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Brad Bird Offers an Early Taste of 'Ratatouille'

Brad Bird recently previewed some Ratatouille footage at his Pixar edit bay in Emeryville, and Bill Desowitz reports on the tasty treats.

Ratatouille director Brad Bird is confident that Pixars first all-out physical comedy is distinctive enough to flourish in a crowded summer season full of highly anticipated sequels. All images © Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

Ratatouille director Brad Bird is confident that Pixars first all-out physical comedy is distinctive enough to flourish in a crowded summer season full of highly anticipated sequels. All images © Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

Brad Bird was like a proud expectant father as he ushered us into his edit bay at Pixar Animation Studios in March, where editor Darren Holmes was ready to play some footage from Ratatouille, the Disney/Pixar feature that opens June 29, 2007.

Bird even quipped that maybe he should just go ahead and add a number to the end of Ratatouille, since he's competing against several heavy hitting franchise sequels this summer, including Spider-Man 3 (May 4), Shrek the Third (May 18), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (May 25), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (June 15) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (July 13). Yet Bird is quite confident that Pixar's first all-out physical comedy about a rat that surreptitiously becomes a popular chef is distinctive enough to flourish in a crowded summer season.

Bird finds that one of the wonderful things about the films premise is that rats are death to a restaurant and a restaurant is death to rats, which ups the ante on both sides and is ripe for animation.

Bird finds that one of the wonderful things about the films premise is that rats are death to a restaurant and a restaurant is death to rats, which ups the ante on both sides and is ripe for animation.

However, this lush-looking, character-driven farce has a multitude of twists and turns: Inspired by Hamlet-like visitations from his idol, the late, great master chef Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), Remy the rat (voiced by Patton Oswalt) hides out in Gusteau's Paris restaurant, conjuring delectable meals and bonding with a hapless garbage boy named Linguini (voiced by The Incredibles' production designer Lou Romano), who pretends to be the chef with Remy instructing him behind the scenes.

"This is a story about a rat who has extraordinary senses of smell who finds himself drawn into cooking and doesn't have any idea of becoming a chef," Bird suggests. "Suddenly, literally, Remy falls into the kitchen through the skylight One of the wonderful things about this premise is that rats are death to a restaurant and a restaurant is death to rats -- and so this ups the ante on both sides and is ripe for animation that thrives on the mother's milk of caricature."

Among the scenes Bird previewed included Remy and brother Emile (voiced by Pixar animator Pete Sohn) discussing his dangerous passion for food in the kitchen of a country house; Remy going on a wild ride through the sewers and emerging on a rooftop overlooking Paris; Remy running away from Linguini and then having a poignant change of heart; Remy fleeing from the clutches of the maniacal chef Skinner (voiced by Ian Holm); and a glimpse of the powerful food critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole).

Ratatouille seems more spontaneous than previous Pixar films, due to the nature of the project as well as the circumstances. Two years ago, Bird took over the reins from another director and rewrote and redesigned the film.

Ratatouille seems more spontaneous than previous Pixar films, due to the nature of the project as well as the circumstances. Two years ago, Bird took over the reins from another director and rewrote and redesigned the film.

If Ratatouille seems looser and more spontaneous than previous Pixar films, it's partly due to the nature of the project as well as the circumstances. Two years ago, Bird took over the directing reins from Jan Pinkava, who made the Oscar-winning short, Geri's Game, and not only rewrote Ratatouille but also redesigned the rats and cast Oswalt as Remy.

"One of the things that has been a real challenge is selling this farfetched idea about how these two characters are going to get together," Bird continues. "And rather than fast forwarding through that premise and getting them instantly able to compete, I wanted to use some screen time in showing how they arrived at this very difficult situation. Linguini doesn't know the first thing about cooking; they're expecting him to cook so he has to bring the rat with him into the kitchen but he [has to hide him]. How does he communicate with the rat? How does he get the rat to help him cook? We realized there was this tremendous opportunity for comedy and to bring the audience along step by step. And I think that we've dedicated about 10 minutes of screen time to how they figure this out. I think you can buy this very hard to believe idea step by step. But we really are excited about making the unbelievable believable. It has been a challenge and a delight because it's such a physical comedy."

