The Art of Random Willy-Nillyness: PLANES: FIRE AND RESCUE interview with Jeff Howard and Paul Gerard! #fireandrescue
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Friday, November 7, 2014

PLANES: FIRE AND RESCUE interview with Jeff Howard and Paul Gerard! #fireandrescue

Disclosure: I attended the #VeryBadDayEvent #Disneyinhomeevent #maleficent #sleepingbeauty #halloweentime and #fireandrescue events and my expenses: flight, accommodations, transportation and some meals were be covered by Disney. All opinions, however, are always 100% mine.

We had the opportunity to speak with Jeff Howard, co-writer, and Paul Gerard, director-creative development, of Planes: Fire and Rescue. Like the Bobs Ganaway and Ferrell Barron interview, this one was so interesting. It was really long and they talked a lot but mostly about the creative process. I find that so fascinating because as a movie-goer I never think about all the work that goes on behind the scenes. I just enjoy the movies. But there is a lot of research and work that goes on to bring a feature to life.

I have chosen a few select passages to share with you because our interview was so long. But I wanted you all to get an idea of how an animation movie gets made and how much work it takes to bring these characters alive.

Paul on the left and Jeff on the right. 

JEFF HOWARD: So you guys went out to LA County this morning? We went out there and we had lunch at 94th air squadron.  I think that might have been where we had our first lunch when we were brainstorming. 

PAUL GERARD: Very early on. 

JEFF:  Let's go out there and just sit and look at the airplanes and talk about what we want to make for the first Planes movie.  

Did they have both the super scoopers and the helicopter there? We weren't sure if they were gonna have the helicopter there, too, 'cause those were basically the two things that we saw.

PAUL: Well, I'm Paul.  

JEFF: I'm Jeff. 

PAUL: And this is Truth in Materials.  

JEFF: Do your research.  It has an exclamation point.  And it's a command, so this is a mandatory thing.  

PAUL: John Lassiter, our executive producer, believes in this idea, Truth in Materials.  We can find not only character, but story, but the grounding of our movie in our research.  Because we have a huge conceit going on, which is that airplanes talk and have eyeballs, so everything else around that should be as grounded in reality as possible. 

JEFF: Right. So we went out and talked to dozens of aerial firefighters and ground crew and smoke jumpers and air traffic controllers and visited several national parks to try to get all of the details of the movie right. 

PAUL: And one of our biggest resources was the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which, to their friends, are known as Cal Fire, which is why we are required to still call them the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and everyone who's ever heard that joke before never, ever goes over. It doesn't.  It just doesn't work.  

JEFF: I think it's solid.  I think it's very solid. It's at least a B plus joke, I think.  

PAUL: Yeah.  Yeah.  

JEFF: I left it in.  

PAUL: I know.  He's mad at me about this shirt. 

JEFF: No.  That's another thing. It's a long story.  

PAUL: We were both supposed to wear the same shirt.  And I always do this to him. 

JEFF: And it's the second time he's pulled this on me, but never mind.  

PAUL: I always do this to him.  

JEFF: No, I didn't -- it was my own fault, really.  It was my own fault.  

PAUL: I'm Lucy. I've just pulled the football away, and he fell on his back but our first stop was Hemet Ryan Air Attack Base, which is about an hour and a half southeast of here.  

And our main contact was Travis Alexander.  [He] was a huge help to us.  

JEFF: Yeah, one of the things that was interesting to us when we went out and visited Hemet Ryan was that all of our aircraft had a previous life.  The S2, which is their main tanker, was used as a sub-hunting aircraft.  The Huey goes back to Vietnam.  The OB10 Bronco was a reconnaissance airplane. So, this whole theme of second chances started to sort of gel in our heads, that all of the aircraft are really on their second lives.  

PAUL: And they also let us check out the retardant or slurry that they drop.  Actually called PhosCheck, but that's a brand name. It actually feels like snot, which I know a lot about.  I have an eight-year old.  

JEFF: Everybody who is in animation is like, "Yeah.  I want to feel that."  It was one of those kinda things.  We discovered that many of the things at the air attack base are scratch built.  
They had this Quonset hut that they'd just built themselves.  They had a lot of re purposed equipment and stuff like that.  It's a lot of hand-me-down things.  They had these display cases where they had their t-shirts and coffee mugs and stuff that were just display cases from a video game store.  So this whole idea of "Better than New" started to creep into our minds, as well.  

PAUL: Their personnel, though, were anything but hand-me-downs.  Their personnel are the best of the best.  They are all well-trained firefighters, as well as amazing pilots.  [One of the guys] was the pilot of Marine One which was the president's helicopter before he came to Cal Fire.  And, if you think about it, you have to hold position, hold either bandy bucket or hold directly over the hoist to rescue somebody.  

JEFF: The hoist.  Rescue basket.  

PAUL: And to hover in those conditions where you have thermals and updrafts, it's insane. 

