Disney’s Planes is the story of a low-flying crop duster with sky-high dreams of becoming a world renown racer. While hugging the earth in his day-to-day job as an agricultural aircraft, Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) imagines himself soaring alongside high speed jets instead. It’s only when he ventures to compete in an around-the-world air race that Dusty realizes he’s capable of more than just what he was built for.
The creative team behind Planes was interested in getting both the story and the setting right, spending equal focus on providing Planes with the heart and humor for which Disney films are known, as well as the technical details that would do justice to the planes and pilots from whom they drew inspiration. It was for this reason that executive producer John Lasseter reached out to lifelong aviation enthusiast Klay Hall to direct the film. Both Hall’s father and grandfather were pilots, and Hall himself is no stranger to the sound of a plane’s engine and the feeling of lifting off from the runway and taking to the skies.
For Hall, receiving the call to come in and talk Planes with Lasseter seemed almost predestined. As a child, he spent hours at local air shows and air museums with his father and considers flying a part of his heritage. “My dad and his family originated from Dayton, Ohio,” points out Hall. “Dayton, Ohio is where there Wright Brothers are from; it’s more or less the birthplace of flight.” As director, he sought to do justice to that history by letting details of his own life into the film. “I had a personal opportunity to tap into several personal family things along the way,” he says of the opportunity, making it no secret that he looked back to his own father when modeling the relationship between Dusty and his mentor Skipper Riley (voiced by Stacey Keach). “That was actually our most common ground between my father and I was aviation.”
With Planes starting to take shape under Lasseter and Hall’s leadership, the rest of the creative team was assembled and got to work filling in the many other components needed to make a film up to Disney’s high standards. To get the details that would be captured in Planes right, they truly did go around the world in search of truth in both story and design. Across the US, notable stops included airfields and museums in Ohio, North Dakota, and Minnesota, as well as the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier over one hundred miles out to sea. Internationally, team members went as far as London, Munich, and the Taj Mahal in Agra, India to find the look of the film, which is reflected in the many different stops in the Wings Around the Globe race and the unique style for each airport along the way.
They also found that their research effecting the narrative, beyond just a focus on mechanical and historical accuracy. As they spoke to pilots and aviation experts, they saw the character of Dusty begin to transform. “We discovered that a lot of the air racers actually do have a background in agricultural aviation because it’s a lot of the same skillset,” explains writer Jeffrey M. Howard. “With crop dusting and air racing a lot of the same skills translate over. In terms of stick and rudder flying, it’s very instinctive, it’s low to the ground.” This is also factored into their decision to give Dusty a unique characteristic for a plane, his fear of heights. “The idea that he’s flown thousands of miles but never really been anywhere, and that he’s never flown over a thousand feet made us start to think ‘Wait a minute, what if he’s afraid of heights because he’s never done that,’ and it seemed like it was something that was intrinsic to the aircraft and that kind of flying already. So you can see where the research was feeding into some of the story details.”
It was on their trip to a small midwestern regional airport that they met one a real life version of one of their characters, Dusty’s fuel truck sidekick and biggest fan, Chug. “We found this truck that had such a great shape with the curvature of the fenders and we even realized later that the rust formed a little smile on the front of his grill,” recalls Howard. “That fed in greatly to the design of what Chug was going to look like.” The characters of Planes are also modeled after real life planes, though some mix and match several elements to get the right look. While Skipper is quite close to an actual F4U Corsair fighter in design, Dusty is a combination of Cessna, Air Dromader, and Air Tractor 502. The sounds that the planes make were also recorded on site at real airfields; authenticity was a at the front of everyone’s mind throughout the process.
The excitement of Planes’ high speed action sequences is amplified by the fact that there is a dedication to real flight physics driving the flow of the animation. “Working with John Lasseter is all about getting the facts right,” Hall told us. “It’s all about actual factual data. It’s about truth in materials.” To achieve the most thrilling look and feel for their aerial sequences, the creative team recruited flight animation specialists during the movie’s development. It wasn’t easy, but the team was dedicated to making the film as thrilling as it was funny and heartfelt. “Once we actually got these planes up in the air they looked like little toys hanging from a string just off camera,” admits the director. Adjustments were made to the virtual weight and speed of the planes, as well as taking things into consideration such as letting realistic fuel usage scenarios dictate the distance characters were able to travel at one time. The virtual sets were also resized to reflect this new approach. As Hall remembers it, “When we put all of that together and started to make them fly we finally realized, ‘You know what? It looks real.’ But it took all of that mechanical know-how to crack the code to make it believable.”
Take a look below at some additional images from the making of Disney’s Planes, which is now playing in theatres everywhere.