On August 9th, the Walt Disney Co. is releasing its next animated feature: Planes. Originally envisioned as a direct-to-DVD spin-off of Cars, the wildly successful Pixar franchise, Planes was never meant to be as a big summer movie.
But during production, a funny thing happened. Test audiences not only liked it, they really, really liked it. And so the decision was made to switch tracks and, not unlike the film’s protagonist—a lowly crop duster named Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook) who gets the chance to race around the world against a fleet of much bigger, faster, sleeker planes—the movie will now go up against some of the summer's tentpole offerings. (The weekend that Planes opens will also see the release of the Matt Damon sci-fi movie Elysium, and We’re the Millers, a comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis.)
According to Planes director Klay Hall, whose background is in animated TV shows like The Simpsons and King of the Hill, the change in plans required zero more work. From the beginning, everyone involved in the film was "swinging for the fences" in terms of production value, so it was just a matter of continuing course and finishing the film. No new scenes needed to be added, no new plot threads, no script revisions. If anything, going theatrical meant the team had more time to work, so it was a luxury.
So how did a small-fry movie made by Disney Toon Studios (which primarily produces direct-to-DVD releases) wind up in the rarest of air? Hall says it has everything to do with the creative process that’s been cultivated at Disney by John Lasseter, who since 2006 has served as chief creative officer at both Pixar and Disney Animation.
Here, Hall boils that process down to four key steps:
In the animation world, this means testing a film early in order to see how audiences react. Early feedback means early detection of problems or issues that will be harder to resolve later on.
"You need to get it out there as soon as you can to get feedback from people, to see if they’re responding the way you want them to," says Hall.
With Planes, testing began when the film "was about three-quarters done, as far as the story. We had some finished color. We had scenes that were in-between, where it was basically blocked out—what we call previs. The characters are sort of a CG model, but they’re not surfaced and they’re not colored. So it’s different levels of filmmaking... But you try to get it out there as early as you can."
There is probably no more collaborative effort than an animated film, which literally takes hundreds of people (artists, heads of story, producers) to create from start to finish over the course of several years. (Planes took four and a half to complete.) But Lasseter’s system is to limit the core creative process to a much smaller group known as (at Pixar) the Brain Trust. At Disney Toon Studios it’s known as the Story Trust. Either way, it allows the film to be shaped and developed by a select group of people rather than opening up the floodgates and letting too many voices corrupt the vision.
"At DTS we have 14 or so people" in the Story Trust, says Hall. "Directors, heads of story—they’re all creatives. John’s in there sometimes, not always.
"Somebody will have an idea and you start kicking around ways to flesh it out. You get a writer, you look for a solid writer, and you get in a room with him. So on Planes, it was myself, Jeff Howard, and John Lasseter, who originally went in a room and started cracking open the idea of Planes.
"Then you go to your Story Trust and you start pitching that idea to all the other heads of story and directors, and you get feedback. Then you start crafting the screenplay. That’s sort of how it works. At the same time, you’re pulling in a couple artists to start doing inspiration drawings. Then, as you feel like you’re starting to get hold of a fairly solid idea, and before it goes too far, you jump in and do research.
"This is all just within the Story Trust. Before you’re greenlit."
At Disney, "it’s all creative-led. There are no executives in the room. When I say creative-led, it’s all the directors," says Hall.
"My past with The Simpsons and King of the Hill, those shows. Father of the Pride. Those are also creative, but it’s more of a—first of all, it’s writers that drive TV. Directors drive film, there’s a big difference right there.
"But television has a lot of executive-driven decisions. You go into a room and there’s lots of executives in there because they’re representing the network. And in our process, Disney’s represented by John Lasseter and that’s it."
"John’s thing is all about research. If you do your research and you get your facts right. If you walk the walk and you talk the talk with the folks that live and breathe it, you’re going to add a level of believability to your film that people will just get and understand. They might not totally be up to speed with some of the jargon that’s being used or some of the technical terms, but you know, when you see it, it feels right.
"So we started hitting a lot of aviation museums. A lot of docents at the museums are veterans. World War II and Korean War veterans. We started speaking with those guys. I met with tons of pilots. Fighter pilots. Glider pilots. Hot air balloon pilots.
"We’d go out into the field and talk to them. We would go into rural air fields or to museums or at the Reno Air Races. I met with the Blue Angels, I met with the Thunderbirds. I met with racing pilots and stunt pilots and so on."
Hall and crew were even escorted by the U.S. Navy to an aircraft carrier 150 miles off the coast of San Diego to fact-check a scene in which Dusty is forced to make an emergency landing on a Navy carrier.
"We actually got to land on the deck, just like the jets do. Then we spent two days there with the men and women and the executive officers of that aircraft carrier.
"We sat down and we went through those scenes and the captain of the boat gave me pointers. We got a lot of it right, but he gave me little tidbits and facts to tweak, to show exactly how it would be.
"It was not only an honor to be able to go out there, but how cool is that?"
[Images courtesy of Disney]