UltimateDisney.com > Interviews > Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, writers/directors of Disney/Pixar's Up

UltimateDisney.com | DVD Reviews | DVDizzy.com: DVD/Blu-ray Schedule | Pixar & Other Theatrical Animation | Upcoming Disney DVDs | Search

Pixar Films on DVD: Toy Story • A Bug's Life • Toy Story 2 • Monsters, Inc. • Finding Nemo • The Incredibles • Cars • Ratatouille • WALL•E • Up
Pixar Films on Blu-ray: A Bug's Life • Monsters, Inc. • Cars • Ratatouille • WALL•E • Up

Up Virtual Roundtable
UltimateDisney.com Presents: Chatting UP Pixar Filmmakers Pete Docter & Bob Peterson

Writer/director Pete Docter and writer/co-director/Dug voice Bob Peterson discuss creating Pixar's latest triumph

Many fans of Up, the tenth and latest feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, are too young to remember a world without computer-animated cinema. But director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson can. The two, who also wrote and voiced parts in Up, were at Pixar back in the early 1990s when the studio made Toy Story. With that 1995 movie and its sequel now in theaters in a 3-D double feature return engagement,
it's easy to call the film an industry-changer. Though traditional methods have faded and competitors have risen, Pixar has continued to lead the field, blazing an unthinkable trail of accolades and box office glory.

A favorite to extend Pixar's winning streak in the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards, Up is also a serious candidate to compete for the newly-expanded Best Picture prize. Before that can happen, however, the movie is destined to become the studio's latest best-selling home video when it arrives next Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray.

Last week, in anticipation of the release, UltimateDisney.com was one of several news outlets invited to participate in a virtual roundtable -- a fancy name for an online question and answer session -- with Docter and Peterson. Here's how it went...

On Animation...

Q: Both of you are animators. Does it help to have that background to be a good director on a film like this?

Bob Peterson: Pete is the gifted animator between the two of us. I hail more from the world of storyboarding and cartooning with a bit of animation experience (I worked on Sid in Toy Story). The great thing that Pete possesses, partly from being an animator is that he is a good student of movement and entertaining physical actions. Being a cartoonist, I spent a lot of time with staging, drawing appeal and dialogue. It's great that we bring different strengths to the table. That said, Pete is a great writer and story man and our skills blur. So to really answer your question, it does help.

Q: [Storyboard artists] Ronnie del Carmen and Peter Sohn both talked about the advantages of collaboration: animators adding stuff you wouldn't have thought of. Are there any scenes in particular where somebody gave you an idea that was better than you originally intended?

Pete Docter: ALL of the scenes got better in animation! But there were certain parts that really came to life once we started in animation -- like where Russell climbs up Carl in an attempt to scramble up to the house. All the business of him stepping on Carl's nose and stomach was stuff we added in animation. The bird was another one that was fun to animate. Tony Rosenast was the storyboard artist, and he came up with really funny stuff for that scene where they meet Kevin, but pantomime characters like Kevin just come to life once you get them moving.

This scene of Russell climbing up the garden hose to reach the house is one Pete Docter cites as improving in the animation process.

Q: Do you remember the first time you drew something and thought, "Wow, this is something I want to do for a living." Do you remember what you drew?

Docter: You know how there are always those kids in your elementary school class that are really good at drawing? They sit there and "wow" everyone by drawing horses and tanks and battles and stuff? That was NOT me. I was lousy at drawing. But as soon as I figured out I could make something look like it was moving -- and thinking -- I was hooked. My parents are musicians, as are my sisters, so I was dragged to a lot of concerts growing up.
I would always steal everyone's programs and draw all over them, thinking up jokes like, "What would happen if all the strings on his violin broke?" or "What if someone fell in the tuba?" Comic gold, I'm telling you!

Peterson: I remember my teacher in 4th grade commenting on the hands that I drew on a surfer surfing a wave. That was the first time I was conscious of my drawings. But more than my own drawings, I was truly inspired by the cartoons of Charles Schulz as a kid, and I wanted to emulate him - my cartoon strips in college strived to have the Schulzian mix of surrealism and Charlie Brown angst. A bit of that combo shows up in Up.

Q: I'd like to know, from both of you, how do your children feel about your job...I bet they think it's great to have a father animator.

Docter: My kids don't seem to think it's unusual or unique. They probably think EVERYBODY works at a company where they ride scooters and eat candy. They're going to have a rude awakening when they graduate...

Peterson: I have 3 kids who each feel differently about my job. My 14-year-old has now grown up with 10 Pixar films. She loves what I do but doesn't want to brag to her friends - she wants to keep it "cool." At the same time she is taken by the glamour of Cannes and the Oscars and wants to go with me to these events! My 7-year-old is a good story sounding board for what is funny to kids. He loves to analyze the humor in our films. My 4-year-old is confused when she hears my voice coming out of dogs and monster slugs!!!

