Last week, I was given the unique opportunity to visit DisneyToon Studios, the division of Disney Animation that is responsible for the increasingly wonderful "Tinker Bell" and "Planes" movies. (Their building is right across the street from Disney Television Animation and it took every iota of my self-control not to dash across the walkway and start asking questions about "Gravity Falls" and "Wander Over Yonder.")
Essentially, the folks at DisneyToon Studios gave us a tour of Piston Peak National Park, the huge park at the center of "Planes: Fire & Rescue" (and, if you missed the movie, you really should make up for that -- it's out on DVD, Blu-ray, and Disney Movies Anywhere on November 4th).
In the movie, Dusty (Dane Cook), the erstwhile prop plane who dreamed of being a world-famous racer, is sidelined due to mechanical issues. He finds a new calling in his role as a fire-and-rescue plane at nearby Piston Peak National Park. And when you walked into DisneyToon Studios on the press day, the entire atrium was transformed into an approximation of the park, with giant, woody trees and signs giving chipper advice on how you can prevent forest fires.
The first station we went to was about research, where Paul Gerard, the Director of Creative Development and Jeff Howard, the movie's co-writer, took us through the painstaking research that went into a movie that featured Ed Harris as a tough-yet-fair airplane commander. One of the things that struck me was how the planes that are involved in these fire-fighting missions always had a previous life -- just like Dusty. One of the planes had a life before as a sub-hunter, dropping torpedoes into the water that would go after enemy submarines. (How cool is that?) Gerard also dropped helpful facts, like how one of the units they followed (CAL FIRE) fought 5,600 fires a year. Gulp. The team was also given the opportunity to go on a ride with one of the film's technical advisors -- a man with a Brillo-pad mustache who retrofitted his helicopter so that it could do several midair somersaults in a row.
It was a really fascinating look at just how much work goes into these movies. The filmmakers stressed that since the movie was so cartoonish they wanted to make sure that everything they could get right, they would get right. Their edict was that whenever they could be grounded, whether it's in the way the various planes and helicopters move through the air or the topography of the land, they wanted to nail it. That way, the comedy could come more naturally. And you can really tell just how much homework they did for this movie.
This theme was continued when we made our way over to art director Toby Wilson, who gave a lovely talk on creating the world of Piston Peak National Park. He again talked about creating the atmosphere of Piston Peak National Park, drawing primarily from two great American national parks -- Yosemite and Yellowstone. These parks informed everything that the designers and animators were doing, from the look of the giant lodge that comes under threat of a raging forest fire to the way the walls of the gulch were formed. It's staggering stuff, especially when Wilson started throwing out figures like the fact that there are 2.5 million pine trees in the park (a park that stretches 2 miles across). If that wasn't enough, he let us in on the little details of the park, like the bark of the trees looks like the treads on a tire or that the pinecones are shaped like spark plugs (yes, this is all true -- and all unbelievably cool).
All of this staggering detail was accumulated over 10 months of hardcore research and development, which encompassed everything up to and including the look of individual cars and planes. It was fascinating stuff, and again speaks to the mind-boggling complexity of one of these animated features. As Wilson said, "Will audiences notice all of this stuff? Probably not. But they might notice it if it's not there."
Oh, and if you were wondering what John Lasseter's involvement in "Planes: Fire & Rescue" was, listen up. The Pixar bigwig, who has effectively run the creative side of Disney since they acquired Pixar, is an executive producer on all of the DisneyToon Studios movies and, on "Planes: Fire & Rescue," he extended his obsessive attention to detail to one of the movie's new characters: a train. Lasseter loves trains, they zigzag through his sprawling Northern California estate in all shapes and sizes (it's an obsession that he shares with Walt Disney, whose personal train was the inspiration for the railroads at Disneyland and Walt Disney World). John personally guided the look and design of the train character in "Planes: Fire & Rescue;" Wilson sounded delighted by the executive's up-close-and-personal involvement.
From there, we went to the recording booth. Almost all of "Planes: Fire & Rescue" was recorded in-house, with everyone stressing that the actors had to fit the characters; it wasn't just a game of "let's look for the biggest movie star." And, as an added bonus, we got to record "scratch dialogue" for a scene in the film. Let me tell you, you haven't lived until you've seen my voice coming out of a gnarly pick-up truck who says, somewhat mournfully, "My wife left me for a hybrid. I didn't even hear it coming."
But that's not all -- as an added bonus, we have an exclusive clip from "Vitaminamulch" (above) which concerns a daring air show that goes disastrously, hilariously wrong. In the one-minute-long clip of the short (that's included with every format of the "Planes: Fire & Rescue" release next week), we watch Dusty and his faithful fuel truck companion Chug (Brad Garrett), as they pose as Vandemonium and Air Devil Jones, the stunt performers who have unfortunately been sidelined. It's a wonderful short film and another way that the "Planes" universe has been lovingly expanded.
"Planes: Fire & Rescue" is out next week (November 4) on DVD, Blu-ray, and Disney Movie Anywhere. And a big thank you to all of the supremely talented folks at DisneyToon Studios who put up with me for an entire day last week.