Klay Hall and Traci Balthazor Interview
Klay Hall and Traci Balthazor Interview
Klay Hall and Traci Balthazor, director and producer of the highly anticipated Disney animated adventure Planes, chat to View about their extensive research techniques, the challenge of creating an intricate and immersive animated world and the experience of working for a prestigious animation studio such as Disney.
I understand aviation runs in the family, what’s your background when it comes to planes?

Klay Hall

It’s an interesting story, it goes back quite a way. My father was a naval aviator, who flew for the United States navy. He was taught to fly by my grandfather, who was also a pilot, my dad learned from a very early age. He actually passed that love of aviation and airplanes on to me at a very early age. We ended up moving out to the west coast, to California, and for weekends I’d go out to the airfield with my dad. As we’d sit there and look at the planes that would taxi out there in front of us, he’d often talk about the characteristics of the aircraft. I’d find myself sketching, right along.

So I was drawing airplanes at a very early age, eight or nine years old. It just so happened that I not only had the love of aviation and drawing airplanes, but that morphed into my love of animation, and actually the films of the Walt Disney company. So for me to be here today and see these two worlds combined, animation and love of aviation, I feel extremely fortunate. I have a little bit of pixie dust I think on me here. Really, your dreams can come true, and I’m a perfect example of that happening.
Traci, we know that the preparation for these films, and the field trips that people get to take, are particularly fun. You guys really got the treat of a lifetime, getting on board the USS Carl Vinson...

Traci Balthazor

Yeah, we got a great opportunity. We got to screen the film for the Department of Defence. They found out we have some navy scenes in it, and they wanted to come in and screen it. Once they saw the movie, they decided they were on board, and we needed to get out on an aircraft carrier, which was very cool. They loaded us up on what they call a C2, which is a cargo plane they use to transport military personnel. They then landed us on an aircraft carrier that’s about 150 miles outside San Diego, in California. So we actually landed on a moving aircraft carrier, which was phenomenal and fantastic and terrifying all at the same time.

We got this great opportunity to talk to the men and women of the ship for two days. Get their feedback, and get their take on what the dialogue was like, and whether we needed to make it more accurate. I think what that research trip did was bring a lot of realism to our aircraft carrier sequence, and I’m really proud of it.

Klay Hall

It was quite an experience.
How did you get back, did you have to take off from an aircraft carrier?

Traci Balthazor

No, typically you do but they were at the end of a week of flight ops training, so we got to ride the aircraft carrier back through the harbour into the dock. Which, in and of itself, was amazing. It was like standing on a floating city, going through this narrow channel, and the most beautiful view of San Diego you’ve ever seen.

Klay Hall

Until you’re out on one of those ships, you really have no idea how big they are. One of the guys, right when we got off the aircraft, he was giving us the information, basically it’s as long as the Empire State Building. It’s ten stories high, and she was going about thirty-five miles an hour. So when you think of the immense size of that, to experience that. There were dolphins out the front of the ship, jumping, and 72 degrees and sunny, it was an unbelievable experience.
It sounds like hell, you guys are so strong.

Klay Hall

I know, right?
You said you got to speak to the guys in the navy. When creating this world, how important is it to speak to experienced pilots, and where’s that level of importance when it comes to the physics of flying?

Klay Hall

That’s a great question. Working with [executive producer] John Lasseter, and certainly the Pixar philosophy is to get your facts correct. It’s all about actual factual data, it’s walking the walk and talking the talk. Nothing is fake, nothing is guessed. This movie took about four and a half years, probably 450 to 600 people working on it. We probably spent a year and a half alone just on the research phase of it. I interviewed pilots from hot air balloon pilots, to glider pilots, active military pilots, crop dusters, racers. We met the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels. Commercial airline pilots, civilian pilots, it goes on and on and on and on.

We then went out to several different locations. Not only airbases, but rural locations. Small airfields, from farmers to JFK towers. To get those facts right, to get the jargon correct, to get the details right. Even if you didn’t understand several of the pieces of dialogue in there, when you watch the film, it sounds right. That really resonates across the board. From the person that doesn’t quite understand it, all the way up to the airline pilot. It carries a lot of weight and believability. Flight dynamics is a whole other thing.

Traci Balthazor

Yeah, for flight, we’ve all seen airplanes flying in the sky. Not so many of us are up close regularly. We think we know how they’re supposed to move. We found out very quickly that we may have thought how they moved too, but we needed some help. We actually went in and brought in some specialists, and we realised we really had to change the way we were thinking about flight. We had to use the physics, we had to build the sets out in the way that the scale of the plane and the size of the set (looked correct), so we could fly them at a realistic speed. We often found we had to slow them down, because while you think you know what they look like, you really know when they don’t look right.

It took us about six months to find the sweet spot of how to get the planes to actually fly right. It’s worth noting, this is not done with a flight simulator. It’s not an easy button for flight. We actually had artists who figured out the physics and the mechanics of making planes fly the way they would, with the weight ratios and distance. It’s all hand-animated.

Klay Hall

We took the case of Dusty for an example. The size of his aircraft, how much fuel he would carry, how heavy he was, the type of engine he was, how far he could fly, his top speed. Built the set accordingly to that, and then put him in that. So that’s how thorough flight dynamics helped us get it right.
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Content updated: 17/10/2019 12:14

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