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.
DS: With so many big budget animated and live-action/vfx driven films bombing at the box office this year, do you think the anticipated success of Planes, a much lower budget animated feature, will pave the way for more less expensive animated features hitting the theatres in the future?
TBF: No, not necessarily. I think films are always going to run the gamut of lower budget to higher budget. A lot of that is based on how they are being made, the technology needed to make them, how long they are in story development and how long the production process takes. There are so many factors, it’s probably hard to nail that down to one distinct answer. I don’t know how many more films are going to $200 million, but my guess is there will always still be a pretty wide variance. That’s just my gut.
DS: And from a strategic standpoint with regards to DTS going theatrical with Planes, how is that going to impact the development slate for sequels and other new films you may produce?
TBF: I don't know if that’s going to impact the slate so much. One of the beneficial aspects of us going theatrical is that there are so many talented artists that work at DisneyToon studios that are now going to be recognized a little bit more. The studio name will be recognized more. It will continue to help us attract great talent. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to change our slate or how we make films but I think it will help us continue to retain the great talent we have and attract additional talent to the studio. We’re really competitive filmmakers. Every movie, regardless of distribution, whether it’s DVD or theatrical, every movie that comes out, we want it to be better than the last. And as filmmakers, we push each other and we try and build on that. So I think coming out of the gate with Planes, we’re setting a certain bar. And I think every film after that, we’ll just try and push that bar even higher. It’s not because of the way it’s coming out. It’s just what we do as filmmakers. That’s part of our process.
DS: We discussed technology a bit in the roundtable. Making films like Planes involves a tremendous amount of technology. Do you think that sometimes technology gets in the way and can actually hinder the creative process?
TBF: That’s an interesting question. No, I don't know if it’s the reliance on technology that gets in the way. But sometimes, our desire to have technology do more than we’re actually able to do with our resources at that given time, that can be challenging. Sometimes we just can’t quite get something to look right and we have to come up with different creative decisions to make it work for the film. But I don't know that it’s technology that gets in the way. Our technology is definitely one of the partners in making the film. All the creative and technological parts have to come together to make things work. But I don’t know that they ever gets in the way per se.
DS: Do you get to piggyback off any of the pipeline or the technological advances made at Disney Feature Animation or Pixar? Or, do you guys pretty much operate with your own technical resource base?
TBF: We pretty much operate with our own technical resource base. One of the major differences between us, Walt Disney Animation and Pixar is we have three very different pipelines. The two other studios have much more proprietary pipelines. Our studio operates a little bit differently where we use off-the-shelf first, and build from there. So our pipeline is probably something people could access more readily than the pipelines at Pixar or Disney. It doesn’t make it less complex, it’s just different. We haven’t written any proprietary animation programs or proprietary rendering systems. Pretty much everything we use you can buy off-the-shelf.
DS: Last question. As the film’s producer, you make 50,000 decisions and take on 100 different jobs. Is there any one thing you do that gives you the most personal sense of satisfaction?
TBF: I think it’s working with all the wonderful people. Everybody is just so different and comes from all parts of the world, with such varied backgrounds and creative styles. Just getting to know all the different people is probably the coolest thing about my job. I think a close second is watching my sons laugh when they see something on the screen that I produced. My older son is obsessed with cow tipping. The fact that we have tractor tipping in our film brings joy to me from the simple fact that I know he will be extremely excited when he sees it.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.