Central Valley Pilots Help Make 'Planes' Authentic

There's no real reason for an animated film about planes to completely conform to the laws of physics and nature. When you have an airplane that can talk, does it really matter that the high-flying star uses the right jargon or flies within the real parameters of an airplane?

It does if you are John Lasseter.

The chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios has a reputation for making sure all details in an animated film are correct. That's why Reedley resident Sean Bautista was hired as a consultant on the new Disney animated film "Planes."

The film revolves around a single-propeller crop duster plane, Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook), who dreams about the world beyond his town of Propwash Junction. Despite a fear of heights, Dusty enlists in the "Wings Around the Globe" race where he must compete against the world's greatest flying machines. The film opens in theaters Friday.

It was a train that got Bautista to his "Planes" station.

He builds and runs steam engine trains near his home, an interest he's shared with several people at Disney. Bautista asked "Planes" director Klay Hall about when the company was going to make a train movie. Hall told him he had to get through a planes film before he could think about other animated forms of locomotion. That's when the director learned about Bautista's decades of experience as a military and commercial pilot.

"I was asked to consult on the project after Lasseter saw the first renderings," Bautista says. "He said that someone with a general aviation knowledge should be brought in. My name came up and the next thing I knew I had a contract to be the film's technical adviser."

Bautista has spent the last three to four years looking at scenes and giving notes about what should change. His suggestions ranged from the numbers on the landing strip to how a plane should move. In one scene, he even spotted where the artists had the propellers on several plans turning backwards.

"On the ground, the planes talk and do other things. In the air, none of the planes in the movie can do anything that a real version of them can't do. In the air, they act just like real planes," Bautista says.

The most amazing part of the whole process is that the production team listened to every note. He's proud and honored to be part of the movie because of the work that went into making it look and sound as authentic as possible.

Hall and his team spent six months on getting the flight dynamics just right.

They could have built a flight simulator, but it would have given the film a mechanical look. Instead, they created a model of Dusty that was exact in weight and design. As the model was flown, data was collected and used to give the team what it needed to make Dusty look as if he was really flying.

"One thing we knew, if we were to make this movie work, especially embracing the magic of flight, we had to get it right," Hall says.

Along with his advising duties, Bautista helped the team collect sounds of real airplanes for the film. Bautista piloted a 1929 Travelaire, a 1942 Piper Cub and a 1968 B-55 Beechcraft Baron at the Reedley airport so the distinct sounds could be recorded. He connected the team to the Fresno National Guard, where they not only recorded F-16s but took a spin in a flight simulator.

Bautista then took the crew to Chowchilla to record the right sounds for Dusty. Comedian Cook provides the speaking voice for Dusty, but the real sounds of power that come out of the tiny crop duster came from a plane that can be found at Thiel Air Care in Chowchilla.

Doug Thiel's been in the plane business since 1977. After a short stint in the skies over Texas, Thiel came back to the Central Valley in 1986. His business has grown to cover an area that includes Chowchilla, Firebaugh, Merced and Los Banos. He was contacted because he owns one of the most powerful planes to zip within a cricket's wing of crops: the Air Tractor 802, powered by a 1,170-horsepower PT6-65 turbine engine.

It was the roar of the Air Tractor that was recorded by a small army from Disney. They converged on the small airstrip in June 2012 -- a visit that changed part of the approach to the way the film was being made.

"They didn't realize how sophisticated ag aviation had become," Thiel says. "They still thought we were flying 1940s airplanes. The 802 is a million dollar airplane."

It took two hours to place all of the microphones on the plane from the front of the engine to the tail. The 30-member recording team had Thiel put his plane through two hours of starts, stops, backups, taxis and flights. It was one of the flights that sent terror through one of the sound recorders.

"The thing I'll always remember is there was a young girl who came up to me and said another thing (they) want is a flyover. They wanted me to get as close to the mike as possible. She told me that she was going to stand in the runway and I should fly as close to her as I feel comfortable," Thiel says. "I said 'Are you kidding me? Do you really know what we do?' She wasn't quite sure."

Thiel decided to show her. The first two passes couldn't be used because she screamed. She finally had to lie on the runway while Thiel passed close overhead.

Although he was paid for the unique recording session, Thiel's happiest about the positive light the movie will shine on flying -- especially with kids who will see the movie and want to play with toy planes.

Hall's happy because he accomplished Lasseter's prime animation directive.

"It's about being as authentic as possible," Hall says of the research and weird recording work. "Even though the film is animated, you want those details as correct as possible. John learned that lesson with 'Cars' and he passed that wisdom on to me."

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