Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ralph Eggleston joined Pixar Animation Studios in 1992 as the art director of “Toy Story”, following which he helped develop the treatment and screenplay for “Monsters, Inc.”. Eggleston contributed his talents to a number of Pixar’s films such as “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” and “WALL•E” , and also directed the Oscar and Annie-winning short film “For the Birds". He most recently worked as the production designer of Academy Award-winner “Inside Out.” Currently, he is reuniting with Director Brad Bird to production design Disney•Pixar’s upcoming feature “Incredibles 2,” set to release in June 2018.
When Inbal Weinberg and Kalina Ivanov asked me to contribute a piece for Production Design Collective, I was delighted, as I’ve been a loyal follower since the website began. I am always fascinated by the artistry, inspiration, and techniques of other film designers around the world.
As a Production Designer at Pixar Animation Studios, I am often asked, “What does a ‘Production Designer’ do?” - My usual response: Production Designers help establish the cinematic world in which the story takes place. We provide visual themes, and variations on those themes, that add subtext and history to the characters and environments that make up the story. We must visually—and efficiently—fill out the personalities of the characters and motivate the environments with thematic meaning and drama.
A few years ago, I was lucky to share the stage with the great Robert Boyle at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences theater. It was a lecture on “Production Design in the Digital Age” – he was the opening speaker; I was the closing speaker. He talked about his process—how he would get in early in the morning, check the news while he drank some coffee, get in some design and drawing time, meet with various department heads and go over schedules and budgets, and then wander around the studio lot to check on the progress of the various sets he was supervising… it was as if he was describing my daily routine —only I don’t get to wander around sound stages as much as going from office to office or sitting in our various screening rooms to check the progress of work at hand.
The first question is often followed by, “What is the difference between ‘animation’ Production Design and ‘live action’ Production Design?”
Quite simply, everything you see on screen is designed and created entirely from scratch— from concept design, to building, shading, lighting, simulation of cloth and hair, and animated performances- nothing is free.
In 1993, on “Toy Story,” we didn’t have things we now take for granted, like atmosphere, back lighting, depth of field, cloth simulation, interactive lighting; this forced great creativity! There were a number of limitations regarding the world we could create; hard surfaces, plastic, metal – the materials inherent to toys – were a challenge to render believably. Luckily, the characters and storytelling were strong enough to bring the audience along!
We also have to design our actors—the characters, including their costumes and hair. We work closely with the animators to make sure each character is designed to do what is called for in each scene. Audiences want to focus on the acting and the story—so the designs need to be well thought out and flexible enough to achieve whatever is called for from every angle.
Many people think that our goal with CG design is to “look as realistic as possible.” At Pixar, that has never been the case. We prefer to call it “believability.” Taking advantage of reality, but caricaturing it to our needs. In either case, it’s CHARACTER FIRST. Everything else will follow. As any experienced Production Designer would tell you—by delving into the characters, the story will tell you how to approach the design.
Like live action, the Production Designer on an animated feature is often one of the first people on the show—helping imagine and visualize the world of the story as it is being developed.
A VERY big difference between most live action films and animated films is that we never have the equivalent of a finished “Shooting Script.” We do start with a script, but it’s broken down into storyboards that are filmed as story reels—adjusted every three months when we show the reels to other people at the studio to get notes on character, clarity, entertainment, and drama. It’s a bit more akin to “workshopping” in theater than anything. By the time the story is well in place, we’re often halfway through production!
Consulting with the Director, our Production Designers lay out the broad (and sometimes specific) visual goals for the film. We gather reference and do tons of sketching and little paintings to sell our ideas. The Art Directors contribute too and plus these ideas, helping flesh them out into usable and practical designs.
The Production Designer helps build a crew, put together schedules and budgets, and works closely with the director and head of story to imagine the visuals of the film. I usually work by myself for the first few months, before needing to bring on key designers or art directors.
While different films call for different department structures, our art department crews tend to involve a Production Designer and three Art Directors: one for character design, one for environment design, and one for texture design. Depending on the needs of a given film, we may also have a Graphics Art Director.
