Disney’s upcoming animated action-packed comedic adventure starring Dusty, a big-hearted, fast-flying crop duster who dreams of competing in the most exhilarating around-the-world air race in history. There’s only a couple of not-so-small problems — Dusty is not exactly built for racing and he also happens to be afraid of heights.
Despite his fear and with encouragement from his mentor, a naval aviator named Skipper, Dusty narrowly qualifies for the big competition. Dusty’s sportsmanship and speed begin to rattle the defending champ of the race circuit, Ripslinger, who will stop at nothing to see Dusty fail.
When disaster strikes during the climax of the final race, Dusty’s courage is put to the ultimate test. With the support of friends old and new, Dusty reaches heights he never dreamed possible.
EARNING THEIR WINGS
Filmmakers Get Real with “Disney’s Planes“
Klay Hall was into airplanes long before “Disney’s Planes” ever got off the ground. So when executive producer John Lasseter asked the Disneytoon Studios veteran if he’d be interested in directing a feature film set in the skies, it was a no-brainer. “I’ve always loved airplanes,” says Hall. “My dad was in the Navy and his dad was also a pilot. They flew all their lives and passed that love of aviation to me.
“When I was a kid here in California,” continues Hall, “my dad and I would grab some burgers and Cokes and go to the local runway to watch the planes take off and land. I’d sit there and sketch as he talked about the characteristics of the airplanes. I still have a couple of those drawings. So when this project came up, I was able to really jump into this universe.”
“Disney’s Planes,” which hits theaters on August 9, 2013, is an all-new movie inspired by the world of “Cars,” the Disney•Pixar film that first raced into moviegoers’ hearts in 2006. Produced at Southern California’s Disneytoon Studios, “Disney’s Planes” tells the tale of a crop duster — aptly named Dusty — who’s sure he’s capable of more than taking care of crops.
Says Hall, “I think people will really relate to ‘Disney’s Planes‘ because it’s a great underdog story. It has a lot of heart and a message we can all use: If we can believe in ourselves, step out of our comfort zones and get past whatever fear is holding us back, we’d be surprised with the results. And that’s exactly what happens to Dusty in this movie. He’s a crop duster who’s never flown above 1,000 feet, but he dreams of being the fastest air racer in the world. He has a lot of obstacles to overcome and needs to dig pretty deep to find the courage to become more than what he was built for.”
Becoming more than you’re built for is a key theme in the film. Filmmakers first had to understand how airplanes are built and how they operate before they could help Dusty break his predetermined mold. The research they conducted also helped ensure they followed the Lasseter-endorsed philosophy: truth to materials. The principle — as applied to “Disney’s Planes“ — required artists to keep an airplane’s physical structure — its steel frame, its size and weight — in mind while designing and animating the characters. Wings couldn’t be bent, bodies weren’t stretched or squashed and propellers had to move as real propellers would move. Filmmakers found much more subtle ways to convey action and emotion. But it all began with research.
“We had a lot of fun exploring the world of airplanes,” says Hall. “We’ve been able to experience all kinds of flight — hot air balloons, World War II bombers and different types of jet and civilian aircraft.”
Several members of the production team took part in field trips — attending air shows, museums, an aircraft carrier and a number of small-town airports — to soak up the atmosphere, bolster their knowledge of airplanes and ensure authenticity in the story. “I was like a kid in a candy store,” says Hall. “We were able to talk to aviation pioneers and fighter pilots, Korean War vets, civilian test pilots. We had special access to the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. It’s been amazing.”
According to Hall, “Disney’s Planes” is set somewhere in the Midwest, so filmmakers visited several areas in the heartland, including:
- Ohio — Filmmakers visited the National Museum of the United States Air Force, where they saw the historic Memphis Belle in mid-restoration, John F. Kennedy’s Air Force One and a MiG-25 Foxbat fighter jet. They attended the Dayton Air Show, where they met surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen. They also flew in a 40-year-old Huey helicopter and hung out with the USAF Thunderbirds.
- North Dakota — Several members of the production team went to the Fargo Air Museum and saw a restored F4U Corsair on display. They talked with a retired U.S. Navy pilot who flew a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber in 1944-1945. The experience proved valuable in the development of Skipper, the seasoned Navy vet that helps train Dusty.
- Minnesota — Filmmakers hit nine regional airports and air fields, including Leaders Clear Lake Airport, a small air field surrounded by cornfields, which housed a number of old crop dusters and fuel trucks. The location proved to be perfect reference for Propwash Junction’s rural backdrop and weathered buildings. “We found an old fuel truck tucked in some overgrowth next to a cornfield that was actually an inspiration for our fuel truck Chug,” says Hall.
