Virtual Interview: Pete Docter & Rob Peterson (writer/directors, UP)

GATW Guest Writer

by: GATW Guest Writer
November 10th, 2009


A few days ago I got the unique opportunity to take part in a virtual round-table interview with Pete Docter and Rob Peterson, the directors of Pixar's UP, which comes out on Blu-ray and DVD today. Usually in a round-table interview, the journalists sit in a room asking the interviewee questions, but it's amazing that the technology now allows us to do this from the comfort of our own living rooms.

Before the event started, the journalists were treated to a short documentary called ADVENTURE IS OUT THERE, which will be available on the DVD and Blu-ray releases. It followed the crew of UP as they traveled to Venezuela to visit the tepuis (the flat-top formations from the film) and do research about what that world looks like. Believe it or not, most of the amazing sights from the UP are real. Except, of course, for the old man in the floating house. That could only come from the imagination of the men and women working at Pixar.

Hit the jump to read the full interview!

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.

To Bob Peterson - did you model Dug's character after any real dogs you know?

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!

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 throughout the production process. 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. Kevin, the bird, was another one that was fun to animate. Tony Rosenast was the story 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.

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.

Did you consider using animals other 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 lovable 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!!!

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.

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.

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.

With UP being a film that is so adventurous and exciting, if there was a ride or attraction for UP at Disneyland or Walt Disney World, 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 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!

Watching one of the special features titled “Adventure Is Out There,” I was surprised to find out that six people 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 second 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.

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.

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!

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

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.

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.

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.

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 13-foot flightless bird. You know, a family! It is up to Carl to accept this new family during 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!

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Who or what was the inspiration for Charles Muntz?

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.

Do you remember the first time you drew something and thought, "Wow, this is something I want to do for a living.” Do you remember what you drew?

Pete Docter: You know how there are always those kids in your elementary school class that are really good at drawing? They sit there and "wow" everyone by drawing horses and tanks and battles and stuff? That was NOT me. I was lousy at drawing. But as soon as I figured out I could make something look like it was moving -- and thinking -- I was hooked. My parents are musicians, as are my sisters, so I was dragged to a lot of concerts growing up. I would always steal everyone's programs and draw all over them, thinking up jokes like, "What would happen if all the strings on his violin broke?" or "What if someone fell in the tuba?" Comic gold, I'm telling you!

Bob Peterson: I remember my teacher in 4th grade commenting on the hands that I drew on a surfer surfing a wave. That was the first time I was conscious of my drawings. But more than my own drawings, I was truly inspired by the cartoons of Charles Schulz as a kid, and I wanted to emulate him - my cartoon strips in college strived to have the Schulzian mix of surrealism and Charlie Brown angst. A bit of that combo shows up in UP.

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.

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.

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.

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.

When you release the final film is it like watching your kids go off into the world? You've shaped it, guided it along, and then you have to let them go and see how they do.

Bob Peterson: Yes. It is interesting watching the movie for the first time at our wrap parties with our crew. We don't ever get to see our movies like a regular audience member because we lived through the creation of the film and see the memories brought forward by each shot and movement we see. When I look at my 14-year-old (who I don't want to grow up and go to college!), I see her as a 3-year-old at the pumpkin patch, the 5th grader at the spelling bee. Those memories are there. When our movies leave us, we hope we've given them enough love and sense to do great things in the world!!

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.

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!

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.

Pete, you've said in the past that you identify strongly with Buzz Lightyear, are there any other characters you identify with?

Pete Docter: Well, I identify strongly with Carl. I often grouse about how things are changing, and "why did they take that item off the menu?!?" I'm going to make a good old man. Weirdly, Kevin the bird is another character I really like. Not that I feel a kinship, but she was a fun character to play around with, because she's so unpredictable.

I love the amount of research that's been put into the look of the mountain tops; were any similar tests conducted into using helium balloons to lift an entire house?

Pete Docter: The first thing our technical team did when they started working on the balloons was to figure out how many balloons it would take to lift a house in real life. Here's his math: Carl's house is 1,600 sq ft. He found some figures saying that the average 1,600 sq ft house weighs about 345,000 lbs, of which 160,000 lbs is from the foundation, and about 30,000 lbs is from the garage. Since Carl lifts off and leaves the foundation behind, that leaves about 155,000 lbs, which is 77.5 US tons or 70,306 kg, which the canopy needs to lift. Accelerating toward the ground at 9.8 m/s2, that's 688,998 N of force from gravity that the canopy has to overcome. With the density of helium at .1786 kg/m3 and representing a balloon as a sphere with a radius of 2.78 ft (like weather balloons), each balloon can generate 4.5 N of buoyant force. To generate at least 688,998 N of force to overcome gravity, you'd need 153,053 helium-filled, 5.56 ft diameter balloons. If you're trying this with big party balloons, at about one foot diameter, then you'd need a whole lot more: about 26.5 million balloons. None of this takes into account the weight of the balloons themselves or the strings to tie them to the house.

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!

Who came up with the idea to cast Ed Asner as Carl?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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