Up: Disney Classics Used for Inspiration

“Up,” written and directed by Pete Docter, is Disney-Pixar’s latest release, coming out May 29, 2009.

Over the course of nine acclaimed feature films, Pixar has experimented with a wide variety of different looks and styles. In the case of “Up,” the filmmakers opted for a simplified or minimalist approach that grew organically from the story itself.

“We wanted ‘Up’ to have a distinct look all its own and to be a departure from other Pixar films,” says Jonas Rivera, Producer

According to Pete Docter: “In this film, we have a story about a man who floats his house to South America with balloons. We knew we needed a certain amount of whimsy and caricature, which is sort of my general aesthetic anyway. We were trying to reach back and connect to the great Disney films that we grew up with, like ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Cinderella,’ and the great sense of style and caricature that they had. We made a real concerted effort to caricature the characters and their environments. In most films, the characters would be about six or seven heads tall. Our hero, Carl, is only three heads tall!
“We knew that the latest advances in computer technology could give us all the detail we wanted, but instead we asked it to do a simplification that doesn’t exist in real life,” he adds.

 “We wanted ‘Up’ to have a distinct look all its own and to be a departure from other Pixar films,” adds producer Jonas Rivera. “It was inspired by artists like Mary Blair, George Booth and the storybook illustrations of Martin Provensen. Pete wanted the entire film to have a caricatured look. For example, we didn’t study real people or clothing for reference. We looked at Hank Ketcham drawings of ‘Dennis the Menace,’ and the simple way he could show a fold in the mother’s apron with just two lines. Our production designer Ricky Nierva coined a new term to describe the film’s unique approach.”

“‘Simplexity’ was a term that I came up with to explain the essence of something,” says Nierva. “We wanted to pull away some of the detail without making it look cheap. The CG medium gives you the ability to put in all this amazing detail that adds to believability. We weren’t trying to make a realistic movie but something that is tangible. We wanted to caricature the humans in the film, but not so much that the audience couldn’t relate to them.”

The character design for the film’s two main characters—Carl and Russell—came down to a basic circle and square motif. “It’s part of simplexity,” says Nierva. “It involves boiling things down to their purest essences. A square symbolizes the past; the circle represents the future. Squares are static like a brick wall. They’re immovable, and Carl is somebody that is stuck in his ways after Ellie dies. In the case of Carl’s design, we’ve never had a character go from being a child to an old man before. He’s more circular and round as a kid with more curves. Ellie has a circular motif, too. As Carl grows older, he becomes more rigid. Russell is egg-shaped and all curves with all the dynamic symbolism that comes with that.”

Color became another important design element for the filmmakers. Says Nierva: “The film starts off with a black-and-white newsreel, which started us thinking about using color to help tell our story. When Ellie is alive and Carl is full of life, the color palate is saturated. When she’s gone, it’s desaturated, almost black-and-white again. We also came up with a color to symbolize Ellie—magenta. Throughout the whole film, there are magenta flowers and skies to remind us of her. When Carl shuts himself off from the world, the colors desaturate and we don’t really see color again until Russell arrives and interrupts his life. That brings color back into his life. Every time we see a new character that adds to his life, like Dug, we introduce more color.”