Adventure Is ‘Up’ There: A Talk with Pixar’s Pete Docter and Bob Peterson

Up creators Pete Docter and Bob Peterson talk with PopMatters about how their multi-layered narrative is more than just a story of aging.

Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. Artists of all kind find their muse in music, memories, or even some of the more minor things that life has to offer. For Bob Peterson, co-director and voice actor in the Pixar’s latest masterwork Up, the source for Carl Fredrickson’s journey to Paradise Falls in commemoration of his late wife, and the undeniable derring-do that follows, came from a source rather close to home.

“I had a grandfather who always wanted to go West from Ohio, but never got the chance,” said the animator Bob Peterson during a recent virtual junket to promote the four-disc DVD/Blu-ray release of the Summer blockbuster, arriving 10 November. “I had the foresight to videotape my grandparent’s 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 (Up) script, and of course living with our dogs gave us great insight into dog behavior!”

Indeed, Up‘s multi-layered narrative, which sees a disgruntled old man (voiced flawlessly by Ed Asner) tie balloons to his home in order to satisfying his spouse’s dying wish, is more than just a story of aging. It’s a reflection of our current social structure, as when chubby little stowaway Russell describes his life without his dad. It’s a rollicking cartoon entertainment, with our two human characters running into Kevin, a fascinating bird, and Dug, a dog who can speak English thanks to a voice translator on his collar. While the main plot has Carl meets up with longtime hero Charles Muntz and discovering the true meaning of “adventure”, there are dozens of equally enthralling elements battling for significance, turning an already winning film into something akin to a classic. And it all started with inspiration and ideas.

More than a few did come from an unusual outside source, adds fellow co-director Pete Docter. “We had referenced Tom McCarthy’s film The Station Agent as we worked out the structure of Up. It’s very similar.” The man behind Pixar’s classic Monsters, Inc. had the filmmaker come to the company and screen his film. When Peterson got called away to work on Ratatouille, Docter felt rudderless. “I needed someone to spark off creatively”, he said, “and so I asked Tom if he could recommend any writers he knew that might want to work on the film. He said, “How about me?” McCarthy was on Up for three months, and it was in his draft that the character of Russell the Wilderness Ranger was born.

But Up was more than just a collection of collaborations and recollections. As the flawless new digital release shows, the animators traveled far and wide to grapple with some of the more challenging locational problems. During the “Adventure is Out There” featurette, Docter, Peterson, and several of the creative crew traveled to South America to camp out among actual tepui – monolith like mountains that jut out of the Earth like forgotten frontiers from mythic times – in Venezuela. It was quite an experience, one that easily tied into other developing aspects of the film.

“We looked at the grand adventurers of the last century including Lindbergh,” said Peterson, explaining how villain Charles Muntz came into being. “We looked at Howard Hughes, being a sort of inventor/adventurer. We also looked at photos of Errol Flynn and even the dapper photos of Walt Disney in the 1930’s with his pencil-thin mustache.” But there is always more to a Pixar film than look and design. “We approach our writing exactly as one would approach a live-action screen play,” says Docter. “The focus is on character and keeping the audience engaged.”

Indeed, it seems the long sought after secret of the CG animation giant’s success is as simple as being true to what you create. Docter explained that “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.” It was then that head artist Rick Nierva developed a kind of primary shape personality for each individual player. “A cube is not something that rolls or moves fast – it is very stable – perfect for Carl,” says Peterson. “A circle can roll and move fast – great for Russell. The more realistic we go with our characters, the less appealing they become because humans have the great ability to discern what is real in a human face and what is not.”

Similarly, Muntz was given a diamond-shaped head, the better to reflect his lifelong sense of defeat. “If Carl is represented by a square shape,” he continues, “as far as shape language, Muntz is a ‘collapsed square.’ He ends up having more diamond shapes as if a square has collapsed upon itself.” Of course, not everything is so far removed from the real world. “We knew we wanted to give Carl a new family including a new ‘grandson’ and ‘family dog,’ said Peterson, “it was a gauntlet laid down in front of him to accept new people into his life.” Being ardent pet lovers, the duo wanted to make sure that their value as companions was featured prominently. “Dug’s undying and immediate canine love ‘I have just met you and I love you,’ and ‘I was under your porch because I love you’ is an indirect lesson for Carl that love is always around him, if he will only accept it.”

Indirectly, the duo wanted to make sure that any jump to 3D would not hurt the heart of their story. “The process for Up started in 2D,” Docter points out, “again with the focus just on the story and the characters. It was about three years in that John Lasseter (Pixar pioneer) came to us and said, ‘Hey, there are some really cool new developments that have happened with 3D.'” The company had a long history of interest in the format, so as usual, a long and arduous research process resulting in a compromise.

“We made a list of things we liked and things we didn’t,” he explains. “I wanted to use 3D in a more subtle way than the usual, ‘WOAH! THERE’S A BIG BANANA CREAM PIE COMING OUT TOWARDS THE AUDIENCE!’ thing you often see in 3D. 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).”

In fact, what’s clear from talking to Docter and Peterson as well as the extensive behind the scenes material on the new home video release is how much material is mulled over, worked through, sweated over, and then eventually discarded. There is a hidden feature on the Blu-ray which discusses an unused subplot involving Muntz, the exotic rainbow-colored bird Kevin, and the creature’s magical eggs. Instead of pursuing the beast to prove he’s not a fraud (as in the final film), the former cultural icon discovers the fountain of youth inside each one. Deemed “too magical”, the idea got as far as the storyboard phase before it was tossed aside. Indeed, there is probably several films worth of brainstorms and bad approaches lying around Pixar’s virtual cutting room floor.

This didn’t mean Up didn’t take chances. The somber opening montage explaining Carl and Ellie’s life together remains one of the riskiest – and memorable – sequences in any animated film. “My parents shot a lot of Super 8 movies of our family growing up,” Docter explains. “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.” It was Peterson who came up with most of the material, but when Ronnie del Carmen started to storyboard it, the pair felt like it would be nice to reduce it, simplify it, and take the dialogue out – yet another example of Pixar’s spit and polish approach to their titles.

Of course, like any filmmakers, Docter and Peterson weren’t sure what they had until they screened the film for cast and crew at the wrap party. “We don’t ever get to see our movies like a regular audience member because we lived through the creation of the film and see the memories brought forward by each shot and movement we see,” they argue. “Those memories are there. When our movies leave us we hope we’ve given them enough love and sense to do great things in the world!!” With Up, the achievement and almost universal acclaim more than speaks for itself.