Director Klay Hall Talks DisneyToon Studios New Feature, Planes
Many in the animation community breathed a welcome sigh of relief back in 2007 after hearing the announcement of big changes being made at DisneyToon Studios. Under the growing influence and creative leadership of John Lasseter, the studio canceled production plans on direct-to-DVD sequels of popular Disney and Pixar animated features. The studio began shifting towards production of original stories, moving away from a strategy that while profitable, was both creatively and philosophically unpopular.
Six years later, the studio’s biggest production to date, Planes, hits US theatres tomorrow, itself the benefit of a strategic decision to bypass a direct-to-DVD release and head straight to theatres. Set in the world above Cars, the film is billed as an action-packed comedy adventure about a crop duster with dreams of competing as a high-flying air racer, whose courage is put to the test as he aims to reach heights he never dreamed possible. “Lofty” goals indeed. I recently had a chance to sit with director Klay Hall, a CalArts alum who spent years working on beloved animated TV series like The Simpsons and King of the Hill before coming to DisneyToon Studios in 2005. He shared his thoughts about aviation, the challenges of turning planes in believable characters and how DTS fits within the Disney animated feature film studio umbrella.
Dan Sarto: So tell me about the genesis of the film?
Klay Hall: In late 2008 or early 2009, I was finishing my previous film. I had already had lots of conversations with John Lasseter. We hit it off right away because we were both fans of machines. We love Formula One racing, we love cars, we love trains and we love planes. Our conversations were always about some of the coolest things out there flying or driving. We are also history buffs. So we had a lot of common interests. Anyways, I was working on a train idea that dealt with the Transcontinental Railroad. It had steam trains, it had humans and it had animals. He really liked it a lot and was helping me flush it out.
Then one day he was flying in from Pixar and I got a call. He said, “Hey Klay, I have this idea. What do you think about planes instead of trains?” I was like, “John, if there is one thing I like more than trains, it’s definitely planes.” He laughed. Through our conversations, he knew that I had an aviation background. He was aware that my dad was a pilot in the navy. His dad was in the navy. So we shared some common ground. He knew that I had a love of flying and aviation. He said, “Look, I’m thinking about this idea. What do you think about let’s drop the trains thing for now and let’s do planes. Let’s make a whole new world above the world of Cars, drafting off the cars world that has already been established. Let’s leave it there and go for something brand new.” And that’s kind of how it all came about.
DS: So how did it get from an idea discussed with John into full feature development?
KH: It’s very much the same process they use at Pixar or Walt Disney Animation Studios. He implemented the same thing at DTS [DisneyToon Studios] too. All three studios to him, believe it or not, when we’re talking creative, it’s all the same to him. He incorporated a brain trust in our studio, just like he has in the other two studios. No executives are in the room. It’s all creative, directors, writers and some heads of stories, people like that. So once we knew we were going to go for this planes idea, myself, John and Jeff Howard, the writer, we sat down in a room for about five or six hours and kicked around ideas, things that we liked, about airplanes and about aviation.
I’m a huge fan of the classic underdog story. I think it plays universally and I think we can all relate to it. Then we came with the idea of fear. If you are able to rise above your fear for just a moment, if you’re able to step out of that zone, and go for it, you’ll be surprised with the results. We all felt that resonated universally as well. Then we landed on the crop duster because it was a plane that does the same thing every day. It’s built for one thing. So it was perfect to have that character uncomfortable with stepping out of the zone. Crop dusters cannot fly over a 1000 feet. By FAA rules they are regulated to fly under that ceiling. So it played right into the fear of heights thing…the irony of an airplane that’s scared to go high. From there we came up with the rest of the story. We knew we wanted to give him the goal of breaking this mundane routine and then just going for it. So we threw in the international race. We really wanted to embrace different locations, different ethnicities and cultures.
DS: Tell us about the decision to release Planes in theatres rather than going direct to DVD, which was the original plan.
KH: To be perfectly honest, it’s come up a lot. We didn’t have to change a thing. The crew was in place. The locations, everything was as it was. You know, at DTS, we’re a division of the Walt Disney Company. There’s Pixar, there’s Walt Disney Animation, and there’s us. John Lasseter came in and changed the whole thing that’s going on there now. It’s all about series based stories, original stories, high quality stories. We were swinging from the fences from day one, and we really didn’t have to change anything. So it was pretty amazing. The great part is, it just gives that much more legitimacy to our division and what we’re doing. People can really say, “Hey, you know what? Yeah, they’re doing good work.”