Up: Discovering Lost World of the Tepuis

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

In order to prepare for their assignment on “Up,” and the film’s premise of a journey to one of the most beautiful and mysterious places on earth, Docter and select members of his creative team embarked on their own adventure of a lifetime. At the suggestion of Ralph Eggleston, a veteran Pixar production designer with credits on “Finding Nemo” and “WALL•E,” the team headed to the jungles of South America (the intersection of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana) to discover their own “Lost World.”

“Ralph gave us a documentary about the tepui mountains (mesas) in South America, and as soon as I popped in the DVD, my hair stood on end because I knew this was where we should set the movie,” recalls Docter. “This was a fantastic weird world that I had never heard of. It was where Conan Doyle set his 1912 novel about prehistoric animals, ‘The Lost World.’ One of the biggest challenges on this film was to design a place that looked otherworldly and yet was still believable enough that audiences would feel like the characters are actually there. We knew we had to go there because there’s something fundamentally different about experiencing a place versus just seeing pictures or film.”

“We make cartoons for a living…the only thing we were used to
traversing was one end of our building to the other. There was no way to prepare us for this adventure,” says Ronnie Del Carmen, Story Supervisor.

Reaching their destination took three days, and required rides in airplanes, jeeps and helicopters. And then the fun began…

The first tepui that the group explored was Mount Roraima in Guyana, the highest and most famous of the 115 table-top mesas.

“This is the only tepui that you can actually climb,” says story supervisor Ronnie Del Carmen. “There’s a natural outcropping on the side of it that you can traverse. The climb is one mile pretty much straight up. The rocks are loose, the vegetation is not stable and they can pull off very easily if you grab them. We make cartoons for a living, so the only thing we were used to traversing was one end of our building to the other. There was no way to prepare us for this adventure.”

“It was like your worst nightmare,” says Peterson. “It was about a six- or seven-hour climb to the top and I had on way too much gear. When we got to the top, we had to hike across uneven terrain for another hour and a half. It was already dark when we got to our camp. And suddenly, from out of the darkness, we saw this cave lit by candles and there was warm soup waiting for us. When we saw our tents, most of us just sat down and started crying. We were so happy to be there. And then in the morning, when we awoke, literally 50 feet from where we were camping was a drop one mile straight down. I was a little reticent in the beginning, but I’m so glad I took the trip because we went to another world. There’s no place on the planet that has such sculptural rock forms.”

The group found no pack of dogs or prehistoric birds—both featured in the film—but did live to tell about close encounters with killer ants (a nasty variety whose bite can be deadly in 24 hours), menacing mosquitoes, stinging scorpions, miniature frogs and poisonous snakes. From Roraima, the intrepid explorers took a helicopter to Kukenan (also known as Matawi Tepui), which is considered the “place of the dead” by the local Pemon Indians.

“Kukenan had a completely different feel to it than Roraima,” says Ricky Nierva, the film’s production designer. “It was so pure, and had more aggressive-shaped rocks. I asked our guide, Adrian Warren (documentary filmmaker, “The Living Edens: The Lost World—Venezuela’s Ancient Tepuis”), ‘How many people have been up here? Hundreds?’ And he replied, ‘More like tens.’ It felt very eerie. You expected to turn a corner and see a dinosaur roaming around.”

Angel Falls in Venezuela, the highest waterfall in the world, dropping 3,212 feet from the summit of Auyantepui, proved to be the real-life inspiration for the film’s mythical Paradise Falls (which is three times taller than its real-life counterpart or about 9,700 feet high). The group climbed to the base of Angel Falls, where they endured slippery-wet rocks and a constant spray of water.  

The “Up” filmmakers took thousands of photographs, home movies, and copiously sketched their awe-inspiring surroundings. The images and vegetation they observed had a tremendous influence on the look of the film. Bonnetia trees, Stegolepis plants, and black rocks with beautiful pink flowers popping out in the middle, were all used in the film.