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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 05/29/2009

The Interview: 'UP' Animator Bob Peterson of Pixar

By Michael Cavna

Bob Peterson arrives at the premiere of Disney Pixar's 'Up' in Hollywood on May 16. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

As Pixar's balloon-questing movie, "UP," lands in theaters today, it represents just the latest cinematic adventure for its writer and co-director, BOB PETERSON. The animator, a 15-year veteran of Pixar who worked on the Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Finding Nemo," took time on the eve of "Up's" big launch to talk comic strips, computer animation and why certain college courses spark a wealth of creativity.

MICHAEL CAVNA: Last year, [Pixar animator] Angus MacLane told us that John Lasseter fosters a great working environment that brings out the best in everyone. Do you care to contradict that?

BOB PETERSON: That's absolutely true. There are deadlines here and real work being done and we argue with each other -- and it's a good kind of argument, the kind that moves projects forward. That's because we trust each other. And John absolutely fosters a great [environment]... I'm lucky. I haven't worked much at any other places. There was a pioneering spirit at Pixar that is still here -- people are still excited.

MC: So in college --at Purdue, right? -- you studied engineering but did a comic strip called "Loco Motives." What did you like about cartooning then?

BP: Every day, I did a daily strip. It was a big campus -- 40,000 students. I loved getting feedback -- it felt like you were connected. ... Some of my favorite media is the still cartoon that you can sit and study. You can get amazing metaphors across really quickly. I'm in awe of a Charles Schulz.

MC: So how did you move from engineering and creating a comic strip to animation?
BP: At Purdue, I was getting my master's in mechanical engineering with a specialty in computer graphics. I started out on the technical side of this industry in the early '80s. That's how I got to where I am today. It was fun -- we were working in an industry, even on the engineering side, where we were very aware that it was a time of change.

MC: And from there, how did you get to Pixar?

BP: I would go to conferences every year, and John Lasseter gave a keynote at SIGGRAPH [conference] about 1985 and I saw: He really "got" how to imbue stiff computer animation with the squash and stretch of Disney animation. Already, he had a taurus of fans around him. It took me seven years to find a way in, but I finally got here [to Pixar].

MC: And did you arrive in time to work on the breakthrough that was [1994's] "Toy Story"?...

BP: Yes I did. I thought: Man, I want to try to be on it -- it was going to be a first. I was backfilling for the animators who were being moved over to work on "Toy Story." I was directing commercials, but I got to animate nine scenes [of "Toy Story"] -- mostly of Sid, the bad kid.

Left to right: Director Pete Docter, director Bob Peterson, producer Jonas Rivera, singer and actor Charles Aznavour, actor Tom Trouffier, Executive Producer John Lasseter, Edwin Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar and Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios Dick Cook attend the 'Up' photo stunt at the Carlton Pier during the 62nd International Cannes Film Festival on May 13. (Francois Durand/Getty Images)Enlarge Image

MC: So you said doing a comic strip helped you for what you would do at Pixar?

BP: A lot of kids ask me about storyboarding, which is what I ended up doing mostly. The nice thing about a comic strip in college -- it's like [the fact that] Charlie Chaplin did vaudeville for years before becoming a film star. Comic strips let you explore and experiment and find out what's appealing. You get reaction all the time. In college, for example, there was this one guy who made a point of every day of coming up [to me] and reading my comic strip. He never liked them. "Interesting," he would say. That kind of constant feedback toughens you up.

MC: Can you speak to how blended your interests in both art and technical science?

BP: In high school, I liked to draw but had no faith that I could get a job [drawing]. I was in the middle of Ohio and didn't know about CalArts or how to get into Disney. I was a huge fan of Disney animation and I wanted to study mechanical engineering because [with that foundation], you can go to med school or design toys. That's a good base as a major. But then in 1981, someone offered a computer animation course and it was like a Renaissance discipline -- art and science mixed together. ... I don't think I'd be where I am if I hadn't gone the weird circuitous route.

MC: Every Pixar film has a great deal of heart. How do you approach the emotional components of storytelling?
BP: We just try to be sincere with people. I'm a dad and I've got three kids. You have to pay attention to relationships and interactions and to what happens between people. It's just a matter of this funny idea and a simple plotline -- then really pay attention to what would people normally do. What would a person do if they got fired? Or lost their car? You tell the truth of how people would react. ... We're always concerned about the relationships -- are we telling the truth? Jokes are one thing, but we sacriifice thousands of jokes if they get in the way of the emotional narrative.

A still from "Finding Nemo." (AP Photo/Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios)

MC: So who were some of your artistic influences growing up?

BP: i was a Charles Schulz kind of guy. I didn't read comics books. The Warner Bros. guys were great -- Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng. ... The comic strip I did at Purdue had a lot of Berke Breathed visual influence. But Schulz did a lot of what we do in "Up." Snoopy doing impersonations of vultures mixed with Charlie Brown's angst. If you look at "Up," there's loss of loved ones and moving on mixed with talking dogs. The trick of "Up" was to balance the sad stuff with the silly stuff. Schulz was able to do that well. Also, Bill Cosby's "Revenge" album was ground-zero for me -- for the timing and the telling of truthful stories.

MC: Of Pixar's 10 films, do you have a favorite?

BP: Well, if you don't count "Up" and "Nemo," I'd have to say "Toy Story 2," because I know what a crisis point we'd reached. ,,, All of these are bad movies at some point, before we change the emphasis or [alter the balance.] ,,, We keep trying different roads till we find the right one.

MC: Do you have a favorite voice actor you've worked with? Well, other than yourself [Peterson voices Dug the dog in "Up"]?

BP: That's tough -- to choose one. ... Woody ["Toy Story"] starts out as a jealous guy who could have been a creep, but it's impossible not to like Tom Hanks. And Marlin could have been very annoying [in "Nemo"], but Albert Brooks has such great comic timing. ... And Ed Asner was like that for "Up." As Carl, he could have been too growl-y, but Ed has such heart and soul. ... Billy Crystal was so good [for "Monsters Inc."] that I thought: "We should be paying YOU." Then I remembered: we are. ... And one of my favorite is Ellen DeGeneres [as Dory in "Nemo"]. She came in and knew everyone's name and figured out her own "whalespeak." She was great.

By Michael Cavna  | May 29, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation  
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