Planes - Klay Hall interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
KLAY Hall talks about directing Disney’s Planes 3D and why it enabled him to combine the lifelong passions of aviation and animation.
He also discusses working with Pixar luminary John Lasseter, getting to visit a real-life aircraft carrier as part of the film’s meticulous research process and working with stand-up comedians and the likes of John Cleese. And he reveals how he went about getting two Top Gun icons to contribute to the voice cast.
Q. Aviation runs in your family, so can you give us a bit of a background to how?
Klay Hall: Sure. It’s an interesting story that goes back quite a way. My father was a naval aviator for the United States Navy and he was taught to fly by my grandfather, who was also a pilot. My dad learned from a very early age and he actually passed that love of aviation and airplanes on to me at a very early age. And we ended up moving out to the West Coast, to California, and for weekends I would go out to the airfield with my dad and I’d end up sitting there and looking at the planes. He’d often talk about the characteristics of the aircraft. And I found myself sketching right along So, I was drawing airplanes at a very early age. And it just so happened that I not only had the love of aviation and drawing planes but that actually morphed into my love of animation and Walt Disney. So, for me to be here today, in a room with you guys, and see these two worlds combine more or less – animation and a love of aviation – I just feel really fortunate. Really, your dreams can come true and I’m a perfect example of that.
Q. As part of your research, yourself and producer Traci Balthazor got to board a real Aircraft Carrier. How was that?
Klay Hall: Well, until you’re out on one of those things, you really have no idea of exactly how big they are. Right when we got off the aircraft he was giving us the information that it’s as long as The Empire State Building, it’s 10 stories high and she was going about 35mph. So, to experience that… and there were dolphins out front of the ship and it was 72 degrees and sunny. It was an unbelievable experience.
Q. How important is it to speak to guys who have experienced flight to heighten authenticity?
Klay Hall: Well, that’s a two-fold question. Working with John Lasseter, it’s certainly the Pixar and Disney philosophy to get your facts correct. So, it’s walking the walk and talking the talk – nothing is fake and nothing is guessed. This movie actually took about four and a half years, and probably 450 to 600 people working on it. We probably spent a year and a half alone just on the research phase. I interviewed pilots from hot air balloons to glider pilots, war veteran pilots, active military pilots, crop duster pilots, commercial airline pilots, civilian pilots… it goes on and on. And then we actually went out to several different locations, not only just airbases but small little airfields owned by farmers, and even the JFK Tower to get those facts right. So, when you watch the film and you watch the scenes, it sounds right, so that resonates across the board from the person that doesn’t quite understand it all the way up to the airline pilot that does.
Q. How does the research come into play when making sure the physics are correct in what you see in the film?
Klay Hall: Well, if you take the case of Dusty, for example, the size of his aircraft, how much fuel he would carry, how heavy he was, the type of engine he had, how far he could fly, what would be his low end speed? We built the set accordingly to that, so that’s how thorough we went into flight dynamics.
Q. How did you go about choosing your voice cast and were any of them slightly nervous about doing animation?
Klay Hall: First of all, I do find a lot of the time that the stars are a little uncomfortable because it’s a different situation to being with a cast, going back and forth and being out on a set with other actors around them to feed off of. So, if there are two people doing a scene together [in animation] I’ll be the other actor reading against Dane Cook or Stacy Keach, so it’s a little bit different. I always apologise for my acting ability. But it’s always a fun process. As far as the actual process of casting is concerned, it’s one that’s really fun to do. And it’s several different levels. First of all, for this film I’m a big fan of stand-up comedy, so I wanted to look at some of those guys. Early on in the process I just went to YouTube – and the web is such a great source. So, I looked at stand-up from several of these guys, like Sinbad and Cedric The Entertainer and even Julia Louis-Dreyfus has done some, besides her immense work on television. Carlos Alazraqui, Dane Cook, all those guys are all over the place. So, that’s one phase.
The second phase is that if you find a voice you kind of like we end up taking the drawing of the character and even the CG image and put that voice with that image and look at it… watch it and see if the voice feels like it’s organic enough to work with the character. And if we feel like that’s coming together then we’ll actually do a test piece of animation. It may be a stand-up routine that they’ve done, but we’ll incorporate it into the character and see how it looks. There’s a committee that weighs in also on the choices. And John Lasseter heavily weighs in on all our creative decisions as far as that goes. He’s a creative tour-de-force. This is his world in a lot of respects since he created the world of Cars. But he actually just handed it over to Traci and I to sort of run with it. But he was always there more as a source of inspiration but also to check in.
Q. You can’t help but notice that John Ratzenberger is there again. Can you tell us about bringing him on board and how important it is to have him?
Klay Hall: Clearly, he is the lucky charm of all the Pixar movies and although we’re not a Pixar film, we’re inspired by that world that Pixar created. And John and I both felt that it was really important to get Ratz in there. And he was really excited to do it. So, we wanted to find a non-descript character we could place him in just to give us that good luck charm of what he’s done for the movies in the past. He had a good time representing Pixar.
Q. How daunting is it working on a Disney animation with such a lot of history behind it? Is it not a nerve-wracking experience?
