"Do your research."
That is the lesson that John Lasseter -- Chief Creative
Officer of Walt Disney & Pixar Animation Studios -- has repeatedly drilled
into the artists that he works with. That before they jump feet-first into
developing a brand-new animated feature, these filmmakers must first understand
the world that this movie's characters are supposed to occupy.
CalFire crew members jump out of a plane as part of a training exercise. CopyrightDisney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
In the case of Pixar's "Up," this meant that Pete
Docter and his production team had to go to Venezuela.
Where it then took them three days of hard traveling by airplanes, jeeps &
helicopters before they finally reached Mount
Roraima (i.e., the highest point of
the Pakaraima chain of tepui plateau in South America)
and Angel Falls.
And when it came to Disney "Frozen," animators
& effects artists flew to Jackson Hole, WY
in the middle of winter. Just so that they could then don authentic period
clothing like long skirts and mush through deep snow. So that -- when it came time
to animate Anna's struggle to reach Wandering Oaken's Trading Post & Sauna
-- they could then get all of the details just right.
But when it came time to research "Planes: Fire &
Rescue," the story team from Disneytoon Studios didn't get to fly off to South
America or Wyoming.
They just hopped in a car and drove on down to the Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base.
Where they then talked with dozens of aerial firefighters who work for the
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection AKA CalFire.
Laying down a curtain of slurry during a training run. Copyright DisneyEnterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
"We worked with these guys for four years," Paul
Gerard, the director of Creative Development for Disneytoon Studios, explained.
"And CalFire helped us so much with 'Fire & Rescue.' They let us know
everything that you'd possibly want to know about Air Attack. And we'd then not
only try to incorporate as much of that information as we possibly could into
our film ... Well, we'd also invite members of the Air Attack team to come look
at our movie while it was still on reels. We'd then take the additional notes
that these guys gave us and fold them into our film to make 'Fire & Rescue'
as authentic as possible."
Now I know that -- especially for folks outside of the
animation industry -- that it may sound kind of strange that Disneytoon Studios
would put this much effort into a sequel to 2013's "Planes." Given
that the first film in this series had been such a success ... Well, it must
have been awfully tempting to just put this project on auto-pilot. Have Dusty
Crophopper compete in yet another 'round-the-world race.
"But that's not how we do things here at DisneyToon
Studios," said Jeffrey M Howard -- the co-screenwriter of both the original
"Planes" as well as "Fire & Rescue." "We weren't
looking to repeat ourselves with the second film in the 'Planes' series. We
wanted to do different things with Dusty this time around. Have him go off and explore
an entirely different corner of his world."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
Which -- given that the central character of this series is
a crop duster turned world-class racer -- was something of a challenge. But it
was actually "Fire & Rescue" director Bobs Gannaway who, during
the research phase of this Disneytoon Studios production, stumbled across the
factoid which eventually allowed Dusty to soar off in an entirely new
"It was Bobs -- as he was researching the history of
agricultural airplanes -- who discovered that these planes had also been used
for firefighting. Only instead of dropping chemicals & fertilizer on
fields, they'd then drop water on burning forests," Howard continued.
"And it was that neat bit of trivia -- that crop dusters had once been
used as single engine air tankers -- that then allowed us to step away from the
world of racing and go explore this entirely different aspect of
Which is why Jeffrey, Bobs & Paul made their first trip
to Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base back in 2010. But what they thought was going to
be a simple research trip suddenly changed the overall theme of their film.
This repurposed Huey is a key component of CalFire's Air Attack fleet. CopyrightDisney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
"Now you have to understand that a lot of us who worked
on these movies were big aviation geeks. So we were like 'Show us the planes.
Let us see what you have,' " said Howard said. "And as the folks at
Hemet-Ryan showed us their fleet, we discovered that all of their aircraft are
repurposed. I mean, there's actually one aircraft in the Western World that's
been purpose-built specifically for firefighting. Everything else was
originally built to do something else."
"Take -- for example -- the S2, CalFire's main tanker.
