Up director Pete Docter reveals the method behind Pixar's magic

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Pete Docter, director of Disney/Pixar's new animated movie Up, and producer Jonas Rivera told reporters in New York and Burbank, Calif., that the movie mixes tragedy and comedy, talking dogs and floating houses in an effort to touch the heart.

Docter and Rivera screened the first 46 minutes of the movie to audiences at New York Comic Con and at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., this week, and SCI FI Wire was there.

Up tells the story of 78 year-old Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), who in his golden years sets out on the adventure of a lifetime by tying thousands of helium balloons to his house. The only problem is that Carl gains an unexpected traveling partner in 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), whom he finds on his porch. Together they embark on a journey to remote South America in a quest to find the legendary Paradise Falls.

The following is an edited Q&A that combines interviews with Docter and Rivera in New York over the weekend with comments the duo made in Burbank on Tuesday. Up opens May 29. (Massive spoilers ahead!)

How did you come up with the odd concept for Up?

Docter: It started with the idea of escaping and getting away from everything. [Co-director and screenwriter] Bob Peterson and I got together and started thinking about that and came up with the image of a house floating in the sky with balloons. We both thought, "Wow, that's really intriguing." Something about it encapsulated the idea of escape. We also wanted to do something with an old man. There's been a lot of great humor possibilities that we've explored with a grouchy old guy. So then we thought about how the old guy would get into the floating house, and that thought experiment led to the house. ...

The movie starts out almost tragically and then sort of changes tone. Can you talk about managing that?

Docter: Well that was important because, two reasons. One, we get to such a kind of a wacky place that I felt like we need a real foundation of emotion. ... My favorite films have this great balance of both. ... Walt Disney talks about "for every laugh there should be a tear" kind of a thing. And a guy [who] was a great mentor of mine, Joe Grant, who worked right here with Walt Disney back in the days of Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty and was working up till he's 97, had always phrased it: "What are you giving the audience to take home?"

And I think that's, for me, the things I take home. Yeah, the jokes are funny, but they kind of go out of your head. It's really the emotional stuff that you carry around with you for the days and weeks and sometimes even years after you see the film. And so we wanted to plant it that way. It was also important just to really care about why is it so important for this guy to get the house to the falls. You needed some weight of ... something you really cared about, and so we worked really hard to make that backstory something that was meaningful to Carl, and therefore the audience.

What do you think the audience will take home?

Docter: ... It's in the setup and in the payoff at the end of the film. ... Carl worries that he missed this adventure. When we think of adventure, we think of exotic travel and wild places and meeting people and stuff. ... And what he realizes is that he actually had the greatest adventure, which was the wonderful life he had with his wife. And I think, for me, that's the thing. ... Most of the time, when I think back on great events, I remember, it's these small little moments: ... being with my kids having hot chocolate or cleaning out the basement with my wife and just get to laughing. ... Little moments like that. And that's what we tried to portray in the montage. ...

What does the 3-D add to the film?

Docter: ... I think it adds a sort of a depth. ... One thing that was important to me is to not distract you from the story. ... Some films [revel] in the 3-D and they do a lot of ooga-booga [pokes his hand forward], you know, reaching out. ... For this type of film, we're trying very hard to make it ... subtle. ... It adds to the richness, to the depth of the environments. ... You walk through the jungle, and you can see all of these layers going back. And the space when you set foot on the edge of that cliff along with Carl, and he sees Paradise Falls, it adds a real richness there.

Rivera: I think the flying as well. They go up in the sky, and looking through the clouds and things, and that's one of the things we've done, and the way we're treating 3-D is treating the screen as a window, looking in, as opposed to breaking things out into the theater. So it's sort of treating it like theater, where you're looking through at the stage almost, and it really gives it a nice warmth of depth. ...

Where did the idea for talking dogs come from?

Docter: We do this all the time. You're sitting around the table, and you just make up lines for them. Like, "What are they thinking right now?" "Are you going to eat that?" kind of stuff. And so we just thought, "Well, what if you really play that through, and instead of [anthropomorphizing] them, as most cartoons do, what if we stayed true to what a dog is thinking—at least what we think they're thinking—and ... we came up with the collar idea. ...

It seemed like an approach that hadn't really been covered before. And an opportunity for humor. A lot of the stuff we're trying for in this film is humor in true. Like, it's not necessarily big slapstick gags, but it's like little moments that you recognize as real, and hopefully that kind of falls into that category, as wacky as it is, that you kind of feel, "Oh, yeah, that's what a dog would say." ...

Has there been any breakthrough in technical achievements with Up? Monsters, Inc. achieved fur, and Finding Nemo did water. Does Up raise the bar in any way?

Docter: The big one that comes to mind is the sense of caricature. It may not seem like a technical thing, but given Carl's weird proportions, ... he's such an odd bird, and we were looking for a simplicity, so it was a hard thing to figure out. We have great technical directors that model everything, and they really think about physics. They are pulling a lot of simulations based on how cloth falls or how balloons move, and we came in and said, "That's great, but what I want is caricature. How do we turn this up or simplify the cloth behavior?" They had to go back and figure that out. How do you capture, using a computer, the things that people draw?

Rivera: It's the only time I've seen the technical directors stumped. ...

Docter: Yeah, we made them cry. (laughs)

Carl and Russell alone could have been really annoying, but together they balance one another out perfectly. Was it hard to find that place of equilibrium?

Docter: To me that's what makes film or theater work, when two characters spark off one another. We found that almost by accident with Buzz and Woody on Toy Story. With Monsters, we initially just had Sully and the little girl. It wasn't until we had a suggestion to add a friend, Mike, that Sully started to develop. For Up, it was a little tricky to find what it was about this little kid that would push this old guy's buttons. It was his tenacity for sure; Russell won't take no for an answer. No many how many times Carl slams the door on his face, ding-dong, the kid keeps coming back.