I was invited for an expenses paid trip to LA by Disney to cover the #VeryBadDayEvent and #DisneyInHomeEvent in exchange for my posts of the trip experiences. All opinions are my own.
While in LA I had a fantastic time visiting Disney Toon Studios. While I was there I got to sit down with my fellow bloggers and have an interview with the Director and Producer of Planes Fire and Rescue, if you missed that post check it out here. We also had the pleasure of chatting with the Director of Creative Development Paul Gerard and Co-Writer Jeff Howard. I really didn’t realize quite how much work and time goes into the research Disney does in order to make sure their movie is correctly made.
PAUL : John Lassiter, our executive producer, believes in this idea, Truth in Materials. We can find not only character, but story, but the grounding of our movie in our research. Because we have a huge conceit going on, which is that airplanes talk and have eyeballs, so everything else around that should be as grounded in reality as possible.
JEFF : Right. So we went out and talked to dozens of aerial firefighters and ground crew and smoke jumpers and air traffic controllers and visited several national parks to try to get all of the details of the movie right.
PAUL : And one of our biggest resources was the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which, to their friends, are known as Cal Fire. Our first stop was Hemet Ryan Air Attack Base, which is about an hour and a half southeast of here. And our main contact Travis Alexander was a huge help to us.
JEFF : He’s the greatest guy, really. He’s wonderful.
One of the things that was interesting to us when we went out and visited Hemet Ryan was that all of our aircraft had a previous life. The S2, which is their main tanker used to a sub-hunting aircraft. The Huey goes back to Vietnam. The OB10 Bronco was a reconnaissance airplane. So, this whole theme of second chances started to sort of gel in our heads, that all of the aircraft are really on their second lives.
PAUL : And they also let us check out the retardant or slurry that they drop. It actually feels like snot, which I know a lot about. I have an eight-year old.
JEFF : Yeah. It was one of those things — our head of story was like, "Ugh, this feels like snot, come feel this," and everybody is like —
PAUL : Okay. Eww.
JEFF : And everybody who is in animation is like, "Yeah. I want to feel that."
But we discovered that, you know, many of the things at the air attack base are scratch built. They had this Quonset hut that they’d just built themselves. They had a lot of repurposed equipment and stuff like that. It’s a lot of hand-me-down things. Even their display cases. So this whole idea of "Better than new" started to creep into our minds, as well.
PAUL : And their personnel, though, were anything but hand-me-downs. Their personnel are the best of the best. They are all well-trained firefighters, as well as amazing pilots.
JEFF : So we talked to them about their terminology, their tactics, how they identify the different parts of the fire. They sort of diagram, "Here’s what the airspace looks like, and who is at what altitude, and when they’re clearing people in and what the different parts of the fire are, and how they maneuver in this crowded airspace. Who coordinates everything." Ironically, it’s Travis in the smallest aircraft they have. He fits into it, somehow and that’s all reflected in the commands that Blade gives to Dusty.
We would ask Travis, "Okay, if you’re gonna tell somebody, ‘Drop it a little bit more over there,’ you know, how do you say that in pilot-ese? What would you say?" And he’d say, "Oh, I’d say, ‘Come left one wingspan on your next drop.’" So I’d say, "Okay, that’s easy for me as a writer. I can just put that straight into the script." And I’m like, "Okay, but what if somebody gets it dead on, and it’s the perfect drop, and no adjustments necessary," and he just sort of paused. And the other pilots around the table were just sort of looking at their shoes, and he’s like, "There’s no such term for that."
He had nothing in his vocabulary for good job. There was always something he could correct and give feedback on, and that’s a little bit reflected in Blade’s personality. Blade’s personality was sort of amalgam of a number of different people we met, and things from our own imagination, but that part of Travis definitely went into him.
PAUL : The other thing that amazed us was how often they go out and fight fires. Guess how many fires Cal Fire fights in one year? About 5,600.
JEFF : Just in California. It’s actually 50,000, nationwide, with all of the different agencies.
PAUL : Yeah. That’s just California, and this year is actually a banner year for fires. They were on track, last time we talked to them, for like, 6,500 this year. But the public only hears about the big fires, which actually became a line in the movie, when we were talking — first presenting our pitch to the different directors here. One of our directors is like, "Well, isn’t that convenient? He arrives at the Air Attack Base, and they happen to be going out on a fire?" And the reality is that’s the way it is.
JEFF : We did our research. And it would actually be weird if they weren’t going out on a fire when they got there.
PAUL : Exactly.
JEFF : So, that became a line, and went straight into the movie. That you know, we almost had Dusty ask the very question that our other director asked when he gets there, and they get an alarm, and Dusty says, "Really, there’s a fire already" and Dipper answers back, "Yeah, you guys only hear about the big ones," which is literally what they told us. We’re like, that’s a great detail, we gotta put that straight into the story.
