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Ratatouille - A Day at Pixar
DVD Talk recently had a chance to sit down with some of the key talent behind Disney and Pixar's Ratatouille [review] to see what they've cooked up for the film's release on DVD and Blu-ray on November 6th. The visit kicked off with a set of roundtables with some of Pixar's digital wizards at their headquarters in Emeryville, California:



Our first stop was with Michael Venturini, a directing animator at Pixar who helped bring Remy to life. He started off the discussion by running through the animation tests throughout pre-production that gave him a feel for how these digital anthropomorphic critters ought to move and behave. "It was very similar to how we did Nemo in the sense that in this film, we had rats that were going to be talking and acting, but we still wanted them to be rats. Usually the first thing we'll do is very heavily reference rats, and we'll do a lot of animation tests that really explore rat behaviors."

Remy is a rat, of course, but there's a very human quality to his character that has to be incorporated into the animation too, and striking that balance was a bit of a challenge. "We'll take a look at all of those tests we've done that are very realistic and pick little ideas out of them, and we'll try to sprinkle that into our acting. On Ratatouille, we went through a learning curve during production where we would do little sniffing and nose twitching behaviors that are very common when you watch rats, and we'd put that in our acting here and there. Brad [Bird] found that as he was editing the movie together, these things were popping up a little more often than he would like, so he started directing us to pull back a little bit from the 'rat-isms'." One of the other stumbling blocks Venturini and his team had to overcome was making a character with hands convincingly skitter around like a rat. "It was harder to get [Remy] on all fours because we built him with hands so he could cook. Getting his hands to behave like feet was actually harder than making his feet behave like hands."

"Most of the work I put in was specifically related to the rat model that the animators were going to be using," Venturini continued. "I spent a lot of time at the head of the film researching rats -- how they locomote and how their bodies work -- and looking at other animated films that kind of achieved a similar blend of animal versus acting." Two of the films director Brad Bird frequently turned to as a point of reference were Disney's Lady and the Tramp and Bambi. "Bambi was a deer; there was no question about it. Thumper was a rabbit, and Lady and the Tramp, they were dogs, and they behaved and moved like dogs. And yet, they were characters we've loved, and they acted and performed and were convincing. [Brad] wanted that kind of a blend, so I spent a lot of time learning about the rats, doing tests, and kind of exploring where the scales tipped too far one way or the other."

The CG model for Remy had been hammered out at Pixar before comedian Patton Oswalt had been cast to tackle his voice. "When we got the word that it might be Patton Oswalt, we pulled audio clips from some of his comedy routines and tried to do some test animation to his voice, " which Venturini and his team then put in front of the director to see if it felt like a solid fit. Even though the model for Remy had been constructed beforehand, some of Oswalt's vocal eccentricities did bleed into the character. "He does these little stutters and stammers in his voice, and Brad was very adamant in some of that coming through in the animation. It added to Remy's slightly nervous approach to some of the situations he was in. It kind of gives you a language, I guess, in the motion and his speaking patterns."

Next up, we got to chat with lighting director Sharon Calahan and production designer Harley Jessup, two of the key talents at Pixar that fleshed out the overall look of Ratatouille. One of their biggest challenges was bringing to life their own version of Paris. "The film I worked on before was Monsters, Inc., and it was wide open what a monster world would look like," said Jessup. "I really enjoyed designing around Paris; it's such a beautiful city. At the same time, we're not trying to mimic reality exactly. We're always caricaturing set design and trying to make a sculptural world that is extra-appealing. We tried to create a sort of fairy tale version of Paris."

The two of them did get to head out to the City of Lights themselves to research exactly which facets of Paris they wanted to incorporate into Ratatouille. "We really liked that homogeneous pink colored limestone that was everywhere, " noted Calahan. "There are these accents in there, like red awnings, the feeling that there were always trees everywhere, vines growing on everything, and just the quality of life... We really wanted to be there in October with the burnt orange colored leaves and getting that just right." Jessup followed up by describing that "those organic elements -- those little bits of color -- next to the stone buildings are just so beautiful and so unique to that city. At the same time, when we were building the Paris skyline, we took out all of the skyscrapers. On the Paris streets, we had a mixture of cars from the 1950s through little modern sports cars next to the Citrons. We were trying to create this classic Paris."

Plenty of animated films have used Paris as a backdrop over the years, but Jessup really didn't turn to movies like The Aristocats for visual inspiration. "We were looking more at live action films set in Paris, " Jessup noted, pointing to such movies as Amelie and Bon Voyage. "I was even interested in the Hollywood version of Paris -- An American in Paris, and how the '50s studios were showing it." Calahan wanted the film to capture "what it was like to actually be there, and feel it, and experience it ourselves and try to get that kind of emotional quality into [Ratatouille] instead of just looking at it from somebody else's point of view."

Part of that included exploring Paris not just from their perspective but Remy's as well. "We were crawling around on the streets...under stoves...all kinds of stuff, " Jessup said, noting that they were at times literally on their hands and knees. "We got a lot of funny looks while we were in Paris," Calahan continued. "'Why are they photographing their food?'" Then again, Jessup noted that all of that confusion was shrugged off the moment their accents were heard. "It's sort of freeing that there are so many tourists in that city that the Parisians think, 'Oh, they're only Americans.' They don't care."