Klay Hall: Yes [laughs]! It was a daunting task and it was a gun challenge to say the least, to embrace the Pixar philosophies and the world they had established for 10 years. But this was also like John Lasseter handing over one of his newborns to us to run with an idea. So, it was nerve-wracking. But it was also a lot of fun to be able to do that. And as I said, what’s great about working with John is that he’s a creative tour-de-force but he’s also a very giving, loving kind of mentor guy. There was never ‘do it this way’ or ‘do it that way’. There were always suggestions about tapping into his experience of working on previous things he’d done and challenges he’d faced.
Q. What was your first experience of animation?
Klay Hall: Well, I grew up loving Disney animation, so I go way back as far as that goes. But I would say the film that really impressed me the most when I was a child was The Jungle Book. There’s something about the personality of those characters and how believable they were to me as a child growing up.
Q. How do you maintain the appeal for children and their parents?
Klay Hall: That’s always the trick in story-telling, to sort of embrace the full audience experience. And once again, that’s John’s philosophy. It’s really easy to go for those fart jokes or something simple like that. So, we try not to enter into that. There’s a little bit with Leadbottom up front but we never went further than that. It’s all about the personality of the character and what that character brings to the screen… the experience and the conflict that that character has and then looking for the jokes there. You never want to dumb it down, as John says. It’s all about the art of animation. So, your humour should come visually, not just through spoken words. And we sort of work on it that way. And then you’re trying at all times to appeal to everyone. But that actually probably takes the most work.
Q. For the parents, you’ve added some very famous Top Guns in your cast [Val Kilmer as Bravo and Anthony Edwards as Echo]…
Klay Hall: [Smiles] That’s just me getting lucky. I have yet to meet an individual that didn’t enjoy Top Gun. I knew we had established Skipper, the Navy character [voiced by Stacy Keach], and that he was probably based on my dad. And I knew that they were going to come back. That squadron still exists today. So, I knew we were going to have the F-18s represented and I thought who better to voice the fighter pilot characters than the guys from Top Gun? Tom Cruise was actually busy shooting Mission: Impossible IV at the time, so he wasn’t even close to being available. So, we went for the two next best guys, who were Goose and Iceman. It was great to resurrect Goose and he was happy about that. It was so much fun working with those guys.
Q. How do you see the next 10 years developing in animation? Will there be any more fundamental changes?
Klay Hall: I’m not really sure. Certainly, with the quality of films it seems they can do almost anything these days. It’s amazing what goes on. But for us it’s always about trying to tell a good story, with great characters. And that will probably always be the philosophy as far as Disney and Pixar is concerned.
Q. Is there any fear that hand-drawn animation will disappear completely and it’ll just be CGI?
Klay Hall: No, I don’t think so. Still, to this day, if you go to anyone of the three studios, everyone is hand-drawn. We were hand drawn through the whole story-boarding process. We still look for people who can draw and have draughtsmanship ability. It’s actually those guys that inform the guys that are running the computers. Sure, you can draw from a computer but even if you do that, those guys still have a core understanding of human structure and physically how to draw. It’s still a pre-requisite to have that knowledge. So, I don’t ever see drawing going away, so to speak. You can always tell guys who have had experience of live drawing as opposed to just computer. You can spot it a mile away.
Q. Will you have any input on Planes 2, or are you moving on?
Klay Hall: I do have input as far as being one of the directors that’s involved in what we call our ‘story trust’ or our ‘brain trust’. It’s part of John’s Pixar-Disney philosophy… as each movie moves forward he pulls in all the directors to give feedback on the process as it goes along. I’m personally not directing it but I am involved as far as helping the creative choices that are being made. So, it’s another team. I’m now one of the guardians of the franchise.
Q. Does the race in the film actually exist? And did that dictate your choice of locations?
Klay Hall: No, that race doesn’t exist. Races like it did exist. But as far as the choice of locations went, it was once again about tapping into Dusty’s aircraft. We knew that his engine was a PT6, a turbine gas engine, which holds a certain amount of fuel. So, we actually got into a room with about six different pilots and figured out the race course – where could Dusty fly? How far could he fly before he needed gas? So, that’s how the route came about – it’s based on fact and what that aircraft can do.
Q. How was working with John Cleese?
Klay Hall: I love John Cleese. I’ve been a huge fan since Monty Python and Fawlty Towers… his whole career. He’s just absolutely brilliant. So, it was a dream come true. Once we were able to get him, I was so damn grateful. And he was so easy to work with. He said: “OK Clay, let’s sit down and talk about who Bulldog is.” When you get to work with the calibre of an actor like that, he brings so much to the character and he’s so funny. The classic line from him that gets a huge laugh everywhere we play is “I don’t cry, I’m British!” But just the way he says it, and the way it comes across, he was just a joy to work with. I look forward to working with him again.
Q. Is there one thing you feel you’ve really cracked with Planes in terms of animation people haven’t seen before?
Klay Hall: I think without a doubt it’s flying. We heard from several different aviators and pilots in general that they’ve never seen a more accurate depiction… it’s their point of view. But in terms of the way they turn and the way they accelerate. So, I think that’s a milestone for us.