Bob Petersen, like so many of Pixar’s talents, comes across like everyone’s favorite uncle.
The 48-year-old codirector of “Up” came up through the ranks, working as a writer on “Finding Nemo” and “Ratatouille,” story artist on “Toy Story 2” and “A Bug’s Life,” and doing various voice work as well. (He voices both Dug the dog and his nemesis, Alpha, in “Up”.)
In an interview with The Japan Times, Petersen revealed the lengths Pixar goes to in researching a film, which in this case included camping out on Tabletop Mountain in Venezuela to research locations, having an actual ostrich run amok in the Pixar studios to study large bird behavior, and crunching the numbers to find out just how many helium balloons it takes to fly a suburban home.
Do you think 3-D will be the new standard for cinema? I think the filmmaker should decide if it’s appropriate for the movie. Any film that has a certain level of fantasy or action-adventure is a worthy contender. At Pixar, we don’t let the 3-D drive the movie, we just let it underpin the emotional journey.
What are some of the challenges of filming in 3-D? If you sense the 3-D coming at you, it takes you out of the movie, and we’ve failed. So we have to make it seamless. In 3-D, you can see in depth, so we have to take extra precautions to focus the eye where it needs to be on screen.
The film deals with the loss of a spouse — were you ever worried that this might be a heavy topic for a kid’s film? We had a lot of conversations about that, and about how to balance a heavy beginning with a much lighter second half.
So one thing we did was to keep Ellie alive, symbolically, as much as we could through the movie. Which is what old people do — my grandfather would talk to my grandmother long after she was gone. So you always felt like her spirit was guiding Carl as he went along, and that sort of softened the blow. And children, we have to give them more credit — they can handle things. The hope is, even if it’s tough for a kid emotionally, that a kid will leave (the theater) with great questions and tools to deal with a loss.
It’s an eye-opener; I remember seeing “Bambi” when I was quite young and being devastated when Bambi’s mother is shot. It gets hooked into your emotional self. Same with “Dumbo”: I remember Dumbo’s mom gets imprisoned, and she has to cradle him outside the cage, and I just won’t ever forget that. And I won’t forget “The Wizard of Oz” either, Dorothy had a pretty rough time of it . . .
Well, the whole idea of a house flying off is very “Wizard of Oz” — was that an inspiration?
Well, we never start off by consciously trying to do that. We come up with ideas, and then realize, wow, that has some DNA from “Wizard of Oz” in it, so it’s a wonderful homage. But “Wizard of Oz” is my favorite movie of all time. As a kid, I played The Scarecrow in the play “The Wizard of Oz” twice, at two different schools. So if there’s any of that same magic that people feel in our film, then I’m grateful.
I sense some Hayao Miyazaki DNA in there too . . . I watch “Totoro” once a week with my children. The thing I like about his films is that he takes his time. He is capable enough to mark true emotion and little moments between characters. I think we (tend to) rush too much through any kind of film that we’re in, and he definitely makes you feel things as you go. Kiki lolling on a hillside with a radio, just watching the clouds, or one of the kids in “Totoro” sleeping with the moonlight coming over her face, those little moments . . . and we tried to put some of those in this film too.
“Wall-E” was noted for being dialogue-free for its first 20 minutes, and “Up” also has this beautiful wordless montage at the beginning . . . When I first came to Pixar, my mentor, Joe Rams — who was a great Head of Story at Pixar; now passed on, unfortunately — he would always say, “You have to be able to watch your film with the sound off and still know what’s happening.”
So just how many balloons does it take to fly a house? (Laughs.) Well, we did the research, and it would take like 10,000,000 balloons to lift a house. Which would be, like, as big as the state of Rhode Island. So we just treated the house as a basket, and its balloon canopy is about the same proportion as a hot-air ballon, and that’s some thing we’ve seen before, so people will buy it. But, hey, it’s just a movie!