When others fly out, heroes fly in. And when heroes fly out, Total Film flies in…
Cooling off in the wading waters of a crystal river, surrounded by sun capped mountains, mist shrouded waterfalls and rolling forests of giant sequoia trees – Yosemite National Park looks a bit too beautiful. For a film fan, flown over by Disney to see the landscape that inspired the animators for Planes 2: Fire & Rescue, it’s easy to shrug it all off. We’ve seen that forest before on Endor. That lake is pure Pandora. Those mountains are from Middle Earth. It’s only when you’re standing in the middle of it that you realise just how far Hollywood has still got to go.
In fact, if anyone did draw Yosemite in a computer, as Disney Toon Studios attempted for their Pixar spin-off, it would probably look a bit fake. Those trees can't be that tall… that horizon can’t stretch that far and nothing can look that desktop background perfect in real life. They are, it can and it definitely does – with the camera, and even your own eyes, not doing it any justice.
This dip in the river is the mid-point on our Californian adventure – a trip that started with a sputtering twin-engine flight from Los Angeles, continued through desert scrublands, western towns and biker bars to bring us to ‘Piston Peak’ – the fictional setting for Planes 2 that takes inspiration from America’s first National Park.
Outside, it’s hot enough to melt a snake. Chauffeured around the narrow mountain passes in an air-conditioned limo (complete with mirrored ceiling), the Disney press group is a motley crew of international journalists, American anchormen and over-enthusiastic kid’s TV presenters. We’re here to meet the people behind the sequel to the spin-off to the sequel that no-one asked for – a film that, despite the odds, is a cracker of a ’toon.
Engine failure has seen Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) off the racing circuit, giving the animators a good excuse to steer away from another Cars rehash. Taking up a second career as a fire-fighter, Dusty joins the ranks of the Piston Peak rescue team led by Ed Harris’ grizzled old stunt chopper – a tight-knit daredevil unit that tackles forest fires from the sky. According to Dane Cook, sheltering in a luxury forest lodge to escape the 108-degree heat, the filmmakers have learnt a lot from the middling reviews of the last film. “The first movie was fun. It was sweet”, he says, diplomatically. “But this is something else. It’s got that edge, that sense of danger that classic Disney films used to have. It’s grittier too. I’d even call it The Empire Strikes Back of Planes films!”
True enough, when TF saw the film the night before at a tiny tumbleweed cinema in a lumberjack town (commandeered by Disney for the night, much to the delight of the besuited manager and the four local farm kids they invited in for free), Planes 2: Fire And Rescue is exciting, funny and everything that the first film wasn’t. The key though, is the new setting. No longer just concrete air-field in Pixar’s bizarre, empty world of talking machines, Piston Peak is a lavish, deep, natural wilderness that looks and feels completely alive.
“When you have a film about talking vehicles, that’s already a pretty big suspension of disbelief,” laughs Toby Wilson, the film’s Art Director, wandering through a distractingly beautiful mountain glade. “So we wanted it to be really rooted in nature. We wanted it to have those warm, woodsy, evergreen colours and we wanted it to look and feel like a painting. But I also wanted you to feel like you were in a park when you saw the film.”
Taking inspiration from animation milestones as diverse as Bambi and Miyazaki, Disney Toon Studios wanted to make sure Planes 2 flew proudly beside Pixar’s best – working on the film for three years, incorporating a record 662 effects shots and corralling the emotional uplifts with some nifty, unseen, backstage string-pulling.
“We used a global colour script to map out the emotional arc of the film in different colour palates,” explains Wilson. “The theory for us was that, when all is right in the world for Dusty, it’s blue skies and green pastures. But as soon as he gets engine problems, we very slowly try to pull out some of that green… the blue isn’t as vibrant… and by the time you get to all the orange’s and ambers and reds of the fire, you’re in the danger zone. If you notice it, we’re doing it wrong. You’re supposed to feel it rather than see it.”
Watch the Pixar disc extras or read any of the Art Of books, and you'll know that research is all-important to Disney animators. Making Up, the crew undertook an expedition to the bleak cliff-tops of Venezuela, they scouted remote, windswept Highlands for Brave – and they rooted around a real rubbish dump for Wall-E (needless to say, we lucked out being asked along on this one...). For Planes 2, the animators spent weeks hiking and cycling around Yosemite Falls, as well as the canyons of Yellowstone National Park, to get visual inspiration for Piston Peak.
“As soon as I was I brought onto the film, we came here,” says Wilson. “We biked all around, snapping thousands of photographs, interviewing the rangers, talking to the search and rescue guys. We were looking at everything, big and small – from the way the colours change on the mountainside throughout the day, right down to the leaves, rocks and dirt.”
Speaking to us under a cathedral canopy of Giant Sequoias just as a deer trots over to the river and starts taking a drink – it’s pretty easy to see why they came here to get inspired. But there’s something else in this perfect picture that isn’t in the film, something the animators didn't even try to capture: life. Deer, birds, bees, squirrels, butterflies – even bears – are all around us (The cab driver even warned us about stopping in the park for too long – telling us a story about breaking down near the falls, sleeping in his car overnight and waking up with an angry Black Bear jumping on the bonnet…). In the world of Planes there aren’t any humans, let alone any animals.
“The logic of the world can get a little, er, confusing at times…” laughs Wilson, as the group moves off to gather around a camp fire. “Like ‘what’s a bird in this world?’ ‘What would a grizzly bear look like?’ ‘What’s sushi?!’” The answer? Something the animators lovingly refer to as ‘Plane-ification’. “Everything is mechanial, in some way or another. In one scene, behind the bar, we have Mini Cooper football on the TV,” gushes Wilson, eager to point out all the hidden visual gags that will sail straight over the kids’ heads. “There’s a bowl of mixed nuts on the table – wing nuts, hex nuts and lug nuts! We have balsa wood thrushes. Even the bark pattern on the trees, if you look really closely, is a mix of Ponderosa Pine and tire treads!”
By now, the light is starting to fade, the weather’s getting chilly and, frankly, the toasted marshmallows are starting to run out. Leaving the cast and crew of Planes to enjoy their luxury lodge, Total Film heads back to its sleazy motel (via the biker bar), and back to reality. Back to a world where planes don't talk, cars don't build themselves – and places this stunning only exist in the movies…
Planes 2 is in UK cinemas from 8 August 2014.