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NYCC2009: Spending Time with Disney/Pixar's "Up" (and, Disney's "Surrogates")

Walt Disney Features attended New York Comic Con to promote two of their upcoming films: Disney/Pixar’s Up and Surrogates, based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weidele. The coverage for Surrogates was limited to debuting the (extremely loud) trailer, which introduces a future where people will download their consciousness into android Surrogates, allowing them to live their lives by proxy with no risks in perfect bodies. Like any good science fiction movie, something goes wrong, so its up to hero Bruce Willis to figure out what. Other than the trailer, Disney chose the interesting publicity strategy of deploying a small army of incredibly attractive, well-dressed people to walk around the IGN Theater and the New York Comic Convention floor to hand out business cards promoting the ChooseYourSurrogate.com website. I don’t really know what it says about New York Comic Con that they stuck out like sore thumbs on the convention floor, but I guess that was the point. And it’s not like I’m complaining about that, as you will understand from the photos below.

Surrogates opens on September 25, 2009.

Up -- coming May 29, 2009However, the real highlight of the con was Up, with producer Jonas Rivera and director Pete Docter on hand to introduce four clips of the movie in the afternoon and then screen a whopping 46 minutes of the movie in the early evening. Security was incredibly tight for both screenings, and at the longer one, all attendees were required to surrender any cameras, cell phones, or recording devices to a set of extremely professional security staff who really weren’t the kind of guys you say, “No” to.

I have to admit I’m somewhat torn about how to cover Up — on the one hand, it’s more movie magic from Pixar, but on the other, Up seems like the kind of movie where knowing more about it will ruin some wonderful, delightful surprises. Seeing the four clips beforehand just gave away exactly where a lot of the early minutes of the movie were leading up to. So, I’ll report that Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles and Ratatouille) is set to start scoring Up next week and Docter and Rivera are excited about that, and the Pixar crew is heading up to Skywalker Ranch to do sound design of the movie in March. Beyond that, my advice is that you should do yourself a solid and stop reading when you hit the silly photo coming up. Just go buy your tickets when the movie opens up on May 29, 2009. If any movie studio on Earth has earned the right to market a movie by just saying, “Trust us,” it’s Pixar, and from the footage I’ve seen, Up is not going to be the movie that breaks their streak. When a movie can manage to make you cry less than 10 minutes after the lights go down, and then make you laugh uproariously less than 10 minutes after that, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might as well just get it over with and pre-announce Up as one of the nominees for Best Animated Film of 2009 right now. You can check back soon for the roundtable interview session with Rivera and Docter that Toon Zone News was able to participate in, since they don’t give much away.

But it’s Pixar. Trust them.

Besides, Jonas Rivera and Pete Docter told me that they think you should stop reading now, too (*). See?

(*) = Jonas Rivera and Pete Docter did not actually say this to me. But they would have if I had asked them. And then told them what to say afterwards.

Docter mentioned that he was not good with social situations growing up, and that the idea of “I want to get away from everybody” (that, oddly, crops up when speaking in front of several hundred people in an auditorium as well) was one of the ideas that drove Up. Another aspect was that they just wanted to tell a story with an old man as the protagonist, especially a grouchy, curmudgeon of an old man. That protagonist is 78-year old Carl Fredrickson, action hero, voiced with perfect grouchiness by Ed Asner. The movie begins with an incredibly tight montage introducing us to him as a quiet, socially stunted kid and what happens after he meets Ellie, a boisterous little girl with big dreams of Adventure. The two promise that they’ll go have an adventure to South America to “see things nobody else has seen,” but life gets in the way and they never make it. The movie properly starts with Carl as a 78-year old widower wanting nothing more than to be left alone. The montage sequence that opens the film are those 10 minutes that can make you cry, and I don’t believe that I was alone in my reaction to those scenes. The mere fact that the movie can manage to get us so emotionally invested in these characters so quickly is a real testament to the incredible artistry and craft that Pixar deploys in making a movie, especially considering that all the human characters in the movie are much more stylized and exaggerated than Pixar’s other human characters so far.

Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera on the New York Comic Con IGN Theater stageUnfortunately, Carl’s desire to be left alone is disrupted by two forces: the greedy businessmen who want the land his house sits on, and the young Wilderness Explorer Russell who wants to assist Carl somehow so he can win his Assisting the Elderly merit badge. Russell is a real treat, voiced by the young Jordan Nagai in a performance that’s reminiscent of the children in the Charlie Brown animated specials, but without the sense of self-consciousness that Charles Schulz wrote into the source material. Russell is also the source of a whole lot of the bigger laughs in the movie, partially because of his genuine, unaffected delivery and partially because of the way his enthusiasm completely tortures Carl.

As seen in the trailer footage, Carl makes his escape from society by tying several thousand helium balloons to his house and rigging a steering system out of curtains. They do make it to South America, and much faster than you’d think, where they meet…no. Even though you’re already down here, Mr. or Miss Jump-to-the-End-of-the-Book, I’m not going to spoil the surprises that await Carl and Russell there. Suffice it to say that Docter and Rivera did say that they took a trip to Venezuela and Brazil, including regions where no human being has ever set foot, and that I’m sure that they spent a lot of time watching dogs and large birds as well. And, if Disney or the denizens of Planet Pixar are reading, the dogs are exactly right and Kevin is a riot. For the rest of you that weren’t there, come back after the movie comes out and you’ll know what I mean.

