Planes Promises Plenty of Aviation Enthusiasm

 - August 2, 2013, 6:00 AM
Typical view at Propwash Junction Airport.

A peek behind the scenes at Disney’s Toontown Studios in Burbank, Calif., in June gave members of the aviation media an opportunity to learn how the animated movie Planes was crafted. The movie opens in theaters August 9 and was previewed at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh on August 2. Planes is the first of a planned trilogy.

It was clear from the dedication of director Klay Hall and producer Traci Balthazor-Flynn that Planes was created with a strong desire for accuracy, even for a movie that is at its heart a cartoon about anthropomorphic airplanes. Planes is “the world above Cars,” the fantasy realm created by Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios where animated vehicles come to life. In Planes, which was produced by Disneytoon Studios, young Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) learns how to overcome his fear of heights during the Wings Around the Globe race. “To have these two worlds collide brings us to where we are today,” Hall said.

Hall, an aviation geek at an early age, hired aviation expert Sean Bautista to vet every frame of the movie for accuracy. Bautista is a Boeing 747 airline pilot and has flown fighters and a variety of general aviation airplanes. Hall also employed Jason McKinley, who designed flying effects for the film Red Tails and the History Channel’s “Dogfights” series. In another sign of fidelity to aviation, the Disney artists recorded actual engine sounds for each aircraft character. Radial engines rumble and the PT6 that powers Dusty sounds like a proper turboprop.

This is all part of executive producer John Lasseter’s “truth to materials” philosophy, which requires artists to keep in mind structure, materials and physical reality while animating characters based on real things. For example, the Corsair (Skipper, the Navy vet who trains Dusty in racing techniques, voiced by Stacy Keach), can’t convey emotions using his wings as arms and hands, but his wings do fold up and down as in real life. Animators had other challenges, too, such as trying not to cover up a character’s facial features with propeller blades, or portraying a mechanic who can manipulate tools (Teri Hatcher’s throaty voice brings life to Dottie, the tool-toting forklift).

There are many subtle touches in Planes, illustrating an impressive attention to detail. The filmmakers spent time at the Reno Air Races and the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, and saw an F4U Corsair up close at the Fargo Air Museum in North Dakota. During visits to nine airports in Minnesota, they were directed to Leaders Clear Lake Airport, home to cropdusters and the old fuel truck that became a model for Chug (voiced by Brad Garrett). A visit to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson included watching Hornets, helicopters and C-2s do their carrier ballet and inspired the Echo and Bravo F/A-18 characters, voiced of course by Top Gun actors Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer.

In the movie, a neat coffee mug with a spinning propeller suggests some of the ancillary products that Planes might spawn. But Planes has a lot of potential to spur interest in aviation among the public, especially for younger viewers. The Planes characters, for example, could be ambassadors for aviation, perhaps employed in public service announcements to encourage youngsters to learn to fly. And flight schools could tap into the movie’s enthusiasm by sponsoring pre-show advertisements at theaters where Planes is showing.

Describing the team’s efforts to create the “world above Cars,” art director Ryan Carlson said Planes lives in “sort of a world by itself.” Various locales don’t just exist; rather, they reflect the “planey nature” of that world’s aerial inhabitants. Deadstick Desert, for example, is festooned with airplane shapes on the desert floor, and Propwash Junction is laid out in the form of an airplane. Each airport visited by the race contenders has its own local personality: Mayan pyramids with stone carvings of airplane shapes in Mexico, Chinese Great Wall themes with wing shapes in Shanghai, stucco embedded with wooden beams and the “Oil Haus” maintenance shop in Bavaria and so on. The airports are intended, Carlson said, to convey a sense of history, and the world of Planes and all of its elements emphasize that “it’s not our world, it’s their world.”

While many characters are based on antique airplanes–Carlos Alazraqui’s “El Chupacabra” (a Gee Bee) and John Cleese’s “Bulldog” (a de Havilland DH.88 Comet), modern designers like Burt Rutan also made it into Planes, influencing the sleek lines of the Ishani character (voiced by Priyanka Chopra). Dusty was inspired by the Air Tractor, Cessna Agwagon and Air Dromader.

“We really tried to get as much as possible correct,” said Hall. “I feel really good about that.”