Flying high: Pixar veteran Pete Docter is 'Up' for 3D adventure

Up is the tenth feature from the brain trust at Pixar, and director Pete Docter has been there as a key contributor for the entire remarkable run of instant animated classics. A 19-year veteran of the Emeryville, Calif.-based studio, Docter was supervising animator and an Oscar-nominated co-writer of Pixar’s groundbreaking first feature, Toy Story (1995), served as a storyboard artist on A Bug’s Life (1998), and made his feature directing debut with the uproarious, wildly successful Monsters, Inc. (2001). And just this year, Docter received another Oscar nomination as co-writer of the universally acclaimed Wall-E.

Docter returns to the director’s role with the new Up, which has already achieved a coup as the first animated feature and first 3D project chosen to open the Cannes Film Festival, prior to its theatrical release by Disney on May 29.

Pixar films are distinguished by their immaculate craft and smart, highly original screenplays, and Up rises to that high standard. Co-written by Docter and Bob Peterson (who also receives a co-director credit), the story centers on Carl Fredricksen, a cantankerous 78-year-old widower and balloon salesman whose longtime home is being threatened by urban development. When the city finally succeeds in evicting him, he hatches a scheme to escape by tying thousands of big balloons to his house. As his humble homestead breaks free of the Earth and soars into the air, it’s also the fulfillment of a longtime dream Carl and his late wife Ellie had of going on a daring adventure. The only hitch: the excitable eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell who becomes an accidental stowaway on this fanciful flight.

Like a gourmet rat in a kitchen, or a good-hearted robot in a post-apocalyptic world, the concept of Up is anything but typical animation fare. Docter recalls the genesis of the idea: “At the beginning of ’04, Bob Peterson and I were thinking of ideas and things we always wanted to play with, and one of them was a grouchy old man. There have been a lot of great examples in cinema, like Walter Matthau and Spencer Tracy, as well as cartoons—George Booth does these great New Yorker cartoons of sullen old guys that are hilarious… I noticed a lot of the ideas were about escape, escaping the world, and when we hit on this idea of a house floating off, it felt right. I know it’s something I think about a lot, getting away from the world. And, of course, what you ultimately need, which Carl figures out, is a reconnection with people.”

The film begins with a delightful montage of short vignettes that chronicle Carl’s life up to this point, from his boyhood encounter with the feisty young tomboy who would later become his bride, through his loving and happy marriage, and the first signs of his wife’s illness. Docter feels the sequence was “just something we needed to make you care about this guy, and want what he wants”—an astute decision, since the elderly Carl is not exactly the friendliest of company.

Carl and Russell eventually land in an isolated, lush, surreal region of South America, where among the first creatures they encounter is a multi-colored, 14-foot-tall flightless bird which Russell bonds with and names “Kevin.” “I’m sure that a certain percentage of people are going to say, ‘You guys have a wild imagination,’ but [the settings] are all based on real life,” Docter attests. “These tabletop mountains, these strange rock shapes and strange plants are real—though we didn’t see any 14-foot-tall flightless birds. There are about 120 of these mountains, and they’re so remote and inaccessible that about half of them have never been set foot on by people. And it physically represents what our main character is all about, this island on land.”

In this strange lost world, Carl recognizes the spot he and Ellie once dreamed of going, and in what will surely be the movie’s most indelible image, he and Russell hike through the jungle, dragging the balloon-suspended house behind them. But along the way, they must contend with a pack of aggressive hunting dogs trained by a brilliant explorer who has equipped them with special collars that vocalize whatever the canines are thinking, often to comic effect.

Perhaps the most creatively daring aspect of Up is the decision to center the action around a septuagenarian in this age of youth-oriented demographics. An April 6 New York Times article reported that some Wall Street types and toy retailers were nervous about the box-office and merchandising potential of this old man’s odyssey. Docter responds, “I’ve been really pleased working with, of course, [Pixar head] John Lasseter from day one, and [Disney CEO] Bob Iger, who said, ‘Listen, your job is to make the best movie you possibly can. That’s it. The marketing is another department.’

“My thought on it is, when people enjoy a movie, the marketing products are almost like a souvenir from that experience. So if I do my job right and make the characters interesting and the world engaging and the story compelling, then the rest will follow. We never really start out approaching these stories thinking, ‘What are the 12 to 15-year-old boys going to want to purchase?’ We think about what is emotionally engaging to us as audience members.”

Asked if he himself had any hesitation about his aged lead character, Docter insists, “I can’t remember that ever coming up. Basically, it just came down to: Is he appealing? Do I feel for him? And we worked really hard on that. I think there is a connection between kids and their grandparents, this built-in strong connection. We were able to take advantage of that in the film, and I hope the audience will feel that as well.”

Carl is voiced by Ed Asner, the Emmy-winning actor best known as the curmudgeonly Lou Grant on the “Mary Tyler Moore” series. “We basically made a list of a bunch of actors,” Docter recalls, “and we had some people in development pull audio clips. We already had the design. We’d sit and stare at this sculpture of Carl, and just listen to which voices seemed to fit. We probably recognized Ed’s, but he just has that great comic timing and gruffness, yet he’s still likeable. It just fit perfectly.”

Russell is played by newcomer Jordan Nagai. “When Jordan started, he was seven. He had never acted before. I wanted somebody who sounded authentic, who didn’t sound like they were acting, which seems to happen with a lot of kids—they have this Broadway sense. We cast him based on his voice, and then we had to work with him quite a bit to get some of the acting. We tried a lot of physical tricks to get him excited, like: ‘We’re going to do jumping jacks! Go! Go! Go! Now run up to the microphone and say the line!’ I’d flip him upside-down and tickle him as he read a line so that he’d laugh. Whatever it took.”

In a milestone for the studio, Up is the first Pixar feature to be released in 3D. Docter says that suggestion came from Lasseter, about a year before the project, already in development, got into “heavy production.” “We did a bunch of research, looking at films and trying to figure out how it works and what works and why. We set up a separate department headed by Bob Whitehill, and they tried to do everything possible to make it work as well as it could. We used it almost the way we would use color or cinematography, to try to emphasize emotional aspects or storytelling. For example, when Carl is by himself in his house, we squashed space to make it feel claustrophobic. Then, in contrast, when he takes off and his house lifts off into the sky, we really pushed depth to make it freeing… The stuff I was most surprised at was that the depth of the jungle has this richness—you feel immersed in this world and it’s really cool.”

Despite the huge roster of 3D animated films in development, Docter feels there’s still a place for traditional 2D, hand-drawn animation, citing Disney’s own upcoming The Princess and the Frog. “If you keep it fresh and interesting and unique and let the artist do their job, then it has every bit of potential as anything else,” he declares.

“There’s something so direct about a drawing,” he reflects. “It’s almost like it’s an extension of a person’s arm. When they draw, they’re not thinking, they’re just doing it, and their feelings are translated more directly. Even here, as they’re designing characters or planning out the action, it’s really cool to see that. It’s such a pure expression of the person.

“The computer, of course, has other strengths. It has this incredible ability to bring detail and capture subtlety of light-play across a surface. It’s really rich and deep, but it’s a little more remote as a creative process. You have to know what you want and be a little more half-scientist and analyze what you’re after and how to get there.”

Docter is justly proud of Pixar’s amazing track record of success, which he credits to leader John Lasseter and the highly collaborative environment he’s established. And he’s confident that Up will not let the public down. “The truth is, at some point every one of our films has been a disaster. It’s just that we have a process that encourages us to take risks and potentially make mistakes, and have the time to fix things. [Co-founder] Ed Catmull and John have made it clear that we will not release something that we don’t feel is the best we can do.”