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The secrets of Planes: Fire & Rescue – behind the scenes with Jeff Howard and Paul Gerard

One of my favorite places to visit while in LA is Disney Toon Studios. It is always so fun to get a behind the scenes look at how some of Disney’s hit movies are made, and learn about the story behind each film as well as all the work that went into making them. Did you know Planes: Fire & Rescue was in production for five years – before the first one was even completed?!

We had a chance to sit down with co-writer, Jeff Howard, and director of creative development, Paul Gerard, who both gave us an inside look at the making of Planes: Fire & Rescue.

paul and jeff

Paul Gerard and Jeff Howard on Research and Development of a Story

When you’re doing a movie like this, do you have a story before you go out and research or does the story develop from the research?

PAUL : Sort of a little bit of both, yeah.

JEFF : Little bit of both. It’s more of the latter. Basically, the impetus for it was, we started it when the first Planes movie was only a year into development and production, so it was still going to be three years before Planes came out, but we thought it was coming together pretty well, and we said, “Let’s start working on a follow-up, ’cause we think this is gonna be pretty successful,” and Bobs started looking into the different arenas of aviation. What could we do? We could do this sort of a story, this sort of story, different things.

And he started looking into aerial firefighting which is something that hasn’t been shown a lot in movies, and when he first started investigating it this is where the research sort of led us into what the story was gonna be, because he discovered that the first aerial firefighters were crop-dusting aircraft, and that the type of planes that Dusty is modeled after are also used for firefighting. They put pontoons on them. They let them scoop off the water. Exactly what happens to Dusty in the movie. And we said, well, this is a natural extension for what Dusty’s next adventure is gonna be. It was a great “in.”

Bobs came in one day, and said, “What if Dusty can’t race anymore. It’s not a choice. What if he’s — it’s like an injured athlete story. You know. You’re at the top of your game, the top of your sport, you break your leg. What are you gonna do with your life? You know?” And so we started thinking of it in those terms, but it was sort of born out of seeing that these other aircraft had second chances as well. So, they sort of both feed each other. Sometimes you will go in with a story idea by the things you discover. Sometimes you go into this story idea and you realize, “Oh, no, it’s actually this,” which would be much cooler of a story to tell, and you shift over to that.

It was like, let’s go out — we had sort of a nugget of an idea, let’s go learn some stuff. Oh, that’s cool. Let’s come back and write some stuff. You know who we really need to talk, it’s this type of person. Let’s go out and talk to them. Then let’s come back and fiddle with some stuff. We need to visit the smoke jumpers. So it was a much — you know, a year at least.

PAUL : At least a year.

JEFF : Of back and forth, developing the story, and doing the research, sort of back and forth and hand in hand.

None of the animation is done until you have the story done?

JEFF : Once you have the story together, in terms of like, a script or, you know, a treatment of a script, then you start doing the storyboards, which is just the black-and-white drawings. And you edit it together into an animatic or a story reel where you can watch the whole thing with a temporary voice and sound effects and music and everything to see if it works, and you go through that, four, five, or six or even more times, and at the same time, you know, the guys are doing designs. And building things in CG. And then only when that is nailed down, then you go ahead and say, “Okay. Now we’re gonna really start animating it,” and that part, just the animating takes a year or more by itself.

And even then, there are things that you will change down the road, like the thing about the smoke jumpers looking before they jump out. That was late in the process. So, we were like, even though we’re in animation, it’s like, all right, we need to go and put that sequence in, and sometimes we’ll change lines, you know, up till even a month before it’s done, you know we’re tweaking stuff. Travis or Chuck would come in and say, “You know what? It’d be better if they said it this way or you showed this, or maybe you need a shot actually clarifying to say this.” We would add stuff later on.

PAUL : Yeah it takes a long time. I mean, people are already shocked that it takes three years.

JEFF : Yeah. Some people were like, “Wow, you churn that out in a year after Planes ?” Well, no, we started it three years before the other one came out. Both of them took, you know, really long — it’s just very labor intensive.