We’ll have several sketch artists/designers and painters working with each art director—that number growing and shrinking with the needs of the show. The average size of the Art Department on a show is about 12 people.
We do a ton of research for each film—searching for the little things that help us earn the trust of the audience and achieve the believability of the world... The depth of research and the knowledge gained on each film is like a four-year graduate program on whatever subject our film is about. For “Toy Story,” we looked a lot at how toys were made. For “Finding Nemo” we studied ocean water density, wave structure, fish anatomy, and scuba diving. On “WALL•E,” we studied how trash is handled. For “The Incredibles,” we studied mid-century architecture, fabrics, ceramics, and photography. On “Ratatouille,” the crew studied French cooking. And for “Up,” the initial crew took a trip to Tepuis in Venezuela. These research trips are as much bonding experiences for the key crew as they are in “feeling” the world we will be spending a lot of time in. It’s truly a luxury to be able to do the amount of research we’re allowed to do, but it pays off in spades during the course of production.
The Art Departments on every show at Pixar are more an adjunct of the Story Department than anything—helping shape the world and characters needed to tell the story, and providing rough designs for characters, costumes, and roughing out ideas for sets and maps for locations for them to utilize so there is some consistency to the storyboards as the story reels are constructed and the world is being realized. That said, as the story becomes more solid and we have blocked in the big picture designs for the entire film, we transition to providing plans to the digital artists who will rough in our sets and characters to begin working out scale and cinematography issues.
At Pixar, we formed the first All Digital Art Department in 1993, on the very first all-digital feature film production, “Toy Story.” Within the Art Department, the tools we utilize vary from show to show, as well as phases of production. However, while we fully utilize digital tools at our disposal, most everything we do still starts with pen, paper, and paint or pastel. It’s still the fastest way to communicate ideas and share them amongst the crew.
In 2001, Designer Richard Sylbert visited us and was thrilled to see the sheer amount of drawing we were doing. “You get to design EVERYTHING?” he asked. “GET to? We HAVE to!” we replied!! He later said that if he and his mentor, William Cameron Menzies, were just starting out, they’d be working at Pixar. What a compliment!
One of the key tools we utilize is a Color Script. A common misconception is that a color script is an illustration of the story; rather, it is a series of images that diagram the emotional flow and tone of the entire film from scene to scene—providing ideas for staging, color, texture, and lighting. Each Production Designer at Pixar utilizes them in different ways, and every film calls for different approaches. I’ve used pastel and paint, as well as digital paint applications to get these done. I’ve found that while details of the story may change, if the emotional content of the color script is sound and supports the director’s vision, it tends to hold true. Even if major changes in the story occur, it can be adjusted fairly quickly. It’s a relatively quick roadmap for everyone to “see the movie” at one glance.
Our Art Departments are key in the planning and execution of our films from the beginning to the end—envisioning concepts for virtually every idea we will see on screen (and MANY we will not!!). We pre-visualize each set, working with story, digital artists and the directors of photography (at Pixar, the role of D.P. is split into two—one for camera and the other for lighting; they work together closely to achieve the final goals).
I loved, for example, paying visual homage to the wonderful work of Tyrus Wong (“Bambi”) with “Finding Nemo.” Of course, the expanse of the ocean and the murk of the water gave us the reason to simplify and use great limitations to our advantage. Rather than put detail everywhere, as the computer can do so well, we opted to keep detail on the characters, and only on key areas—letting the rest fall off into murky shapes or simply expanses of oceanic hues.
What’s great about our process now, compared to when I began at Pixar on “Toy Story,” is that the tools are far better, and the artists using the tools are facile in using them to contribute, expand upon, and improve the initial concepts. Each and every department adds layers of ideas and details that fill out our worlds and help make them more believable.
How exciting! Now that the artistry of what we can do with the computer has caught up with storytelling abilities, we look forward to imagining stories and worlds that can challenge the art.
To read, hear and see more of Ralph Eggleston's work and the Pixar universe, visit the following:
The Pixar Podcast: Ralph Eggelston
back to top
back to FORUM