JEFF: And you're in a canyon, and you don't want to drop the person; it requires a high degree of skill. We talked to them about their terminology, their tactics, how they identify the different parts of the fire.  They diagram, "Here's what the airspace looks like, and who is at what altitude, and when they're clearing people in and what the different parts of the fire are, and how they maneuver in this crowded airspace.  Who coordinates everything?  Ironically, it's Travis in the smallest aircraft they have.  He fits into it and that's all reflected in the commands that Blade gives to Dusty.  

We would ask Travis, "Okay, if you're gonna tell somebody, 'Drop it a little bit more over there,' you know, how do you say that in pilot-ese?  What would you say?"  And he'd say, "Oh, I'd say, 'Come left one wingspan on your next drop.'"  So I'd say, "Okay, that's easy for me as a writer.  I can just put that straight into the script."  And I'm like, "Okay, but what if somebody gets it dead on, and it's the perfect drop, and no adjustments necessary," and he just sort of paused.  And the other pilots around the table were just sort of looking at their shoes, and he's like, "There's no such term for that."  

He had nothing in his vocabulary for good job.  There was always something he could correct and give feedback on, and that's a little bit reflected in Blade's personality.  Blade's personality was sort of amalgam of a number of different people we met, and things from our own imagination, but that part of Travis definitely went into him.  

PAUL: The other thing that amazed us was how often they go out and fight fires.  Guess how many fires Cal Fire fights in one year?  About 5,600.  

JEFF: Just in California.  It's actually 50,000, nationwide, with all of the different agencies. 

PAUL: Yeah.  That's just California, and this year is actually a banner year for fires.  They were on track, last time we talked to them, for like, 6,500 this year.  The public only hears about the big fires, which actually became a line in the movie, when we were talking to the different directors here. 
One of our directors is like, "Well, isn't that convenient?  He arrives at the Air Attack Base, and they happen to be going out on a fire?"  And the reality is that's the way it is.  

JEFF: We did our research. And it would actually be weird if they weren't going out on a fire when they got there.  

PAUL: Exactly.  And, in fact, when we arrived down at Hemet with our board artists, this is exactly what happened.  

JEFF: They were like, "Can you get out of our plane, we need to use it."

PAUL: Yeah.  They were loading up.  They had to load up immediately.  They let us listen on the headphones to all of the chatter between the pilots and the actual ground crew, and between the fire boss and the pilots coming in. 

JEFF: So, that became a line that went straight into the movie.   They get an alarm, and Dusty says, "Really, there's a fire already" and Dipper answers back, "Yeah, you guys only hear about the big ones," which is literally what they told us.  We're like, that's a great detail, we gotta put that straight into the story.  

Yeah.  So we learned a lot from those guys.  And Travis has come out here several times to watch the movie as well, give us notes, and a bunch of people from Cal Fire, have come back.  And, you know, we've gone to them, and they've come here to see the movie, and helped us out with everything.  

PAUL: And since our big location for most of the movie is Pacific National Park, which is really an amalgamation of all of the big national parks in the country, we decided to visit two of the most famous in the United States.  Yellowstone and Yosemite, which were amazing.  Our Fusel Lodge is really inspired by the Old Faithful Inn, which is at Yellowstone.  

And the landscape also inspired the design for the movie.  The inspiration for Fogger and Canyon is White Wall Falls, although we actually put a bridge in the background. 

JEFF: We suggested they should build a bridge so that it should match our movie. 

Q: I have a question. When you're doing a movie like this, do you have a story before you go out and research or does the story develop from the research?

PAUL: Sort of a little bit of both, yeah.

JEFF: Little bit of both. It's more of the latter. Basically, the impetus for it was we started it when the first Planes movie was only a year into development and production, so it was still going to be three years before Planes came out, but we thought it was coming together pretty well, and we said, "Let's do -- let's start working on a follow-up, 'cause we think this is gonna be pretty successful," and Bobs started looking into the different arenas of aviation.

And he started looking into aerial firefighting which is something that hasn't been shown a lot in movies, and when he first started investigating it, this is where the research sort of led us into what the story was gonna be, because he discovered that the first aerial firefighters were crop-dusting aircraft, and that the type of planes that Dusty is modeled after are also used for firefighting. They put pontoons on them. They let them scoop off the water. Exactly what happens to Dusty in the movie. And we said, well, this is a natural extension for what Dusty's next adventure is gonna be. It was a great "in."

He has to go do that, and he gets modified to it like these aircraft actually are. Then we went out and started talking to the people who actually do it, and we would get little tidbits of things, and the idea of like, second chances. You do go through a few iterations of the story. Like, the first version of the story was not about second chances, necessarily, when we went into it. And then, once we started learning more from the research, we said, "You know, what's really interesting about this world, is this, that all of these aircraft used to do something else.

