We’ve all been won over by Up, right from that remarkable and deeply touching opening sequence narrating silently Ellie and Carl’s married life and, as Enrico Casaraso explained it to us in our interview, it is mostly Ronnie del Carmen’s work.
Ronnie del Carmen joined Pixar Animation Studios in the summer of 2000 during the production of Finding Nemo as a story supervisor on the film. He did production design on the Academy Award-nominated short film, One Man Band, story work on the Oscar-winning, Ratatouille, and was the Head of Story of Up, also directing Up‘s DVD and BD short, Dug’s Special Mission.
Growing up in the Philippines, del Carmen fell in love with animation at an early age, watching cartoons religiously — especially Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Particularly, he adored Donald Duck. He loved everything about this quirky character with a goofy, fiery temper. Fantasia, Dumbo and the other Disney movies fueled a need for more as del Carmen grew up. His interest in animation led to art and films. Influenced by a grab bag of things: Carl Barks comics, monster and sci-fi films, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean films, illustrators, graphic designers and artists such as Bill Peet, Ollie Johnston and Mary Blair. He even lucked out on a job as a painter on the set of Apocalypse Now, filming on location, at the young age of fifteen.
Del Carmen attended the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines, where he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Advertising. He went on to work as an art director for print and television campaigns in the advertising industry, but knew his heart remained in filmmaking. Ronnie moved to the United States in 1989 and served as a storyboard artist for Batman: The Animated Series. He then worked for DreamWorks, as a story supervisor. Occasionally he would dabble in comic book work for DC and Dark Horse and even still self-publishes his own. Here’s what he told us about Up as we joined him for a Virtual Roundtable set up by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.
Question: Up is Pixar’s 10th feature film, and has received great reviews, some of the best Pixar has had on a film. What elements of the story do you think have led to the success of Up?
Ronnie del Carmen: Pete Docter had wanted a story about an old man holding a bunch of colorful balloons. None of us could have even dreamed of how well the movie would be received. Back then we had our concerns about telling a story about an old man flying his house to fulfill a promise. Being part of the creative team that created the movie, I’m rather too close to be objective but here it goes: I think it’s because of the emotional truth of Carl’s journey. The fantastic elements, the funny moments and dialogue, all deliver an enjoyable and thrilling experience but we all walk away feeling we’ve felt something true about the journey.
Q: How much development goes into a Pixar project in terms of the story, and what kind of resources are necessary to make sure Pixar continues to deliver such critically acclaimed stories?
RdC: All our stories take a long time. By the time a director even pitches the story he will have been living with that story all by himself for a while. After that pitch, John Lasseter guides the story with the director/storyteller. Andrew Stanton also weighs in and gives it another layer of insight. We draw reels, write scripts and make story reels, over and over again. Then we screen it for the company so we get the entire studio’s notes. After that, we have the Brain Trust (comprised of directors, heads of story, the executive team and more) give their feedback to help the reels. Then we also have a test audience watch it and we ask them what they thought of the movie. It’s a long, long journey.
Q: Were there any elements of Up that you particularly championed and/or fought to keep in?
RdC: Between Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and myself we all tended to tackle aspects of the story that we felt close to. Our collaboration is all over the movie. I gravitated towards the drama and emotional weight of scenes and moments. The third act also had many challenges that I helped to chisel away at over the course of making the movie. Muntz’s story was particularly troubling because he shows up so late in the movie. We also tried many ways to end the movie. I had made sequences that explored viable endings that I really believed in. They worked, but in the end we had to pick just a few elements from these explorations and put them into the ending you see in the movie. You will have a chance to see some more of those explorations in the Blu-ray and DVD.
Q: What’s your favorite scene from Up?
RdC: My favorite scenes were the silent ones: Married Life, where we tell the whole life story of Carl and Ellie, and the scene at the end of the second act where Carl sits in his empty house at Paradise Falls to leaf through Ellie’s adventure book. I tend to get the dramatic scenes on most movies I’m part of. This was particularly special because I had to convey story and emotion without any dialogue. I remember drawing Carl looking at the adventure book and getting emotional as I made it. I had to take breaks because I was too much in the moment, tearing up. When we watched our story reels, I would see people wipe tears from their eyes. You know you’ve got something when a bunch of lines on paper are making people cry.
