Disney’s Planes Exclusive! We talk to the Director

Disney’s Planes movie hits the UK cinemas on August 16 and is sure to be a hit with kids aged three to 103.

AirForces Monthly’s Editor, Gary Parsons, had an opportunity to speak with the movie’s director, Klay Hall, who has directed episodes of the Simpsons, King of the Hill and Disney’s Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure.

Produced at Southern California’s Disneytoon Studios, Disney’s Planes tells the tale of a crop duster — named Dusty — who’s sure he’s capable of more than taking care of crops.

Klay Hall was into aircraft long before Planes ever got off the ground. “I’ve always loved airplanes,” he says. “My dad was in the US 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 in California 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.

“I think people will really relate to 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.”

AFM: You must have been pretty excited when John Lasseter asked you to take on the movie?

Klay: “That’s an understatement! John tells the story that when I got back off the floor and the blood rushed to my head it was like ‘yea, I’m on it’! I was so excited – it was a great surprise and an honour.”

Does the genesis of Planes go back to the Air Mater short?

“We were involved with that, although it was strictly a Pixar short – we helped with art direction and character designs. It was a chance to weigh up our characters. Planes was in work before that short, but what we were able to do was tee-up the idea of Mater loving flying. Planes existed in the Cars franchise long before we came on the scene.”

Your scriptwriter, Jeffery Howard, has an air force background – was that deliberate?

“It was a coincidence – what we found out was that many of us on this movie had a lot of aviation background. It seems like it was set up that way – Jeff’s dad was a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War – but it was almost like it was meant to be.”

There are a lot of ‘Top Gun’ references – did that movie inspire you 25 years ago?

“Yes, absolutely – who wasn’t inspired by that? When I knew I was going to have some sequences with naval aviation I picked the F4U Corsair to kick it all off – it’s probably one of the most iconic and best looking aircraft of the Second World War with its gull-wing, and the ‘Jolly Rogers’ squadron under Tommy Blackburn [has a great history]. I knew that was a great aeroplane to start with because of its historical significance and what’s cool about the ‘Rogers is that they currently fly F-18s. I wanted to get a contemporary feel into certain sequences and that whole Top Gun thing, so when the opportunity came to casting Goose [Anthony Edwards] and Iceman [Val Kilmer] they both responded with ‘absolutely!’ It was so cool as a fan of that movie to be working with those guys and almost resurrect those roles in [the characters] Bravo and Echo.”

Absolutely – perhaps two of the most iconic characters from the Top Gun movie. Did you approach Tom Cruise?

“We did, but he was doing Mission Impossible IV at the time.”

How much did the US Navy help with the production?

“They helped a great deal. They didn’t necessarily help with the design of the aircraft – that was art direction under Ryan Carlson and his team. Actually our F-18s are a mixture of three or four different types – F-18, F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle and MiG-29. We contacted the navy to let them know we would welcome their input and we had a guy from the Department of Defense who flew in with two navy commanders from the Pentagon to look at the movie in production. As a filmmaker I was nervous as here we have aeroplanes representing the US, but after they saw the screening they said they’d thoroughly enjoyed it and were very eager to help us in any way they could. What they were able to do was put us in contact with a couple of current Hornet pilots so we could get the proper jargon, but the icing on the cake was that they flew a small team of us out to the USS Carl Vinson 150 miles out to sea where we landed by arresting wire on the deck. Landing on deck was an unbelievable opportunity – we flew in on a C-2 Greyhound – it was beautiful! They were launching F-18s while we were there – it was right out of Top Gun with the steam rolling across the deck and the guys operating the catapults – just that whole thing was amazing to see. We spent two days with the crew and aircrew getting to know their way of life and were able to play my navy sequence back to the captain – overall they loved it, but we were then able to change a few specifics to make it more true.

“I was like a kid in a candy store – 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.”

What about the manufacturers, such as Boeing, did they get involved?

“We didn’t have to go to them – there’s so many flight experts out there. All of our team is familiar with flying in one way or another, but we brought in an ex-fighter pilot, Sean Bautista, as a consultant who had flown F-16s for the air force for 20 years. He was very familiar with all kinds of aircraft fight dynamics and characteristics. We also had a visual effects consultant, Jason McKinley, and he helped lead the team on flight dynamics.”

Making Planes fly — literally — called for a unique combination of research, collaboration and a lot of hard work. Jason McKinley, who had worked on ‘Red Tails’ was flight specialist for the film. He is the creator, producer and director of the ‘Dogfights’ series for the History Channel and specialises in designing flying effects for film and television. “With every flying scene, there’s a giant sky,” he says. “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.

“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.”

Helping to ensure the authenticity was Sean Bautista, who became a licensed pilot in high school, went on to fly a variety of aircraft — from Cessnas and Pipers to F-4s, F-16s and commercial 747s — and has logged several thousand flight hours during 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?’, he says.

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.”

AFM: You’ve got some fine old actors – Stacey Keach, John Cleese – it must have been a hoot to work with them?

Klay: “It was fantastic – both of those guys are legends. What Stacey brought was a salt-of-the-earth texture to his character, Skipper the Corsair, where he commands instant respect. Having John Cleese and knowing his Monty Python days, how magically funny he was, it was just great working with him.”

Did Stacey voice Skipper in the Air Mater short?

“Yes he did.”

How about a Planes 2 – could that be more military-minded?

[Laughs] “We’ve talked about ideas and that’s certainly one of them. The thing about this universe is that it’s wide open. But Planes 2 will be about fire and rescue – you know the first plane to drop water on a fire was a crop duster. The history of fire-fighting from an aeroplane’s point of view is the core idea of the story. But going back to the military, that’s something we need to explore.”

Will Planes fire and rescue be a full-length movie?

“A theatrical world-wise release for the summer of 2014.”

So the work never stops!

“Right now it doesn’t! It’s all good – it comes back to John Lasseter’s philosophy about these things – it’s all about the quality of the stories. Just as long as we’re focussed on great stories and characters.

“We’ve all been the underdog in our own lives – 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.”


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