In the first of a two-part series, resident film buff Conor Barry talks to the brains behind Disney Pixar’s latest movie Up. First up (ahem) is director Pete Docter
Pixar are known for their unconventional film concepts. Their latest, Up, may be the strangest of all: an elderly widower uses his house as a transportation device to fulfil a childhood dream of adventuring to South America. This is clearly not your standard children’s film fare. otwo caught up with director Pete Docter to get the inside scoop on this strange idea.
“It actually evolved from another that was even more bizarre, so when we landed on the old man and the floating house, that seemed a little tame by comparison,” reminisces Docter. “And I think the important thing was that we had already arrived at an emotional foundation when you met this guy as a kid. And I think that’s what really landed the story; by the time he floats his house away you’re like, ‘yeah, that’s great!’, and that’s important.”
“It would take – and we figured it out – twenty-three-and-a-half million balloons to lift the house”
One of the major appeals of any Pixar film is that they aim for both kids and adults. This is taken to the extreme in Up with the first ten minutes producing more tears than laughs. Was Docter consciously catering to both children and adults? “Not really,” he admits. “I mean, we know there are going to be kids watching, starting with my own, so I definitely had that in the back of my head.”
No; instead Docter seems to be aiming much closer to home. “I’m the first audience,” laughs Docter, “so I’m trying to entertain myself and the other guys I’m working with. It’s a very collaborative group effort so I’m making sure that [co-director] Bob Peterson and my close collaborators are all having a good time. At some point, like every four months, we show it to the other directors and if those guys fall asleep we know we’ve got some issues.”
A noticeable point about Docter’s backlog of films (which includes the underrated, by Pixar standard, Monsters Inc.) is that he tends to include children in his films. I was curious to see how difficult it was to work with newcomer Jordon Nagai who provides the voice for naive sidekick Russell. “We’ll do the copy game where we’ll be like, ‘Say it like this’, and we’ll do it and he’ll do it back. Then we’ll say, ‘Louder!’ That was especially true of Nagai. He was seven when we started and he had never acted before. We just liked his voice; he had a very sweet kind of innocent voice. To get him to some of the places we needed in the film was not easy.” But the effort shows with Nagai giving one of the most realistic child performances in recent memory. “I think the way we originally wrote it was quite different and it just wasn’t playing; we couldn’t get what we wanted from Jordan. So we rewrote it to better suit the type of kid he was, and that’s where we ended up. So, it’s by listening to the actors and sensing what works and what doesn’t. You know, the actors themselves affected the characters quite a bit.”
Pixar are known for pushing the boundaries of CGI technology and Up is no different. The film goes for a purposely simplistic style that was anything but easy to program. Why did Docter decide to go for this drawing style of animation? “Here’s my thinking. Okay, it’s a film about a guy who ties balloons to his house and floats away. And you could do this in live action special effects, you can try to tell the same story in live action. But I don’t know that you’d ever quite fully accept it unless you made it a kind of [Monty Python artist] Terry Gilliam-stylised world. It would take – and we figured it out – twenty-three-and-a-half million balloons to lift the house. And that would be impossible to blow them up and tie them to the roof. Even then it would probably rip the chimney out as opposed to flying the house.
“So we needed to create a world in which a floating house was possible. If you shoot everything with tons of detail and sound and dialogue and everything, to me that’s not as affecting as taking some things away. So in the end we ended up making it fairly stylised; we stripped away all the dialogue and in doing so, I think – the same with the design, even by stripping away and caricaturing design – you encourage the audience to imbue the character in the movie with a little bit more of their own. They’re able to project their own ‘what are they talking about here?’ or ‘what happened right before that?’ And it becomes more alive in their own head than had I just fed them everything.”
Pixar have always made more than just children’s films, but they gained a new respectability recently when they became the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival. At this stage does Docter accept that his films are being viewed as ‘art’?
“I think the line between the two is blurry,” he contends, “because I always feel like art is entertainment – and I know that might sound kind of weird, or crass, but it’s about communication; so even though it’s an ink splotch on a canvas, if it doesn’t say something to the audience that’s looking at it, I don’t really get it. It has to speak somehow and the audience has to look at it and go, ‘I’m affected by this’.