Q: Since Carl and Russell are at different stages in their lives how did you tackle the dialogue between the characters so there was chemistry?
RdC: It’s Carl’s story and we knew we had a boxed-in curmudgeon who was set in his ways and wanted no help from anyone. As storytellers, we are familiar with the act of putting your characters in trees and then throwing rocks at them, so to speak. Russell was a big rock that we threw at Carl. He was the direct opposite of Carl: free, unfettered and wanting to help anyone. Plus, he needed his “Assisting the Elderly” badge. We knew this would surely aggravate someone like Carl. That kind of conflict is fun to watch and write.
Q: You’re well-know as a story artist, but your credits are much wider.
RdC: I do production design, write and direct; all skills that are good to have for the job of being a story person. When we started we had no job demarcations, we just started trying to solve creative problems. That means I’d draw, design, do camera plans, write and illustrate. It helped all of us touch on all parts of the movie at once. Ricky Nierva, production designer of Up, and I would sit next door to each other and we’d discuss production design problems as well as complete story sequences. Throughout production I would draw up solutions and do designs on the fly, from editorial to layout, as well as help writing. It was a blast! I miss it.
Q: How much of an impact did your research trip to Venezuela make on the movie, and do you think the film could have been as good without that experience?
RdC: That trip was a tremendous help for us. It would have been easy to just go by pictures and videos of the tepuis but we’re sure to default to places we know from experience. Otherwise it would be a let down and we’d never be able to correct it later. We wouldn’t know the truth of being there. We needed to know how Carl would behave on top of the tepuis and we could only represent that without reservation if we experienced it ourselves. And what a unique place those tepuis are. They are like no place on Earth, beautiful and dangerous. It was compelling and foreboding at the same time. We climbed one of them, Roraima, and we walked all over on top. We went to Angel Falls, the actual falls on which we based Up’s Paradise Falls. The sights, sounds and emotions we felt on that expedition helped us create Carl’s experience during his journey.
Q: Among the books published in conjunction with the movie, you illustrated the book My Name is Dug. Tell us a little about the publication.
RdC: I loved working on My Name is Dug. Kiki Thorpe had written this fantastic take on a Dug story as he searches for the bird. It is a great companion to Dug’s Special Mission because both happen before Carl and Russell show up. I was consulting on all the Up-related books being developed in conjunction with the movie so I knew about My Name is Dug. I also nominated others to tackle the illustration of it, but all those pairings fell through. I threw my hat in the ring thinking that since my stint as story supervisor was coming to an end I would have time for it. I was wrong, of course. So I drew it at night and weekends for a few months.
Kiki had been so generous in sharing her story with me, so I did page mock-ups of the book to see how the story performed, much like the way I would tackle a story sequence or a comic book. That collaboration proved to be a big success. But boy, did I work like a, well…dog, trying to finish those pages. If you’re familiar with the images you’ll see there are lots of leaves. I had to create a library of leaves so I could populate the trees and shrubs without having to draw it all from scratch. I also created special digital brushes to make the lines look like dry media, like chalk.
Q: Is Dug the smarter Pixar equivalent of Disney’s long tradition of funny animal sidekicks, or do you see him more as a character in his own right?
RdC: Dug was created very early in the development of the movie idea, even earlier than Russell. There was a talking dog and we didn’t know why or how he spoke, he just did. He was always there as a supporting cast member. It was always going to be Carl’s story. Although after developing Dug into such a lovable character he does seem to merit his own set of stories, doesn’t he? That’s the reason I wanted to tell his story in Dug’s Special Mission.
Q: What interested you the most about Dug’s character?
RdC: Dug is such a sweet dog; his heart is out there. Because of that, he also gets taken advantage of. In a pack of soldier dogs, he is definitely out of place as the cuddly, lovable one. You empathize with him right away. Also, the voice characterization of Bob Peterson gives us that Dug persona that instantly makes you love the character.
Q: Why did you decide to provide Dug with his own special adventure in the short, instead of the other main characters?
RdC: Dug arrives in Up talking about being on a special mission, and we never talked about it again in the movie. I immediately wanted to find out what happened. Dug’s Special Mission is really about how Dug remembers these moments. Dug has such a fragmented attention span that his continuity is likely not very spot-on. Dug is easily the most lovable character in the movie, and you can’t help but want to see more of him. I would love to feature Alpha someday, also voiced by Bob Peterson, as well as Gamma, voiced by Jerome Ranft. Those two crack me up. Maybe someday I’ll get a shot at that.
