I got everyone in the art department and we just jammed for the first week. We showed Brad rough sketches and then took the stuff down he didn’t like and separated out the stuff he liked. I started working with Phil Metschan in previs and a couple of our artists to really zero in and focus. We started delivering sets the day before they were coming into animation and layout. Our crew was really well-oiled at that point and they did such great work. It was crazy but it resolved a lot of story issues.
One of the tricks we did was with an animated sequence in the bedroom. Bob and Ellen were talking, it was almost finished in animation. And then we had to lift the animation, and the bed, and the nightstand, and move it to the hotel. We couldn’t change the scale or the distance or any of that because it was already animated. So we actually moved the entire animated scene from the house to the hotel. That’s the kind of thing you can do in the computer but that you’d have to reshoot in live action.
So yes, the ability to make adjustments on the fly is one of a production designer’s key attributes. And also, most of the folks I know that have done the job of production designer are interested in so many things. That’s also really important. A lot of it comes from the joy of doing research. I love doing research. Doing the research for every film I’ve gotten to work on is like a four year graduate course in the subject matter of that film.
AS: Does the research start with a lot of Google searches?
RE: The internet is a great tool but I tend to work hard not to only use the internet as visual reference for material because it becomes somewhat homogenized. A friend of mine called it a “Google storm of bullshit.” I love that phrase because if five different people are doing the same film and don’t talk to each other but use Google to do research most of it’s going to be about the same. So I value seeing the real thing, talking to experts, thumbing through my books, watching old movies, a little bit of anything and everything. You have to be interested in it all. All kinds of music, and theater, and dance and just going out in nature, bike riding, hiking, talking to people, just all of it!
With Finding Nemo we had a wonderful research guy, Adam Summers. We called him “our fabulous fish guy.” He knew everything about the ocean and fish. He studied sharks six months out of the year. He talked about wave structure and fish scale structure. Really enthusiastic. Same with Wall-E—we had a guy from NASA come in and talk to us. Dr. Keltner, a neuroscientist, for Inside Out, where we were designing the mind, not the brain. What does the mind look like?
AS: Did the visual depiction of the mind in Inside Out first develop out of discussions with you and the director?
RE: Yes, Pete Docter, and our head of story, Josh Cooley, and our co-director Ronnie Del Carmen. It was a world that literally didn’t exist so we had to start setting boundaries. Number one, because we’ve got to produce it, and two, because the audience wants to understand it. You can throw some crazy visual ideas at the audience but you have to set them up first. You have to prime them. The audience matters.