Recently we were summoned to Pixar Animation Studios to take part in covering the Ratatouille DVD release (the film comes to Standard DVD and Blu-ray Disc November 6). Located in Emeryville, CA inside a 220, 000 square foot building, the press corps were eagerly greeted, signed in and then taken into the art deco office of Michael Venturini who served as the Directing Animator on the production.
Ratatouille, focuses on Remy, a rat with a gifted sense of smell and a most unusual dream for a rat: to cook in a gourmet restaurant. Undeterred by the obvious problem of trying to make it in the world's most rodent-phobic profession, not to mention his family's urgings to be satisfied with the usual trash-heap lifestyle, Remy's fantasies are filled with flambes and sautes. But when circumstances literally drop Remy into the Parisian restaurant made famous by his culinary hero, Auguste Gusteau -- whose mantra "anyone can cook" has been Remy's life-long inspiration - he soon finds that being discovered in the kitchen can be alarmingly perilous if you've got whiskers and a tail.
Just as Remy's dreams look like they will go up in smoke, he finds the one thing he needs, a friend to believe in him: the restaurant's shy, outcast garbage boy who is about to be fired from his job. Now, with nothing left to lose, Remy and Linguini form the most improbable partnership - with Linguini's clumsy body channeling Remy's creative brains - that will turn Paris upside down, leading them both on an incredible journey of comical twists, emotional turns and the most unlikely of triumphs, which they could never have imagined without each other.
Venturini began our discussion by talking about how Remy and most of the main rats were designed from the ground up, and then the "rest of the rats were built off the character." The subject was quickly broached about what special features the upcoming DVD would have and Venturini was quite candid, "I don't know exactly." After this he discussed mixing aspects of human beings with aspects of animals across the spectrum of animation.
"With Remy's style we tried to find a compromise between rats and animation..." he stated. "It's similar to Finding Nemo, we still want them to be rats." After this he went on to talk about how they came up with the look of the rats. "We referenced rats, did animation tests, we go overboard! Once that's done we have an idea of where all of that falls." However, just because they were making a movie about rats didn't mean that they wanted them to really be rats. "Brad (Bird, Ratatouille Director) found as he was editing the movie that he pulled back from the ratisms as he called them." This led to a discussion of how you make rats cartoon characters that people want to watch. "We made sure you saw Remy washing his hands, not walking on all fours so his hands would be clean."
Initially, Ratatouille had Jan Pinkava as its Director. Then, about two thirds of the way into the pre-production process Brad Bird "inherited" the film. Venturini mentioned that one of the challenges on the film was the fact that a lot of the character animators didn't handle the food. So Venturini and his team would create an action of Remy stirring soup or something, and then "the effects department would propagate food into it."
After this Venturini was asked about Patton Oswalt, who voiced Remy, and how much of Oswalt informed the character. Apparently, they started by taking some sound files of Oswalt's stand up comedy routine and made animation tests out of that. Then they "went and saw him live... to get to know him and see how works." It was there that Venturini found the middle-ground between how much of the performance would be Remy and how much would come from Oswalt.
In creating Ratatouille did Venturini and the others do any special preparations in their renderings for the Blu-ray release? "I don't know that we did any special prep... but in the past the work has been dulled down. Now it's going to be seen in all its glory." He was then asked about what things we might be seeing? "You'd have to look really close."
It's interesting to note that as far as referencing other films for how the tone of Ratatouille should be, Brad Bird had Venturini and the others closely watch classic Disney movies like Bambi and Lady and the Tramp.
As we closed out the interview, Venturini talked about redoing scenes once the final film was complete. "Usually it's the first couple of sequences in the film that take the biggest hit. Once you get passed that, everybody's learning from everybody else." Lastly, what was the most disgusting thing about rats that he and his team learned that didn't make it anywhere near the film? "That rats leave a urine trail. To mark their territory."
Up next for Michael Venturini is the film after Pixar's next release, WALL E. When asked what that might be Venturini was closely guarded.
"It hasn't been announced so I can't really talk about it." He stated
After this discussion, we were taken into a room to meet with Ratatouille Production Designer Harley Jessup and Director of Photography/Lighting Sharon Calahan. Jessup was quick to point out to us that the look of the movie wasn't meant to "mimic reality, exactly. We're trying to make a caricature." However, there was a trip to Paris to make sure they got the look of the film correct. "We really liked the homogenous look of it," states Calahan. "The quality of life of Paris in October really has a unique feel to it." Harley Jessup concurs, "There's little bits of color sitting next to the buildings. You have a mix of cars from the 1950s to the present time. We looked at a lot of post-war movies. We were looking to do something new. We looked at live action films like Amelie." Jessup also took cameras with him on the trip and even photographed the food that was eaten.
