THE ART OF MAKING PIXAR'S RATATOUILLE
© 2008 Ron Barbagallo

 

Remy looks at Chef Gusteau's Restaurant as the sun sets over Paris.
 


Brad Bird’s highly anticipated second effort for Pixar, Ratatouille opened wide on June 29, 2007. The eighth feature film from Pixar, the industry’s leading computer animation studio, was immediately embraced by kids, parents and moviegoers alike as one of the best films of the year. While the film delivered everything the fans were waiting for, there was something else they got, something many film critics picked up on immediately. That Pixar’s Ratatouille, like the tale of artistry it tells, produces great art in unexpected places.


With a premise that often defies convention, Ratatouille tells the tale of a full-grown rat named Remy whose passions in life take him from his family’s home in the French countryside to the kitchen of a fine Parisian restaurant where he becomes, of all things, a Master Chef. As unusual a setup as having a rat prepare food might seem, under director/writer Brad Bird’s care, the film moves with real conviction and contains something rather innovative -- a screenplay that blends live-action storytelling and animated characters.

 

Pixar's Ratatouille features a cooking-obsessed rat named Remy as its central character.

Digital paint over set render by Dominique Louis/Character layout by Jason Deamer (top).
Screen shot from the finished film of Remy choosing ingredients to make soup (bottom).

 

Although the effect seems inconspicuous, this type of narrative is something brand new in animation. It discards worn out plot lines that talk down to kids and characters created solely for merchandising appeal to entertain for the sake of telling a fully realized story. Bird’s hybrid of cinema and cartoon links the sentient believability of children’s author E.B. White's conversations between people and small creatures to the smart humor found in one of director/writer Billy Wilder's comedies. It is as much a step forward for animated features as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was some 70 years ago when Walt Disney first combined the illustrated depth of European children’s books to a feature film format.


T
he credit for the film’s success was a multi-layered undertaking. Pixar is a studio of many talents artists. One of which, Jan Pinkava, who wrote and directed Pixar’s Academy Award® winning short Geri's Game, came up with the original idea for Ratatouille. It was later altered and refined when Brad Bird took over the writing and direction of the picture. Bird, who has earned a valued reputation in Hollywood, is as much an artist in the kitchen of writing and direction as his cinematic doppelgänger Remy is a Master Chef in Gusteau’s restaurant. His intuitive sense of character and story development can be felt on projects as varied as television’s longest running show The Simpsons to fan favorite The Iron Giant and the Academy-Award® winning film The Incredibles.

 



Both apprentices at different stages in life, Remy and his human counterpart become quick allies.

 

Ratatouille also excels in the area of color and design. Like all the Pixar films before it, it avoids the overtly saturated and segregated coloring, or unnaturally elastic character movements sometimes associated with computer-animated films, and instead boasts a visual look that resembles a well-photographed live action-film. This approach to make the appearance of the film look like it was photographed by a cinematographer rather than colored by someone filling in shapes with a Wacom tablet and pen is key to final aesthetic in Ratatouille. It adds a layer of believability, a greater sense of gravity to the situations scripted in the film.


G
etting to that point starts at the beginning of the filmmaking process while the characters and their environments are being conceived. It is a huge collaborative effort where the film’s production designer Harley Jessup and many other artists experiment with designs and color by creating both hand-made and computerized concept art.


J
essup and the film’s director of photography/lighting Sharon Calahan also meet regularly to set goals for the look of the film. They draw inspiration from a number of sources that include the art direction and cinematography of other films, but ultimately consider many variables when creating a visual style. The final choices they make go on to define the personality of the characters and where they live, but primarily, create aesthetics that are both fun to look at and help advance the story.

 

As seen during 3 progressive stages of production, Remy and his imaginary sidekick Chef Gusteau.

Digital art by Louis Gonzales (top left). Digital lighting studies by Sharon Calahan (top right).
Screenshot from the final film (bottom).

 

The end result blurs the line between live action and cartoon by blending the caricatured graphics of 101 Dalmatians with the diffused lighting of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Its artistry feels natural. It is an embroidery of analogous color, texture and shapes that never call attention to themselves or the many artists and new software programs used to achieve the end affect. It does what all great art does; draw inspiration from a number of sources to create something new.