Q: When did you start working on Dug’s Special Mission, and how long did it take to finish?
RdC: I had the idea for the short as soon as the movie was in production, right around the layout phase. I storyboarded a rough version quickly and pitched it to Jonas Rivera and Pete Docter around late spring 2008. I figured that I would be finished with story duties and could jump on a short. But the third act of Up lingered on our plate for a while, and I had to do double duty. (I also took on illustrating the book, My Name Is Dug. I am a glutton for punishment.) We got approval for Dug’s Special Mission from Disney by January 2009 and got into production right away. We finished in June of this year.
Q: How tough was it to tell Dug’s Special Mission in under five minutes?
RdC: I had many tortures and challenges for Alpha, Beta and Gamma. My favorite, and one that I held on to for a long time, was the moment where Dug falls into an airplane and flies it down to the other dogs, dive bomber style. It had to go. There were many lines and quips that Bob Peterson did during recording that I could have used but had to leave out. Every frame of animation was crucial. Another layer was the ending, in which Carl and Russell’s dialogue and acting was lifted from Up. We could not change any of it, as it would have been expensive and troublesome. We also could only use the genius work that Michael Giacchino made for the movie. No new music. All these constraints actually helped make the short even better. I loved working on it and would love to do it again.
Q: What was your favorite part of directing Dug’s Special Mission? And what was the toughest part of the gig?
RdC: Well, I got to tell a story that was intriguing to me while making the movie. Dug is such a great character, people involved in the short film loved working on it. I got to work with Pete Docter and Bob Peterson on the story while we were still finishing Up. John Lasseter weighed in and gave me awesome advice. I got to work with great people who were there to find creative solutions to the story I was trying to tell. And as for the tough part, well, it’s always the story that’s tough, but also working with the time constraint of making a film that’s only 4.5 minutes.
Q: Did you work on Dug’s Special Mission with Pete Docter and Bob Peterson?
RdC: I did work with Pete Docter and Bob Peterson on Dug’s Special Mission. Their involvement was crucial since the three of us were always part of telling the larger story of the movie. It made sense to go to them for advice. Pete Docter could see other potentials in the idea, and Bob Peterson could instantly give me the character of Dug – and his funny nuances. It was a dream. I’m so hooked on working together with these guys, and I hope to get together with them again on another project soon.
Q: Is there a particular canine friend of yours that helped inspire the character Dug? Are you a big dog-lover?
RdC: Dug is very much a Bob Peterson creation. He is Dug. I had to use my own experiences with dogs to inform my handling of Dug’s scenes. I grew up with a German Shepherd in our family. He was a big dog, trained and alert. He was more like Alpha, actually. But when we played, he was just a lovable dog. So I used that for my reference.
Q: Dug harkens back to classic comedians like Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel. How much of that was intentionally scripted, and how much of it did Bob Peterson bring to the performance?
RdC: We love Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Stan Laurel movies. As animators we gravitate to communicating visually and through behavior, so this is where we love to play. Bob Peterson, as one of the writers of the movie, created and wrote most of Dug. We threw in other ideas from the crew here and there, but it was primarily Bob Peterson. During recording he would improvise and experiment, and a lot of that we used because, well, that man is funny! For Dug’s Special Mission I wrote the story and dialogue, and Bob Peterson came to the rescue, bringing his Dug performance and advice. I’m a lucky man.
Q: With Dug’s Special Mission included with the upcoming Blu-ray/DVD release, would you like to see a sequel or some sort of storyline with Dug or perhaps even Russell and Dug, or Russell and the other dogs, in the future?
RdC: I definitely would love to do the continuing stories of Dug. I had a scene in the original storyboard of Dug’s Special Mission that had him flying an airplane. We cut it because of the length, and it seemed out of place with the other gags. But I still want to see him in a plane someday. There are stories in my head that tell how he got into Muntz’s pack. Dug in that pack looks like a mistake – an oversight. I would love to tell that earlier story of how he got there. Certainly Muntz and Dug, Russell and Dug…Carl and Dug too!
With all our thanks to Ronnie del Carmen, Mac McLean and Marilyn R. Hsiung.