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A CLOSER LOOK -

Harley Jessup, Sharon Calahan & Brad Bird on RATATOUILLE, page two

© 2008 Ron Barbagallo

When John Lasseter helped co-found Pixar, it was with the idea that animation could be different. Not just computerized animation, but that the art form of animation was not married to one particular style or format.

 

In 1986 when Pixar released Luxo, Jr., the first CG short to be nominated for an Academy Award®, Lasseter and his team at Pixar showed the film world that computer animation, even
of cold metal objects like table lamps, could be warm and emotional.

 

Many shorts, feature films and awards later, the effort to evolve the art form of animation continues at Pixar. Three of the talents behind their latest film Ratatouille, production designer Harley Jessup, director of photography/lighting Sharon Calahan and the film's writer/director Brad Bird sat down shortly after the film was released to discuss the film's storytelling and direction.

“In the early version of the story, Gusteau was alive. Production designer Harley Jessup explains, “He wasn’t a little sprite, but a huge 400-pound chef. That’s why I drew him full-sized standing in front of the doors of the kitchen by the entrance to the dining room. We thought of that area as a stage and the dining room as a theater or a palace dedicated to food. The waiters would come out from behind the curtain presenting wonderful food to the audience.”

 

Character drawing by Carter Goodrich (top left). Scupt by Greg Dykstra (top right).

Digital color study by Harley Jessup (bottom).

When deciding where to start on an animated feature like this, how does one go about creating designs for characters and environments that consciously blend the look of live action film with a CG cartoon?

 

 

Harley Jessup:

Films at Pixar are director driven and I begin the production design process by just talking with the director and trying to get a clear picture of his vision for the film. It's funny because it involves discovering both what the director loves and hates not just in films, but all the arts, including art, architecture, theater, everything. Just to get my head around the project, at this point I'll break down the script or story treatment into simple lists, noting the main characters and settings.

 

Those lists grow to include time of day and key props that also will have a huge influence on the look of the film. At the same time, I'll gather photo reference for the sets and costumes, including images of character types in an attempt to bring new information and inspiration to the director and story team. A research gathering trip to the location, happily it was Paris for Ratatouille, is very important to bring back images that are impossible to find in books and to experience just being there. We're always trying to create a believable world that supports the story in every way.

 

This is all happening very quickly because there is usually a big presentation looming where we'll need to show the visual potential of the film. In an ideal world, we would have a small set of color concept paintings of settings and main characters that give a preview to the look of the film. The color script will evolve throughout the preproduction process.

 

Because the character building process takes so long, the main character designs are also a top priority at this stage. I like our team to develop the designs in both drawings and clay. On Ratatouille, sculptors Jerome Ranft and Greg Dykstra created sculptures based on the design drawings done by Jason Deamer, Dan Lee and Carter Goodrich. The sculptors are very much involved, in the design process and I think it's important to work in 3D as soon as we've got an approved character design sketch. Carter Goodrich did a brilliant series of character drawings that the director loved and this was a wonderful base.

 

Digital art by Dominique Louis (top left). Digital paint over set render by Dominique Louis (top right).

Digital matte painting by Dominique Louis (bottom).

And, the color?

 

 

Harley Jessup:

As the color script is being developed it goes through a very basic phase. From the beginning, on Ratatouille, I had wanted to explore a muted palette that reflected the subtle colors of Paris itself. Sharon Calahan, director of photography for lighting, suggested starting out with a simple concept that the rat world would be cool and the human world would be warm. This color dynamic supported the idea that the rats are always on the outside looking in and made Remy's yearning to be part of the warm human world even more understandable. I did broad-stroke color treatments of the main sequences and preproduction art director, Dominique Louis, did wonderful concept paintings of the sewers and kitchen scenes. Sharon finally did a beautiful set of master lighting studies that very specifically showed the lighting for each sequence.

 

The color treatments on the characters came from a close collaboration between the art department and shading department. Art directors, Belinda Van Valkenberg and Robert Kondo, refined a technique where, in Photoshop, we would paint over an image of the approved character sculpt and end up with a perfect preview to how the 3D computer model would look. Throughout this process we'd consult with Sharon about how these colors would work with her lighting plan.

 

Sharon and I were both very excited about the idea of doing a feature using a more limited palette than earlier Pixar films. Paris is a city of warm grays, so any accented color, like red or a blue sky, will really sing against that. By having a whole range of muted colors, you can make a real a color statement by showing some restraint and pulling back. The saturated colors that you do use become really potent, like a spice. That was one of the exciting parts.

 

 

 

How do you go about conceiving the environments? Do you imagine them as fully realized, fully colored places or are they first thought of as line drawings like the characters? Are they rooted in real places? Where do you draw your inspiration for them?

 

 

Harley Jessup:

We based the overall geography on real Paris. Linguini's first apartment is on Montmartre, Gusteau's restaurant is near the Place Dauphine. The Seine plays an important part in several sequences and we faithfully reproduced the Pont Double for the foggy night scene by the bridge when Remy and Linguini first make their deal. The Eiffel Tower is framed in almost every window view and we really tried to keep it in the right spot geographically.

 

With the extensive visual research we brought back from the Paris trips, we were ready to create artwork that would make the world of Ratatouille believable and hopefully beautiful. Rather than mirroring the real world, we're always trying to caricature the settings. Just as Linguini's character design is a bold caricature of a human, we created a loving caricature of Paris. I wanted to show an idealized Paris and the directors liked the idea of showing a mixture of classic post WWII Paris, like in film The Red Balloon, with contemporary accents like modern micro cars. We chose to emphasize the cathedral spires and domes and omit the modern skyscrapers to make a kind of fairy tale Paris. Computers like straight lines, but Paris architecture is very sculptural and all the buildings lean and sag wonderfully along the street. The technical teams worked very hard to get this organic, "settled" look to the sets and I would always be happily surprised at how much appeal this added to the sets.

 

Early on Dominique Louis, Robert Kondo and I did artwork on each of the main settings that we used for many presentations. The kitchen at Gusteau's was the biggest design project and I drew plans and an overall schematic that we used to create the rough computer model. This "previs" model was used by the story department as staging reference for all the kitchen sequences. It allowed us to develop the kitchen from both the human perspective and the rat level.

 

The design of the food in Ratatouille was another huge challenge. Computer graphic food has the high likelihood of looking very disturbing. We worked very hard to figure out what makes great food look appealing, and, at the same time, what makes bad food look unappetizing. We all took cooking lessons, photographing each stage of the cooking process. Professional chefs made each dish served in the film for us to study and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry restaurant made the ratatouille that Remy serves critic, Anton Ego at the end of the film. The result you see on the screen is a collaboration between the art, shading sets, lighting and visual effects teams.

HARLEY JESSUP on production design