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Immersed in Movies: Talking ‘Planes: Fire & Rescue’ with DisneyToon

Immersed in Movies: Talking 'Planes: Fire & Rescue' with DisneyToon

Planes: Fire & Rescue, which is about second chances with Dusty (Dane Cook) struggling with a new career as a fire fighter, is a lot more ambitious than its predecessor. Along with a larger variety of vehicles and the creation of the vast Piston Peak National Park, there were a lot of technical challenges, too. But the details about fire fighting had to be spot-on, so that’s where research and consultation with Cal Fire were vital.

“We reached out to a host of consultants: fire fighters, oil analysis, park rangers. It’s kind of shocking that fire fighting has never been attempted in animation,” remarks director Bobs Gannaway (Secret of the Wings).”One of the reasons people go to the movies is to experience a process they know nothing about.”

Leveraging on the first movie, which cracked the code about flight, Gannaway brought in helicopters, fire trucks, and other construction vehicles and then figured out how to attack fire because the movie is dedicated to fire fighting. He also made different creative choices for Dusty. “I changed Dusty back to a three-blade prop because from a staging standpoint the blades will block the eyes.” Adhering to the “truth in materials” credo, they don’t bend the metal except around the mouth. 

“One of the things we like to do is shoot their faces for dialog scenes and then more in profile when they’re flying, treating them very much like aircraft,” the director adds.

But since Disney has never attempted CG fire to this extent before, that required special attention (there are 660 VFX shots covering 53% of the movie). Therefore, they tried early on to get a fire that looked right but achievable, devoting more than three months to R&D.

“We started with a piece of concept art by our art director Toby Wilson and my first pass was to make an animated version of that,” explains CG supervisor Doug Little. “And of course I didn’t know how to build a forest fire.”

First came a proof-of-concept test to get the right look. Little recalls a meeting to screen the first test shot with John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, general manager Andrew Millstein, Gannaway, and Wilson. “Ed clapped his hands and said it was time to make the movie. Now we had a quality bar. And we realized as we did more R&D, as we had close-up foliage, it would have to be composed and green leaves would have to turn black and shrivel and white smoke would have to turn black. In order to capture the authenticity of what forest fires do, our fire needed to illuminate the characters on the ground and the props and our hero characters would have to push it around.

“So some tests were more successful than others. We then knew that our heroes would have to extinguish the fire and our forest would have to move in a natural way, so this inspired more R&D. And this wasn’t trivial: each one of our pine trees had a million pine needles and our foliage systems had millions of polygons and to get those to move in a realistic way was going to require some technology that we didn’t have. So we continued to develop. Fire, smoke, steam, retardant drop. We recognized right away that we needed around 70 effects artists. 

“So early on we wanted to achieve consistency, a level of quality, and a forest fire language that we could communicate, so we built a library: grass fire, canopy fire, ground fire, and tree trunk fire. And we had a vocabulary for them. In this way, we would publish our fire and smoke simulations and they would become paint brushes for our effects artists to start with. They would populate or set dress our forest.The library contained hundreds of fire and smoke simulations. They would load a set and they would select a fire or smoke paintbrush on which to paint on the set.”

Large-scale smoke sims were done in Houdini and fire library creation was done in Maya. 

But Dusty saving husband and wife RVs celebrating their 50th anniversary (voiced by Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara) was the most complex sequence, according to FX animation lead John Patton.

“We have a white water river going down the middle, we have a waterfall, a bridge that’s on fire and being destroyed, we have giant smoke columns, atmospheric smoke everywhere, falling embers in every shot, falling trees. There was a lot of look development and it went through a lot of artists in the effects department. There was a heroic quality — this is what our fire fighters do. We can take those colors from the artists and shift them around in hue and values that help pull out the highlights or integrate the shadowing better. We have that kind of control for all of the pieces of a scene.”

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