Everything about Up is like no other film. Its characters, its location, its look, its flavor and – certainly first of all – its story, as Pixar’s tenth animated hit is a most unique blending of inspired whimsy with powerful emotion, the hugely successful feature film an artistic and entertaining tour de force for the entire family.
For which we must praise its incredible story team, driven by director Pete Docter and head of story Ronnie del Carmen, and the person we meet today, one of the most creative and touching storymen Pixar has ever counted in their ranks, Enrico Casarosa.
We have already met Enrico to chat about Ratatouille and his own Venice Chronicles [see the Related Article links below], but today, we have the pleasure of speaking with him about Up, about how Pixar came to create something so unique and, most importantly, so touching, through the improbable means of a grumpy old man and a turbulent little kid!
Animated Views: How did the writing process of Up start for you?
Enrico Casarosa: When I started on the project they had already started boarding a version of the first act and some of the second. There’s a bit of my work in the second and a more in the third. There was a lot of re-writing and re-boarding as it always happens. A fun part of this production for us was that we worked together a lot as a team. For example pretty early on we brainstormed the third act of the movie with its action and finale. That was a lot of fun and its structure stayed pretty much the same in the finished movie. It’s also the most inclusive kind of working style I’ve experienced. We were all working on a lot of different sequences and swapping tasks. Ultimately it makes it a bit hard to find a sequence that is all yours, but that’s really not an important thing and ultimately your ideas and drawings still spread out throughout the movie. I did have the pleasure of boarding the credits sequence with my co-worker Bill Presing, that was fun.
AV: It seems like a particularly enjoyable process.
EC: I think it had to do mostly with just working closely with people like Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and Ronnie del Carmen, their sensibility being very close to mine. We were on the same page pretty quickly and easily. And the movie and its characters are so wonderfully unusual. You don’t get to work on such stories very often necessarily in this business. So, I felt very lucky in that.
AV: The first strong impression we have watching the movie comes from the silent sequence on Carl and Ellie’s married life and Ellie’s passing away.
EC: A lot of the credit there goes to Ronnie del Carmen who boarded most of that sequence. It was sculpted carefully throughout the production, but already from our the first rough screening, we saw people getting quite emotional watching it, it really hit a deep spot in many viewers. We realized pretty quickly we had managed to capture something meaningful there.
AV: The core of the film lies in the relationship between Carl and Russell. How did you handle that?
EC: That’s something we knew we had to really nail. It was very important to have these two characters forced together and this little boy just kind of challenging Carl’s nature. This inquisitive little guy is the worst possible thing that could happen to a grumpy old men! We also knew that we had to really find a connection between the two. A certain emptiness they both had in their life that the other could fill. We worked hard on the ark between these guys.
AV: Up is about an old man and a young kid while you, at Pixar, are rather in your 30s and 40s, so, just inbetween. What kind of connection did you have with the two of them?
EC: To begin with, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson tried to connect to their own personal life. I think that Pete really thought a lot about his own grandfather, for example. And they also did their homework going to visit old folks’ homes. They went to play music there; Pete Docter plays the stand-up bass for instance. They’re all quite accomplished musicians, so they fancied themselves as entertainers and all the residents loved it!
In the meanwhile they were also studying quite carefully their audience, looking at postures, motions and attitudes. They were observing what that life is like, how they move, how they act. They did that before I joined the project unfortunately but that sounded like a really great experience. Ultimately, I think what’s sweet about Up‘s story is that it made us all think about our overall life and the life of our families.
I personally thought about my grandfather. My grandma died many years before he did and there was certainly anger in my grandpa after her death. He was angry at whatever God there is who let him live much longer than his beloved soulmate. I am certain he wanted to die soon after her and join her. The movie certainly made me ponder about my wife and and the time when we’ll have to part. They are sad thoughts but ultimately they have to power to make us enjoy and value the life in front of us this moment.
As for the little kid, it was a harder one to really feel in a personal way. He’s a little bit cartoonier a character but he also has his own problems. He has a broken-up family, so he’s actually missing something as well. It made a lot of sense for these two guys to come together since they both have missing pieces in their lives. We tried to make it so that they really come to do need each other.
That’s what’s great and unusual about a story like this. It makes you think about such deep things … like death, but also about the fact that when we are still on earth we have to do something with our life, make connections, live it to the fullest. These are some amazing themes that we ended up tackling.
Another thing that I’ve always loved of this tale is that you can argue Carl is just going there to die; he’s kind of on his last trip. I always saw it that way. And I always thought that in some way this little kid gives him the will to keep on living. Carl is trying to make the last wish of his wife come true, but he’s also going to join her through this crazy trip. That element of the story stayed subtle but I’ve always liked to imagine it that way. And Russell is what makes Carl realize that she wouldn’t want him to join her and that there’s still things to live for. It’s such a subtle, wonderful story with an important, emotional aspect to it. It’s really pretty amazing if you stop and think about it, are we talking about an animated movie, here?
AV: How did you integrate these characters in that very special environment that is the Tepui in South America?
EC: From the beginning, we thought that the Tepuis, the mountains and the surroundings needed to be a character too. How do you convey that? It was challenging in a way because it was such an unknown kind of a place, you know. Then Pete, Bob, Ronnie and some of the art team went to visit the Tepuis in Venezuela and it’s really a surreal and foreign surrounding. It was a challenge to try and it make feel realistic. Some of these things just did not feel regular at all: the shapes of the rocks on these flat mountains for example are just bizarre. So, one of the art department’s tasks was to make this place feel as something that really exists.
AV: If the environment is unlikely, one of its inhabitants is very much, too. Can you tell me about Kevin?
EC: It changed a lot along the way. In some of the earlier stages, we even thought this bird could be close to a dinosaur, since it was supposed to be very, very special, and to be the missing link. So, we toyed with that idea and others too. There was a lot of searching to find what this guy was about in the story and by reflection art went through quite a few designs as well. And because of our bad guy Muntz, we knew the bird needed to be special enough for us to believe that someone would be there chasing it around for years.
We even had an interesting early on that the bird had some eggs and that they were a fountain of youth sort of elixir. We were just playing with these kind of interesting ideas and took them as far as we could. We explored that and then realized as much as it was entertaining it felt a little bit grotesque and didn’t fit the rest of the movie’s themes. So, I think that the final version we found of the bird ultimately works very well. It still makes a lot of sense that Kevin would be the missing link, a connection between birds and dinosaurs. So, we thought of big dinosaurs crossed with birds. That’s where the design came for its big legs.
We also had some ostriches visiting us here at Pixar! We had two of them in the grass in front of the company. We studied them and sketched them for a few hours. It was also interesting to find a balance in terms of her personality. We didn’t want her to be too smart. We just wanted to have her feel like a real bird so we policed ourselves to curb any behavior that felt too human for her.
AV: Now, I understand you’ve been working on Cars 2? How is that coming along?
EC: Well as always there’s more I can’t tell you than what I can and I’ve actually moved to a new project in development, of which unfortunately of course I can tell you even less! But yes, Cars 2 is gonna be a lot of fun! There’s a lot of great new characters. And there’s something really interesting about showing the rest of world through the Cars prism.
Everything I saw in art looks amazing! You have these different cities around the globe seen through that very special philosophy of design. It’s an international action movie we are talking about here, so there will be many countries who’ll get to see a “car-ified” version of their nation! That should be really neat.
With all our gratitude and appreciation to Enrico Casarosa.