 

Anton Ego, the food critic, holding a copy of Chef Auguste Gusteau's Anyone Can Cook cookbook.

 

Anton Ego, the umber-soaked food critic, voiced so beautifully by Peter O’Toole, took a stance near the end of Ratatouille, by proclaiming that, “There are times when a critic truly risks something and that is in the discovery and defense of the new."


A
nother writer could add to his review by continuing: Not every movie features great art, but great art can be found in the largest and smallest of places. For those looking to have their cinematic appetite fulfilled and their artistic preconceptions challenged, Pixar’s Ratatouille serves excellence on every page of its menu.

 

 

 

 

A CLOSER LOOK -
Harley Jessup, Sharon Calahan & Brad Bird
on RATATOUILLE
© 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.

 

 

HARLEY JESSUP on production design

 

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?


H
arley 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.

 

“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).

 

And, the color?


H
arley 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.

 

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

 

Could you describe how you went about incorporating the diffused lighting effect you used into the film’s scenery?


Harley Jessup
:
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?


Harley Jessup
:
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.

 

Concept art for the rats by Albert Lozano.

 

Where there other aspects of design that affected the rat world?


Harley Jessup:
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?


Harley Jessup:
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?


Harley Jessup:
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?


Harley Jessup:
Ev
eryone 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.

 

SHARON CALAHAN on direction of photography/lighting

 

How do you start the process of lighting a film like this? Do you do most of your work in the computer?


Sharon Calahan
:
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?


Sharon Calahan
:
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).

 

Was this something you applied to the characters as well? And, which comes first, do you fit the character into your scene coloring or lighting, or do you color the scene and fit the character into the background?


Sharon Calahan
:
Yes, we do want the characters to feel integrated into their environment. We tend to light the sets first and then add the characters, augmenting the character lighting to the camera. When we first drop characters into the set lights, they usually look terrible because at that point they are a little too integrated or the set lights do not provide enough modeling or interest. The goal at this point is to make the characters appealing, to make them read well, and for them to stylistically blend and cut with the surrounding shots.

 

Given that you are coloring graphic shapes, for the most part, how do you start adding color to them and the sets? Do you and Harley create color palettes to evoke a certain sensibility?


Sharon Calahan
:
Harley and I spent a lot of time talking about overall color styles for the film. One of the things we quickly agreed upon was to use more subdued colors on the sets and most props so that the characters, especially skin tones, and the food would be highlighted in the images. Harley and I didn't always agree on everything, which was a good thing. It forced us to dig a little deeper and to figure out what we really wanted and why.

Of course by the time we went through this exercise we had the same vision, and it was a very satisfying process. Harley would specify local colors for virtually every item in the film. I focused mostly on making each color work in the scenes, so I would usually only comment if there was something that I thought might attract too much attention when lit, or sometimes we may tweak a set or prop color to go better with the lighting scenario.

Since we had a restrained palette, it was really important to us that the colors feel rich even if they were not particularly saturated. We wanted the neutral tones to not feel muddy. The trick was for us to make sure that the colors were getting more saturated as they were getting darker.

In the computer the absence of light is black, which was essentially mixing grey into our colors, so we needed to trick it into doing what we wanted. Our approach was more the way you would mix color to paint it. When painting you rarely use black to darken a color, it just gets too muddy. This approach helped to make everything look fresher and more appealing. It was essential for the food, but it also helped flesh tones, the chefs’ whites, and even the sets to look more lush.

 

Was it simple to get rid of the grays?


Sharon Calahan
:
No, we needed to write some tools and to develop some new processes to achieve this new look. And it is something that will continue to change and evolve as we start each new film. We are already doing something different on Wall-E
.

 

It’s really taking complete control of the imagery? Being very specific about where you place neutral color and more saturated colors for affect?


Sharon Calahan
:
Some of it is placement, yes. Some of it was making sure that there was enough of a colored undertone to the sequences so that neutrals like the surfaces in the sets and the chefs’ whites were not too neutral to start with. The highlights could go white, but we didn't want the mid-tones and shadows to read grey, so we added small amounts of low intensity saturated illumination to shift the hue.