So we learned a lot from those guys. And Travis has come out here several times to watch the movie as well, give us notes, and a bunch of people from Cal Fire, have come back. And we’ve gone to them, and they’ve come here to see the movie, and helped us out with everything.
PAUL : And since our big location for most of the movie is Piston Peak National Park — which is really an amalgamation of all of the big national parks in the country. We decided to visit two of the most famous in the United States. Yellowstone and Yosemite, which were amazing. Our fuselage is really inspired by the Old Faithful Inn which is at Yellowstone.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but I’d recommend it, highly. They let us go all of the way up into the rooftop of the Old Faithful Inn, which was actually closed, since they’d had an earthquake in 1959. And we got to crawl up into the crow’s nest, which they said was just a little bit dangerous. It’s unstable, since the earthquake, but they let us go.
JEFF : Yeah. You guys are expendable, it’s okay. You guys can go.
PAUL : You guys can go.
JEFF : And they even let us up onto the roof to see the sprinkler systems. So, you know, in the movie the lodge has this whole sprinkler system that Cad activates, and the sprinkler system at Yellowstone actually saved the lodge in 1988, when they had had a huge forest fire. I think they’d only put in the sprinkler system the year before.
PAUL : Yeah.
JEFF : And it would have been destroyed, if not for the roof sprinklers. So we took pictures of everything. The sprinklers on the roof, and what the valves look like.
PAUL : And the landscape also inspired the design for the movie. And Yellowstone, also, we saw these iconic tour buses that they’d had there since the 1920s that were the inspiration for Ol’ Jammer. Because they actually called them jammers.
JEFF : Didn’t we find out it was the drivers who were the jammers?
PAUL : It’s the drivers that are called jammers.
JEFF : We had said that, and Bobs corrected us. He said it’s actually the drivers called jammers.
PAUL : Yes. It’s the drivers that are called jammers, because they had no synchro-rings. They had their all manual transmissions and they were going up and down the mountains, so you just — they had grind the gears, and they called them jammers.
JEFF : And they also had structural firefighting. There’s regular fire engines, they call them structural engines, because the aircraft fight the fire in the woods, and these guys protect the buildings, much like the character of Pulaski that you see in the movie. And we also saw some of their other equipment that inspired parts of the smoke jumpers, like the treads on Avalanche and Blackout’s saw blade, although we realized later that theirs ironically was much more cartoony and ridiculous than ours was. They have, you know, these actual tools that they will put on these little vehicles.
PAUL : And they also have their own patch. Um, she’s although not — she’s not in the tower, actually. She’s in a little building that’s been there for 140 years, but she actually gets these lightning strike maps all throughout Yellowstone Park. So on this map, she actually sees where every lightning strike is, and then can send helicopters out and actually check where the fires are inside of the park, which actually has been a part of our story.
JEFF : So, Chuck Aaron was one of our other big consultants for the movie. You know, we wanted Blade to be one of the coolest helicopters in the world, so we went to one of the coolest helicopter pilots in the world, he’s probably one of the few aerobatic helicopter pilots in the world.
photo courtesy of RedBullAirForce.com
PAUL : He’s the only one the FAA has actually given a license to fly aerobatic helicopter flight —
JEFF : And I think after they saw what he does with the helicopter, they said, "Okay, no more licenses."
PAUL : Yep.
JEFF : So, anyway. This is — this is some footage of what he does at air shows with his helicopter, and it’s something that a helicopter isn’t really supposed to do, like loops and barrels and stuff like that. His helicopter is a MMBB0105 that he’s customized heavily. He wouldn’t even tell us the modifications he’s made to it, ’cause it’s sort of a trade secret. He actually tears this helicopter down and rebuilds it at the end of every air show season, just to make sure all of the parts are working correctly.
And he spent a long time trying to figure out how to actually aerodynamically do a loop in a helicopter because you’re not supposed to be able to do that.
PAUL : So dangerous.
JEFF : Yeah. Very dangerous. He won’t teach his own son how to do it. Who also flies helicopters. He’s only taught one other guy who is the guy who flies for Red Bull in Europe, that Red Bull said, "You have to teach this guy how to do it, ’cause he’s going of to do the air shows in Europe." Um, but, it’s this extremely dangerous maneuver.
I have a question. When you’re doing a movie like this, do you have a story before you go out and research or does the story develop from the research?
PAUL : Sort of a little bit of both, yeah.
JEFF : Little bit of both. It’s more of the latter. Basically, the impetus for it was, we started it when the first Planes movie was only a year into development and production, so it was still going to be three years before Planes came out, but we thought it was coming together pretty well, and we said, "Let’s start working on a follow-up, ’cause we think this is gonna be pretty successful," and Bobs started looking into the different arenas of aviation. What could we do? We could do this sort of a story, this sort of story, different things.
