Behind the scenes: Little turboprop that could

Filmmakers sought real pilot insight for animated ‘Planes’

June 7, 2013

Just how realistic can you make an airplane with eyes, a mouth, and a dream of competing in an international air race?

DisneyToon Studios took on the challenge with the upcoming Disney’s Planes, an expansion of the Cars franchise that takes viewers into a cropduster’s quest to prove he can become more than what he was built for. At an aviation media event June 6, filmmakers described a rigorous research process that brought them to small airports across the Midwest, introduced them to airshow performers including the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, and resulted in film with references that ring true to aviator parents while children revel in the adventure.

In the film, which hits theaters Aug. 9, cropduster Dusty (voiced by 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 ag plane—a composite of the Air Tractor AT-502, Cessna AgWagon, and Dromader—he has never flown above 1,000 feet agl.) He seeks help from World War II naval aviator Skipper, an F4U Corsair, and gets support from the community at home in Propwash Junction as he embarks on his journey.

In keeping with Disney executive John Lasseter’s commitment to “truth to material,” the airplanes don’t bend their wings, and generally behave like real aircraft in the air. 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 ag plane pulling a fuel truck behind him and working out to get stronger. “When I first saw it, I didn’t get it,” he said. Why wouldn’t Dusty prepare like an actual racer? The resulting sequence shows the cropduster getting in racing shape in a more believable way.

Pilots may notice references to trading altitude for airspeed, vertical wind shear, and wake turbulence (“swirlies”); some will also empathize with small-town Dusty in his first encounter with New York City airspace and procedures. And pilots who frequent Leaders/Clear Lake Airport in Minnesota may find Propwash Junction faintly familiar. Filmmakers traveled from airfield to airfield in the Midwest and found inspiration in the privately owned, public-use airport surrounded by cornfields. Fuel truck Chug owes his design to an old fuel truck there tucked in a grove of evergreen trees.

The primary creators of the story—Lasseter, director Klay Hall, and screenwriter Jeff Howard—are all nonpilots, but each has a fascination with aviation. Hall said his father was in the Navy and his grandfather was also a pilot, and he remembers heading to the local airport with his father as a kid and sketching the airplanes. The filmmakers’ research expeditions sound like a pilot’s dream, with rides in warbirds, visits to the Reno, Nev., National Championship Air Races, and a trip to the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. Howard said they started locally, at Santa Monica Municipal Airport, and learned lessons about aviation from pilots throughout their travels.

While filmmakers emphasized the importance of research in making the aviation references ring true to aviators, director Klay Hall also highlighted the film’s universal appeal: “I think people will really relate to ‘Disney’s Planes’ because it’s a great underdog story,” he said in a media release. “It has a lot of heart and a message we can all use: If we can believe in ourselves, step out of our comfort zones and get past whatever fear is holding us back, we’d be surprised with the results.”

The aviation community will get an early look at the animated feature at EAA AirVenture Aug. 2.