Defining Nemo
by Bill Kallay
Sep 09, 2010 | 1191 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ralph Eggleston may not be one of Pixar’s household names (like John Lasseter, or Buzz Lightyear), but you’ve certainly seen his work. He’s a production designer and art director whose credits include Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Up and WALL-E, as well as the director of the Oscar-winning short film For The Birds.

Bill Kallay: Was getting into the film business a goal of yours as a child?

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 Siodmak, 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.

Kallay: 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. 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.

Kallay: When did you start with Pixar?

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 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?

Kallay: What’s the difference between an art director and a production designer?

Eggleston: Each is 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, 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 or storyboard and the moving train of production.

Kallay: 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.

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.

Kallay: How long does it take you to design a Pixar film?

Eggleston: Usually, the design takes the first three-quarters of the length of making the film, which is anywhere from three to six 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.

Kallay: 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.

Kallay: Finding Nemo has incredible and beautiful production design. Did you take a lot of trips to the Caribbean or other exotic locales 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. The fish characters are so caricatured in reality, we actually had to caricature the world a bit more to make them fit well.

Kallay: 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!

Kallay: What inspired your short For The Birds, and what was it like to win the Oscar for it?

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!

The Oscars were a blast… getting my award from Hugh Jackman, meeting Sidney Poitier, being congratulated by Ron Howard 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.

Kallay: 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 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.


Bill Kallay has written for Go Magazine (Air Tran Airways), Widescreen Review, Los Angeles Downtown News, Wide Gauge Film & Video Monthly, and the in70mm.com website. His film Green Tea won an Outstanding Writing Award at the 48 Hour Film Festival in Los Angeles.
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