Animators go extra mile to make 'Up'

May 28, 2009 

SAN FRANCISCO - There's a reason most Disney/Pixar movies - "Cars," "A Bug's Life," "WALL-E" - feature cute cars, bizarre bugs and rambunctious robots. People aren't easy to animate.

"Humans are really, really, really hard to make look real. If they look too real, then they look dead and creepy and weird," said Jonas Rivera, one of the producers of the new Disney/Pixar film "Up," at WonderCon, the annual comic book/TV/film convention, in February.

That was a big concern with "Up." The central characters are 78-year-old balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) and a 9-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai). Carl decides to escape his life by tying thousands of balloons to his house. Russell ends up an accidental guest on the air trip to South America.

Pixar animators went back to a technique they used in "The Incredibles," where all the humans have completely distorted proportions.

There was another challenge: "Up" starts with Carl as an 8-year-old boy and shows him through 70 years.

"So finding those commonalities of what are the distinguishing characteristics of people that make them identifiable at varying ages was a trick," said director Pete Docter, also at WonderCon.

Audrey Hepburn and Mickey Rooney helped. Animators looked at pictures of the two actors, and many others, from over the years. They studied how faces change over time but some features remain the same.

It took four years to make "Up," and after looking at it so long, the creative team started wondering if it was still funny.

They tested it on an audience made up of everybody from the top executives at Pixar to the kitchen staff. Scenes that made everyone laugh stayed in. The rest had to change.

"I would think everyone would do this. Grab your friends and show them your film. Get them to tell you what would make it better," Docter said.

The "Up" team has a reputation to uphold. Since the 1995 release of "Toy Story," the company has turned out nine movies that were critical and box office successes. Last year's "WALL-E" won the Oscar for best animated film.

Rivera's a little concerned about the name. Call a movie "Finding Nemo," and there's no doubt what it's about. But "Up" might be a little too mysterious, he thinks.

Docter said the name is perfect for what they wanted to say. He confesses to feeling overwhelmed in social situations and wanting to escape, so the idea of using balloons to get away intrigued him.

"When I sit down in the theater, I want something that speaks to me, that I can recognize about myself and the world," Docter said. "We don't think of these as little kid movies or animated movies. We are just making movies. We just happen to use this amazing technology to tell stories that speak to us."

Rick Bentley can be reached at rbentley@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6355. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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