Pete Docter knows the prescription for good movies, and it's on full display in 'Up'
All Pete Docter ever wanted to do was draw. He did it incessantly as a kid. Then one day someone showed him a flipbook.
“Drawing was OK,” he says. “But as soon as it moved, I was hooked. Just making something come to life was magic.”
And from the first flipbook he made – he recalls it being a guy in a boat who takes out a drill and makes the boat sink – right through the new Pixar-Disney film “Up,” which he co-wrote and directed, he’s always been trying to share that magic, along with a gag or two.
“Up,” the story of a grumpy, lonely old man (voice of Ed Asner), who devises a way to make his house float away in search of adventure, is loaded with gags and is so far the funniest film of the year. It also has some of the sweetest, saddest and most heartrending scenes ever written into a script. Docter admits that he’s happy when he hears that some viewers have been crying while watching it.
“The danger with films that are really funny or really full of action is that unless you have some sort of emotional base on which it builds, you don’t ultimately take it home with you,” he says. “A film can be hilarious, it can be dramatic, but if it doesn’t have some sort of relatable emotion, it doesn’t really resonate. We had such whacky stuff and so much action, we wanted to kind of balance all of that.”
Docter, 40, was only the third person to be hired when Pixar was a fledgling company in the early 1990s. His first job there was animating a boxing bottle in a Listerine commercial. He’s since had writing credits on “Toy Story,” “Toy Story 2” and “Wall-E,” and he co-wrote and directed “Monsters, Inc.”
For “Up,” he had the unenviable task of partnering up Carl, the curmudgeonly old man character, who just wants to be left alone, with Russell, a talkative young kid (voice of Jordan Nagai) who just wants to assist him. The real challenge was making Carl likeable.
“Thank you, Ed Asner,” says Docter, who also directed the voice performances. “Storywise, we set Carl up as a very sympathetic character with a big loss in his life, so people feel for him.”
Of Carl’s initially nasty (but funny) behavior toward Russell, Docter says, “By making him an old man, particularly a grouchy old man, he can get away with stuff that most people in the audience would not like. But it’s OK if you feel that he’s earned the right to do that.”
At Pixar, the general rule has been to start with the story and script, then do the casting, then record the actors, then do the animation. But there’s always some wiggle room and adjustment in the middle of the process.
“In the case of Carl, the design itself did not change,” says Docter. “We had the design of the character drawn and built in the computer. But the writing changes. Once the actor comes in, there will be lines that you realize don’t sound appropriate or maybe there’s a word he wouldn’t use. So that changes. And the animators really listen to the dialogue. They’re influenced mostly by the sound, by the delivery of the voice performance.”
Another character in the film, the excitable young Ellie, ended up being played, sort of accidentally, by Docter’s daughter, Elie.
“We always draw the story first, and film it,” he says. “We put it together with temporary dialogue so we can get a sense of where we’re headed. We knew that if one of us tried to do the voice of a little kid it would be too distracting. So we said we’ll get my daughter to do the voice, and we’ll probably replace her with a professional actor at some point. But people liked it, so she got the part. She was about 8 when she did it. She was in the middle of this really outgoing gregarious phase at that time, so it was perfect.”
But just as important as the people in “Up” are the animals. There’s a strange big bird named Kevin, and a lovable goofy dog named Dug, along with lots of other mostly “bad guy” dogs. To get it just right, Docter consulted a dog behaviorist during the scripting stage.
“There’s a great guy named Ian Dunbar who has tons of video of dogs, especially about social behavior and how they react to other dogs,” he says. “For instance, when dogs meet, whoever is the subservient dog is not supposed to look at the alpha dog, is supposed to look away and be still. And if they move there could be trouble. So we watched a lot of his videos, and a lot of the animators did their own studies, videotaping dogs. And we put all of that in the movie.”
Much of the film’s tale of friendship, love, loss, adventure and making dreams come true is conveyed through long periods of no dialogue, just pure visual storytelling.
“That’s common among animators,” says Docter. “The short Pixar films don’t have any dialogue. My own short films as a student were largely without dialogue. We’re visually inspired artists, so you try to communicate as much as you can visually, and then look at dialogue as kind of like the spice on top.”
“Up” opens May 29.