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Planes - Traci Balthazor (producer) interview

Disney's Planes

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PRODUCER Traci Balthazor talks about working with director Klay Hall and executive producer John Lasseter on the making of Disney’s Planes 3D.

She also reflects on her experience of visiting a real US Navy Aircraft Carrier as part of the film’s research process and why she feels that hand-drawn animation will always be part of the process of making these films.

Q. Can you tell us about the preparation for the film, which included the opportunity of a lifetime in boarding a real US Navy Aircraft Carrier?
Traci Balthazor: We got the great opportunity. Once the Navy heard they were in the film, they wanted to see it and we screened it for them. And once they were on board they decided we needed to get out on an aircraft carrier, which was very cool. So, they loaded us up on what they call a C2, which is a cargo plane they use to transport military personnel, landed us on an aircraft carrier that’s about 150 miles outside of San Diego. So, we actually landed on a moving aircraft carrier, on the arresting wire, which was phenomenal – fantastic and terrifying all at the same time. And we got this great opportunity to talk to the men and the women of the ship, to get their feedback and to get their take on what their dialogue was like in order to make it more accurate. So, I think what that trip did was bring a lot of realism to the aircraft carrier sequence and we’re really proud of it.

Q. How did you get back? Did you have to take off from an aircraft carrier?
Traci Balthazor: Well, typically you do. But this came at the end of a week of flight ops training, so we actually got to ride the aircraft carrier through the harbour back into the dock, which is amazing. It was like standing on a floating city going through a narrow channel. It was the most beautiful view of San Diego I’ve ever seen.

Q. How does the research come into play when making sure the physics are correct in what you see in the film?
Traci Balthazor: Well, we’ve all seen airplanes fly in the sky, so you think you know how they’re supposed to move. But we found out very quickly that we thought we knew how they moved to but we needed some help. We actually brought specialists in and realised we had to change the way we were thinking about flight. We had to use the physics and actually build the sets out in a way that the scale of the plane was accurate and that they flew at a realistic speed. We often had to slow them down because while you know when you think they look right, you really know when they don’t look right! So, it took us about six months to actually find the sweet spot of getting the planes to fly right. It’s worth noting that this is not done with a flight simulator, like an easy button for flight. We actually had to figure out the physics and the mechanics of making the planes fly the way they would with the right weight ratios and distance. So, it’s actually all hand animated.

Q. The Cars world is Pixar and Planes is Disney. Does that change the way you guys work?
Traci Balthazor: We actually operate separately from Pixar. We’re Disney Toons Studios. But we got this opportunity to work in a world created by Pixar and the world of Cars. I think it’s really made us up our game. It’s a really sophisticated world that they created and we had to match that. So, it was fantastic to challenge ourselves and our artists to see what they could come up with. And we’re really happy with the results. We work similarly with the story and development process and I think you can feel that in the final product that’s on the screen.

Q. How actively involved was John Lasseter?
Traci Balthazor: Well, we obviously worked very closely with John because he’s an executive producer and creator of the Cars world. But we just latched onto the last 10 years of Pixar’s philosophy and how they created this world.

Q. How do you see the next 10 years developing in animation? Will there be any more fundamental changes?
Traci Balthazor: Well, I would say that the story-telling needs are often what drives the technology. So, there’s usually something in the story that we need to create or find something to enhance the visuals and the story.

Q. Is there any fear that hand-drawn animation will disappear completely and it’ll just be CGI?
Traci Balthazor: I actually think that some of the best animators actually have a foundation in 2D animation. They really understand the way that characters move and the idea of in-betweens and how they should set it out. So, hopefully that will never go away because I think it really fuels the animation creativity that we see.

Q. Have you already thought about a sequel to Planes or a Cars crossover?
Traci Balthazor: Well, we always set out to create really, really rich worlds that provide huge scope for anything that we want to take it into. I think we’re lucky because it seems that, with Planes, we’ve created a world that is interesting and does provide room for other stories. Disney just announced about a week ago that Planes 2 will be opening a year after us. So, it seems like we’ve created a world and we’ll have to see what kinds of stories come out and if they’re good enough to move beyond just the idea… but so far so good on this one.

Q. How did you come about choosing Dane Cook as Dusty? And did his edgier stand-up material bring any baggage?
Traci Balthazor: Well, the thing about Dane being cast as Dusty is that he has an amazing voice. He has this texture that brings realism to Dusty and he can play vulnerable and he can play a little cocky. And I think that helps inform the emotional journey that Dusty goes on in the film. He was fantastic to work with.

Read our review of Planes

Read our interview with director Klay Hall