'Up' Director Finds Escape in Reality

"Getting away from the world, that's really intriguing and enticing," says Pete Docter, director of the Pixar movie "Up."
"Getting away from the world, that's really intriguing and enticing," says Pete Docter, director of the Pixar movie "Up." (By Matt Sayles -- Associated Press)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

Directing a Pixar feature can take a lot out of you. Five years spent coordinating the work of an army of computer animators, designers, sound and visual effects artists, voice talent, software engineers and, often, one or more co-directors can be taxing. Especially if you're a self-described introvert and animation geek like Pete Docter, who grew up drawing flip books in the corners of his math textbooks and still buries his head in a sketch pad whenever he has a free minute or two.

In town to promote his second feature, "Up" -- the 3-D tale of a 78-year-old widower and a little boy who fly to South America in a house attached to thousands of helium balloons -- the almost 20-year Pixar veteran talked about the strains of making a modern-day cartoon.

"By the end of the day, I just wanted to be by myself," he says, recalling his experience working on the 2001 film "Monsters, Inc." "I wanted to go retreat into my basement, or under my desk, or something."

And that's exactly where the idea for "Up" came from.

"I was thinking around for what to do next," says Docter, 40. "One thing that kept coming to me was this idea of escape. The visual of a floating house seemed like, 'Oh yeaaah, that's . . .' " His voice trails off, and he gets the blissed-out look of someone remembering a childhood dream of flight. "Getting away from the world, that's really intriguing and enticing. And so we started thinking more about, 'Who was the guy in the house?' and 'Why is he doing this?' and 'How's all that work?' "

The answer to that last question is complicated.

When making a movie about a floating house, do you really need to do any homework? Can't you just say, at some point, to heck with reality, it's a cartoon?

"Well, yes," Docter says. "Both."

His people actually did do a bit of research. On wind currents for instance. Just to see if it would be plausible to make the journey that Carl Fredricksen (voice of Ed Asner) makes in the film. Turns out you could float to South America, if you catch one air current to the equator, then hitch a ride on another. "Of course, the whole thing's a fudge," the director admits. "The whole idea of being able to steer a house. If you had a balloon lift, and these wings on the side, all it would do is turn around in space. What we try to do is find one or two things that seem real and then lean on those."

One thing the film leans on -- heavily -- is the otherworldly South American landscape that Carl sails to. It's a fanciful place, called Paradise Falls in the film, but based on the real-life canyon lands of Venezuela, where the topography is characterized by towering, flat-topped mountains called tepuis that are separated by deep chasms. "I think half of them have yet to be set foot on by humans," Docter says. "They're really inaccessible and weird. And there was not a lot of research that we found on them."

A perfect destination for a movie about a flying house, in other words. And an opportunity for a little spontaneous escapism that Docter wasn't about to pass up.

"We said, 'They're so trippy-looking, we better go check this out,' " Docter says. "Because I'm not sure we're really going to be able to capture this if we don't see it firsthand." (Yeah, right.) No, really, Docter says. The fact-finding mission was well worth it, providing him with pictures of bizarre rock formations, spiky plants and exotic animals. Many of which made it into the film.

Still, the director's quick to point out that "Up," which will be screened in both 3-D and 2-D versions, is about more than eye-popping visuals. At heart, it's the story of a bored old man who seeks the thrill of faraway lands, only to discover that his life at home with his late wife had been a great adventure all along. Based on what Docter hopes is recognizable emotion, the director says he believes that it's this pathos that tethers the lighter-than-air comedy to the ground.

"I still think there might be some people who go to this movie and go, 'Wow, you guys have pretty wild imaginations.' But it's all based on real stuff."

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