The Oscar-winning director of ‘For the Birds’ discusses his work as production designer on Pixar’s upcoming animated feature.
There are very few people in animation I enjoy talking to more than Ralph Eggleston. Not just because he’s a tremendous artist. Not just because he tells great “wink-wink” stories about how the industry “really” works. And not just because he displays abundant patience explaining even the simplest of production concepts to me. It’s because he exudes an intoxicating and infectious enthusiasm for all things animation. That enthusiasm hits you with such force, with such energy, you’re almost taken aback, surprised as it completely envelops you. As he speaks, you suddenly realize you’re smiling. At everything.
Talking to Ralph reminds you why animators are so inherently insane, fearless and lovable. And even though he speaks so intimately and assuredly about the concepts and language of production – color, lighting, tone, visual development – he does so without pretense or conceit, because if you know Ralph, you know his ultimate goal, the singular focus of his relentless work ethic, is to put a smile on each and every Pixar film audience member’s face. That’s his measure of success.
Since joining the studio in 1992, Ralph has applied his talents in story, animation, art direction, production design and other areas of visual development on films such as Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL·E and Up. Not to mention his Oscar win for directing the Pixar short, For the Birds, in 2000. By his own accounts, he’s been lucky – Pixar often uses him to pinch hit on films, lending his expertise to various productions after most of the heavy lifting has already been done. But my take is that those productions have been far luckier.
Inside Out, however, has been anything but a late-inning trip to the plate for Ralph. He’s been on the film from the very beginning to the very end. Six tough years. Talking to him about this film reveals not only his tremendous faith in director Pete Docter, producer Jonas Rivera and the entire crew, but the humble trepidation he feels not knowing how audiences will react. Talking to him about this film, however, also reveals his quiet confidence that ultimately, though a risky and difficult movie to make, Inside Out is both bold and beautiful, the type film Pixar is supposed to make. The type film audiences expect Pixar to make. And, the type film he loves to make.
I recently had a chance to speak with Ralph about the film, some of the challenges he faced during six arduous years of production and the inherent difficulty taking an audience inside the mind of a 12-year old girl.
Dan Sarto: First of all I have to say, I've been looking forward to this film for a very long time. It’s interesting though how in a number of conversations I’ve had with people at the studio, and in a number of presentations, I’ve heard the the word “fear” used more so than I ever remember...
Ralph Eggleston: Fear? Referenced how?
DS: Not knowing how the film will do…will the film resonate with audiences?…
RE: Does it work? We don't know…Good. I'm not the only one.
DS: I know this has been a tough production. You’ve talked about the inherent difficulties from a visual design standpoint with two vastly different worlds that collide so to speak.
RE: It wasn't necessarily the two worlds that were difficult. It was the one world that was difficult. The “mind world.” It was, like you said, the collision of two worlds and the inherent story changes between the two. In this one [world], something changed, then in the other, this had to change. This changed, then this had to change. It was like the little tile game you play where all the pieces are there except one…move this around here, this over here…like a Rubix cube.
Boy, Pete [Docter, the film’s director] and I would just ... We would meet every week, sometimes several times a week. We always had our one-on-one time. He would come in [to Eggleston’s office] and kind of collapse against the door. And we would kind of moan for five minutes about this film just being so hard. Then we had stuff to talk about. But it really was that complicated.
This film churned so much and we did so many bits and pieces of art, I was just too close to all the parts. I couldn’t see the whole anymore. I was able to see it once in a while, but it was very difficult. The idea itself is so intellectual. I never felt like I completely got a footing on the conceit of how the world works, because there was so much churn. I had to let go. When Pete and I would talk, he would be feeling the same thing. We would say, "You know what, this is the hardest thing that we've ever done." All we could do was just trust that, somehow, through all of this churn, the film would find its own legs and start walking on its own.
I wish our editor Kevin [Nolting] was here. He could tell you stories…He, Pete and Ronnie [Del Carmen, the film’s co-director] would sit in editorial. There's this great idea they’d be going after but a certain part wasn't working out so they would kind of focus on this [pointing to one hand]. This would change. They would look back and say that actually works pretty well now. Then they'd move things around just to test it out [making juggling motion]. Then the next day what we had seen the day before was now completely different. Sometimes it was better. But it was like this puzzle.
Just the fearlessness in doing that was insanely frustrating for a lot of people, including myself. And I will admit that, but I will also admit it was the only way this film could have found its legs. It was terrifying.
DS: It sounds incredibly challenging. Anything specific you can share?
RE: We didn't want the film to be set in the brain. So we set it inside the mind. We didn't want to deny ourselves the opportunity of using some of the design elements and physical attributes of the mind and body. My crew was Albert Lozano for character design, Dan Han for environment and Bert Berry for textures, which were all enormous jobs on this film. Once I'd sent them off and running, I jumped back in and did a Color Script. A Color Script is a shorthand version of the film that covers the emotions of the film in color and light. This was, by far, times a gazillion, the hardest one that I've ever had to work on because of the story - it was two films in one. It was the real world and then the mind world.
How does the audience keep track of where you are? Any story change made in the mind world had an effect on what was going on in the real world and vice versa. Every time I finished one strip, the story had changed so much, I had to chuck it and start over. I said, "I can't do it that way." I broke down and started doing the work in panels. I probably did five or six hundred paintings and whittled them down to maybe two hundred for the color script. Doing it this way also afforded us the ability to move them around like a storyboard.
