By Bill Kallay
"Did you see the latest edition of 'Bambi' on LaserDisc?"
I couldn't believe my ears. Me, a mere mortal, was being spoken to by an Oscar-winning director.
"Yes. I have it."
"It's terrible! Did you see how they screwed up the color scheme on it? Terrible!"
"How could they do such a disservice to Frank and Ollie?"
Thus began my friendship with one of Pixar's stellar artists, Ralph Eggleston.
Eggleston may not be a household name like John Lasseter or Buzz Lightyear, but he's one of the most talented and well-rounded artists at Pixar. If you've seen "For The Birds" (2001), "Finding Nemo" (2003) or "The Incredibles" (2004), you've most certainly seen his work. Art director, voice actor, director, writer and production designer, he's a man of many talents.
When "Monsters, Inc." was released in 2001, his short film, "For The Birds," preceded the feature. The whimsical story about an unusual bird trying to fit in with other birds on a power line charmed audiences. Using a simple, yet completely human story, Eggleston and his small crew of animators infused "Birds" with charm and humor that was reminiscent of the old Disney cartoon shorts. For his efforts, he won an Oscar for Best Animated Short.
Eggleston is perhaps better known for his beautiful art direction. "Finding Nemo" is an excellent example of his eye for color, composition and overall wonder of the deep sea. He created an undersea world which is inviting, yet filled with possible dangers. The film's look was highly admired by both audiences and critics alike. His work on "The Incredibles" called for an early-1960s modern look. Being a fan of the "Googie" style of architecture, I admired his interpretation of stark lines, exaggerated curves and simplicity in the way buildings were designed back then.
Of course, just because a movie looks great doesn't mean it is great. Eggleston, along with his collaborators at Pixar, will tell you that story and character come first. He's worked on several of Pixar's now-classic films, each one of them emphasizes telling a story well. But it doesn't hurt when the adventures of Nemo, Marlin, Dori or the Incredible family just so happen to occur in really spectacular worlds created by Eggleston.
Despite having a busy schedule at Pixar, Eggleston was kind enough to chat with me about his work. The interview was conducted via email, so the emphasis on some words is all Ralph, and rightly so! Let's talk Pixar, and Disney, and let's find out why "Bambi" (1942) is close to Eggleston's heart.
Bill Kallay, From Script To DVD: Was getting into the film business a goal of yours as a child, and if so, what did you want to do?
Ralph Eggleston: Yes. I loved movies, especially animated ones and fantasy films. I grew up in the "Star Wars" generation, and was a big fan of Ray Harryhausen, Peter and Harrison Ellenshaw, Terry Gilliam, Warner Brothers cartoons, and the Disney features. I loved old horror movies, like "The Spiral Staircase" by Robert Siodimak, as well as MGM musicals and even some of the really colorful Fox musicals. I wasn't sure exactly what I would do, but I knew I would work in the movies. When I was 10, I saw Disney's "Cinderella" and that sealed the deal. I would somehow figure out how they made these films and try and make some myself.
FSTDVD: When did you discover your knack for drawing?
Eggleston: I don't think I ever did. Drawing was always a means to an end, and the end was telling a story. My strengths are maybe a bit less in "drawing" than working to put on paper what I'd like to see on screen. The fun part is always figuring out how to put that image ON the screen. That's where the ACTION is! As the great production designer Dean Tavoularis said (and I'm paraphrasing) "Production design is 10% drawing, and 90% getting it done."
FSTDVD: Do you have a preference in the medium that you use? In other words, do you prefer to paint with a brush, or with a mouse?
Eggleston: I like gauche and pastel for their immediacy and intuitiveness. But on the project I'm on now, I've been using Photoshop exclusively. I like the ease of change, but as I've said before, the great thing about the computer is you can do anything. The bad thing about the computer is you can do anything. Using the computer as a crutch is easy to do. It really makes you learn to be disciplined about what's important.
FSTDVD: When did you first work for Pixar, and what was that experience like for you?
