'Up' And Away With Pixar's Pete Docter

Pete Docter i i

Script Docter: Writer-director Pete Docter co-wrote Pixar's new movie Up and earned a story credit on 2008's enormously successful Wall-E. Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
Pete Docter

Script Docter: Writer-director Pete Docter co-wrote Pixar's new movie Up and earned a story credit on 2008's enormously successful Wall-E.

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
Russell, Kevin and Carl in 'Up' i i

Unlikely Allies: Eight-year-old Russell, septuagenarian Carl and 13-foot-tall Kevin find themselves exploring a South American jungle together in Up-- despite Kevin's tendency to swallow Carl's walker. Disney/Pixar hide caption

itoggle caption Disney/Pixar
Russell, Kevin and Carl in 'Up'

Unlikely Allies: Eight-year-old Russell, septuagenarian Carl and 13-foot-tall Kevin find themselves exploring a South American jungle together in Up-- despite Kevin's tendency to swallow Carl's walker.

Disney/Pixar

The animated 3-D movie Up — directed and co-written by Pixar veteran Pete Docter — became the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month.

It's an adventure story featuring a grouchy old man, a chubby boy, a 13-foot flightless bird and a house borne aloft by balloons.

Docter, who directed the Pixar hit Monsters, Inc. and worked on last year's smash Wall-E, tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross that the tale's influences included everything from Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo to the animated work of Hayao Miyazaki.

Docter also confesses to doing a bit of undercover research to help flesh out the central character in Up: He and several instrumentalist colleagues — Docter plays bass, the others ukuleles — visited a retirement home as volunteer entertainers but took the opportunity to observe the tics and habits of the elderly men in residence.

"And so we were playing for these guys and secretly kind of taking little notes for ourselves," Docter says.

That kind of sub rosa observation is something of a habit for Docter, in fact — and invaluable for an animator.

"I love to go to the airports, and just put on dark glasses so nobody can tell I'm staring at them, and just draw people," Docter says. "It's a lot of fun, and endless hours of entertainment — just watching the way people do simple things, even like eat a meal or, you know, wipe their kid's face or whatever. Just great behavior stuff."

Docter joins Fresh Air for a wide-ranging conversation about the joys of revisiting classic animated movies, about traveling to South America on the Disney/Pixar credit card to do story research, and about why he turned to the Muppets — and to the silent comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin — to figure out how to create a range of emotions for that 13-foot bird.

And he explains why Up, like other recent 3-D projects, doesn't try to use the process as a special effect.

"It's ... another tool like lighting, like color, cinematography," he says. "It's just another way of furthering the emotion that we're trying to communicate to the audience. ... We tried to use it a little more like a window that you look into, as opposed to — I dont know about you, whenever I see 3-D movies, it's going booga, booga, booga in your face, and I'm suddenly aware, oh, I'm sitting in the theater wearing dopey glasses, you know? So we tried to use it much more subtly."

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