If there was one thing that I would get nervous about, it was tracking global changes. I knew we could track change from sequence to sequence, but finding some sort of overall shifts in the color and lighting and contrast in the film became hard to keep track of because there were so many story changes. The idea of Riley's journey is a simple emotional arc, but the details of it were ever shifting.
DS: Angelique Reisch did a lighting presentation and made an interesting point where she showed one of your original pastel drawings of Riley in bed. The lighting team was going all the way back to that drawing to help them get the proper lighting tone for the scene. I was surprised that the reference material at that point in the film was still a concept painting. It showed me just how powerful and important that concept material can be.
RE: Yeah. The drawing wasn't overly rendered…First of all, I'm not trained as a painter. I never ... I actually don't like painting. It's not something I do. It's something I learned to do, not because I enjoy painting, but because I enjoy the process of filmmaking and storytelling. That's the honest to God truth. I started with pastels because they’re just a shorthand for me. It’s almost like I'm doing color storyboards. It's because I see these things in my head, like a person sitting in a theater watching in full color. I see it that way. I don't know. It's just something I've got. It's a mystery to me. But when I'm able to put it down in chalk or in paint it's the first time the director has even see it all come together. I have learned how to use Photoshop. But I really miss the chalk, pastel and paint because it's much more intuitive.
Something about that intuition is what sparks a dialog in the director's mind between himself and other people. I don't ever want to paint something and say, "Here Mr. or Mrs. Lighter. Just make it look like this." Sometimes I have to do that and it's a lot of back and forth. What I prefer to do, if I can, if time allows and I have an idea well enough defined or if the director agrees, is provide a goal. What's the bigger picture goal? Because our lighting crew is pretty darn good. They just need to have a clear goal. On this film, at times, it was sometimes a little more difficult to provide that because things were changing so often.
But also the idea ... and it's a dumb, simple thing which isn't painfully obvious as you watch the film…Headquarters being a major light source like the sun, that wasn't in there for a long time. I was having a great amount of difficulty finding any sense of drama in the lighting of the mind world because we have characters made of light in an omniscient world surrounded by long-term memory, which is nothing but light bulbs.
And the characters are made of light. Where are the shadows coming from? I was reading books on cinematography, thinking, “What do I do? I don't know!” John Lasseter was the one who said, "Why don't you think about just making headquarters a light source?" Now we didn't make it so it was blinding all the time like the sun. We used it when we needed to and we turned it off when we didn't need to. It was almost like shadows in some of the Disney films where they use them for dramatic effect. And 90% of the time they weren't even there - you never notice.
DS: Do you think most people who watch an animated film like Inside Out have any idea how much “art” really goes into the production? Even people who work in other areas of entertainment, do you think they really understand the sheer volume of drawings that you guys produce and that first and foremost, you’re tremendous artists?
RE: There are definitely days where I wish they did. We were just talking about very thing here in the office. There are definitely days where I wish they did. But really, the truth is, if they leave the theater feeling great then I'm happy. To me it's like I want them to get back in line and go see it again. It's not about the details. After the 10th time that they’ve seen the film, if they want to start commenting about the backgrounds, that makes me a little happier. But if they've enjoyed the film as a movie experience? That's even better. Pretty pictures are easy and nice. Hang it on a wall. We're making a movie here.
DS: Of course. I understand and appreciate the goal is making something that entertains people. But I think even a lot of executives in the business don't understand the true artistry involved in animation, whether on a film like Inside Out or in the visual effects on a film like The Avengers. They think you’re just pushing buttons on expensive computers.
RE: Well, it's also because they know with computers, we can change it later. Like I said, yeah, sometimes I do wish ... But it's also kind of ... It's not really a big secret but it's also not particularly interesting to a lot of people. I think they just want to enjoy the movie.
DS: Sure. They just want to be entertained.
RE: I do love talking about that process myself. I don't find it particularly gratifying to talk about it with people who don't care at all or people who don't particularly share the interest. But when I talk to you or I talk to Brad [Bird] or I talk to John Lasseter, Pete, or Ronnie, or Jonas [Rivera, the film’s producer], we can drag it out for hours.
DS: I can only imagine.
RE: In terms of the question that you were asking, that's where I get my joy from.
DS: With the pushing of The Good Dinosaur there was suddenly much more attention focused on this film.
RE: We suddenly found ourselves on the front burner.
DS: Did that increase the pressure? Coming back to the issue of fear…is this a more important film for the studio than others in recent history?
RE: I don't know. I think they're all important. I can't really comment too much about what was going on with Dinosaur. I was so busy on this film. I don't even know. It's right under my nose. I know everyone working on it. Pete Sohn's [the film’s new director] a good friend of mine. But I wasn't paying attention. I was so busy on this film. Honestly, I can imagine how people are thinking that, but I just don't know. But what I will say is that on Inside Out, we had just enough of the right people to get this film done on schedule and on budget. I know that our production didn't effect Dinosaur at all, either before or after changes were made.
I think what most people are excited about is that they’re both brand new films from Pixar. We have not just one, but two original films in a row. I'm excited about that. It also means we have two wrap parties in one year. I’m just trying to figure out if I can wear the same tux?
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.