It used to be a sub fighter. And the OV-10 Bronco was a military reconnaissance
plane. While the Huey had dozens of roles going all the way back to Vietnam,"
Jeffrey continued. "So all of these aircraft had originally been designed
to do other things. But now that they were part of the Air Attack fleet, they
all had these brand-new lives doing different & challenging things. And
taking that into account ... Well, that's when the idea that 'Fire &
Rescue' might then become this story about second chances began formulating in
So to get better acquainted with the world of CalFire, the
folks at Disneytoon Studios regularly began making the 95-mile drive from the
Disney Media Campus in Glendale to
Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base in Riverside.
Where Battalion Chief Travis Alexander was happy to throw open the door and let
Disney's artists get better acquainted with the world of aerial firefighting.
"Planes: Fire & Rescue" director Bobs Gannaway confers with Travis Alexander, CalFireBattalion Chief Travis Alexander. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
"They let us see everything, including the red stuff
which they drop on fires. They call it slurry or mud. And it's red so you can
then see it as you drop it out of a plane. You can see from a distance. And it
has the sort of consistency of snot," Gerard stated. "Now I have an 8
year-old son. So I know a lot about snot. And that's the stuff that they fill
up the S2 with. Because on the sub hunter, they've built in these tanks. And on the back, they
have this double gauge to just plug in and they then load up this plane up with
"Now you have to understand that -- when you're working
with artists & animators -- we're just a bunch of big kids. So as soon as
you'd say 'Hey, this slurry feels like snot,' a bunch of animators would then
immediately say 'Let me feel,' " Jeffrey laughed.
The other thing that Gannaway, Gerard & Howard
discovered as they continued to hang out at Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base was that
it wasn't just the aircraft that had been repurposed. That a lot of the base's
buildings / support structures had either been repurposed or built from
"We'd point at some building and say 'Has that always
been here?' And the Air Attack team members would say Nope. 'We just got some lumber and some
corrugated metal and put it up ourselves,' Jeffrey continued. "Everywhere
you looked around the Air Attack base, the CalFire crew had made smart use of
repurposed materials. Take -- for example -- the cabinets where they store
their giveaway t-shirts and coffee mugs. These cabinets used to belong to this
video game store that was just down the road. They were where that store used
to store all of their Nintendos. That video store was just giving these
cabinets away because they didn't need them anymore. CalFire snatched these
cabinets up and put them to great use at the Air Attack base. And that look --
this place where the pieces didn't often look like they quite fit together
because they're actually made up of all this hand-me-down equipment -- began to
inform the look & design of 'Fire & Rescue.' "
Mind you, this isn't to say that everyone at Disneytoon
Studios was immediately on board with the idea that Dusty Crophopper's next
adventure should be set in the world of aerial firefighting.
"Just like at Walt Disney Animation Studios &
Pixar, we have a story trust at Disneytoon Studios that directors can pitch
their stories to. And one time after Bobs had pitched the story for 'Fire &
Rescue,' one of the other directors here said 'It's really convenient -- from a
story-telling point-of-view -- that just as Dusty lands, the klaxon goes off,
there's this fire and the team then has to go fight it," Paul said.
A CalFire team member laden down with all of his fire-fighting gear comes in for a landing. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
"But here's the thing: One time when we had brought all
of our artists down to Hemet-Ryan to talk with the Air Attack team and draw all
of their planes, that actually happened to us. The klaxon went off and we then
had to quickly get all of our artists off of the runway," Gerard
continued. "And we were like 'Wow! A fire!" And the Air Attack team
was like 'You guys only hear about the big ones.' And then they took off."
FYI: That "You only hear about the big ones" line
actually wound up in the movie. As did Hemet-Ryan
Air Attack's funky hand-me-down quality as well as its repurposed air fleet.
Which is why -- if you want to see the most authentic film that's been made
about aerial firefighting in the past 50 years -- then you really need to go
see Disneytoon Studios' "Planes: Fire & Rescue." Which opens in
theaters this Friday.
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on July 15, 2014
I don't care what anyone says, I'm a fan of the Cars and Planes movies, and I'm looking forward to Planes: Fire & Rescue.
There are simply way too many heartless and cynical people out there these days.