Incredibles 2 was the first film where I turned off my concerns about how we were going to get things on screen. That’s something I’m happy I don’t feel the need to do anymore. Instead I focus on the design, the corrals of visual information, and I fight to find those central conceits. I crack the code so that I can present that to every department and they find what they can bring to the table. And I don’t have to explain to them that this needs to be softened here, or this needs to be more straight there. Instead it’s, What is the character of this scene about? And of course the technology has gotten better so we’re able to see literally everything as we’re making the film, whereas on the first ten movies we were lucky to be able to see three things in a room as it’s going through animation. Details and set dressing were often done at a later phase–as the computing power wasn’t available to render entire sets at the time. It’s evolved, it’s so much more collaborative now.
AS: Designing a live-action movie you’re always up against budgetary constraints, but in feature animation can you, for example, add an unlimited amount of airplanes to an airfield?
RE: There are still budgetary limitations. Here’s an example. On Finding Nemo there was originally a sequence where these seagulls chase a pelican through downtown Sydney, Australia. I was the only one who went to Sydney to do research and the producers were upset with me for spending the money I needed to gather the research I felt we needed. I got in a water taxi and went around the entire harbor all day long, getting off wherever I wanted to, to take pictures. I got back to California and was doing my job when they wrote this sequence with a dentist office set in downtown Sydney, Australia. The producers were rubbing their temples like, We can’t afford to build downtown Sydney, Australia! It’s a huge city!
So I said, Well, why don’t we set it across the bay? Most people have not been to Sydney, Australia and if you’re downtown you don’t know it’s Sydney. In closeups it just looks like any other city. If it was Tokyo or Hong Kong it could have the signage to communicate the differences. I said by putting it across the bay, number one, you always have the picture-perfect view of the bridge, the opera house, and the tower, so the audience gets right away where we are, and two, we can put the chase in a small dock down the hill–but still across the bay.
The producers asked me if I thought I could convince the director to do that. And I said, I can try! He loved it. The little extra money spent scouting the Sydney Harbor saved the producers a lot more in the end.
You over-prepare, at least mentally. Know what the options are for the director or for changes on the fly, on the day. You’ve thought of fifteen options already. This is what you want, but it’s not going to work, so I’m going to try and sell this other idea instead. And sometimes it works!
AS: Does previs help a lot on animated features?
RE: Pixar was really slow to use previs. I would ask, Why aren’t we using previs more? And the producers would say, Why would we want to make the film twice?