‘Up’ director flying high

By David Orlikoff

Pete Docter has been working in animation for more than 20 years. His earliest films may be out of the public eye, but they were enough to land him a spot at Pixar for their landmark first film, Toy Story. Docter wrote that seminal work, as well as Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. (which he also directed) and WALL-E. He wrote and directed his most recent film, Up, alongside Bob Peterson, another Pixar veteran.

Up is a film about adventure, in the unknown as well as the day-to-day. When the audience first meets Carl Fredricksen, he is a young boy obsessed with famous adventurers. He meets a young girl, Ellie, who shares his passion, and the two grow up, get married and grow old together. It was as an old man that Carl unleashed thousands of balloons from his chimney and now floats his house above the city skyline. The story of adventure takes shape as he embarks to land his craft atop the mythic waterfalls of an unexplored land. Up is Pixar’s first 3-D film.

The Chronicle sat down with Docter to talk about breaking a few barriers for animation, his favorite part of production and how this film isn’t just for kids.

The Chronicle: How did you and Bob Peterson work together on ‘Up’?

Pete Docter: The way we set it up, I was the director and Bob was co-director. So he and I wrote it together, we both conceived it and he did the majority of the writing. I would do a couple scenes here and there, but that was kind of where his specialty was in really crafting the story. When it got to production, I kind of took over working with the art department and animation and the rest down the line. So Bob was especially crucial in forming the story and working with the actors to some degree, as well; and I was taking it the rest of the way.

Having the beginning show the entire relationship of Carl and Ellie unfold in maybe 15 minutes seems more emotionally heavy than what Pixar has done before.

We knew we had enough comedy and goofy, wacky stuff in the middle and a lot of action at the end, and it was important to me to base that on an emotional foundation where you really care about this guy. What Ellie does is provide a drive through the whole film. You want to feel that it’s desperate for Carl to get that house to the falls, which is such a bizarre idea that it was really important to have as much emotionally behind it as we could. And it’s only in the closeness of the relationship, and that loss, and the promise he made that he never got to fulfill, that carries the story.

When the movies get this deep, are you still making children’s films? Who is the intended audience?

We’ve always said that we’re trying to make films for everybody. I think if you psychoanalyzed most animators, we’re probably at junior high school age. We’re the first audience for these, so we test them out on ourselves. We’re not trying to second guess from a marketing standpoint. We’re just trying to react the same way an audience would, and we want to make sure that what we do is effective to an audience member. We want to make sure it reaches them.

When the main character, Carl, hits the man with his walker why did you decide that it should draw blood?

We just knew that it’s animation, so anytime anybody hits someone, you’re used to laughing. When Carl says “get away from my mailbox,” a lot of people in the audience are laughing. But as soon as he hits the guy and there’s blood, everybody shuts up and goes, “Oh jeez, he crossed a line.” Which is exactly the story’s point: that Carl went too far, and because of that, in defending his stuff, he’s going to get it all taken away from him. So we kind of needed it, I think. We weren’t able to think of any other way to make that same point.

Were you dismantling some preconceived notions about cartoons?

Hopefully, yes.

Is that your goal? Why do you do animation? What’s special or unique about it?

What people really want when they come to the theater is to be pleasantly surprised. If you go to a movie and you know exactly how it’s going to end, it’s boring. But if you go to a movie and you’re like, “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming, I thought this was gonna be… oh OK!” So hopefully what Pixar means is just that it’s going to be a good movie, and then every time we do it we can just go somewhere else: science-fiction or action or, who knows, murder mystery. There’s nothing specifically limiting about animation as a medium. It’s not a genre. Animation is like a reduction sauce where you take real life and you distill it down into something even more potent.  Everything that’s not, you get rid of. If you are looking for a super cute kid, you get rid of everything that’s not super cute. You make it the strongest statement of that as you possibly can. With Carl, we were looking for this grouchy, curmudgeony guy, so it felt right to make him as a square. So you get his head and it’s really square and his body’s square and he lives in this square house, and he’s constantly framed in these squares. And I guess you could do that in live action but there’s a sense of caricature that you can push in animation that I really love.

What’s the effect of it being fake?

I don’t know if you guys grew up with the Muppets; I did. You know in one part of your brain that it’s just a sock with ping pong balls. But you’re watching, and you’re believing these characters, and there’s something cool about that.