In the kitchen, since it is a warm human world environment, we added a low intensity orange light to shift the hue warmer, we tinted the darks more than the lights since we wanted to keep the whites closer to white and get rich colors in the darks.

 

The kitchen in Ratatouille was meant to be like stage, with color and tone used to direct the eye.

Digital paint over set render by Dominique Louis (top).
Screen shot from the finished film (bottom).

 

Where there specific challenges in creating the kitchen?


Sharon Calahan
:
Our biggest challenge with the kitchen was figuring out how to create soft accurate reflections that were also economical to render. Ray tracing is great for accuracy, but gets expensive when it gets very blurry. Environment maps are cheap, but not so great at accuracy. We decided to use brick map technology to get the best of both worlds. This took a few months for us to set up and test, but I was very happy with the results.

The kitchen wasn't our most difficult challenge, however. I think that award goes to the sewer rapids sequence near the beginning of the movie. Even though we have created many water effects in our films, they always seem to be the most difficult, especially in this type of action sequence where the water essentially is the set and needs to work well with the camera motion, animation, and lighting.

The lighting in this sequence was fun because we were trying to see how little we could get away with. We mostly relied on the caustic reflections from the water to read the action. If you look closely, you will see some nice color complexity in these light patterns. We used the same techniques we used in Finding Nemo to create the appearance of chromatic aberrations. It helps it to feel less CG, even if it isn't necessarily more real, it is more like you would want to paint it.

 

And, the whites of the chefs’ clothes?


Sharon Calahan
:
The challenge with the chefs’ whites was to get them to look like luminescent soft white cloth and not like hard plaster. It isn't enough to get the drape and motion just right; it also has to have the right quality of translucency and delicate neutral tones. It was too easy for the whites to get icky-grey in the shadows, especially on the wet cloth.

In addition to the low-level colored ambient lights, we also used special lights to add extra translucency into the shadow folds to make the cloth glow a little bit and to add some color into the grey areas. We often needed to light the clothes differently than the skin tones to get each of them to feel right.

For instance, white cloth reflects blue light strongly while skin absorbs the light and reflects mostly red, so the same blue light on skin might overwhelm the warmth needed to feel like real skin instead of plastic skin.

 

Where does the surface texture of everything come into play?


Sharon Calahan
:
The textures were wonderful. Belinda Van Valkenberg, our shading art director, and her team did a phenomenal job with all the surfaces. We wanted to have a nice variety of patina on everything as if it was all very old, but very well cared for, and to have that luster on the metal surfaces. We kept reflections very soft which helps bring out the scratches and stuff to help keep the surfaces from feeling too shiny and new.

One of our challenges was to create a stylized world while maintaining believability. Many of the textures were over-scaled to create this stylization; our job in lighting was to make sure that these larger textures didn't start to make it feel like a miniaturized set. As long as we were able to make sure that our lighting responded in a physical way to a human-scaled world, we could maintain the illusion. When we were looking at the world from the rat point of view, we needed to exaggerate scale even more to help make the world seem huge to them.

 

A screenshot from the finished film shows the care taken in creating the look of the film's food.

 

This brings me to one of the most important elements of the film -- the food. It’s really treated with the same care as Remy, Linguini or any other main character in Ratatouille. How did you go about creating the cheeses and the food?


Sharon Calahan
:
It’s nice to know that food comes off as a character, because we really did try to think of it that way. To be honest, the food is featured less in the final movie than we originally thought it was going to be. In the beginning, everybody was a little panicked about how we were going to do food. We started by simply studying all kinds of photos of just about anything online, seeing how various food was photographed. We also bought samples of all of the food we were going to feature in the film, really studying it up close and taking our own photos. We also spent a lot of time preparing the dishes and studying each stage of the process: chopping, stirring, steam, flame, browning, etc. It was quite fascinating.

Our goal with the food, and with everything actually, is not to try to recreate reality. We are trying to create a world that not only feels believable, but in the case of Paris and the food, to create something that feels like your best memory. The way your memory eliminates extraneous details and reduces to the important elements. This is where the emotion comes into it.

