Up: Pixar’s Technical Team Reaches New Heights

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

Pixar’s team of technical wizards faced numerous challenges in giving the filmmakers the look and wide range of actions that they needed to tell their story in the style and scale that was required.

“One of our toughest assignments on this film was creating the balloon canopy that carries Carl’s house to South America,” says Steve May, the film’s supervising technical director. “It was important to the film to have fairly realistic balloon simulations. The balloons behave in a realistic way, although the notion of being able to fly a house with balloons is pretty preposterous. We’re not physicists but one of our technical directors calculated that it would take on the order of 20 to 30 million balloons to actually lift Carl’s house. We ended up using 10,297 for most of the floating scenes, and 20,622 when it actually lifts off. The number varies from shot to shot depending on the angle, the distance, and fine-tuning the size so that it feels interesting, believable and visually simple.

“The number of balloons was just the beginning,” May adds. “These thousands of balloons all react to physical forces like buoyancy and wind. One of the key things for balloons is that they all have to react to one another. One balloon has to be able to respond to 10,000 other balloons. Additionally, each balloon is tethered to the house by a string, and the strings have to collide against one another and all the other balloons. This is a very complicated simulation problem with all of these things bumping into each other. This is probably the most complex interaction simulation we’ve ever had to deal with at Pixar, and our effects team had their work cut out for them.”

Adding to the complication of animating a house held aloft by a canopy of balloons was the fact that, for a period of time, the house was attached to the characters. “This was probably the most mind-blowing thing that struck me when I watched the reels for the first time,” says May. “Here you have two characters with more complex clothes than any we’ve ever done before. Each character is very complicated to begin with, and then they’re connected by these ropes to a house that is suspended by the balloons that all interact. It’s all one system that has to work together. You move one thing, and it has an impact on everything else.”

May and his technical team also had to come up with ways to create crowd scenes (packs of dogs), cloth simulation and a waterfall that is three times taller than the tallest waterfall on earth (Angel Falls in South America).

Unique to Pixar and the world of computer animation, the role of director of photography is divided up into two distinct jobs. Patrick Lin served as director of photography: camera, which involved overseeing the camera movements and layout. Jean-Claude Kalache, a 13-year Pixar veteran, was the director of photography for lighting. Working closely with the directors and other members of the creative team, these two cinematographers helped to give “Up” its tremendous sense of scope, scale and adventure.

“Pete had a unique vision for this film, and he wanted a very theatrical and controllable approach to the lighting,” says Kalache. “This meant highlighting the action, focusing on where the characters are, and pushing things fairly dark where we didn’t want the audience to look. When you’re making a movie where the camera is moving all around, this is a big challenge because each shot had to be viewed as if the audience is seeing it from that angle.”

Patrick Lin and his team had to contend with such composition-related issues as characters with large heads, scenes that included an extremely tall bird and much smaller dogs, and epic scenes involving airships and dogs in biplanes. A fan of classic Japanese cinema, Lin also drew inspiration from such legendary filmmakers as Kurosawa (and his film “Ikuru,” in particular) and Ozu, who often used a minimalist approach and shot with a single 50mm lens.

“Our goal was to make sure our camera followed the character’s emotions,” says Lin. “In the beginning of the film, everything leads up to the moment when Carl isolates himself from the rest of the world. We use the cinematography to subliminally isolate him. Since his life is really standing still, we shot those scenes with one 50mm lens. Even when Russell first appears, there is a visible division on screen, like the doorjamb, to try and separate him from other characters. At the moment when the balloon shadows appear and the house lifts off, that’s when the camera really starts to move; we try to complement the emotion of the action.”

Lin and his team particularly enjoyed working on the climactic blimp fight near the conclusion of the film. “I think it’s the best old-man fight in movie history. Blimp versus house. Carl has his cane and Muntz has a big sword. There’s a lot of handheld camera work and we have some very dynamic movement.”