Q: Pete and Bob, you've both worked as writer, director and even provided some of the voices for a few of the characters in your films. What do you enjoy doing most and why?

Peterson: I have been lucky to have worked in most of the animation spectrum, from purely technical over to purely creative. A new industry like computer animation (now 30 years old or so) allows for that sort of variance in jobs. I love the people I work with, I love writing a funny line and hearing it get a huge laugh in the theater, and I also love leaving my desk and performing in front of a microphone and creating characters. They're all my favorite.

Q: Can you give some advice to young people who would like to work in animation?

Peterson: Several things. First of all, just start animating! Don't wait for someone to say it's OK. When I was younger, I drew a comic strip that appeared everyday in my college newspaper - I got to draw a lot and get a ton of feedback from readers. This was invaluable to me as a storyteller today. Always carry a notebook to do sketches. Watch and analyze animation. Go to conferences and get to know people - it is who you know sometimes that does get you the job. The best advice is to make sure to get good life experiences - we draw from our experiences every day in story and animation!

Docter: I get a lot of people telling me, "I'm thinking of making an animated film." Well don't think about it... DO IT! Today's technology makes it easier than ever to create films right in your home. I had a teacher tell me, "You've got 10 thousand bad drawings in you before you get to the good ones. So get drawing." The same goes for films (though as you're making them they're all works of genius).

Carl Fredricksen's balloon-lifted house floats above a South American tepui near his intended destination Paradise Falls.

On Up's origins and story...

Q: On 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?

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!! Storywise, we had finally cracked Carl's motivation for escaping life - that he had lived an amazing relationship with his life 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: Other than the trip to South America, what inspired the story of Up?

Peterson: Various things, including the lives of our own grandparents. For example, I had a grandfather who always wanted to go west from Ohio, but never got the chance. I had the foresight to videotape my grandparents' home after they had passed 20 years ago. There are the side by side chairs - one soft and one hard which absolutely paralleled who they were as people. Many of our life experiences with our wives and children were put into play in the script, and of course living with our dogs gave us great insight into dog behavior!

Q: We saw the video of the trip to gain artistic inspiration for Up...what are some examples of other inspirations for animated elements in your work that came from more mundane/conventional sources?

Docter: Doing research is one of the best parts of working on these films. One day we brought in an ostrich. It was cool to see an ostrich running around on the front lawn here. And of course the film was a great excuse to bring in our dogs. We also went to a few retirement homes. We formed a band and played Tin Pan Alley-type tunes and went in to play for them. As we played, we were secretly taking mental notes and doing sketches behind our ukuleles. It was great -- we got good research, and they said we were the best act to play there in months!

Q: What are the challenges of writing for animated movies that one might not face with live action, and how do you overcome those challenges?

Docter: We approach our writing exactly as one would approach a live-action screenplay; the focus is on character and keeping the audience engaged. Our whole process is remarkably similar to live- action; we have cinematographers, lighters, costume designers, etc. We use different tools to get there, but the creative process is the same.

Q: How did Tom McCarthy get involved in the writing of Up?

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: 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?

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.

Q: What was your favorite sequence in the film, and why?

Docter: I personally like the part we call "Married Life" -- the wordless section showing Carl and Ellie's life together. I think it plays to the strengths of film and animation in general, letting the visuals tell the story. And it seems to hit home for people. The bookend to this sequence is also one of my favorites -- where Carl looks through Ellie's adventure book (towards the end of the film).

Q: Pete, you've said in the past that you identify strongly with Buzz Lightyear. Which character from Up do you find that you most relate to?

Docter: I relate most to Carl. I find myself griping about how they changed this or that, and "why did they take that item off the menu?!?", or how music these days is a bunch of noise. I'm going to make an excellent old man. Weirdly, Kevin the bird is another character I really like. Not that I feel a kinship, but she was a fun character to play around with, because she's so unpredictable.

Ellie and Carl lay back and look at the clouds in this moment from the emotional prologue montage that fuels all of "Up."

Carl and Ellie's Married Life...

Q: One of the most amazing things in Up, I think, it's the treatment of the love story between Carl and Ellie, this is a true love beyond death. Could you explain us the development of this crucial storyline?

Peterson: Great question. This love story was the spine of the whole movie. When we develop these films, we look for themes that guide us in how we tell the story. As the process of writing progressed, we realized that our main theme was "How does a person define adventure?" Is adventure out there in great deeds, or can it also be between people in the small moments that make up a life. Carl and Ellie's love story helped us tell that theme - that small moments lead to a life's adventure.

Q: My favorite scene was Carl's montage at the beginning. It seems like such a simple idea, but I'm sure it was complicated. Can you explain the process of how the montage evolved?