A real challenge for Bird was selling the farfetched idea of how Linguini and Remy get together. The film dedicates about 10 minutes of screen time to show this idea step by step.

A real challenge for Bird was selling the farfetched idea of how Linguini and Remy get together. The film dedicates about 10 minutes of screen time to show this idea step by step.

Another challenge was creating believable characters, which Pixar excels at. "Originally, when I got here [the rats] looked more like humans and their arms were toward their sides. At some expense, I had them go in and make the rats move on all fours and have their muscles work correctly. There's a huge amount of engineering that goes into building these characters so the animators can use them. We observed a couple of real rats for a year. One of the things we wanted to do that was real important is that when Remy gets on two legs, it's a choice to emulate humans. He has reasons for doing that. It makes it a story point and visually separates him from the other rats. If you understand the real behavior of rats you can deviate from it with knowledge."

Thus, we're able to observe such rich details as the way rats' chests beat, the way they use their nose and ears, the consequence of their tails having a little more weight than mouse tails and how they draw up on their hind legs when running and tend to bring their arms in.

Bird presents a fantasy version of Paris, but one that is based on research. The film gives an impression of Paris rather than the reality.

Bird presents a fantasy version of Paris, but one that is based on research. The film gives an impression of Paris rather than the reality.

Meanwhile, Bird strives to make the humans believable too. A further plot complication revolves around a female chef, Colette (voiced by Janeane Garofalo), who supervises Linguini. One of the first things that Bird did was expand Colette's role. "I realized that she could be a wonderful complication to the story and deepen the story. I didn't know much about cooking. I had to do a crash course on rats in France and in cooking. But one of the things that I discovered, which was a goldmine, was that female chefs have an uphill climb in France. There's a long tradition of [professional] male chefs. There is currently several up and coming female chefs, but it is a world that is still dominated by men, and that was a wonderful thing because it gave us a reason for her being a tough cookie."

Bird once again ups the heightened reality ante at Pixar, too, but in a vastly different way from previous films. "The film is a fantasy version of Paris, but we went there to do a lot of research to learn more about the impression of Paris rather than [what it actually looks like]. We've tried to give it a very rich and different look to the one that I had on The Incredibles. This is a lush-look and I'm really happy because it has a very different visual identity from anything else that has come out of the studio.

"We have some interesting notions of [conveying food]. In fact, at one point we use music and abstract imagery to show what a certain taste is like. We have characters talking about food and I think there is an extraordinary effort to make the food look good, or, if it's supposed to be bad, to make it look bad. We use subsurface scattering to make skin look a little more believable. It's a subtle thing that was started on Finding Nemo and then applied to humans for the first time on The Incredibles. We've used it with food here, particularly fruit. There's a certain amount of light that penetrates the surface of the food and hits things under the food that then glow back through the food. We had consultants who were gourmet cooks give an overview of not only how food looks but also how things are set up in the kitchen. It's not remotely real but gives the fantasy a footing. There was a lot of effort put into even how food looks when you're preparing it. What causes sauce to curl around when people are stirring it? A lot of this is CG math and bending ones and zeros to emulate something that's something organic.

"I was lucky enough to work with the old Disney masters when I was a kid and one of the things they pushed was that they were always students, even at the height of their game. I think that this studio in general, and the philosophy of John Lasseter, who I went to school with, has that frame of mind. We're always trying to top what we did before and take whatever knowledge we gain and push it further. And one thing that separates our animation from a lot of [others] is that we try and use things like weight and actually have it in a scene. Again, it doesn't mean that we try to stay within the boundaries of actual gravity: it just means that we give credibility to breaking gravity and do it in a way that is believable to the human eye. I would just say that we're trying to do it more so and even more than The Incredibles, this is an animation-oriented film: meaning that the kind of sequences that are in this film are best done in animation. The animators were very challenged, but were elbowing each other to do certain characters."

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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