Eggleston: I got a call from folks at Pixar about a project in the Bay Area around Christmas of 1992. John Lasseter and Joe Ranft met me in Burbank after they'd had a story pitch at Disney to look at my portfolio and hired me on the spot. They then asked me if I could drive them to the airport to fly back north. I moved up a few weeks later to work on a CG feature called "Toy Story." I had NO idea what I was doing, but John Lasseter seemed to really like my work, and held my hand the entire way. How lucky was I?????!!!!!!!!!
FSTDVD: You had mentioned to me that you’re good friends with Bill Kroyer. He’s regarded as one of the best animators in film. How did you get involved with working for him on “FernGully: The Last Rainforest?”
Eggleston: Bill and Sue Kroyer are terrific people. And they ran a GREAT company. They really made everyone feel special, and everyone gave their all to support them. I actually met Sue Kroyer first, working with her on Brad Bird's episode of "Amazing Stories" called "Family Dog." We clicked, and a few years later, when they had a few smaller projects going at their own studio, they asked me to come work for them. It was such a blast! We did special projects for Disney/Epcot, and movie titles, along with several commercials. Originally, I was going to animate on "FernGully," but started drawing up ideas in chalk pastel to sell some of my ideas. They liked them and asked me to do more, and it just never stopped! I learned a lot working for and with them, and am eternally grateful for their friendship.
FSTDVD: Can you describe the difference between an art director and a production designer?
Eggleston: I think each are defined in different ways on different productions. I think of the "Production Designer" as someone who designs the "bigger picture" of color, lighting, texture, and costume. The "idea." And I think of the "Art Director" as someone who can interpret these ideas into practical means, "plussing" and adding their own designs and good taste to help make things happen. Both are very difficult positions, because in animation, we're usually between an unfinished script/storyboard and the moving train of production.
FSTDVD: Why is art direction and production design important to a film?
Eggleston: Because film is a visual medium. The script is merely a starting place for putting things on the screen, especially in animation where everything is being created from scratch. Describing a character, scene, or situation with a visual speeds the audience along much faster than words alone can.
FSTDVD: How much are lighting and composition involved with production design?
Eggleston: Since I'm usually the first one on a film dealing with color and light, I'm usually very involved with the cinematographer from day one. More often, my little color studies help set the initial composition, tone and mood of a scene, while the final artistic and practical needs of the shots are handled by the cinematographer. Attempting to provide paintings that tell "EXACTLY" what shots should look like hamper the creative process, and with so many detailed changes along the way, again, it makes you focus on the bigger picture.
FSTDVD: How long does it take you to design a film like “Finding Nemo?”
Eggleston: Usually, about the first 3/4 of the length of making the film (which is anywhere from 3 to 6 years)! Once the tone is set, it's all about guiding other artists and working with the entire crew to bring the visuals to life.
FSTDVD: On “Toy Story,” there seems to be an homage to modern day (as in 1995) style and backgrounds, but “The Incredibles” has a much different look. Was the look of that film Brad Bird’s vision, or was there a collaborative decision to make a lot of references to late 1950s/early 1960s “Googie” style?
Eggleston: Brad all the way. He grew up at the very tail end of the Baby Boom, when super heroic icons of comic book and television fame were inspiring the world, and as the reality of their limitations on contemporary life (the '60s, Viet Nam, Nixon, and "political correctness") set in. He found the humor in that with "The Incredibles." As a practical matter of the style, however, it's perfectly suited to animation: clean lines, clear staging, and LOADS of texture (THANK YOU, BRYN!).
With "Toy Story," John wanted to evoke the world of toys and an idealized world of childhood. The tone of the film was modern as well. It really was the culmination of a lot of things that animation at the time had been trying to do, dragging animation into the 20th century. AND NOT because it was done on the computer. The computer imagery just seemed to give us the license to do so! Working on "Toy Story" was a thrill I strive to recapture!
FSTDVD: How much research do you conduct when you’re creating a look for a film?
Eggleston: A LOT. The world of a film you're trying to create has to have believability, and that comes only from close observation of the real world. Taking it from there, we caricature things, and arrange them in ways that suit the story.