Capturing things from those different perspectives presented a bit of a challenge, as Jessup noted. "There were certain sets like the kitchen that we tried to make look A-plus anywhere you looked because we knew it was the main staging ground for Remy and the chefs. Normally we wouldn't design what's underneath the stove, but we did on [Ratatouille]. We would, with Brad, map out, say, the back courtyard -- wherever you'd be close up with the rats -- and those areas were shaded and modeled with more detail. I love the fact that you can't tell where those lines are, and [the shader group was] able to make the background cobblestones look as great as the close-up ones."

The folks at Pixar was very conscious how the audience might react to seeing a rat putter around a kitchen. Jessup pointed out that "you may notice in the film, almost to a hilarious extent, that we have Remy washing his hands [before touching any food]." Calahan went on to note that "you'll notice that after the rats go through the dishwasher, they stay on their hind legs and don't touch anything with their front paws." Jessup mentioned that a lot of those subtle details might go unnoticed, "but we tried to make it possible for the audience to accept that and think that was funny rather than this...visceral disgust."

Calahan then delved into the effort that went into making Remy's gourmet cuisine look sumptuous and realistic on-screen. "It was definitely a challenge. It was something we knew was going to be early on, so we had quite a lot of time to work on it... However the animators wanted to chop something, the bits would kind of obey whatever the animators entered instead of constraining the animators into particular kinds of motions. It was pretty impressive." Bread and wine presented their own difficulties. "In the bread texture, it swirls as if someone's rolled the dough, and the uneven hole structure is from a particular kind of bread. It wasn't just any kind of random, generic bread. When we were doing wine, we were swirling and tasting, of course, and because it's Merlot in a glass, we wanted it to look like Merlot and not like a Shiraz."

Ratatouille has earned some well-deserved praise from cooks and foodies alike for its meticulous attention to detail, down to the faint burns on the chefs' arms. Jessup touched on some of his favorite tiny details. "We did a mise en place -- the steps each chef would have next to their station -- with the vegetables and the various spices, and that's all based on real chef research. At one point, Brad told us that he didn't want to think about it, but all that stuff had to be accurate so that someone who really knew about food would see that we went to the extra trouble to do it right."

There's a definite enthusiasm brimming at Pixar for the high-definition Blu-ray format that Disney has backed, and Ratatouille's release snagged some extra attention from Calahan. "I did a special color pass for it, and it looks better than I was hoping it would look." Calahan described that "you really get this extra dynamic range you wouldn't get with any other format, so it's really cool. Hopefully any time you see it, it'll be setup on a projector or a system that can do the kind of brightness level it's intended for." Calahan went on to mention that Pixar's earlier films are being remastered with a Blu-ray release in mind -- she's currently tweaking A Bug's Life to massage its colors to best fit the format and embellish a few other things while she's in there -- which should be exceptionally welcome news to fans of the format.

DVD Talk also got an advance peek at Your Friend, The Rat, the eleven minute short exclusive to the DVD and Blu-ray disc. Starring Remy and his brother Emile, the short is a smirking nod back to the low-rent educational flicks of the '60s. It's quite a bit different than the shorts we're used to seeing on Pixar's discs; clocking in just over eleven minutes, it's their longest one yet, and this one's not a quick narrative but a mini-documentary fat-packed with facts about rats. What really sets Your Friend, The Rat apart from Pixar's other shorts is its blend of many different forms of media, including hand-drawn 2D animation and stop motion.

Jim Capobianco, one of the writers on Ratatouille and the writer and director of Your Friend, The Rat, was on-hand to fill us in on what went into making the short. "A lot of the animators here are trained in other disciplines -- 2D and stop motion -- and have had a pretty extensive career in those. Doing this short was another way of going back home a little bit...kind of going back to their roots." The process started with 2D animation in After Effects, some of which was fleshed out with hand drawn animation. "We would do it the traditional way that it's been done for a hundred years: draw it on paper." Eight 2D animators in total, all from the CG animation groups, lent their talents to the short.

The ink and paint for that hand-drawn animation was added in Photoshop, but Capobianco noted that there was a human touch to it as well. "Our production designer, who was the production designer on the end credits of Ratatouille, Nate Wragg, developed this technique we incorporated from the end credits where he scanned in real brush strokes with real media brushes into Photoshop, and then we used those brushes to paint the animation. It gave the scenes a real cel painted look." Many of the backgrounds were also painted by hand, something Capobianco thinks translates exceptionally well in high definition. "On Blu-ray, you can really see the paper texture and the brushstrokes in the cel animation."

Your Friend, the Rat is teeming with neat visual tricks, including an homage to pixelated '80s arcade games along with 2D animation that was traced on a chalkboard frame by frame, but one of the standout moments in the short is a bit of stop-motion animation with rubbery rats infesting just about every square inch of land on the globe. "We'd never done stop motion before here either, " said Capobianco. "We had to find a space here. We had to just kind of cull it together because we're a 3D animation studio, not a stop motion animation studio. We had to go, 'oh, well, we need a really dark room', so we kind of took over a theater for a couple of days."

Disney and Pixar's Ratatouille arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on November 6th, 2007, and a full write-up of the DVD can be found in DVD Talk's review archive. Keep an eye out for a review of the Blu-ray disc in the next few days.

Also Check out Our Other Coverage:
Daniel Hirshleifer Reports from the Ratatouille media Day
a DVD Talk Radio Interview with Brad Bird

Many thanks go out to Mac McLean and a long, long list of folks at Pixar and Disney for putting this visit together and being such endlessly gracious hosts.

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