AS: With Monsters Inc I noticed you’re credited as one of the writers too.
RE: Yeah, very early story work. Then I was able to make a short film called For the Birds and I got to win the Oscar for that.
AS: Great film! What was the Oscar experience like?
RE: Thank you. It was an awesome experience. I was knee-deep into working on Finding Nemo when the Awards happened–so it was quite a flurry of activity for a time! Afterwards, having become a member of the Academy, I was asked to go from the short film branch of the Academy to the design branch by Jim Bissell. Harley Jessup and I moved over. We took this very seriously. We helped educate the design branch about what production designers for animation do. The production process is very different, but the design thinking is the same. Many live action production designers are really interested in maintaining the design intent from the early days of design through the shoot, and then through post production. That’s something that as production designers in animation we have always done. It’s something that’s just part of our process.
They asked me at an Academy thing what was my favorite production designed movie of all time and they thought I was going to say Pinocchio or Bambi but I said Little Foxes by William Wyler. He’s my favorite director. Steven Goosson designed the sets and Gregg Toland shot them. Everything’s about pricks, all the clothes have polkadots and everything is needlepoint. They expand on the world by keeping the camera centered and they start rotating and expanding the house and by the end of the film the house is huge, you just didn’t know it in the beginning. And yet it feels more confining at the same time. All this brilliant stuff that Wyler crammed in there visually. It’s brilliant.
I also go back to Richard Sylbert’s comments all the time. He told me a great story about working on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Mike Nichols. He’d hired Dean Tavoularis as art director. Tavoularis had built the house bathroom, painted it, dressed it, and it was beautiful. Richard Sylbert came in, looked at it and said, This is good. Then he kicked over the magazines, he grabbed some toothpaste, water, spewed it everywhere, started rubbing his hands everywhere and Dean Tavoularis said, What are you doing? And he looked at him and said, These characters are alcoholics!
His thinking behind all that was character-based. Pretty pictures are nice hanging on a wall but if you start thinking about designing a film from a purely design point of view, or a picture point of view, you’re going to paint yourself into a corner. Start by thinking character first. It seeps into the film in ways you can’t anticipate.
For example, in the film Paper Moon, it’s brilliant how they tracked the characters’ success and their relationships through the hotel rooms in the film. In the first hotel room, there is one bed and he sleeps on the floor. The next hotel room is two beds, then the next one is two beds and a bathroom, and the next one after that is two rooms connected with a bathroom. They finally get two individual hotel rooms and then, the very last time, at the very end of the movie, they’re back in one room. It has two beds but the entire scene is shot in the mirror, in reflection. It’s a simple idea that helps the audience pay attention to the characters and yet understand the building of their relationship. It’s so brilliant. Listen to the You Must Remember This podcast on the Paper Moon production designer Polly Platt.