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Up up and away?

Pixar team gets a lift out of collaborating on new film

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By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 24, 2009
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"How do you even describe the story?" asked Pete Docter, the codirector, with Bob Peterson, of "Up," the latest feature from Pixar Animation Studios. "We've sort of laughingly been calling it an action adventure with an old man. But I don't know that that fully describes it."

No, it doesn't. Docter's description leaves out the house lifted by children's balloons all the way to South America; Russell, the chubby young friend of Carl (below right), the old man (voiced by Ed Asner), who tags along; the talking dog who adopts them; and the very large bird named Kevin being ruthlessly pursued by the movie's villain (Christopher Plummer).

Then there are the related matters that are even harder to describe: the unique place Pixar has come to have in American film, with its consistent combination of commercial success and artistic excellence; or how much is riding on "Up." The movie marks as much of a departure (balloon-aided or otherwise) for Pixar as last year's "WALL-E," which Docter helped write. He also helped write "Monsters, Inc.," which he directed, and both "Toy Story" movies.

Consider two facts about "Up." Ten days ago, it was the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival. Yet last month The New York Times reported that stock analysts feared that Disney's share price would be driven down by the movie's unorthodox story. Besides having a 78-year-old hero, it offers far fewer opportunities for ancillary revenues from toys and the like than most animated movies. (Carl does sport several spectacularly awful ties that could inspire a line of retro neckwear, though.)

Docter, who was in Boston last month to promote the film, laughed when asked how it felt to be able to affect the price of Disney stock.

"Thankfully, I don't think about that," Docter said. "[Disney CEO] Bob Iger just said, 'Don't worry about it. You guys do what you do. Your job is to make great films. We'll worry about the rest.' I think that's the right attitude."

Docter, 40, is a Pixar lifer. The third animator hired there, he reported to work in 1990 the day after he graduated from the California Institute of Arts. Pixar is sort of a CalArts mafia. Other alumni there include the writer-directors John Lasseter ("Toy Story"), Brad Bird ("The Incredibles"), and Andrew Stanton ("Wall-E").

"We are the first audience [for a Pixar film]," Docter said of his colleagues. "Part of our job is just to be a filmwatcher, an audience member. I think that's one of the keys to the success of the studio."

When it was suggested that was a pretty tough audience, Docter responded with a belly laugh - a slightly nervous belly laugh.

"In some ways, those screenings are more nerve-racking than showing it to the general public. I know at the end I'm going up to the room and they're going to have a lot to say." Again Docter laughed (he laughs a lot, actually). "But it's also great. That's where you start poking at the weaknesses. They expose things I hadn't seen, come up with great ideas that, ultimately, I get to take credit for."

Docter was being overly modest. "He's a genius," Asner, in a telephone interview, said on the subject of how much credit he deserves. "I have enormous affection and admiration for him."

All angles and joints, Docter has the look of a basketball player: lanky, loose-limbed. In fact, he looks a little like a particular basketball player, his fellow Minnesotan Kevin McHale (it's the deep-set eyes and high forehead).

Docter's interest in animation came very early. "Bugs Bunny was just a staple every Saturday," he recalled. "I'd have to wake up to watch 'The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show.' A lot of my work as an animator, prior to directing, was because of that. It's almost like the Carl Stalling music is engrained in my head. I almost hear the action before I see it." He hummed a few bars of cartoony music.

"Chuck Jones I loved. Even as a kid, I could pick out his work. I think on that show they'd cut off the credits at the beginning. But I could already tell that Bugs Bunny is more interesting to me than that Bugs Bunny. Chuck Jones was definitely somebody I looked up to. I was probably 7 or 8. Then I started doing flipbooks. I was not a kid who really enjoyed drawing. But as soon as I could make it look like it was alive, moving, that was the hook."

Docter felt from an early age that he'd be an animator - but he had no idea his career in animation would be anything like the one he's had. "I thought coming out of school I'd be a guy sitting at a desk drawing. I wouldn't have thought I'd be working with computers - let alone directing. Life takes you on some weird twists and turns."

It's pointed out that Carl could say the same thing in "Up." "That's right," Docter agreed." But that's part of the fun of it, right?"

The other main characters in "Up" might be found in any animated feature: a boy, a dog, a bird, a cru-el villain. Carl is the joker in the deck.

"Oh yeah," Asner said, when asked if he likes the character he plays.

"Carl is the audience," Asner added. "He's everyman. He represents a great many of our elder people. And he's far nicer than most of them. In actuality, he's a very, very nice man. I'm not as nice as he is," Asner added with a chuckle.

It's a tricky thing casting an actor to play just a voice, Docter said.

"We do end up tailoring the writing to the actors. So we'd realize, 'Oh, Ed wouldn't use this word.' Or, 'He'd phrase it in a different way.' So usually the first recording session, or two, we don't really use any of it because we know we're going to learn from the actor. The only exception I can think of is Christopher Plummer. We only had three recording sessions with him, and he was so strong out of the gate - he's just, yow! That guy knows what he's doing. So does Ed, too, of course."

Asner noted he had a long history of vocal parts: audiobooks and documentary narration, as well as other animation work. "I call myself a musical instrument," he said, "and they have written the chords. We keep working on it until they hear the chords as they wrote them. Or whatever comes up modifies the chord, which we may find in the process. I may even have the temerity to suggest a line change. They may even have the good sense to say maybe to my suggestion."

Docter said there was no maybe about it. He couldn't imagine "Up" as anything other than a group effort. "It's a weird dichotomy. This is a very personal film, yet it's intensely collaborative. No one person could do this. I'm relying on the 10 films' worth of experience that each department has honed over the years and brings to the film. So as a director, what I'm trying to do when I'm, say, handing out a scene to the animators, is not tell them too specifically what I want. 'On frame seven, I want him to grab the bottle.' It's more the feeling. 'Remember, he's just run seven miles. He's exhausted, he's angry.' Just tell [the animators] those sorts of details and think of them more like an actor. Let them bring their ideas to the thing."

Once again Docter laughed, this time ruefully. "It's such a massive job. There were 300 people working on this thing at its peak. You need all the help you can get."

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.