For instance, your memory of what bread looks like is different than actually looking at a photo of bread. Your mental image is simplified and reduced to its essential elements and stylized a little bit. You want to remember it as being a little more golden than maybe what it actually is. You want the texture to not be too disturbing and accurate. You want it to be kind of softened and romanced a little bit. You remember the qualities that make your mouth water. We want to stop short of reality and give the viewer something that’s a little more visceral and more memorable in some way than something that’s too photoreal.

 

BRAD BIRD on story and direction

 

When you came on board of Ratatouille, how much of the film was done and what did you keep?


B
rad Bird:
Jan [Pinkava] had a great idea and there were many things that were wonderful about the film. It was great looking, had an unusual premise. But when I stepped in, I didn’t know anything about cooking. I don’t know very much about France, or rats. So I had to learn really fast and did a ton of research and just went with it.

I described it to people at Pixar as like, Wallace and Gromit in [Wallace & Gromit in] The Wrong Trousers where they’re laying track in front of a moving train. You know, you move as fast as you can. That’s what it was like. I would write something and we would just record it. We didn’t even have time for temp tracks on a lot of it. We had to just go to the actors and record it and then start animating. In many ways, had I not had my experience in television, there’s no way I would have been able to do it.

 

Did you start out by changing the look of the film or changing the writing?


Brad Bird:
A lot of the design work had been done, the basic premise was there, but I wrote a brand new script. I only kept two lines of dialog and two shots from all the previous versions so we did a whole new set of story reels, really fast.

And, I begged Mark Andrews to come on to the project. He was starting to get involved with another thing. Thankfully he said “yes” because I needed somebody who I had a shorthand with and our story reels weren’t nearly as polished as our Incredibles reels were, because we just didn’t have the time. We had to bang stuff out, but I don’t think that shows in the final film.

 

What sort of story and character changes did you make? Did you work within Pinkava’s story frame work, or completely revise what he did?


Brad Bird:
The idea [for Ratatouille] is Jan’s idea. In terms of the dialog and the story structure, I kept the premise of the film and a lot of the basic things about it, but I could change anything that I wanted. The characters, most of them, with the exception of the lawyer and the health inspector, they were all developed under Jan. The look of the film, the look of the characters was all defined under Jan. I supervised the final lighting. I supervised the building of a lot of the sets.

I changed a lot about the way the story was structured. I kept a lot of stuff, but changed a lot of things in order to get them to work. It had to do with emphasis. I took some characters and I removed them. I took other characters and made their roles smaller. With other characters I made their roles larger. Part of the problem was many of the characters didn’t have a defined personality. They had a look and they were character types, but they were not fleshed out at all.

 

What type of changes did you make with the characters?


Brad Bird:
The Emile character was always [voiced by] Pete Sohn who ended up doing the both the film and temp track. Everyone loved Pete’s voice [because it] was excitable and kind of in the upper register. When I was analyzing, it I felt like this was wrong. Emile is status quo. He’s kind of heavy. He likes things the way they are. He’s kind of plotting and he should not be fast paced and excitable. He should be lower key. Remy should be the one who goes from 0-60 in two seconds. You know what I mean? So, I cast Patton Oswalt.

When I worked with Pete Sohn, he would always start in this excitable place and I would say, “OK. Now, slow down, slow down. Keep your voice a little lower and we’ve got plenty of tape, take time to say it.” It took him several takes to get into that state because Pete Sohn is more of an excitable, passionate guy. But his voice when he slows down and becomes more methodical about it, it suddenly made Emile work great.

Patton has a very volatile personality. Anyone who listens to his comedy knows he can completely take off on anything. When I put Patton together with Pete, man it was like peanut butter and jelly. It fit together perfectly. That gave the animators a really solid footing to work on, because Remy wears his emotions on his sleeve. He’s volatile and passionate. Throws himself completely into whatever he’s feeling. Whereas, Pete is a little bit slower and a little bit more status quo and likes things the way they are. That is all suggested by the way they move, too.

 

STORY SKETCHES

Black and white digital story sketches (middle 23 images).
Screen shot (top and bottom).

 

What about the other voice castings?


Brad Bird:
Jan cast Ian Holm as Skinner who was perfect and cast Brad Garrett as Gusteau who, again -- perfect. I can’t take credit for Pete Sohn or Lou Romano. They were in the temp track and everybody liked them. What I can take credit for is maybe giving them some new opportunities to explore character by writing something that maybe demanded a little more from them.

