Ralph Eggleston

AS: When you went to school was your goal from the outset to be an animator in feature films?
Originally, yes. I’m an okay animator. And after school I ended up doing a lot of moving titles. I designed and boarded and animated a bunch of titles with Bill and Sue Kroyer for Kroyer Films. They did titles for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Troop Beverly Hills, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and also animation for rides at the Disney parks.

AS: That intro to Christmas Vacation is classic.
We had a good time. I was never quite good enough to animate for Disney. And I was interested in more than just animating. I started to get interested in design and how you put the whole thing together, the visual part of the storytelling. Because of that I found myself, over the course of a few years, pretty well-equipped to do art direction and then production design. I knew enough about the various roles in production, and how to start at the end of production and work my way backwards towards the beginning. How to think about planning a film. What does something mean to the following departments in the pipeline?

And for some reason when I read a script or someone’s telling me a story I’m able to really just see it unfolding in my head. Sure, I do lots of research, but I really am able to see it and I’m able to put it down with a drawing or a painting to communicate with the director. Or to get a dialog going about how we ought to be thinking about telling the story.

AS: You end up drawing throughout the process?
I do draw a lot. When inspiration hits me, I’ll draw it–and sometimes paint an idea up. But what I have taken to more recently is getting 3″ x 5″ index cards and outlining each character and each set. Just writing a series of words to describe the “character” or “personality” of each character and set, with a thesaurus handy. I write them out, pin them up on a large board, change them, move them around, refine them and simplify them, so there are not five hundred but only like, ten words that communicate the idea of a character, or the world, or this set, this moment of the film. I try to limit it so that it’s not overwhelming to myself or to the director or anyone else that might be involved.

I start with the general framework of the story.  But I also try to identify how the characters interrelate in terms of what I want to draw, before I start drawing it. So I put a list of words together and talk about it with the director. They’ll throw some stuff away and put new stuff up and we’ll refine it and while we’re doing that, I’m starting to gather reference materials. I categorize them with either those specific words or those specific ideas, bigger buckets and then smaller buckets for each one. And then I really start thinking about drawing, and ideas for shapes, and framing. Cinematography and composition. I try to distill all of it into a handful of visuals that can be the major themes and then find ways to do variations on those themes through the course of a scene or a sequence or a character. Designing the characters is also a big part of what we do within the Art Department on an animated film.

I tend to have three art directors, sometimes four, depending. I have a character art director and their primary job is to supervise the design of the characters. Then I’ll have an environment art director, or the sets art director, and a texture art director. What they design in terms of textures is what the virtual lights pick up on and what the audience will see in the final film. It’s a really important job. And then, depending on the complexity of needs on a film, a graphics art director. Incredibles 2 had a lot of graphics versus a film like Brave or Good Dinosaur, which had graphics too but they were fairly limited. So depending on the level or amount of graphics I might have that fourth art director.

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