FSTDVD: “Finding Nemo” has incredible and beautiful production design. Did you take a lot of trips to the Caribbean or other exotic locals to create the look of the film?
Eggleston: Key members of our crew took scuba lessons, and we went on a trip to some reefs off of Hawaii. I also went to Sydney, Australia to research the harbor, and get a better feel for the overall geography. Since most people's idea of what a reef and the undersea world look like comes from nature documentaries, we utilized that visual language a lot. And in terms of the reef itself, it was all about organizing things. The fish characters are SO caricatured in reality, we actually had to caricature the world a bit more to make them fit well!
FSTDVD: Who are some of the people in the film business that influenced you?
Eggleston: That's a loaded question for me, as there are so MANY. Directors like Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Francis Ford Coppola, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro, and Martin Scorsese, but also production designers Anton Grot, William Cameron Menzies, Thomas Codrick, Mary Blair, Richard Sylbert, Dean Tavoularis. Holy cow, did these folks get it right!
FSTDVD: You’re a huge Disney animated film fan. In the past you’ve mentioned the feature, “Bambi.” What is the significance of that film in your own work?
Eggleston: The broad emotional approach to the color and tone of the film. It's really "Fantasia" in narrative form! With a fairly "realistic" approach to the characters, choosing to further their emotions (and their connection to the audience) through the expressive impressionism style of the backgrounds and music was a brilliant decision.
FSTDVD: You made the short Pixar film, “For The Birds.” What was the inspiration for the film?
Eggleston: Probably visits to my aunt when I was a kid. She lived in the country and I spent long rides to her house peering out the car window at birds on a wire. Also, I did a project in my design class at CalArts that my friend, Ken Bruce, told me might make a good film. I boarded it out at CalArts, but frankly, I couldn't imagine the difficulty of drawing all those birds. Little did I know it would be just as difficult on the computer!
FSTDVD: How was it for you to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 2001?
Eggleston: A BLAST. Too bad I hardly remember it! It was fun, but all the activity following the ceremony is a crowded blur. Thankfully, I have pictures! I do remember a few things, though; getting my award from WOLVERINE (Hugh Jackman); meeting Sidney Poitier (wow); being congratulated by Ron Howard (a big cartoon fan), and being introduced to Janet Reno by Dennis Miller while Destiny's Child was singing at the In Style party hosted by Elton John. MOSTLY, though, I remember the incredible smile on John Lasseter's face. I was so nervous on stage that I scanned the audience to find him, and when my eyes locked on his face, I was able to calm down and finish my speech. THANK YOU, JOHN!
FSTDVD: Does Disney animation influence your work?
Eggleston: Oh God, yes. The sense of joy, the sheer value of entertainment, the imagination. Even the lesser efforts show the "trying."
FSTDVD: How do you “direct” an animated film?
Eggleston: Exactly as you direct any other film. There are differences, but you're still dealing with answering a thousand questions a day from a myriad of artists, each who contribute their own unique touches to the film while staying within the director's vision. I suppose the single biggest difference would be that in an animated film, there's rarely (I've never seen one) a "shooting script," a final script from which you can budget/schedule everything out. We storyboard our films, and they're subject to demanding changes even late in the game. If it's making the film better, it's worth it no matter how hard. I would say, however, that it’s probably easier for a director who’s done well with feature animation to transition into directing live action than the other way around. That’s a generalization, of course, but in my opinion, it’s more true than not.
FSTDVD: When you’re not directing a film you’re working on, how much are you involved with the director? Do you work fairly independently and then submit your work?
Eggleston: A lot, and I am fairly independent as well. It always depends on the director and how confident he is in the story and the folks he’s working with.
FSTDVD: Without giving any of Pixar’s top secrets, what are you working on now?
Eggleston: I’m working on a new project we’re calling “Summer 2008.” Can’t say more than that for now!
Special thanks to Ralph Eggleston and Ellie The Chimp
IMAGES: © Ralph Eggleston; 20th Century Fox; Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.
Originally posted March 14, 2007