 

Did you cast Peter O’Toole?


Brad Bird:
Yes, I cast Peter O’Toole. They had a different guy who was a very good actor who I like for Anton Ego, but once I got involved, once I started writing the character, the only voice I heard was Peter O’Toole. I was praying to the movie gods that he would say yes. We had to prompt him a little. Kind of beg him but he finally relented and had a blast doing it. I was in complete movie-heaven getting to work with him because he’s one of my favorite actors. Then the animators were climbing over each other to try to animate shots of the character.

 

Did you change any of the settings in the film, the environments where things take place?


Brad Bird:
There were probably 24, 25 sets in the movie and three of them were designed under Jan and those were the most important ones: the kitchen, the dining room and a little part of the sewer area where the rats meet. All of the other sets I supervised the building of and they were done while I was changing all the other stuff.

 

In watching the film, I couldn’t help but notice the use of more tangible, more emotionally modern dialog and character relationship that seem to be juxtaposed against more traditionally slapstick cartoon antics, like all that running around in the kitchen. Did you want to consciously use comedy or slapstick to balance out the more modern elements of the storytelling or did that switch in tone happen naturally?


Brad Bird:
When the heads of Pixar asked me to come in and to work on the project I jumped. I didn’t stop and think about juxtaposing one sensibility against the other. I just went after anything I felt solid about. I didn’t spend any time pondering it too much because I had to move. If you’re trying to keep the audience involved so that they care minute to minute -- that is a really hard task to begin with.

For me, a feature animated film has to have something besides comedy in order for the audience to stay with it and get everything else it has to offer. It has to work emotionally, too. I tried really hard to balance the comedy with some sort of feeling. And, it’s an absurd idea. It’s not remotely realistic -- the notion of the film. It’s a completely cartoony premise. But there are moments in there that are meant to evoke some real emotion, some connection between the audience and the characters so that the audience feels something and hopefully we succeeded.

 

With a nod to the physical comedy of silent era films, Remy learns to control Linguini's arms.

 

Were the scenes where Remy is learning to control Linguini’s arms and hands intentionally directed to be Buster Keaton-like? Or was the use of physical comedy something the animators invented as they were going along?


Brad Bird:
One of the things that was wonderful about that concept, and it was always in there, was the whole sort of Cyrano de Bergerac idea of Remy being the gifted one and this kind of clueless boy [Linguini] being the vessel through which he has to do it. So the idea of him [Remy] piloting this guy around was in some of the original story reels. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity for character animation. The kind of thing that animators dream of because, really, it’s an animation idea. It could have been done mechanically, but there is a great deal of empathy and relationship building that comes across that only someone with a good attention to detail and emotion could have put in there. Otherwise, it would have been just a montage.

Fortunately, that was true of a lot of these scenes. A lot of these scenes were animation-orientated scenes that demanded a lot from the animators whether they were that pure physical comedy stuff like Linguini getting jerked all over the kitchen by Remy to emotional scenes like when Colette almost breaks down and slaps Linguini at the end, which is a very challenging acting scene.

 

Linguini gets a lesson in cooking from Colette.

 

Can you tell me a little bit about Colette? You consistently have represented female characters in your films in very realistic ways. Was Colette always in the film or did you put her there?


Brad Bird:
That was one of the changes I made. Colette only had a few lines of dialog and a fairly small part in the film’s previous incarnations. Linguini was always attracted to her in earlier versions, but there wasn’t a lot for her to do. I looked at that as a missed opportunity, because the important part of her character for me was that somebody had to pull, -- if Remy was pulling Linguini one way, there had to be somebody pulling on the other side of Linguini. She seemed to be the natural one. So how do you give her some emotional life?

Then it became a thing of what’s her role in the kitchen and would she be kind of baffled by this guy who seems to be so naturally gifted where she has had to work really hard. She’d be sort of attracted to that and yet puzzled by it and slightly angry about it. I really wanted to make her a more complex character. And, you have “x” amount of screen time to do this sort of stuff so you have to keep it simple. There has to be a followable emotional through-line so that you understand moment to moment what she’s thinking. Even if she’s confused and doesn’t know her own mind, the audience still needs to know why she’s confused. Know what I mean?

