John Lasseter, executive producer of Disneytoon Studios' “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” is a spirited advocate of extensive research—not only to ensure authenticity to the story, but also to help drive it. And he’s instilled that belief in every Disneytoo filmmaker, including “Planes: Fire & Rescue” director Bobs Gannaway.
In the film, when world-famous air racer Dusty Crophopper learns that his engine is damaged and he may never race again, he must shift gears and is launched into the world of aerial firefighting.
“We took a closer look at Dusty and the background of crop dusters,” says Gannaway. “We discovered that crop dusting planes like Dusty are also used for wildfire air attack. Known as a SEAT—a Single Engine Air Tanker—it’s the smallest plane in the wildfire air attack fleet. In addition, the first operational air tanker was a repurposed crop duster, which made the first air drop on the Mendocino National Forest in 1955. Fighting fires is in Dusty’s heritage.”
Gannaway also realized that a crop duster-turned high-speed racer would likely be facing some issues. “Dusty pushed himself really hard to become a racer,” says Gannaway, “which would in real life cause extreme stress on his engine and potentially cause damage.”
The research led filmmakers to Dusty’s second-chance story. And since he’d be joining the ranks of aerial firefighting, filmmakers set out to learn as much as possible about that world from the people who live in it every day. “Bobs and his team came back changed by the people that they met,” says Lasseter. “These firefighters are true heroes.”
“We were just amazed by their devotion,” says Gannaway. “They are courageous, strong, affable people who fight fires every single day—flying planes in almost-combat-like situations, or jumping from planes into tiny targets in the middle of the forest, surrounded by blazing fires. We want them to watch the movie and say, ‘Yeah, they got it right. That’s what it’s like.’ That’s why we ended up devoting the film to the firefighters, because we just fell in love with these guys.”
Adds writer Jeff Howard, “We wanted to pay tribute to the bravery of these people and the fact that they put their lives on the line for people they don’t even know.”
Several members of the production team spent time at the Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base with CalFire, gathering background for the film’s setting, characters, dialogue and story. “We had a version of the story that we bounced off them,” says Howard. “We’d ask them questions, ‘Does this sound realistic? How would you say this? What would this character do in this situation?’”
According to Howard, filmmakers noticed how relaxed the firefighters were when there wasn’t a fire to fight. “They hang back, play pranks on each other, have cookouts. They’re incredibly easygoing. But when the alarm goes off, they snap into action. They’re all business—professional, serious. That’s something we wanted to portray in the scene when Dusty arrives at Piston Peak Air Attack Base.”
CalFire battalion chief Travis Alexander not only welcomed the team—allowing them to sketch, take pictures and video, and soak up the atmosphere—he ultimately served as inspiration for one of the main characters. “He’s a giant of a man,” says Howard. “He has a dry wit and is a serious, soft-spoken, carries-a-big-stick kind of guy. He’s the one giving commands to the other planes. We put a little bit of his perfectionism into Blade’s personality.”
“Disney reaches a very wide audience and when dealing with real-life emergencies and issues accuracy is critical,” says Alexander. “An animated feature about the seriousness and dangers of wildland fires and those that battle them will influence and impact people of all ages. The level of commitment by everyone at Disney and their mission to get even the smallest details right became very clear to me as a professional firefighter who fights wildland fires from the ground and air. I appreciate the Disney team’s goal to accurately depict the professionalism, challenges and subtleties in our lives on the job.”
Opening across the Philippines on in 3D and 2D cinemas, “Planes: Fire & Rescue” is distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures through Columbia Pictures.