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Roger Tennis

CLIPS "UP" VIRTUAL ROUNDTABLE INTERVIEW

by Roger Tennis

 

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BFCA member PFCS member

UP DVDRoger participated in an “Up” filmmaker virtual roundtable with Director and Writer, Pete Docter and Co-Director and Writer, Bob Peterson on October 30, 2009.

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

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. 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.

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. Story wise we had finally cracked Carl's motivation for escaping life - that he had lived an amazing relationship with his wife 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: This isn't the first time Pixar chose an old man as the main character in a plot; I remember the wonderful short “Geri's Game”. But could you talk about the challenge of conceiving 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: Was there a draft of the script before you took the research trip to Venezuela, 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 whose bones cause Muntz's Geographic society to doubt his credibility.

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 (toward the end of the film).

Bob Peterson: Great question. The love story was the spine of the 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? If you could go back and change one thing about the movie after the fact, what would it be?

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 five years of work!

Q: Who came up with the idea to cast Ed Asner as Carl? UP recording session with Bob Peterson, Ed Asner ad Pete Docter

Bob Peterson: Once Pete and I had arrived at the idea of doing an old man movie, the thought of Ed Asner came fairly early on. Good casting at Pixar is an exercise of balance. Woody in "Toy Story" could have been perceived as unappealing when he was jealous of Buzz if we had the wrong voice for him, but Tom Hanks brings such a natural appeal that he balanced any of Woody's negatives. The same with Ed Asner. Ed's soulfulness balanced his curmudgeon side. When Ed saw the small statue of his character when he came in to read for us he said, "It looks nothing like me!" We knew from that, that Ed was the perfect voice for Carl.

 Q: Was it intentional to have Carl look like he's made of cubes? If so, why make him so blockish looking? Are all of the characters based on geometric shapes?

Bob Peterson: Absolutely. Rick Nierva who is the production designer is a big fan of creating characters whose shapes give clues to their personalities. A cube is not something that rolls or moves fast - it is very stable - perfect for Carl. A circle can roll and move fast - great for Russell. The more realistic we go with our characters, the less appealing they become because humans have the great ability to discern what is real in a human face and what is not. Basing characters on shapes caricatures them, moves them away from reality, and in a way let's the audience’s left brain relax so that they can be more involved with the emotional journey of the characters.

Q: Who or what was the inspiration for Charles Muntz?

 Pete Docter: For Carl, 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 Fawcett.

Bob Peterson: Charles Muntz in story terms is "Carl Fredriksen at the end of the line." In other words, if Carl had made it to Paradise Falls without accepting others into his life, then he would have gone crazy, wallowing in his unfinished quest. Carl is represented by a square shape. So as far as shape language, Muntz is a "collapsed square." He ended up having more diamond shapes as if a square has collapsed upon itself. From real reference, we looked at the grand adventurers of the last century including Lindbergh. We looked at Howard Hughes, being a sort of inventor/adventurer. We also looked at photos of Errol Flynn and even the dapper photos of Walt Disney in the 1930s with his pencil thin mustache.

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, and 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: 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: Bob, Dug is definitely an interesting character. Did 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: How was the idea for collars enabling dogs to talk arrived at? How much of it was comedy and how much of it was inspired by fact?

 Bob Peterson: 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. 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 in that new relationships are always offered to us, and it is up to us to act on them.

Q: One of the most amazing things in “Up,” I think, is the treatment of the love story between Carl and Ellie, this is a true love beyond death. Could you explain to us the development of this crucial storyline?

Bob Peterson: Great question. The love story was the spine of the 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: What are the challenges of writing for animated movies that one might not face with live action, and how do you overcome those challenges?

Pete Docter: We approach our writing exactly as one would approach a live-action screenplay; the focus is on character and keeping the audience engaged. Our whole process is remarkably similar to live- action; we have cinematographers, lighters, costume designers, etc. We use different tools to get there, but the creative process is the same.

Q: How did Tom McCarthy get involved in the writing of “Up”?

Pete Docter: We had referenced Tom's film "The Station Agent" as we worked out the structure of Up.” 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 “Ratatouille” for a while and I was left all alone. 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?" He was on for three months, and it was in his draft that we added the character of Russell, which of course we kept once Bob came back on.

Q: Bob - You said Dug is a mentor for Carl. Could you explain how?

Bob Peterson: Russell is a bit easier to pinpoint as a mentor. His line "it's the boring things that I remember most" is meant to work at Carl and move him toward an appreciation of the small adventures in life. Dug's undying and immediate canine love "I have just met you and I love you," and "I was under your porch because I love you" is an indirect lesson for Carl that love is always around him, if he will only accept it.

Q: As far as the animation style of “Up” goes, instead of going for “as close to realism as possible” kind of visuals, “Up” has an almost caricatured style, especially with the facial features highlighting big points, rather than looking like a human head. What influenced the style of “Up,” and why did you decide to go this route?

Pete Docter: The story called for Carl to float his house into the air buoyed by balloons. For that to be believable, we felt it would be necessary to caricature the world -- and therefore the characters as well. I think if we made it look photo-real, you wouldn't believe it as readily. We work in animation, so we can do things that can't be done in any other medium. So the idea of simplifying and caricature is always exciting to me.

Q: How do the visuals of “Up” compare with other Pixar films?