Members of the production team also visited the USS Carl Vinson. The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, which boasts a rich history dating back to its launch in 1980, proved to be great reference for a scene in the film that’s set on an aircraft carrier. Producer Traci Balthazor-Flynn joined Hall and a few other members of the team, observing target practice, plus a number of takeoffs, including a Hornet, helicopters and C-2 Cargo planes. “Landing on the aircraft carrier, then riding it into the harbor ranks right up there among the top ten things I’ve done in my life,” says Balthazor-Flynn. “It was fantastic speaking to the crew — we even ran some of the film’s dialogue by a few of the officers.”
CAN IT FLY?
Making “Disney’s Planes” fly — literally — called for a unique combination of research, collaboration and a lot of hard work. “We found early on that with tires on the ground, the characters felt real,” says Hall. “But once they took off — once we had to make something turn in a three-dimensional space — it was significantly harder. At first, they looked like toys.”
Filmmakers called on Jason McKinley (“Red Tails”) to serve as flight specialist for the film. McKinley, creator, producer and director of the “Dogfights” series for the History Channel, specializes in designing flying effects for film and television. “With every flying scene, there’s a giant sky,” says McKinley. “You’re flying around at 300-400 miles an hour and the space you take up is huge. So we wanted to get that massive feeling of space and speed to the audience.”
McKinley’s first strategy mimics Lasseter’s truth to materials: real size, real speed. “The planes have to be a real size, the set has to be real size and you have to fly the plane at the speed it can actually fly. The human eye is very attuned to motion — we’ve all seen a bird fly or thrown a ball. We’ve built in our brains a library of motions and how those motions are supposed to look. The second you veer from the laws of physics, everybody can tell that it doesn’t look right.”
Even prior to joining the team behind “Disney’s Planes,” McKinley had done extensive research to understand the core capabilities of individual aircraft — maximum turn rate, maximum roll rate, maximum speed. He applied his knowledge to nearly 800 flight shots in the film — his favorite sequence, however, is Dusty’s entrée into the racing world when he competes in the North American Wings Around the Globe time trials. “This is the moment that he changes,” says McKinley. “He goes from being a crop duster to becoming a legitimate air racer. We wanted to make it a huge moment and we ended up with a 50- to 60-shot sequence.”
Helping to ensure the authenticity of the flight was Sean Bautista, who became a licensed pilot in high school, went on to fly a variety of aircraft — from Cessnas and Pipers to F4s, F16s and commercial 747s — and has logged several thousand flight hours during the course of his career. “I was able to answer technical questions like ‘How do you up the horse power on a PT6 powered turbo prop crop duster?’”
Bautista showed the production team how to boost Dusty’s competiveness through specialized maneuvers he might master before entering the racing circuit. He lent his flying expertise to the production when it came to the look of the assorted aircraft and the flight itself. He also helped authenticate some of the dialogue. “We’d go out to lunch and they’d flip on the tape recorder and ask me to talk like a military pilot or traffic controller. These guys don’t talk in normal jargon — it’s sort of shorthand and harder to understand. But incorporating the real thing really makes it feel right.”
Filmmakers opted to record actual airplanes to bolster the validity of the flight scenes. “We recorded crop dusters for Dusty, some old bi-planes, a twin engine aircraft and even a Navy F-18,” says McKinley, who adds that watching the planes approach at 200 miles per hour during the recording process was an exhilarating experience.
As filmmakers explored real planes, they found that many of the details they gathered actually helped drive the story. Given that crop dusters needn’t fly above 1,000 feet, filmmakers theorized that despite his dream of becoming a world famous air racer, Dusty might have some reservations about doing what it takes to achieve it. “He’s not built to fly high — he’s never had to fly high,” says Hall. “So it makes perfect sense that he’d be afraid of heights.”
Dusty’s fear of heights prompted filmmakers to seek the guidance of a phobia specialist to ensure they characterized the fear appropriately. “We knew if we captured it the right way, we’d connect that much more with that guy in the audience who’s dealing with his own fear — whether it’s of heights or something else entirely,” says Hall.
“Dusty’s character and condition is relatable because we all suffer fears — some more than others — and we have all experienced struggles in our lives that we cannot easily overcome,” says John Tsilimparis. The licensed psychotherapist, who’s treated people with anxiety disorders for two decades, said acrophobia — the fear of heights — is “marked by symptoms of dizziness, sweating, nausea, dry mouth, shaking, heart palpitations, labored breathing and the inability to speak or think clearly.
“Dusty’s dilemma is very human and we resonate with his pain,” continues Tsilimparis. “We feel compassion for him and we want him to succeed. We also love the underdog.”
“We’ve all been the underdog in our own lives,” adds Hall. “We’ve all been Dusty at some point. It’s that familiarity — paired with the authenticity we worked so hard to incorporate at every level — that’ll make audiences root for this guy. And I think that’s one of the best parts of going to the movies.”