenes on most movies I’m part of. This was particularly special because I had to convey story and emotion without any dialogue. I remember drawing up Carl looking at the adventure book and getting emotional as I made it. I had to take breaks because I was too much in the moment, tearing up. When we watch our story reels I see people wipe tears from their eyes. You know you’ve got something when a bunch of lines on paper are making people cry.

Q: Dug harkens back to classic comedians like Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Stan Laurel. How much of that was intentionally scripted and how much of it did Bob Peterson bring to the performance?

Ronnie del Carmen: We love Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Stan Laurel movies. As animators we gravitate to communicating visually and through behavior, so this is where we love to play. Bob Peterson, as the writer of the movie, created and wrote all of Dug throughout. We threw in other ideas from the crew here and there, but it was written by Bob Peterson mostly. And then during recording he would improv all manner of experiments and a lot of them we used because, well, that man is funny! For Dug’s Special Mission I wrote the story and dialogue and Bob Peterson came to the rescue, bringing his Dug performance and advice. I’m a lucky man.

Q: Why did you decide to provide Dug with his own special adventure in the short instead of the other main characters?

Ronnie del Carmen: Dug shows up in the movie talking about being on a special mission and we never talked about it again in the movie. I immediately wanted to find out what happened. “Dug’s Special Mission” is really about how Dug remembers these moments. Dug has such a fragmented attention span that his continuity is likely not very spot on. Dug is easily the most lovable character in the movie and you can’t help but want to see more of him. I would love to feature Alpha someday as well as Gamma, voiced by Jerome Ranft. Those two crack me up. Maybe someday I’ll get a shot at that.

Q: Did you work on Dug’s Special Mission with Pete Docter and Bob Peterson?

Ronnie del Carmen: I did work with Pete Docter and Bob Peterson on this. Their involvement was crucial since we three were always part of telling the larger story of the movie. It made sense that I go to them for advice. Pete Docter can see other potentials to the idea and Bob Peterson can instantly give me the character of Dug’funny nuances I then use. It was a dream. I’m also so hooked on working together with these two guys. Hope to get together again on another project soon.

Q: When did you start working on the new short, and how long did it take to finish?

Ronnie del Carmen: I think that I had the idea for the short as soon as the movie was in production, right around the layout phase. I storyboarded a rough version quickly and pitched it to Jonas Rivera and Pete Docter around late spring 2008. I figured that I would be finished with story duties and could jump on a short. But the third act lingered on our plate for a while and I had to do double duty (I also took on illustrating the book, My Name is Dug. I am a glutton for punishment). We got approval from Disney by January 2009 and got into production right away. We finished in June this year.

Q: What was your favorite part of directing Dug’s Special Mission? What was the toughest part of the gig?

Ronnie del Carmen: Well, I get to tell a story that was intriguing me while making the movie. Dug is such a great character to the workshop that people involved in the short film loved working on it. Hey, I got to work with Pete Docter and Bob Peterson on the story–while we were still finishing the movie. John Lasseter weighed in and gave me awesome advice. I got to work with a great cadre of people who were there to find creative solutions to the story I was trying to tell. And as for the tough part, well, it’s always the story that’s tough but also working with the time constraint of making a short that’s only 4.5 minutes.

Q: With ‘Dug’s Special Mission‘ included with the upcoming video release, would you like to see a sequel or some sort of storyline with Dug or perhaps even Russell and Dug, or Russell and the other dogs in the future?

Ronnie del Carmen: I definitely would love to do the continuing stories of Dug. I had a scene in the original storyboard to Dug’s Special Mission that had him flying an airplane. We cut it because of the length and it seemed out of place with other gags. But I still want to see him in a plane some day. There are stories in my head that tell of how he got into Muntz’ pack. Dug in that pack looks like a mistake’an oversight. I would love to tell that earlier story of how he got there. Certainly Muntz and Dug, and Russell and Dug. Carl and Dug too! But all that is up to the fates if any of it happens. Maybe you can put together a petition.

Q: What interested you the most about Dug’s character ?

Ronnie del Carmen: Dug is such a sweet dog and his heart is out there. Because of that he also gets taken advantage of. In a pack of soldier dogs he is definitely out of place as the cuddly lovable one. You empathize with him right away. That and the voice characterization of Bob Peterson gives us that Dug persona that instantly makes you love the character.