Paul Gerard and Jeff Howard on Truth in Materials

paul and jeff

PAUL : John Lasseter, our executive producer, believes in this idea, Truth in Materials. We can find not only character, but story, but the grounding of our movie in our research. Because we have a huge conceit going on, which is that airplanes talk and have eyeballs, so everything else around that should be as grounded in reality as possible.

JEFF : Right. So we went out and talked to dozens of aerial firefighters and ground crew and smoke jumpers and air traffic controllers and visited several national parks to try to get all of the details of the movie right.

Paul Gerard and Jeff Howard on Cal Fire

PAUL : And one of our biggest resources was the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which, to their friends, are known as Cal Fire.  Our first stop was Hemet Ryan Air Attack Base, which is about an hour and a half southeast of here. And our main contact Travis Alexander was a huge help to us.

JEFF :  He’s the greatest guy, really. He’s wonderful.

JEFF : So we talked to them about their terminology, their tactics, how they identify the different parts of the fire. They sort of diagram, “Here’s what the airspace looks like, and who is at what altitude, and when they’re clearing people in and what the different parts of the fire are, and how they maneuver in this crowded airspace. Who coordinates everything.” Ironically, it’s Travis in the smallest aircraft they have. He fits into it, somehow and that’s all reflected in the commands that Blade gives to Dusty.

We would ask Travis, “Okay, if you’re gonna tell somebody, ‘Drop it a little bit more over there,’ you know, how do you say that in pilot-ese? What would you say?” And he’d say, “Oh, I’d say, ‘Come left one wingspan on your next drop.’” So I’d say, “Okay, that’s easy for me as a writer. I can just put that straight into the script.” And I’m like, “Okay, but what if somebody gets it dead on, and it’s the perfect drop, and no adjustments necessary,” and he just sort of paused. And the other pilots around the table were just sort of looking at their shoes, and he’s like, “There’s no such term for that.”

He had nothing in his vocabulary for good job. There was always something he could correct and give feedback on, and that’s a little bit reflected in Blade’s personality. Blade’s personality was sort of amalgam of a number of different people we met, and things from our own imagination, but that part of Travis definitely went into him.

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PAUL : The other thing that amazed us was how often they go out and fight fires. Guess how many fires Cal Fire fights in one year? About 5,600.

JEFF : Just in California. It’s actually 50,000, nationwide, with all of the different agencies.

PAUL : Yeah. That’s just California, and this year is actually a banner year for fires. They were on track, last time we talked to them, for like, 6,500 this year. But the public only hears about the big fires, which actually became a line in the movie, when we were talking — first presenting our pitch to the different directors here.  One of our directors is like, “Well, isn’t that convenient? He arrives at the Air Attack Base, and they happen to be going out on a fire?” And the reality is that’s the way it is.

JEFF : We did our research.  And it would actually be weird if they weren’t going out on a fire when they got there.

PAUL : Exactly.

JEFF : So, that became a line, and went straight into the movie. That you know, we almost had Dusty ask the very question that our other director asked when he gets there, and they get an alarm, and Dusty says, “Really, there’s a fire already” and Dipper answers back, “Yeah, you guys only hear about the big ones,” which is literally what they told us. We’re like, that’s a great detail, we gotta put that straight into the story.

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Paul Gerard and Jeff Howard on a future Planes movie

It was so much fun learning all about how this movie was made, and all the research that went into it that we had to ask…. is there going to be a third Planes move?

While neither Paul or Jeff would confirm or deny if a third movie is in the works, I can tell you that it is definitely a possibility considering the success of the first two!


Be sure to pick up your copy of Planes: Fire & Rescue today and see for yourself how true to life this story is!

planes fire and rescue



Disclosure: I received an all expenses paid trip to Los Angeles for the coverage of several press events for Disney. All opinions are 100% my own.



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