AS: Does your job start when you get a script as with live action production designers? Or are you involved before that?
RE: Most often before that. For example, right now I’m doing nothing but development work for upcoming features at Pixar, working on the next six or seven projects. They’ll pitch me an idea they’re just beginning and ask for some visuals to support it.
I’ve rarely started on a film where I had a finished screenplay or even a finished story. In the case of Incredibles 2 we had three distinct, vastly different versions of the story and as it progressed Brad Bird would come and bounce ideas around and we’d evolve the visual aspects of the story that way. It was great because I got to evolve the visuals with the story, and they became well-integrated. But every film is different and every director is different.
AS: Bo Welch talked about getting to a point where he would “crack the code” of a film. It sounds like you’re cracking the code before you even have a finished script?
RE: It happens earlier during the development process–sometimes with just a simple pitch. It’s funny, because I hate reading scripts. I find the format difficult to read. I would rather have the director tell me the story. And I have them tell me the story every few weeks. And as they tell it, it’s evolving and changing and growing and hopefully getting better. The things that they repeat tend to be the things they are really excited about. And I make mental notes and literal notes on what is starting to stick and where their mind is going as they’re telling the story. I would rather have them tell me the story because it’s a door into the director’s mind.
The production designer Richard Sylbert was a huge inspiration for me on how to think about all of that. You whittle it down to those basic character-driven conceits or “cracking the code,” as they say. We had a PA, now a barber in Oakland, who was dating one of Dick Sylbert’s daughters. When she came to visit the PA at Pixar she brought Dick Sylbert. I showed him around and asked him to come back and give a talk. So he came back and I spent a few days with him. He gave his talk about designing Chinatown–which is basically in the Vincent LoBrutto book, By Design. He was so happy to see how much real drawing and painting we were doing–some of it on the computer, but a lot with pencil, pen, paint and pastel. In the introduction of his autobiography he said if he and his mentor William Cameron Menzies started out now they would be working at Pixar, which was a huge compliment! Sam Wasson’s book The Big Goodbye, about the making of Chinatown, also has a lot about Dick Sylbert and his approach. It’s one of the best books ever written about the making of the film.
AS: Dick Sylbert was on the same page with discovering a film’s visual theme.
RE: I started calling it building corrals of visual information. But when I started at Pixar, when we did Toy Story in 1995, we would have to be very specific about every little thing. There were very tight blueprint drawings of everything we did, characters, sets, textures, everything. I come from traditional animation where it’s a much more “freeform interactive” process. But when we started on Toy Story, people were writing the software and building the hardware as we made the film. They were brilliant, but most of them were computer scientists that didn’t have great visual skills. Over the first few of the Pixar features we had to make tight blueprints but we had to do it less and less as A, the software and hardware got better, and B, the people got better, and C, two or three generations later, many art schools have computer graphics programs–so our newer staff show up at Pixar already with great visual skills.