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A CLOSER LOOK -
Harley Jessup, Sharon Calahan & Brad Bird on RATATOUILLE, page three
© 2008 Ron Barbagallo
Concept art for the rats by Albert Lozano.
Could you describe how you went about incorporating the diffused lighting effect you used into the film’s scenery?
We tried to incorporate a good range of lighting effects in the film. We did use the lovely diffused lighting that you see in so many French impressionist paintings, but Sharon also created gorgeously sunny late afternoon and dawn scenes as well as some wonderfully moody night scenes. The rainy night sequence where Django warns Remy about going into the human world is one of my favorites and an example of the collaboration between the art, light and effects department that was really rewarding on Ratatouille.
Before the sets were built, Sharon and I went to Paris, watched dozens of films about Paris and talked about it so much that we were really on the same wavelength. We looked at a lot of live-action films where the best cinematographers are holding a lot of the subtle color within the shadow areas and it's a really luscious look. We looked at Blade Runner amongst many other films for that kind of affect, where we were seeing subtle colors in the shadow areas.
Sharon really pushed what the computer can do in lighting and it showed off the beautiful work of the shader group and it just made everybody look great. Sharon’s part of the process is toward the end, but we were working really together from the beginning to make sure that we were giving her sets that would work for lighting.
When we got down to the actual master lighting studies, Sharon did most of them herself. She’s a great painter, a really wonderful cinematographer. She would usually paint over a rendering of a finished set. Before it had been lit, she might do a very simple lighting thing and paint over that. It wound up being very efficient where her paintings really indicated what the final film’s lighting looked like. There were certain times where Sharon would ask for a color to be desaturated, or exaggerated, or just a control put in so that they could get the lighting affect that they would need.
I really love how her team lit the sets and characters.
So, you really work by getting the architecture of the characters and their world done first, whether it’s the sculptures of the characters or the actual physical nature of their environment. When you do start thinking about color, was there any particular way you went about it?
I was thinking about color from the beginning. Even as we were gathering photo research on rats, Paris and French cooking, we began developing color ideas for the film. We tried to let the combination of elements in the story lead our approach to the color. Many things changed along the way, of course, but the early paintings that Sharon, Dominique Louis, Robert Kondo and I did helped to show the visual potential of the film and the basic approach to color.
At times, we approached color in conceptual ways, like when we were working on the human world and the rat world. We decided that we wanted to have the rat world seem cool and the human world seem warm. That really worked with the idea of Remy and the rats as outsiders, kind of looking in on the human world, which always looked inviting and cozy. The rats are out in the elements much more and down in the dank sewers. Their world would seem harsher and colder.
At the same time, within the sewers, we planned a whole gypsy theme with rats where their world is brightened up by little campfires and little bits of patterned cloth and labels from tin cans and that kind of stuff, so that their world feels warm and inviting in its own gypsy-like way. A gypsy encampment.
Whether it was the warm/cool relationship between the rat and human world, the muted colors of the city with bright accents, the white-tiled kitchen with big black stoves, it all grew from the research we did. The challenge was to put all these influences together and that's when the concept artwork comes into play. Through the artwork, we can begin to solve problems like the fact that rats in the real world disappear in the environment or that food made in the computer tends to look cold and disturbing.
Where there other aspects of design that affected the rat world?
We had to figure out how elaborate the rat technology would be. We didn’t want them to be little Flintstones-like characters with all kinds of unlikely inventions. That’s been done before in The Rescuers and The Secret of N.I.M.H. So we set up some basic rules. The rats don't have little hammers and nails and that kind of thing. Instead they put together their world with found objects -- damaged stuff that rats might find in the garbage. The little boats they use to escape on the creek are made from garbage they've lashed together with string. They were made of an assemblage of found objects and garbage-like stuff -- old eggbeaters and bottles and cans, that kind of thing.
Did color or design affect your choices when creating the human world?
Yes, we wanted to create backgrounds where the food looked good. Gusteau’s kitchen is really designed around the skin colors of the characters and the food, and to a secondary degree to the cooper pots hanging there. It’s actually a very neutral environment, almost black and white. The stoves are black. The tile floor is black and white. The tile walls are white and a desaturated tile blue pattern. We were really setting it up so that those neutral would set off the more brightly colored food in a really nice way. We wanted your eyes to go right to the food, right to the character’s faces.
Given the naturalistic lighting choices you made throughout the film, you took some real liberties with the colors of the rats. How did you go about resolving their coloring?