Docter: That was probably the scene I'm most proud of in the film. It came into play early as we developed the story of this guy floating away in his house, and we asked ourselves, "Why is he doing that?" We figured there was some sort of loss or unfulfilled dream that he was trying to make right, and so we came up with the back-story of Carl and his wife. We initially constructed it as a compressed series of small short scenes, with dialogue and sound effects. Little snippets of life. When Ronnie del Carmen started to storyboard it, we felt like it would be nice to reduce it, simplify it, and take the dialogue out. My parents shot a lot of Super 8 movies of our family growing up. Watching them now, there's something really emotional about not having any sound. That allows, I think, the audience to participate more actively and kind of imagine, "What are they talking about there?" Or "What happened right before this moment?" And that feeling was all part of what went into the scene...these really beautiful, little, real-life moments showing the highs and lows of life. Carl's true adventure was their relationship together.

Q: Were you concerned at all with delivering such an emotional gut-punch so early in the first act?

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.
Get 3 Disney Movies for $1.99 Each, Free Shipping!
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.

The look of Up...

Q: Instead of going for "as close to realism as possible" visuals, Up has an almost caricatured style, especially with the facial features highlighting big points, rather than looking like a human head. What influenced the style and why did you decide to go this route?

Docter: The story called for Carl to float his house into the air buoyed by balloons. For that to be believable, we felt it would be necessary to caricature the world -- and therefore the characters as well. I think if we made it look photo-real, you wouldn't believe it as readily. We work in animation, so we can do things that can't be done in any other medium. So the idea of simplifying and caricature is always exciting to me.

Q: How do the visuals of Up compare with other Pixar films?

Peterson: This movie hits a nice balance of caricature in the shape of the characters, and realism in the lighting, atmospheres. I especially like that many of the textures in the film are "hand made" created with single brush strokes of paint and then used as textures. Computer Graphics can now almost do anything - fur in Monsters, Inc., oceans in Finding Nemo, realistic trash heaps in WALL•E, but the nice thing is that now we can all relax and just do movies where the look is appropriate for the emotional journey in the story.

Q: Was the choice of presenting the film in 3D a conscious decision from the beginning? How does it affect the production process?

Docter: We started the process for Up in 2D, with the focus just on the story and the characters. It was about three years in that John Lasseter came to us and said, "Hey, there are some really cool new developments that have happened with 3D," and of course Pixar had a long history of interest in 3D, John being one of the prime cheerleaders. He shot pictures of his own wedding in 3D, as well as Knick Knack, which is in 3D as well. So we did a ton of research, watching other 3D films, and made a list of things we liked and things we didn't. I wanted to use 3D in a more subtle way. We used 3D as another tool to communicate the emotion of the scene, like you would use color, lighting, or cinematography. In the end, we didn't let it affect the way we approached the story at all. I didn't want to compromise the 2D version, which is the way it will be seen most often, considering DVD and Blu-ray.

Onto Page 2 >>
Covering Up's Characters, Location, Music, and Reception

Buy Up: Blu-ray/DVD Combo from Amazon.com

Read our review of the Blu-ray & Deluxe DVD Combo / Up fun facts

Buy Up from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy / DVD + Digital Copy / 1-Disc DVD

Buy from Amazon.com

Related Interviews:
John Ratzenberger, Pixar's Good Luck Charm and 10-Time Voice Actor | Phyllis Diller, voice of the Queen in A Bug's Life
Nathan Greno and Mark Walton, Bolt and Super Rhino | Henry Selick, director of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas

Related Reviews:
Up: Blu-ray & DVD Combo
New: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs • Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure • Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro - The Complete First Season
Pixar DVDs: Monsters, Inc. • Finding Nemo • WALL•E • Ratatouille • Cars • The Incredibles • Toy Story • Toy Story 2 • A Bug's Life
Also New: Peanuts 1970's Collection, Vol. 1 • Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed In at the House of Mouse • Whatever Works
Pixar Blu-rays: Cars (Ultimate Gift Pack) • Monsters, Inc. • A Bug's Life • WALL•E
Starring Ed Asner: The Christmas Star | Featuring Christopher Plummer: National Treasure (2-Disc Collector's Edition
Ed Asner Voiceover Roles: Gargoyles: The Complete First Season • Freakazoid!: Season 1 • Spider-Man: The Venom Saga
The Emperor's New Groove • Saludos Amigos & The Three Caballeros (Classic Caballeros Collection) • Bolt • Coraline
Old Man Protagonists: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button • The Straight Story • Pixar Short Films Collection, Volume 1

UltimateDisney.com | DVD Reviews | DVDizzy.com: DVD/Blu-ray Schedule | Pixar & Other Theatrical Animation | Upcoming Disney DVDs | Search

Search This Site:

Published November 6, 2009. / Interview conducted October 30, 2009.