AS: In your talks you sometimes discuss what defines film design that doesn’t work . . .
RE: Yes, I used several films in one of my talks to show bad film design. I avoided naming names. I worked hard to avoid mentioning anything recent because I was afraid one of the production designers might see the talk! But it was harder to find older films that I thought were distracting–because back then when they said “Action!” time was literally money! The lights, the film running, everything was money.
Now, they can run a computer twenty-four hours a day! A computer is a great tool but it can become a crutch really fast. It was more difficult to find “bad design” in some of the older movies, but one of my highlights, which offended a few people, was Night of the Hunter, which is beautiful but that’s the problem! There’s no modulation to it–every shot is equally beautiful. And Camelot. Wow, that’s a lot of brown! I’m not a “color hater” but that’s too much of a great color! Then I had to utilize the Transformer movies! I even used the film, Toys. That movie is really weird; the art direction is telling one story, the actors are telling another, and the filmmaker’s telling another. Originally I had even included what I call the “nipple Batman movies!” But of course Barbara Ling also did Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood which is brilliant. Let’s just say she did exactly what the director asked for on the Batman movies . . .
AS: What are some of the characteristics a good production designer has, besides having a good visual aesthetic? Would they include thinking on your feet?
RE: That’s one of them. One big thing happened on The Incredibles 2. One set was completely finished, their 2,300 square foot house. In the original film it was a 1,500 square foot Eichler-style house that was destroyed at the end of the film. But in the sequel Brad wanted a bigger house. And so we built a bigger, 2,300 square foot house. It was all finished and they were animating an entire sequence in the bedroom. Everything was done and we were already moving on to other sets.
And then one day the head of story came to me and said, We’ve got a problem. Brad has to consolidate some story elements. He has to get to this one point faster so he’s got to consolidate five sequences into one. I said, Too bad he didn’t go with my original idea, this bigger house, like this rough idea I had. And I showed him an old, rough sketch.
And he grabbed my hand and said, You have to tell Brad that now! And so we went into Brad’s office and Brad said, Yes, do that! And our boss at the time, John Lasseter, came in and said, Yes!
So I went home that night and wrote this Ted Kaczynski-style, single-spaced letter, If we want to do a new house, here’s what I’d do and here’s how I would do it, and here are the sketches for it. And I walked in on Monday and sure enough they said, Let’s do it. So we went from a 2,300 square foot home to a 20,000 square foot home! And whereas we had six months to design the first home, interacting with the layout and camera and animation and lighting departments to make sure it was all going to work, now we had three weeks.