The rat palette, we knew, was a challenge. The rats were designed obviously to blend in with the environment and hide. But we needed them to stand out from the background so that you could read their forms. As well, I wanted to stylize them so that their color felt appealing.
Early on, I made up a little board of about 20 different yarn colors, really grays and tints of gray and about 20 different directions, sort of cinnamon, desaturated cinnamon colors, blue grays, violet grays, even green grays, although that was pushing it too far, to have a greenish gray rat. We really pushed it too far and then pulled it back a little bit, trying to get the rat palette, when they’re all together, to feel real appealing, even when they’re running out of the cottage. This way, their colors worked with each other in a luscious way rather than just a gray or brown isolated way.
Can you talk a little bit about the 2D, traditionally animated looking, end title sequence of the film? How did that come about?
Everyone was really excited about doing a major 2D title sequence. The end title sequence was a special collaboration between the Ratatouille art and animation departments. There are so many animators at Pixar that are brilliant 2D animators. I think they were itching to draw again. Brad wanted the titles to be an interesting extension of the movie and we came up with the idea of the rats having a field day in the kitchen.
Teddy Newton storyboarded the whole thing and thought up the wonderful gags. Nate Wragg, who had started as an intern in the art department just six months before, did the design. The style is based on a great collection of very ratty designs Nate did for the consumer products style guide. Brad liked the idea of using that style for the end titles and it just came together in a really cool way.
Andy Jimenez took the hand-drawn 2D animation and background elements and projected them on simplified 3D models, creating a really wonderful multiplane feeling as the camera moves through the kitchen vignettes.
How do you start the process of lighting a film like this? Do you do most of your work in the computer?
The process starts with forming rough ideas for the general look for the film as a whole. We start by simply talking about looks we like, films we admire, ideas we've had for years, stuff we've always wanted to do, and what feels right for the story.
These ideas become defined as a visual vocabulary for style ideas and to develop a common vocabulary we can all agree on. For instance, on Finding Nemo, we had our vocabulary for the nine essential elements that defined the look of water. "Murk" was one term we used for water visibility while "diffusion" was another term for how much the water softened the image. These terms become the stylist knobs we turn up and down to tune the look of a particular sequence.
For Ratatouille, the defining style goals were driven by the elements we needed to make food look delicious. I spent a lot of time analyzing food photography, both good and bad, to figure out what were the defining style elements of appealing food. They provided a visual anchor, and a starting point, to help move in the right direction.
Once we have a style guide defined, we start thinking about how to more specifically apply them to sequences in the film. We create color keys, or what we often call "pastels," to experiment with ideas. These are usually done in Photoshop. I like to start with a layout render and paint over it. Then I would pitch my ideas to Brad and Harley. Sometimes Brad might have some notes, usually about how they fit with the mood he had in mind. Sometimes the time of day or weather needed to change to better support the story. I’d go back and make another version or two and we’d finally settle on something. We do try to work rough and fast like this in Photoshop before we invest a lot of time in 3D.
Are there color themes you work with? Themes that help you define the lighting or the look of entire environments or even parts of the story?
The succinct answer is yes. I like to find style and color elements that act as visual glue across the entire movie that can help unify or link the various lighting scenarios together. I really wanted to have warm blacks, a very dark red rather than absolute black, even in a cool scene, and especially near camera. This wasn't an absolute rule to be followed, but we used in it most of the scenes.
There are only a few scenes, like the rain scene in particular and maybe the scene inside the sewer pipes toward the beginning of the film where they go over the rapids where the blacks are more of a true neutral black. But overall, I like the idea of always keeping some color and detail in the deepest darks even if it is very subtle. This is the kind of thing that makes a difference in film output in particular.
I also wanted to have a general feeling that the human world was warm and seductive to Remy, so for the most part, the human environments are warmer in tone than the rat environments. Food is something that looks best photographed in slightly warm illumination.
Overall, I wanted the movie to feel warm and delicious and for the audience to be reminded of food even when it wasn't visible on the screen. The biggest component is that there are no blacks or grays in food. To get food to look appealing, I needed to make sure that we could get rid of the computer's tendency to assume that the absence of light is always black.
Warm tones envelop the blacks in this night scene of Remy and Linguini at the Pont Double by the Seine.
Storyboard by Josh Cooley (top).
Lighting study by Sharon Calahan, layout by Josh Cooley (middle).
Screen shot from the finished film (bottom).
SHARON CALAHAN on direction of photography