 Bob Peterson: This movie hits a nice balance of caricature in the shape of the characters, and realism in the lighting, atmospheres. I especially like that many of the textures in the film are "hand made" created with single brush strokes of paint and then used as textures. Computer Graphics can now almost do anything - fur in “Monster's Inc.,” oceans in “Finding Nemo,” realistic trash heaps in “WALL•E,” but the nice thing is that now we can all relax and just do movies where the look is appropriate for the emotional journey in the story.

Q: Was the choice of presenting the film in 3D a conscious decision from the beginning? How does it affect the production process?

Pete Docter: We started the process for "Up" in 2D, with the focus just on the story and the characters. 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," and 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. 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.

Q: Pete and Bob, you’ve both worked as writer, director and even provided some of the voices for a few of the characters in your films. What do you enjoy doing most and why?

 Bob Peterson: I have been lucky to have worked in most of the animation spectrum - from purely technical over to purely creative. A new industry like computer animation (now 30 years old or so) allows for that sort of variance in jobs. I love the people I work with, I love writing a funny line and hearing it as a huge laugh in the theater, and I also love leaving my desk and performing in front of a microphone and creating characters. They’re all my favorite.

Q: We saw the video of the trip to gain artistic inspiration for “Up”...what are some examples of other inspirations for animated elements in your work that came from more mundane/conventional sources?

Pete Docter: Doing research is one of the best parts of working on these films. One day we brought in an ostrich. It was cool to see an ostrich running around on the front lawn here. And of course the film was a great excuse to bring in our dogs. We also went to a few retirement homes. We formed a band and played Tin Pan Alley-type tunes and went in to play for them. As we played, we were secretly taking mental notes and doing sketches behind our ukuleles. It was great -- we got good research, and they said we were the best act to play there in months!

Q: Other than the trip to South America, what inspired the story of “Up”?

Bob Peterson: Various things, including the lives of our own grandparents. For example, I had a grandfather who always wanted to go west from Ohio, but never got the chance. I had the foresight to videotape my grandparents’ home after they had passed 20 years ago. There are the side by side chairs - one soft and one hard which absolutely paralleled who they were as people. Many of our life experiences with our wives and children were put into play in the script, and of course living with our dogs gave us great insight into dog behavior!

Q: My favorite scene was Carl's montage at the beginning. It seems like such a simple idea, but I'm sure it was complicated. Can you explain the process of how the montage evolved?

Pete Docter: That was probably the scene I'm most proud of in the film. It came into play early as we developed the story of this guy floating away in his house, and we asked ourselves, "Why is he doing that?" We figured there was some sort of loss or unfulfilled dream that he was trying to make right, and so we came up with the back-story of Carl and his wife. We initially constructed it as a compressed series of small short scenes, with dialogue and sound effects. Little snippets of life. When Ronnie del Carmen started to storyboard it, we felt like it would be nice to reduce it, simplify it, and take the dialogue out. My parents shot a lot of super 8 movies of our family growing up. Watching them now, there's something really emotional about not having any sound. That allows, I think, the audience to participate more actively and kind of imagine, "What are they talking about there?" Or "what happened right before this moment? " And that feeling was all part of what went into the scene...these really beautiful, little, real-life moments showing the highs and lows of life. Carl's true adventure was their relationship together.

Q: Both of you are animators, does it help to have that background to be a good director on a film like this?

Bob Peterson: Pete is the gifted animator between the two of us. I hail more from the world of storyboarding and cartooning with a bit of animation experience (I worked on Sid in “Toy Story”). The great thing that Pete possesses, partly from being an animator is that he is a good student of movement and entertaining physical actions. Being a cartoonist, I spent a lot of time with staging, drawing appeal and dialogue. It's great that we bring different strengths to the table. That said, Pete is a great writer and story man and our skills blur. So to really answer your question, it does help.

Q: How did Michael Giacchino come to the project? How was working with him?

Pete Docter: Michael had worked with Brad Bird on "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" 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 40s and 50s, the Disney films and Frank Capra and films like that. We wanted to evoke that kind of a feel. And 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, "Okay, 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 make changes, sometimes right on the spot. He was very open to whatever the film needed. He's a filmmaker. He 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.

Q: Were you concerned at all with delivering such an emotional gut-punch so early in the first act?

Bob Peterson: We weren't concerned as much as we were vigilant. We knew that we were traversing deep emotional terrain early in the film and we wanted to keep that thread of emotion alive as the film progressed. The reason we went so deep was because we wanted the audience to buy that Carl would lift his house and go on such an audacious adventure. We wanted to keep Ellie alive in the second and third acts, as if she were along for the journey, and so we created a few "talismans" to do so - objects with symbolic meanings - such as the adventure book, the house itself, the colorful sash on Russell (and his Ellie-like sense of adventure) and the colorful bird. At the end of the second act, when Carl reads the adventure book, Ellie is there to give him the wisdom to keep going. It was our hope that in keeping Ellie's spirit alive throughout the film, her passing earlier would be more poignant.

Q: “Up” became the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival. Do you believe animated features are becoming accepted as a more serious artistic platform?

Pete Docter: We were very honored to be the first animated film to open the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. 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. And it's nice to see the world looking at it that way as well.

Well folks, it looks like it's time for me to get back to work. Nice talking to you all -- see you soon! --Pete Docter

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

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