Bobs came in one day, and said, "What if Dusty can't race anymore. It's not a choice. What if he's like an injured athlete story. You're at the top of your game, the top of your sport, you break your leg. What are you gonna do with your life? You know?" And so we started thinking of it in those terms, but it was sort of born out of seeing that these other aircraft had second chances as well. So, they sort of both feed each other. Sometimes you will go in with a story idea by the things you discover. Sometimes you go into this story idea and you realize, "Oh, no, it's actually this," which would be much cooler of a story to tell, and you shift over to that.

So, they sort of feed each other, and it wasn't something where we went out and spent three months on research and then come back and write. It was like, let's go learn some stuff. Let's come back and write some stuff. You know who we really need to talk, it's this type of person. Let's go out and talk to them. Then let's come back and fiddle with some stuff. We need to visit the smoke jumpers. So it was a year at least.

PAUL: At least a year.

JEFF: Of back and forth, developing the story, and doing the research, sort of back and forth.

Q: None of the animation is done until you have the story done? 

JEFF: Once you have the story together, in terms of a script or a treatment of a script, then you start doing the storyboards, which is just the black-and-white drawings, and you edit it together into an animatic or a story reel where you can watch the whole thing with a temporary voice and sound FX and music and everything to see if it works, and you go through that, four, five, or six or even more times, and at the same time, the guys are doing designs.  And building things in CG.  And then only when that is nailed down, then you go ahead and say, "Okay.  Now we're gonna really start animating it," and that part, just the animating takes a year or more by itself.

And even then, there are things that you will change down the road, like the thing about the smoke jumpers looking before they jump out.  That was late in the process.

Travis or Chuck, would come in and say, "You know what?  It'd be better if they said it this way or you showed this, or maybe you need a shot actually clarifying to say this."  We would add stuff later on, but it takes a long time.

PAUL: Yeah.  Takes a long time.  I mean, people are already shocked that it takes three years

JEFF: Yeah.  Some people were like, "Wow, you churn that out in a year after?"  Well, no, we started it three years before the other one came out.  Both of them took a really long. It’s just very labor intensive.

PAUL: We're looking at the story and realizing just talking to the guys at Hemet-Ryan, realizing how they are underfunded.  They have to make do with what they have.  All of their stuff is hand-me-down, everything is hand-me-down. And it would be -- it would do them a disservice to not be honest about that.

The more you're there, and the more you understand what they're going through and what they're doing, you have to incorporate that into the story.

JEFF: And people can tell that.  Even if you're not familiar with the world of aerial firefighting, I think people can inherently tell when you've made something up.

PAUL: Yep.

JEFF: When you've made something up, versus, it's a real detail, or the real truth of what these guys are like, and it's easier for us to take.  We think the best stories come from the reality, whether it's the aircraft or the paths and the lives of these people they take.

PAUL: There's nothing better to hear when a firefighter say "If you want an accurate depiction of what this is like, watch 'Planes: Fire and Rescue.'"

JEFF: We've heard that.  Somebody said that.  Somebody said, like, "Oh, it's the most accurate movie about --"

PAUL: The most accurate depiction.  And you're like, that's awesome, because we're an animated film, but we've actually did it very accurately.

JEFF: Plus, you were terrified of Travis, if we got anything wrong.

PAUL: Yeah. Travis will come and hurt you, if you make anything that doesn't sound true.

JEFF: No, he is the nicest.  Nicest guy in the world.  Actually, his daughter was interested in getting into film making, so he brought her here for a tour to meet all of us.

PAUL: But, yeah, they've been so helpful, Cal Fire, and forestry

JEFF: Yeah.  We literally could not have made the movie without those guys.

PAUL: And people in Yosemite and Yellowstone, and just everybody was so helpful as far as getting our story right. They watched the movie and they were happy, so we're happy.

JEFF: Yeah.  Because we want to honor them.  You know.  It's something important that they do.  It's why we have put the dedication at the beginning of the movie.

PAUL: They risk their lives for people they don't even know, which is a line in the movie.  That's true.

JEFF: I'm quoting our own movie as if I've just made it up.

Q: So, you said that you'd started working on the second film three years before it'd come out.  So, are you planning another one? 

JEFF: We cannot say.

PAUL: I cannot confirm or deny that.

JEFF: Confirm nor deny.  Cannot confirm nor deny anything that we're working on.  Just don't walk around the building too much we're always thinking of stuff.  It's, if people want to see it, and we have a good idea, then it's totally a possibility but, we're not allowed to say.

Thank you to Jeff Howard and Paul Gerard for their time! And, I am secretly hoping there is a Planes 3! 

PLANES: FIRE AND RESCUE is available NOW on Blu-Ray/DVD!!!! Go out and Buy it. 
It would make a great stocking stuffer or holiday gift!


  1. Interesting that they used some of the actual dialog between the firemen in the movie. Thanks for sharing the interview.

  2. It is neat the way they did some of the things.