There were a few extremely minor elements in the preview footage, however. The movie begins with a fake newsreel, which serves a real purpose by placing Carl’s childhood back in the 30′s, but was also feels like it’s repeating the exact same trick used to begin The Incredibles and Ratatouille. From the early chunk of the movie, it also seems like the humor of Up seems to be playing much broader than they have up to now. Up is still a far cry from the movies that rely solely on poop-and-belch humor and pop culture references, but this is the first Pixar movie that makes an actual poop joke, and also gets a laugh out of a big, tough, nasty character talking in an incongruously funny voice. Don’t misunderstand — both of those jokes are absolutely hilarious, and they are far, far outweighed by other riotously funny moments that don’t rely on the cheap laugh. It just feels a bit weird to see as many cheap laughs as we do in a Pixar movie.

Hey, Pete Docter! How many times have you been asked about Pixar sequels so far today?During the panel Q&A, several audience members asked about sequels to Pixar movies, with The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc. seeming to come up the most often. Docter and Rivera repeated the company line that Pixar has always brought out regarding sequels: they’ll do them if they have a great idea that they think is worth doing, but if they don’t, they won’t. Docter didn’t completely rule out the idea of a Monsters, Inc. sequel, but definitely did not seem to have given it much thought so don’t get your hopes up. Docter also added that Pixar is a very director-driven studio, and he and Rivera said that whenever there’s passion behind the ideas, it’s easy for the studio to get behind it. He also said that Pixar probably has more stuff in pre-production than they’ve ever had before in their history, with making “each a little different from the last” being their goal.

A film student asked how they deal with writer’s block, and about moving from live-action and animated directing. Docter said he felt that they think that they view animated filmmaking just like they view making any other film, although he did note that “we’ll see soon,” since both Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton wanted to explore live-action in their next projects. As for writer’s block, Docter cited Charles Schulz’s quote, “I don’t have time for writer’s block,” saying that Pixar tends to just pound away at things and doesn’t really leave enough room for themselves get blocked. He also mentioned that doing research is a good way to break through writer’s block and that he’ll sometimes just walk away from something for a while if he can’t work his way through a story point.

The next question was to cite the really hard technical problems (usually pointed out in DVD commentaries and making-of material) that were solved in making Up, and Docter mentioned that the hardest thing to pull off was “artistic stuff.” A story about making a house fly with balloons meant that there needed to be a certain amount of whimsy and caricature. Carl is only 3 heads high, versus the 6 to 7 of a real person human character, and that “coming up with cloth that works with those short, stubby arms” proved to be one of the hardest problems they had to solve. Rivera added that the computer scientists at Pixar “have gotten so good (doing) at anything these guys think up,” but that Docter told them not to be aiming for perfection for Up. Rivera said, “They got the cloth working perfectly for Ratatouille, but now we don’t want it working perfectly” for the more exaggerated characters in this movie. Docter did say that the simulation programming for 10,000 balloons was a challenge, but it wasn’t as hard as cloth.

They’re not talking about John Carter of Mars yet. So don’t ask.

Eric Morrow of IGN.com, with Pete Docter and Jonas RiveraOne audience member asked about Disney Digital 3-D. Docter said that, “we’ve always made stereo films, but we’ve only rendered one eye.” He said it hasn’t affected the way they’ve been making the film, but that there are others at Pixar working on making it look as good as it possibly can for stereo. Rivera said that they were treating the screen more like a window instead of the 3-D movies that throw things at you, and that the flying scenes were especially beautiful in 3-D. From the preview footage, I can say that the flying scenes are beautiful in 2-D, rivaling the trademark flying scenes in Hayao Miyazaki films.

The next audience question was about the balloons that bring the house airborne: “If the balloons were already in the house, why wasn’t the house floating already?” Docter admitted that “they had looong discussions about this,” but it wasn’t important to the story so they didn’t focus on it in the movie. However, he said that the balloons were actually tethered to the ground in Carl’s backyard, and that he just untethered them to get the house airborne. So now you know before you hear it in the commentary track on the DVD or the Blu-ray.

The last question dealt with the balance between the sad/serious parts and the funny parts in Up. Docter said that it was hard to strike that balance well, and that it was important to him to get a foundation of emotion under the wackiness on the surface. He mentioned that without that relatable, emotional foundation, the movie will fly right out of your head by the time you walk out of the theater. Docter quoted Dumbo head of story Joe Grant: “What are you giving the audience to take home?”

Judging from the preview, Up is going to give us quite a bit to bring home. Up opens on May 29, 2009. Toon Zone News’ roundtable discussion with Docter and Rivera will be going live much sooner than that.

Return to Toon Zone News’ New York Comic Con 2009 Coverage Round-up

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