Producer Traci Balthazor-Flynn Talks Planes
Theatres have been a bit crowded this summer – kind to some films, downright mean to others. And while movie fans have shown themselves to be increasingly fickle of late, it was probably a safe bet to assume a good number of them would turn out to see the newest Disney animated feature, Planes, the DisneyToon Studios former direct-to-DVD project that John Lasseter felt worthy of a theatrical release instead. Indeed, the film opened in the U.S. this weekend to solid numbers and with a reported budget of $50 million, seems likely to make a profit. I recently sat with Planes producer Traci Balthazor-Flynn, discussing her work on the film, the ramifications of a shift from DVD to theatrical release and the pressure she faced keeping her team focused, motivated and on track over the film’s four year production schedule.
Dan Sarto: How did you come onto the project?
Traci Balthazor-Flynn: I came up through the digital production world on the technical delivery side of things, working with a number of technical directors. From there I worked my way onto the DisneyToon Studios studio management team. I spent six or seven years as Director of Production prior to being given the opportunity to work with this fantastic filmmaker, Klay Hall, and with John Lasseter to bring this film to life. So I’ve actually been at DisneyToon Studios for almost 13 years now.
DS: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced producing Planes?
TBF: Let me start off by saying I was incredibly lucky on this film to have a great filmmaking partner. I think Klay and I are a fantastic team who very much respect each other’s responsibilities and roles. I say that because I think it plays an important part in me being able to do my job and do it well.
A big piece of my job is figuring out how to bring Klay’s vision to the screen. What do we need to get there? He and the team have their artistic vision of what they want. Now, how do we bring it to life? Another big piece of my job is, through the hard times, keeping everybody as happy and motivated as we can. It’s inevitable on any project, you hit rough times where you work longer hours, you’re working weekends, you’re not seeing your family as often as you like. Sometimes at that point you’re not even seeing the results of the film as much as you’d like, to keep yourself motivated. So keeping the team in a good motivated place is another big piece of my job.
DS: Every producer I’ve ever talked to tells me there comes a day on every production when they plop down in their desk chair and mutter to themselves, “We have no film. It’s all crap.” But if you run around with your hair on fire, everyone might freak out. Does the need to always be the voice of calm put additional pressure on you?
TBF: It does, so I try keeping everything in perspective. When things get really tough, the thing I tell myself is I am so lucky to come into work everyday and somebody’s life is not dependent on the decisions I make. Nobody will die if I make the wrong decision today. The other thing is, I know that some days I’ll make a wrong decision, but hopefully what we can do is course correct from there. I’d rather make a decision and give everybody a direction to go in then not make a decision and leave people wandering. That’s my philosophy on leading the team, and I’ll readily admit if I made the wrong choice. I work with very talented creative and production leads, so I try to keep a unified front and really work with the team to come up with our vision of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.
DS: How does that impact your decision-making when assessing what’s feasible on a production? Tell me a little bit about the dynamic of making tough decisions regarding when to quit and move on versus when to keep pushing though success is far from guaranteed. Somebody has to make those decisions.
TBF: Usually I make those decisions in conjunction with Klay. I’ll sit down with Klay and say, “How important is this to you?” Sometimes his answer will surprise me. He’ll say, “You know what, I can live with where this is right now. I think its good enough and we can come back to it if we can later.” Or, he’ll say, “You know what, I’ll go down fighting on this one because this has to be this way.” It’s very important to be led by the creative vision. That’s how I balance our resources, that’s how I balance our time. It’s about bringing the vision to the screen. It’s not just a numbers game.
DS: What do you think is your most important role as a producer?
TBF: Keeping the team moving in the same direction.
DS: And what do you think are the skills most important for accomplishing that?
TBF: For me, I listen. I like to listen, and I like to observe. Listen, observe and ask questions. Not necessarily in that order. If I sense things are off, I will start asking questions, which can help lead to understanding where we need to change direction. Those three things on any given day will not fail me because by looking, by listening and by asking questions I can usually get a sense of what’s going on, what needs to happen and where we are having problems and how to fix them.
DS: Did the pressure increase when the decision was made to release the film theatrically rather than direct-to-DVD?
TBF: The place where it added the most pressure was like, wow, we really have no room to miss this date [completion]. Everything has to come together because the window between when we deliver the film to the studio and when it hits the theaters is so small, there is no room for error. It didn’t change the quality. It didn’t change the way we were making the film. I totally stand behind that statement. From the beginning, we set out to make the best film we could make. It’s a pretty high standard to be aiming for the world of Cars. But just knowing that window was so tight, that there was really no room for error, the pressure of keeping us on track was incredibly high.