Disney's Planes: The Science Behind the Film

How a team of aviation experts made the airplanes of Disney's latest animated gem come alive.

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It takes a village to make an animated film. Around 500 people contributed to the creation of Planes, Disney's latest animated movie, slated for release on Aug. 9. I had the chance to meet with a few of the key creators to learn more about what goes into making an animated movie that, through all the fantasy, focuses on incorporating aviation realism to make an imaginary world come alive.

Planes follows Dusty, a crop duster from an aviation town called Propwash Junction who has never flown above 1,000 feet and is afraid of heights but dreams of becoming an air racer. Against all odds, Dusty qualifies for the prestigious Wings Around the Globe Rally and is forced to conquer his fear head-on. The movie is a feel-good story about the importance of never giving up and helping those in need, as Dusty prioritizes the safety of his fellow competitors above winning the race. The brains behind the movie — executive producer John Lasseter, director Klay Hall and screenwriter Jeffrey Howard — planted the first seeds of what would become Planes about four and a half years ago. But credit for the final creation should go to what Hall referred to as an army. "It's a very organic back-and-forth process," Howard said.

The initial script was turned over to a team of eight story artists — led by head of story Dan Abraham — that was tasked with creating a visual representation of the tale. Abraham said that there are times when the script transforms directly to a drawing, but in most cases there are several different versions of each story segment. “The level of difficulty was huge because of the flying aspect,” Abraham said. “Story-wise, there were a lot of changes along the way.” He estimates that somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 different Photoshop drawings were produced.

The story artists also helped develop the mood of the characters and modified the dialogue, so in a sense they were a part of the story creation itself. Once they completed a segment, they had to pitch it to Hall and Lasseter, who would either accept the idea or request changes. The process intimidated some story artists, as they are not trained to be actors. But “if you do it right,” Abraham said, “nobody is looking at you. They’re looking at the screen.”

In the initial runs of the movie, Hall felt the characters looked real on the ground, but he didn't like the way they appeared in the air. "At first, they looked like toys," he said. Lasseter made it clear that there had to be a strong focus on aviation realism. His emphasis on true depictions gave rise to a mind-blowing amount of research and the involvement of a long list of aviation experts. One key person who helped make the flight segments look real was flight supervisor Jason McKinley, creator, producer and director of the History Channel's Dogfights series and a major contributor to the movie Red Tails.

“The planes have to be a real size, the set has to be a real size, and you have to fly the plane at the speed it can actually fly,” McKinley said. “The second you veer from the laws of physics, everybody can tell that it doesn’t look right.”

Set sizes and speeds were just the beginning. For example, the wing loading of Dusty mimics that of a P-51 Mustang, which meant that turns could not exceed 35 degrees per second. McKinley often had to make adjustments. “The storyboard sometimes allowed four seconds for a 360-degree turn,” he said. “We had to spread it out to make it real.”

Skipper is a retired naval fighter — a Corsair made slightly pudgier to add more character.|

Another consultant was flight and engineering specialist Sean Bautista. He ensured that the modifications that transformed Dusty from a crop duster to an air racer were realistic. Some of his major contributions include advising against the original idea of adding a supercharger to the engine, since that is not possible on a PT6 engine, and suggesting using T-33 wings for the final modification to make Dusty faster.

The flight component added the most complexity, but plenty of research on other aspects of the story was involved in the creation of Planes. Several trips were made to various locations, such as to the Midwest, to create the look for Propwash Junction; to the Reno Air Races, to get the feel of air racing; to the USS Carl Vinson naval aircraft carrier, to nail down the procedures for aircraft-carrier operations; and to other places around the world, to ensure the authenticity of the race stops.

"I swish my cape at you" — one of many funny one-liners from El Chupacabra, a Mexican Casanova in the shape of a Gee Bee.|

But Planes is, after all, an animated movie. While the virtual world needed an element of authenticity, imagination is what makes it special. There are many subtle details that may go unnoticed at first. For example, Propwash Junction is located on an airplane-shaped plateau; the city streets are taxiways; several clouds throughout the movie are shaped like airplanes; and the facades of some buildings feature propellers, pistons and other aviation references. The creation of these fine details and the characters' proportions was led by art director Ryan Carlson.

Carlson said the characters are generally a little pudgier than real airplanes, and the canopies are higher, in order to make the eyes more visible. While the characters’ proportions were in Carlson’s hands, their development was a collaborative team effort. Even those providing the voices of the airplanes had input.

Planes incorporates many lovable characters. El Chupacabra is a Mexican Casanova, who throughout the movie uses hilarious pickup lines to try and win the heart of Rochelle, a sexy V-tail. El Chupacabra is one of only two characters based solely on a single real airplane — in his case a Gee Bee.

The second mostly authentic airplane is Skipper, an F4U Corsair. His character is a crusty retired Navy fighter, who, reluctantly at first, becomes Dusty’s mentor and adorns him with the ­piston-and-cross-wrenches patch that signifies his membership in the Jolly Wrenchers, Skipper’s Navy squadron. The idea came from Hall’s father’s Jolly Rogers patch, which has a skull and crossbones on it.

The rest of the characters are composites of multiple airplanes. Even Dusty himself is not a purebred, but instead an Air Tractor 502 combined with elements of a Cessna and a PZL-Mielec M-18 Dromader.

Dusty’s nemesis, Ripslinger, was inspired by Reno’s Unlimited racers. Ripslinger’s cronies Ned and Zed were born as a twin turboprop and “separated at birth,” according to the movie’s narration — one of several laugh-out-loud moments in the film targeted at both kids and adults.

Other characters that adults might appreciate are Bravo and Echo, two F-18-like jets inspired by Top Gun's Iceman and Goose. The jet fighters wear the same color helmets as the Top Gun characters. Val Kilmer is behind the voice of Bravo, and Anthony Edwards acts as Echo.

The voices behind the characters matter. “Each plane has a personality, and we needed a voice to go with it,” Hall said. So it’s only fitting that the voices for both Ned and Zed came from one man — Gabriel Iglesias. Iglesias used two distinct voices inspired by two of his own family members.

In addition to getting the right voices, getting the right engine sounds was a huge challenge, according to Hall. The sounds of actual airplanes, identical or similar to the characters, were recorded to make the sounds used in the movie as authentic as possible.

The passion the creators of Planes have for aviation is evident in the final product. Many of the team members said they had been drawing airplanes since they were children and, while none of the team leaders is a certified pilot, several have been involved in aviation to some degree. "My dad and I would grab some burgers and Cokes and go to the local runway to watch the planes take off and land," Hall said. "I'd sit there and sketch as he talked about the characteristics of the airplanes."

Jet fighters Bravo and Echo emulate Top Gun's Iceman and Goose.|

The creators of Planes may have also received some subliminal inspiration. Disneytoon Studios, where they worked, is located where Grand Central Air Terminal, which was a thriving airport in the early 1900s, used to be. The entire building, which is complete with a runway in the main hall and taxiways in the hallways for inspiration, was dedicated to the movie.

With all the subtle details in the film, I know I missed a lot of interesting visual effects and certainly a few hilarious one-liners. The preview I saw was in the finishing stages. I can’t wait to see the movie again in 3-D.

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