And he started looking into aerial firefighting which is something that hasn’t been shown a lot in movies, and when he first started investigating it this is where the research sort of led us into what the story was gonna be, because he discovered that the first aerial firefighters were crop-dusting aircraft, and that the type of planes that Dusty is modeled after are also used for firefighting. They put pontoons on them. They let them scoop off the water. Exactly what happens to Dusty in the movie. And we said, well, this is a natural extension for what Dusty’s next adventure is gonna be. It was a great "in."
Bobs came in one day, and said, "What if Dusty can’t race anymore. It’s not a choice. What if he’s — it’s like an injured athlete story. You know. You’re at the top of your game, the top of your sport, you break your leg. What are you gonna do with your life? You know?" And so we started thinking of it in those terms, but it was sort of born out of seeing that these other aircraft had second chances as well. So, they sort of both feed each other. Sometimes you will go in with a story idea by the things you discover. Sometimes you go into this story idea and you realize, "Oh, no, it’s actually this," which would be much cooler of a story to tell, and you shift over to that.
It was like, let’s go out — we had sort of a nugget of an idea, let’s go learn some stuff. Oh, that’s cool. Let’s come back and write some stuff. You know who we really need to talk, it’s this type of person. Let’s go out and talk to them. Then let’s come back and fiddle with some stuff. We need to visit the smoke jumpers. So it was a much — you know, a year at least.
PAUL : At least a year.
JEFF : Of back and forth, developing the story, and doing the research, sort of back and forth and hand in hand, so —
None of the animation is done until you have the story done?
JEFF : Once you have the story together, in terms of like, a script or, you know, a treatment of a script, then you start doing the storyboards, which is just the black-and-white drawings. And you edit it together into an animatic or a story reel where you can watch the whole thing with a temporary voice and sound effects and music and everything to see if it works, and you go through that, four, five, or six or even more times, and at the same time, you know, the guys are doing designs. And building things in CG. And then only when that is nailed down, then you go ahead and say, "Okay. Now we’re gonna really start animating it," and that part, just the animating takes a year or more by itself.
And even then, there are things that you will change down the road, like the thing about the smoke jumpers looking before they jump out. That was late in the process. So, we were like, even though we’re in animation, it’s like, all right, we need to go and put that sequence in, and sometimes we’ll change lines, you know, up till even a month before it’s done, you know we’re tweaking stuff. Travis or Chuck would come in and say, "You know what? It’d be better if they said it this way or you showed this, or maybe you need a shot actually clarifying to say this." We would add stuff later on.
PAUL : Yeah it takes a long time. I mean, people are already shocked that it takes three years.
JEFF : Yeah. Some people were like, "Wow, you churn that out in a year after Planes ?" Well, no, we started it three years before the other one came out. Both of them took, you know, really long — it’s just very labor intensive.
Of all of the people that you interviewed through your research, was there a message that you were hoping you could convey to the public through your film?
PAUL : Flying at night was something that we wanted to make sure we got right.
JEFF : Well, that was early on, there were some detail things. The flying at night thing was a sort of a little bit of a political hot button with them, so that was something they wanted us to be very careful about how we handled that in the movie. Because it is very dangerous to fly at night, which we didn’t really understand that when you’re flying around at night over woods that is unfamiliar terrain you could very easily crash. Flying that low at night. It’s very dangerous.
PAUL : You’re flying a few hundred feet above the ground. Because to make an effective drop – if you’re too high, it’s just going to dissipate. If you’re too low, it’s going to hit the ground, right? You have to be at a height that really is prime, power-line, low-antenna —
JEFF : Mm-hmm, a hill can just pop up in front of you.
PAUL : Yeah.
JEFF : So, it’s very dangerous, and they wanted us to be careful about that, and not just have our guys, "Hey, go out and fly at night," because then, the public would be like, "Well, the guys in the movie did it, you know?" It’s like, well —
PAUL : Yeah. The guys in the movie did it. I saw it in a movie. They can do that.
JEFF : They were like, just please, don’t cause problems for us by portraying it this w — and we’re like, "That’s great. We want to portray it realistically." But as far as an overall message, there wasn’t anything that they said outright. It was more like, once we’d met them and saw how selfless they are, and how cool they are, and the variations in their personalities, we wanted people to know that about them. And you know, like we were talking about, the big detail of that they do this every day, multiple times a day, and nobody really knows about it.
PAUL : Every day.
It was a really great time talking with them, they are very funny and I loved getting an inside look at the creative process for the story.
I snapped a quick pic with them both afterwards. Such nice guys!
Planes Fire and Rescue is now available on Blu-ray and DVD!