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Planes: Kidzworld Gets an Early Look

Jul 22, 2013

By: Lynn Barker

After Disney/Pixar’s “Cars” films drove their way into the hearts of millions, the Disney gurus asked “Hummm, what other cool machines could we turn into characters for a fun movie?” The most workable answer was, of course, planes!

Kidzworld was invited to an early screening of the film followed by discussions with filmmakers at the DisneyToon Studios in Glendale, California. Ironically, the land where the DisneyToon buildings and Disney Imagineering lie was once part of an air terminal and field and part of Lockheed where planes were built back in the day! We wouldn’t be surprised to see plane “ghosts”.

We’ll say that the film is great fun with some cute and hilarious new characters you can root for and baddie planes you can boo.  How’d they make the film from start to finish?  Come to the studio with us…..

“Creating the Story”

Screenwriter Jeff Howard

Originally the Planes film was going to go direct to video but it came out so cool that the Disney folks decided on a theatrical release first.  

Screenwriter Jeff Howard met with director Klay Hall and Pixar’s John Lasseter and talked about setting a movie about planes into the world of the Cars movies. They came up with the basic idea “Why don’t we do a movie about an air race around the world and what’s an unlikely hero for that story? A crop duster. Let’s call him Dusty and wouldn’t it be great if he goes to this country or that country and it would be cool if he landed on an aircraft carrier and had to be shot off the catapult (like the Top Gun fighter planes)?” 

Top Gun planes Bravo and EchoTop Gun planes Bravo and EchoCourtesy of Disney

This is how animated movie stories are often born and fleshed out.  Then the creators research with real pilots and aviators and go to proposed locales to flesh out more story details. One such story detail: Dusty, as a crop duster plane, has never flown higher than 1000 feet so he’s a plane scared of extreme heights (brilliant idea).

The storytellers learned that crop duster pilots think of themselves as “Agricultural aviators”. Okay!  They learned that planes often followed “the iron compass” meaning railroad tracks to find their ways to their destinations before GPS type equipment was invented. The guys also went to various air museums and air races and landed on aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Carl Vinson to check out the Top Gun-style fighter planes. These people have way too much fun.

The filmmakers listened to the sound of real plane props and engines etc. to make sure their animated planes sounded real. When elderly fighter plane Skipper revs up his engine after years of disuse, it sounds just as clunky as it should.

Reporters are shown early plane animationReporters are shown early plane animationCourtesy of DisneyToon Studios

We wondered if the voice actors inspired any dialogue or jokes?  Jeff said, “Absolutely. That was the great thing about working with a lot of talented comedians. We tried to get experienced comedy actors and actresses in to work on the movie (among other actors like “Desperate Housewives” Terri Hatcher). They will ad-lib stuff and understand their characters. You can go back and change things; write for them, write stuff you know they’ll do well”. 

Is the story of a race too much like Cars? You’ve got the truck sidekick and the old mentor for the lead character as well. “There are definitely similarities but we tried to steer away (pun intended) from Cars and make the thrust of our story different. Like Lightning McQueen from Cars has achieved some fame and needs to learn the importance of family and friends and that the journey is the reward.  Dusty has those things to begin with; a best buddy, a support system but he has a dream to do something. He’s passionate about something that he wasn’t built for. But the (movie is about) talking vehicles so there are some similarities.”

Dusty wins the raceDusty wins the raceCourtesy of Disney

“Creating Believable Worlds”

Art Director Ryan Carlson

On to the visual “look” of the movie: Art director Ryan Carlson told us, “We did a lot of research on every aspect of aviation. We also wanted to incorporate the cool factor of Top Gun (actors Anthony Edwards (Goose) and Val Kilmer (Ice Man) played pilots in the classic movie Top Gun and provide voices for two fighter planes in this movie).

Reporters with Art Director Ryan CarlsonReporters with Art Director Ryan CarlsonCourtesy of DisneyToon Studios

We are shown the many locations the artists and filmmakers visited for inspiration for the locales in the film; air shows, air races, small rural airports in cornfields, the Taj Mahal in India, Germany, China, Mayan temples etc.  They took tons of pictures and did sketches and these locations, modified to reflect a plane culture, are seen in the film. There are plane shapes in the landscape just as there were car shapes in the Cars films. The tiny details are awesome! Cool.

“Character Design”

An attempt was made to make the planes not look too cartoony. They “pudgified” real planes, (i.e. made them a little rounder and chunky. We love that word). For lead character Dusty, they looked at real crop duster planes. Ryan Carlson says the animators almost had to be aircraft engineers to make the planes look believable and real but cute.  Chug, Dusty’s fuel truck buddy, was inspired by an old truck found abandoned next to a tiny rural airport.

Kidzworld reporter's Dusty drawingKidzworld reporter's Dusty drawingCourtesy of DisneyToon Studios

To put Planes into the Cars universe, the artists used bright colors for the planes and pastels for the backgrounds. When animating the flight of the planes, true airspeed was matched for a feeling of reality. All filmmakers subscribe to the Pixar/Lasseter credo: “Truth in materials” which means they don’t make their animated objects do anything they couldn’t do in real life. There are 22 racing planes in the film and there are hundreds of characters in the movie so not easy.

Sample drawings of DustySample drawings of DustyCourtesy of DisneyToon Studios

“Meet the Filmmakers”

Director Klay Hall and Producer Traci Balthazor-Flynn

These are the folks in charge of the crew and who oversee the making of the film. Klay has a family history in aviation. When he was a kid, he and his dad used to get some burgers and go out to the local airport to watch the planes take off and land. His dad was a Navy pilot and he drew pictures of planes as a boy. Both were stoked to get to land on the moving deck of a huge aircraft carrier 150 miles out at sea as part of their Planes research. The U.S. Navy approves the movie.