All I can say is it’s really hard to be simple. That was a real challenge to me. Thankfully, we have a lot of really talented animators here [at Pixar]. If you’re clear about what emotion the character is feeling they can get there in their animation.

 

Michel Gagné created the animated graphics seen in this screenshot of Remy tasting different foods.

Concept art of graphics by Michel Gagné over storyboard drawings of Remy (top three images).
Screen shot from the finished film (bottom).

 

There’s another visual element I wanted to ask you about. It pays a nod to Oskar Fischinger and his work in the Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sequence in Fantasia (1940). It's the scene where Remy teaches Emile to taste food. How did the idea to use animated graphics to illustrate food come about?


Brad Bird:
One of the things I kept saying when I was originally looked at this film was that it’s a tricky film. Because it’s a film about taste and smell, and yet your audience can’t smell or taste anything. What we have is color and movement and somehow you have to use that. We needed to find ways to represent what is this experience of taste so that the audience can understand it. I made that suggestion many, many years ago and no one ever picked up on it. One of the things I did when I got involved was I took my own suggestion.

The idea was that Emile has senses but that they’re pretty dulled and just start to awaken. It was meant to be a funny idea, too, but in many ways, it is also related to the way cooks operate. They see texture or experience texture and smell and taste the way painters experience color and light. I just thought we could use sound.

So I worked with Michael Giacchino [who wrote the original score for Ratatouille] and said to him, “What would cheese sound like versus fruit? You know? Cheese is a rounder warmer sound, probably lower on the scale. Whereas fruit is probably a lighter brighter clearer sound, you know?”

He kind of came up with these sounds that sort of suggested that. Then [artist] Michel Gagné and I did the same thing for the visuals. We talked about what kind of shapes would be suggested. What kind of color. We talked about it on an emotional level. Then Michael went off and came back with music and Michel came back with this wonderful animation. It was a really fun little way to open up the movie and suggest that this is what taste would look and sound like. An abstract representation of wakening senses.

 

 

All art and screenshots are © Disney/Pixar. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The author would like to thank Brad Bird, Harley Jessup, Sharon Calahan, Howard Green, Arlene Ludwig, Holly Clark, Samantha Garry, Amanda Sorena, Beth Elyer and Sarah Baisley for their help.

Particular thanks goes again to Sarah Baisley for guest-copyediting this article and to Howard Green, Harley Jessep and Sharon Calahan for the extra steps they took to make this article happen.

This article and interview is owned by © Ron Barbagallo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
You may not quote or copy from this article without written permission.

 

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ARTICLES ON AESTHETICS IN ANIMATION
BY RON BARBAGALLO:


The Art of Making Pixar's Ratatouille is revealed by way of an introductory article followed by interviews with production designer Harley Jessup, director of photography/lighting Sharon Calahan and the film's writer/director Brad Bird.

Design with a Purpose, an interview with Ralph Eggleston uses production art from Wall-E to illustrate the production design of Pixar's cautionary tale of a robot on a futuristic Earth.

Shedding Light on the Little Matchgirl traces the path director Roger Allers and the Disney Studio took in adapting the Hans Christian Andersen story to animation.

The Destiny of Dali's Destino, in 1946, Walt Disney invited Salvador Dali to create an animated short based upon his surrealist art. This writing illustrates how this short got started and tells the story of the film's aesthetic.

A Blade Of Grass is a tour through the aesthetics of 2D background painting at the Disney Studio from 1928 through 1942.

Lorenzo, director / production designer Mike Gabriel created a visual tour de force in this Academy Award® nominated Disney short. This article chronicles how the short was made and includes an interview with Mike Gabriel.

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, an interview with Graham G. Maiden's narrates the process involved with taking Tim Burton's concept art and translating Tim's sketches and paintings into fully articulated stop motion puppets.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, in an interview exclusive to this web site, Nick Park speaks about his influences, on how he uses drawing to tell a story and tells us what it was like to bring Wallace and Gromit to the big screen.


For a complete list of PUBLISHED WORK AND WRITINGS by Ron Barbagallo,
click on the link above and scroll down.