Which led us to ask about the natural turn off of rats and food. "Oh yes," Jessup begins, "we have, almost to a hilarious extent, shown Remy washing his hands... to make it possible for the audience to accept that."
Will the DVD show any featurettes on Jessup and Calahan's design work? "I think so, Sharon does one on lighting." Jessup offered. "Especially on the Blu-ray," Calahan concurred. "I think there's a lot more. There's one on the score of Ratatouille." Calahan then discussed some extra preparations she did for the Blu-ray DVD. "I did a special color pass. It looks better than I hoped for. It's set brighter and it looks palpable, you get much more of a dynamic range." This led to the inevitable question about Blu-ray and HD-DVD taking over people's television sets and players. "We ask ourselves that all the time, I really don't know." Calahan said.
The subject then turned to some of the challenges that they faced in bringing this world to the big screen. "A big challenge was the scene of Remy and the running water, anytime your you're dealing with water it's difficult." Jessup stated. With all the hands that touch an animated movie, do these production designers recognize their work after all is said and done? "I'm the last one, so if it comes back to me it's a problem." Calahan laughed. What about the fine details? "I think it has to do with the process, the little setups that each chef would have." Jessup opined. "We knew it didn't have to be accurate but Brad Bird told us, 'I don't want to think about it but it really needs to be accurate so that a real chef would know.'"
Going back to the changing of Directors were either of them worried about the mid-stream switch from Jan Pinkava to Brad Bird? "I don't think it was a huge worry," Calahan offers, "everybody has so much faith in Brad." "When you've worked with a director, this kind of pulled at my heart when Jan left." Jessup stated. "This was getting on the same wavelength as a Director as fast as I could." Calahan went on to say, "The great thing was that Brad loved everything Jan had done. It was very comforting, there's a big stamp of Jan in this movie.
Then there were the little things like the light dimming when the character of Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole) walked into the room. "We wanted it to feel like he was sucking the life out of the room." Calahan states. Jessup concurs, "Jan called him The Grim Eater."
Lastly, we talked about their involvement with bringing Ratatouille to DVD.
"We have our own in-house color corrector." Calahan said. "We've got software to simulate what it's going to look like. So I can pretty much see on screen what I'm going to get on film." She went on to say, "With the digital world that's the largest color space by far... I love playing in that. In the long flare up sequences, I just love cranking up those reds. DVD tends to be more blue green vs. HD." She then went on to talk about the current iPod version of the film. "I don't like that right now... it's doing this funny contrast thing. I think it could look better but it won't get pushed back, we'll just have to work harder."
They closed out by discussing their current projects. "I'm working on a short film for the WALL E DVD." Jessup said. As for Calahan, she's steeped in the next generation world of Blu-ray disc. "I'm working on releasing our DVDs for Blu-ray, I just did A Bug's Life. I did Toy Story 2 before it."
The final portion of our Pixar visit was the screening of the short film "Your Friend the Rat" with Writer and Story Supervisor Jim Capobianco. This short was quite interesting in that it was done in 2D, hand-drawn animation. The short features the stars of Ratatouille trying to educate the general public about rats and how we all should be nicer to them. It plays like a history lesson and in its break the rules, complete tossing out of space and time it very much resembles cartoons like Gerald McBoing Boing. Some of the tidbits offered up in this short are the facts that rats can enter your house through your toilet and they can also create 15,000 descendants in a year.
After this screening Capobianco talked about being inspired by "the old UPA and Rocky and Bullwinkle shorts. After telling us that while making this film he learned that rats cannot vomit, Capobianco gave us a slide show breaking down certain scenes from the short. He said the process "starts with detailed storyboards telling them what they would need to animate vs. what they wouldn't need to animate." They used programs like After Effects and Photoshop. Capobianco and his team would do the drawings on paper, shoot them into the computer and then the 8 animators would get to work putting it all together.
"On Blu-ray disc it looks amazing. You can see the paper textures, the brush strokes." He states. He then talked about some of the stop motion sequences in the film. "We have never done stop motion here at Pixar. We followed educational movies for the short's style... they are done cheaply so we could be cruder."
Ratatouille comes to Standard DVD and Blu-ray Disc on November 6 from Walt Disney Video.
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