Director Klay Hall and Producer Traci Balthazor-FlynnDirector Klay Hall and Producer Traci Balthazor-FlynnCourtesy of DisneyToon Studios

They listed as big challenges for the film, putting a “face” on the planes and getting the timing and look of planes in flight just right.

Both Traci and Klay hope audiences get from the film: A good underdog story, the idea that you can step outside your comfort zone and shine and that you can have multi-cultural friends and family that aren’t just like you. Different is not bad. Good guys can get ahead and Traci was happy that the female characters in the film help save the day and are a great part of the story.

Voice Casting the film

Terri Hatcher is smart, talented and tough like her little plane mechanic character Dottie. Kyle had his personal choices and wanted to cast some stand up comedy stars. He picked Sinbad, Cedric the Entertainer, Brad Garrett and John Cleese.. they are all really funny guys. Then the voice actors were matched to the plane or character.

It was especially cool to get the real Top Gun actors, Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards to voice fighter planes. Kyle loves Top Gun. “I knew we’d go to jets in this movie so I thought who better to represent Navy jets than those guys?  Tom Cruise (lead actor as Maverick) was doing Mission Impossible 4 at the time but we got Goose and Iceman!”

Kidzworld's reporter got to record the voice of Dottie, the aircraft mechanic in this fun scene in which she is accusing Dusty of blowing his engine by racing.

“Giving Planes Its Wings”

Sheryl Sackett and Ethan Hurd, Thomas Leavitt and Jason McKinley (the animators)

On big screens, we are shown beginning, crude storyboards to match each scene in the script then an animatic is created.. to “move” those images.  It can take seven months to a year from when the animators get the storyboards to finishing one little scene! We are shown a flight sequence done in crude computer animation.  Dusty’s first successful trial race run – very crude animation matching the voice actors’ soundtracks. This is what the animators have to embellish and perfect. We were told that the team had a mandate, “When the planes are on the ground, they are characters but when they are in the air, they have to behave as real planes with real physics, limitations of real planes. Make it as realistic as possible”.

Sheryl Sackett demonstrates animation detail with DustySheryl Sackett demonstrates animation detail with DustyCourtesy of DisneyToon Studios

Before animating, the entire team talks about the sequence first. What does the scene mean? “Hey, let’s make it like an ESPN TV show coverage”. The animation team watched air races to get the idea. They matched the computer camera angles to a real race and tweaked it a little. The flight had to look real. The passes of animation get more and more realistic and detailed as they go on.

Some animators are in charge of more detailed work, final set build, computer rendering and coloring.

Sheryl says the group uses the same principals of animation used for years at Disney. They try to breathe life into the character.  We are shown one shot from storyboard level to giving a plane character expressions “life” and emotions. First, the animators give basic expressions more detail, eye movement etc. Then the lips are synced with the voice actors’ recording. The animators act out each shot. Even if these are planes, they have human emotions. They move the plane’s eyes and body as much as they can and still stay “real”.  More color and lighting are added. This kind of shot can take two weeks to perfect.

Kidzworld Goes Hands On! 

Each reporter got to have fun using the Maya program at the computer; using the computer mouse to move Dusty’s eyes, wings, mouth, wheels etc. around in various poses as the animators do, being careful not to do anything that a real plane couldn’t do; subtle little movements. The last step is matching the mouth to the dialogue. Very cool.

Reporters learn to draw DustyReporters learn to draw DustyCourtesy of DisneyToon Studios

Then it’s on to the sound recording booth where the actors get to record their dialogue for the movie. We talk with casting director Jason Henkel and get to watch video of some of the actors recording their voices and asking the director questions. Interesting! 

We get more details about the casting process for an animated film: Actor names are brought up then narrowed down in meetings with key filmmakers. The final choices for each role come in an audition or the filmmakers pull a lot of the actors’ old film or TV work and watch it to further narrow down the choices. Final choices to up to John Lasseter at Pixar.

Reporter in sound recording booth with Dottie on the screenReporter in sound recording booth with Dottie on the screenCourtesy of DisneyToon Studios

While the actors record their voices, video is shot of them and that recording goes to the animators to incorporate some of their facial expression or gestures into the animated characters. Actors can collaborate with the director and ask tons of questions while recording.

We’ve gotten to record sample dialogue before (we did a practice recording for Princess Fiona of the Shrek films) but this is a longer scene. We get to be the voice of Dottie, part of Dusty’s repair crew, scolding him for racing when he’s not built for it. We (unlike the actual actors) have to sync up our voices with the already animated footage. Super fun!!

On to another office where we chat with story artists Dan Abraham and Art Hernandez who do the original storyboards of the characters that are then given to the computer animators to bring to life. These guys are also writers because they take the script and are the first to make the characters “live”. They create jokes and dialogue. They try many different designs for each character and actually draw rough pictures of each scene then “pitch” it to the filmmakers. They have to actually act out the scenes playing planes themselves! Fun job.

Story Artists Art Hernandez and Dan AbrahamStory Artists Art Hernandez and Dan AbrahamCourtesy of DisneyToon Studios

The guys said that Planes was one of the hardest jobs they’d done because planes have no hands and they can’t bend etc. They had to use eyes and the mouth for expression.

We learn how to draw “Dusty” the crop duster star of the film! My guy came out a little ‘skinny” but not too bad!

You can see Planes in theaters starting August 9th!