As a life-long aviation enthusiast, director Klay Hall comes into his own with Disneytoon Studio’s Planes. We recently chatted about the challenges of animating aircraft for the new Cars spin-off opening Aug. 9. Planes tested so well at early screenings that it fueled John Lasseter’s desire to go theatrical instead of direct to DVD/Blu-ray, validating what Hall and his animation team had accomplished.
While happily developing a trains movie, however, Lasseter proposed switching to planes and Hall couldn’t have been more thrilled. His father was a naval pilot and his grandfather was a pilot, and he learned to fly when he was 12. Hall embraced an underdog story about a crop duster aptly named Dusty (Dane Cook) who aspires to race in the “Wings Around the Globe” competition.
“We were attracted to crop dusters: they’re forced to fly low, it’s a dangerous occupation, and they don’t get much credit,” Hall explains. “We found out in our research that most of the pilots are in awe of crop dusters. These guys are seat of your pants, stick and rudder kind of flyers. We knew it was a cool character.
“I can relate to stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s OK to be scared but if you continue to push, you might be surprised what happens.I love how his character affects everyone along the route. At first they don’t think he belongs there. As the race progresses, they can’t help but be enamored with who he is. We looked at The Amazing Race and pay it forward. It’s not just about winning — he’s a pretty decent guy. I think that’s another great character trait.”
Hall and the team also discovered in their research that crop dusters would actually make ideal racers. “We knew they couldn’t fly above 1,000 feet, which supported the idea of fear of heights.”
The world of Cars, of course, became a great foundation as a flying off point. “One of the biggest challenges we had was that everyone knows what cars look like when they’re parked. But not all of us own airplanes, so familiarity comes to mind right away where your eye recognizes certain things that you’re comfortable looking at.
“Throw an airplane in there next to it, so if we’re trying to do a two-shot with these big wings, it’s very difficult to stage any kind of meaningful conversation. And then the windshield on a car is really wide, so you have this big platform for eyes to express emotion and personality. On screen all of a sudden you have this convex shape with eyes that are much smaller and it becomes a huge challenge to try and convey acting.
“It took us a long time to figure out, to get the position correctly, to get the conversations and emotion in a convincing way. And the other thing is we have these three and four-blade crop dusters. Don’t block the eyes, don’t block the mouth, yet they have to be correctly proportioned for the aircraft. A bigger chin, but often times the mouth is on the bottom so you’ve got this dog or shark thing going on where it’s tough to get expression. You’re always looking for a creative way to pose and shoot it.”
The Disneytoon team was led by animation director Sheryl Sacket, but this was no Tinker Bell. Like Cars, though, there was “truth in materials” to consider and populating the world with a variety of racing planes to accompany the crop duster. There was difficulty with wings and windscreens and propellers, not to mention sound design.
Then it was creatively challenging to come up with the race. “When we first started making these planes fly, they felt like little toys,” Hall concedes. “And we knew we were in trouble. That’s where we were able to step back a bit. [Producer] Traci [Balthazor-Flynn] found Jason McKinley [Red Tails] to serve as flight specialist and we were able to get a plan. That was embracing the weight, speed, and size of the airplane. And then the size of the sets. We applied the physics to the actual scope of the set. It had to be physically correct to make it believable. It took us six months just to get them to fly believably. But once we figured out Dusty’s qualifying run, we cracked the code.”
Meanwhile, the sweeping race that encompasses Iceland, Germany, India, Nepal, Japan, and Mexico was based on actual data. Once they knew that Dusty had a PT-6 engine, they sat down with a group of corporate and civilian pilots to map the routes. “If we had this type of aircraft and we had to go around the world, where would we have to stop to refuel? They said you’d have to stop in Iceland and then in Germany, and that’s how we ended up with our race course and our locations. So then we pitched ideas about playing with different ethnicity and cultures and music and colors.”
For Hall, the best part was that it takes place in the air, where he conveys the sense of freedom and danger associated with aviation.