Truth in animation

Disney’s Planes strives for realism in a cartoon world

August 1, 2013


Tucked away in a grove of evergreen trees, the rust-lined fuel truck had fallen into disuse. A visit from Disney filmmakers gave the vehicle new life, in a way, as a star in the animated film Planes.

“That little one?” said Bob Leaders, owner of Leaders Clear Lake Airport (8Y6) in Clear Lake, Minnesota, when he heard that the truck had served as the inspiration for Chug, a friend and fan of the movie’s crop duster-turned-air-racer hero. Filmmakers had traveled to small airports across the Midwest while researching for the film; Leaders had no idea his privately owned, public-use airport surrounded by corn and alfalfa fields would be reimagined as Propwash Junction, the hometown of crop duster Dusty Crophopperin this extension of the Cars franchise.

To create the fantasy world of Planes—in which aircraft smile and talk, and a crop duster competes in an international air race—filmmakers entered the real world of airplanes, consulting pilots and visiting airfields and museums across the country. The result is a fantastical adventure grounded in aviation reality, with references that ring true to aviators.

Research for realism. Filmmakers emphasized the importance of their research during an aviation media day at DisneyToon Studios in Glendale, California. They started locally, checking out airplanes at Santa Monica Airport with pilot Howard Israel, said screenwriter Jeff Howard.

Israel, an airline transport pilot and longtime flight instructor with experience flying for film and TV, said he let the creators from Disney get an up-close look at a range of aircraft and discussed how to characterize them.

“To make this movie they had to give airplanes personalities, and my response was, ‘Airplanes already have personalities, you just have to discover what they are,’” he said. He contrasted a Beechcraft Baron and a Grumman Tiger to demonstrate the point, which served as an important lesson for a film whose driving force is a crop duster’s quest to prove he can become more than what he was built for.

In the film, which will be in theaters August 9, crop duster Dusty (voiced by comedian Dane Cook) dreams of leaving behind the cornfields to compete as an air racer. But Dusty is not built for racing, and, complicating matters, is afraid of heights. (Being an agplane—a composite of the Air Tractor AT–502, Cessna AGwagon, and PZL-Mielec Dromader—he has never flown above 1,000 feet agl.) He seeks help from World War II naval aviator Skipper, an F4U Corsair (voiced by actor Stacy Keach), and gets support from the community at home in Propwash Junction (including Chug, voiced by Brad Garrett) as he embarks on his journey.


Skipper and the dashing El Chupacabra, a Gee Bee racer (voiced by Carlos Alazraqui), are based on real-world aircraft, while other aircraft characters are fictional or composites of multiple models. Director Klay Hall said the filmmakers were inspired by the basics of aircraft shape and strove to find actors who fit into that shape. The sleek pusher-prop racer Ishani, representing India in the air race, is influenced by the Beechcraft Starship, other Burt Rutan designs, and the Piaggio P.180 Avanti; filmmakers chose Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra to voice the character.

Truth to material. An aircraft’s inherent personality is one thing; giving it facial expressions is another. In keeping with Disney executive John Lasseter’s commitment to “truth to material,” the airplanes don’t bend their wings or other components, apart from the eyes and mouth. Operating within this restriction left animators with the challenge of giving life to a character who can’t move his arms and whose face is at any given moment partially obscured by a propeller. Artists also had to be wary of airport interactions; the risk of clipping wing tips was as real as it is for pilots on the ramp.

In the air, the characters generally behave like real aircraft. The use of a full-size computer model of the course and point-of-view camera “footage” adds an air of authenticity to Dusty’s run at a Red Bull Air Race-style qualifier. And you won’t see Dusty doing pushups to bulk up for the big race. Aviation adviser Sean Bautista said the initial idea for Dusty’s preparations included a Rocky-Balboa-style training sequence, with the agplane pulling a fuel truck behind him and working out to get stronger. “When I first saw it, I didn’t get it,” he said. He wondered why Dusty wouldn’t prepare like an actual racer The resulting sequence shows the crop duster getting in racing shape with the help of a mechanic and advice on maneuvering from Skipper.

Characters settings are based on actual vehicles and locations.

Pilots may notice references to trading altitude for airspeed, vertical wind shear, and wake turbulence (“swirlies”). Some also will empathize with small-town Dusty in his first encounter with New York City airspace and procedures. Of course, the filmmakers make some allowances for the sake of the story. Pilots inclined to root out inaccuracies will find them, but Hall said they walked a fine line of being close to the truth but keeping it entertaining. When one aviation journalist pointed out to the director that some symbolically significant paint would never appear on the back of a propeller as depicted, he stood his ground.

Not a ground lesson. Despite the rigorous research that went into making it, Planes is more invested in entertaining than educating. Written, directed, and produced by nonpilots, it is free of the evangelistic imperative that often characterizes media from within the aviation industry. For a general audience, that may be to its advantage: It uses aviation terms without feeling like a ground-school lesson, and will have a wider reach than traditional aviation media. The aviation community has welcomed a movie that can get people excited about flying, but the long-term effect on the industry is uncertain. Kids may get excited about Planes, but will they ever learn to fly one? The answer has more to do with their exposure to the real world of airplanes than the animated one.

Self-described aviation enthusiasts, the filmmakers relished their foray into the world of aviation: rides in warbirds; visits to the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada; and a trip to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson—along with a trip to the heartland to find inspiration for Dusty’s home. While the weathered fuel truck that inspired Chug no longer sits on the airport carved out of Leaders’ 100-acre farm, about 60 aircraft make the field their home each winter.

The afternoon Leaders learned that his field was the real-world inspiration for an enterprising crop duster’s hometown, the cropduster at Leaders Clear Lake Airport was just starting to spray.

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