A conversation with the makers of Up

A conversation with the makers of Up – By Simon Miraudo

If there are any filmmakers worth delving into the seemingly vast and infinite imaginations of, it is the crew at Pixar. In the past two decades they have created universes as disparate and unique as the most inventive child could forge. They’ve made rats seem as cute as clownfish; they brought psychology and inadequacy to the realm of the superhero genre well before The Dark Knight even had a chance; with their latest film Up, they turned a septuagenarian widower into an action hero that would make Walt Kowalski shiver in his boots.

Up tells the story of Carl Frederickson, a 78-year-old man who lives an isolated life in which he fantasises about his younger years with plucky wife Ellie. Now all alone, Carl intends to fulfill one final promise to his late wife and set out on a South American adventure. He ties hundreds of helium balloons to his home and sets flight, accidentally taking an impressionable boy scout named Russell with him.

Late last year I was given the opportunity to participate in a Virtual Roundtable with the writers/directors of Up, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, as well as Head of Story Ronnie Del Carmen. It was a funky little concept; members of the media would login to a special website at a specific time and post questions to the filmmakers, and then they filmmakers would respond, a’la Facebook chat. Of course, the questions were strongly moderated, so Docter, Peterson and Del Carmen would not be bombarded all at once (and no doubt to keep the more controversial questions out – I asked Ronnie Del Carmen for any details on the abandoned “homosexual” plotline from Ratatouille; the question did not get published).

Regardless, the questions Docter, Peterson and Del Carmen answered indeed provided a fascinating insight into one of the best films of 2009. I hope one day I am able to speak to these filmmakers one on one, and see if I can figure out exactly what it is that makes the team at Pixar such successful dreamweavers.

Because of the nature of the interview, there are a lot of questions from many different journalists featured here (sadly, all anonymous). I had a few of my questions answered, so I’ll begin with those, and then I’ll follow with some of the more interesting questions and answers from the remainder of the roundtable. The following contains mild spoilers for Up.

Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (Co-Directors/Screenwriters)

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: 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: 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.”

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: 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: 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.”

Ronnie Del Carmen (Head of Story)

Q: Were there any elements of “Up” that you particularly championed and/or fought to keep in?

Ronnie Del Carmen: “Between Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and myself we all tended to tackle aspects of the story that we felt close to. Our collaboration is all over the movie. I gravitated towards the drama and emotional weight of scenes and moments. The third act also had many challenges that I helped to chisel away at over the course of making the movie. Muntz’s story was particularly troubling because he shows up so late in the movie. We also tried many ways to end the movie. I had made sequences that explored viable endings that I really believed in. They worked, but in the end we had to pick just a few elements from these explorations and put them into the ending you see in the movie. You will have a chance to see some more of those explorations in the Blu-ray and DVD.”

Q: Since Carl and Russell are at different stages in their lives how did you tackle the dialogue between the characters so there was chemistry?

Ronnie Del Carmen: “It’s Carl’s story and we knew we had a boxed-in curmudgeon who was set in his ways and wanted no help from anyone. As storytellers, we are familiar with the act of putting your characters in trees and then throwing rocks at them, so to speak. Russell was a big rock that we threw at Carl. He was the direct opposite of Carl: free, unfettered and wanting to help anyone. Plus, he needed his “Assisting the Elderly” badge. We knew this would surely aggravate someone like Carl. That kind of conflict is fun to watch and write.”

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 one of the writers of the movie, created and wrote most of Dug. We threw in other ideas from the crew here and there, but it was primarily Bob Peterson. During recording he would improvise and experiment, and a lot of that we used because, well, that man is funny! For “Dug’s Special Mission” (a bonus short-film on the DVD) I wrote the story and dialogue, and Bob Peterson came to the rescue, bringing his Dug performance and advice. I’m a lucky man.”

Up is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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