Interview with Up Director Peter Docter
Pixar Filmmaker Talks About His Latest Animated Adventure
Friday, May 29, 2009
These Days Tape Talk with KPBS film critic Beth Accomando about her interview with Up director Peter Docter.
3D ain't what it used to be. Gone are those funky glasses with one red lens and one blue one. Gone are gimmicky titles like Comin' at Ya. Gone too (or at least almost gone) are people on the screen pointing at the viewer and throwing things into the audience. Instead, films such as Coraline and the new Disney/Pixar animation Up employ 3D as a means of enhancing their stories and delivering a visually dazzling big screen experience.
"I wanted to make sure that Up wasn't a 3D movie about a man who sails his house to South America. It's a movie about an old man who sails his house to South America that also happens to be in 3D," says director Peter Docter, "So the first thing is always the story."
"We didn't want characters poking at you," adds producer Jonas Rivera, "Our job is to make people forget they are watching a movie if something breaks the screen and points at you, you are reminded you are watching a movie so we decided we'd treat the screen like a window that we look into this world and work with the stereoscopic team to set the convergence points appropriately to the depth that felt right for the character at that moment whether he 's feeling squashed or depressed or if he's flying away then we'd set it as far as we could to open it up. I mean my mom's not going to watch the movie and go, 'Oh the convergence is very deep here.' But hopefully the audience will feel that contrast the way we've used it. So it's all about color or simulation or anything we used it to try and tell our story"
And an amazing world it turns out to be. The 3-D animation is gorgeous without drawing attention to itself as 3-D, and the balloons used to carry the house explode like a bag of Skittles on screen. The filmmakers let our imaginations take flight with Carl's house and we willing tag along for the adventure. Up challenges expectations about what American animation can be about. As with Pixar's Wall-E, Up has a large chuck of its opening play without dialogue to deliver a surprisingly effective and emotionally rich montage of a shared life.
"The opening shows Carl and Ellie's life together," says Docter, "that came out of the theme of the film about Carl [voiced by Ed Asner] redefining what adventure really is, what life is about. He and his wife promised each other that they'd some day go to this exotic place in South America and they never make it. Life got in the way and Carl worries that he has failed his wife but then comes to learn that they had had the best adventure in the world, which was this relationship together. Having landed on that as the message of the film we needed to go back and show that wonderful rich adventure. And I came back to my parents took a lot of super 8 films of us growing up and of course they are silent and watching these it's pretty remarkable they're pretty emotional and you as an audience are projecting and becoming a part of that experience instead of having picture and sound you are having to imagine one of those so it kind of comes to life in your own head so that’s what we were trying to do."
Much of the film deals with Carl as an old man – not the typical main character in a Hollywood animated film. In that respect Up recalls the anime Howl's Moving Castle by Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. Docter is a fan of both anime and Miyazaki, and admires what Miyazaki can do in Japan.
"I think in Japan animation isn't relegated to being a genre unto itself," says Docter, "it's just a medium by which you can tell any number of stories be it horror or action or adventure or drama or whatever, and we're trying to do that as well. Every film that you go see from Pixar, we're hoping is a little bit of a surprise. You don't quite know what you're going to get. We hope to keep kind of pushing the boundaries of what defines us."
Docter participated in the directing of the English language version of Howl's Moving Castle as he was in the process of making Up. "So it was an interesting time to be able to observe how Miyazaki-san handled some similar material," says Docter, "We're sort of trained [here in the U.S.] that the way to keep an audience is to keep dangling the carrot 'What's going to happen next?' It's all about plot and keeping things moving forward and what [Miyazaki] does is to take these real observed truthful moments. A lot of time nothing's happening next, it's just right now how does this little kid behave, look at the way the water just ripples down and drops, just beautifully observed little moments of truth that you just recognize and respond to and we just try to put some moments like that into this film."
Rivera agrees: "Not a day goes by that a Miyazaki film doesn't come up in conversation. What we love about those films is that they just breathe. So many films, especially animated films don't. It's just boom-boom-boom-boom. But we wanted this to breath a little bit. To somehow channel that charm that grace that those films have."
And Up succeeds in creating some of this charm. It wins you over with both broad comedy and genuinely sweet, heartfelt emotions. Although the characters are not realistic looking, they possess a real humanity thanks to the voice acting and the intense collaboration of all involved.
Docter explain that "generally the way it's worked from toy story on is that we come up with what's going on then we design the story then we design the characters to the point where they are sometimes even built in the computer at the time we cast. So we look at the drawing or the model or whatever and then we listen to voices till we find someone that we really think fits the suit. In the case of Carl we locked in on Ed Asner. He seemed perfect. Then when you start to record the first session is almost like a learning session and we hardly use any of it because we’re starting to figure out the cadence and the type of words they use, finding and discovering and they end up -- the actors -- in that way really influencing the characters. We write for those actors, the animators listen to the dialogue over and over and over trying to match little subtkle nuances of the way the line was delivered or some visual that they were going to come up with and so it really affects it."
Up is rated PG for some peril and action.
Companion viewing: Howl's Moving Castle, Monsters, Inc., Millennium Actress