Production designer Ralph Eggleston joined Pixar Animation Studios in 1992 during the development of Toy Story, and has earned credits on almost every Pixar film since. His work has been pivotal in the look and feel of numerous Pixar movies, including Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and WALL-E. His directorial debut for the animated short “For the Birds” also earned him an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2002.
We got to chat quickly with Ralph Eggleston via phone before the Blu-ray release of Inside Out to talk about the particular challenges that the movie presented from a production design standpoint.
TOONZONE NEWS: I have to tell you I loved “For the Birds.”
RALPH EGGLESTON: Oh thank you. You’re so sweet. They put the birds in Inside Out. I had no idea they were doing that. I was watching it in dailies one day and I saw a blip go across the screen and I thought it was a problem. It was funny. They were in Cars…I think they’ve been in every film since.
TOONZONE NEWS: I remember seeing them in Cars. I got a laugh out of that.
RALPH EGGLESTON: I got a good laugh out of that, too. Nobody told me on that one. I didn’t see it until the wrap party (laughs).
TOONZONE NEWS: There’s one scene I have to ask you about in Inside Out, when they go through the Abstract Thought room. Can you talk about the challenges you had to overcome to get that scene to work from an art design or production design point of view?
RALPH EGGLESTON: Well, that scene was always in the movie in some fashion. For a long time, it seemed that the hardest part was, “Why is it in the movie at all?” but they finally figured that one out. My character art director, Albert Lozano, kind of took that one and ran with it. I had plenty to do. I hate to sit here and sound like I’m taking credit for something I didn’t do. I did contribute to it, but I didn’t work on it as much as Albert Lozano. Al’s a brilliant designer, and once he had all the characters up and running in terms of their design, he went on a side track to take that sequence on and designed it from top to bottom. I think the producer was worried that I might get offended, and I was like, “Offended? Are you kidding? There’s so much else to do here!”
So Al took it over. He loves doing cut-out. He does magazine cut-out design work, putting things together and finding interesting shapes and colors, and he started piecing that together bit by bit. Mapping out a plan on how we’re going to do it. But the hardest part was really making it clear to the audience. There was also a time where we were being encouraged to go through a longer history lesson of art. And even using Dali, but Dali’s not Abstract. It’s different. Al and Pete were adamant, “No, this is all about abstraction.”
We had people chomping at the bit to work on it not just because it was cool, but because they love doing hand-drawn animation and more traditional stuff here, as much as they love doing computer animation. Whenever we have a special scene like that or a sequence or a title sequence or in-credit thing with animation like that, we’re always thrilled to know that there’s lots of people who love working on that stuff. I think really the hardest thing was making the different stages of that clear to the audience.
RALPH EGGLESTON: It’s always fun to watch with an audience, I’ll tell you that.
TOONZONE NEWS: Yeah, people laugh for different reasons. I love how it works as a story element and it works as a metaphor talking about something else entirely and it gets you emotionally involved. But the whole movie is sort of like that.
RALPH EGGLESTON: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That’s been one of the most pleasant unexpected things about the movie. We didn’t go into it planning this, but my sister’s a teacher in an inner-city school in Oklahoma, and she says that the students tell her how they’re feeling by referring to the characters in Inside Out. I helped get her all the stuffed plush toys from the movie, and she has them in her desk drawer, so when a student is mad or upset or sad or something, she can bring them out and talk to them and ask them, “Which character do you feel like today?” It’s really wonderful. It really is. That’s pretty cool.
TOONZONE NEWS: You’ve talked about a bunch of sequences in different interviews. Is there one that you’re particularly proud of?
RALPH EGGLESTON: I’m proud of all of them, especially the work that Al did on the Abstract Thought sequence. Honestly, though, my favorite is one I had a lot to do with, and that’s the opening of the movie. The birth of Riley and the birth of Joy. The idea that she’s kind of coming out of the ether, and the world is lit up and created by light and energy. The idea that it doesn’t exist and then it does exist, somehow. It was something I had wanted to explore throughout the rest of the film, and the way a character thinks and how their mind might work. I wanted to use lighting a lot more. That kind of fell by the wayside a bit, but I was able to kind of reconstitute it and use it for the opening of the film. You remember those Disney cartoons and those Warner Bros. cartoons where you would see a little paintbrush come out, and paint a scene, and then suddenly the scene was there?
TOONZONE NEWS: Yeah.
RALPH EGGLESTON: I always loved that when I was a kid. I loved that stuff. So I wanted to do a version of that, but with light. There was a whole lot of paintings to show Pete (Docter). He liked it, but he was a little nervous about it, and our lighting director of photography, Kim White and one of her key team players, Michael Sparber, picked it up. They got so excited about it they came in at night and on the weekends and did a test that just blew Pete’s mind away. We had to show John Lasseter, and we were worried, “Maybe this is too far!” You should have seen the test. It was a little bit further pushed in some ways, but we showed John and he just LOVED it. So then we had to actually make it work for the movie, which was a different set of challenges. But that’s probably my favorite.
RALPH EGGLESTON: Oh, thanks. Yeah, I had a lot of fun. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Easily. Do you know who Richard Sylbert is? He passed away a few years ago, but he production designed Chinatown and Dick Tracy and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He came through and he gave a talk and he was flabbergasted because production design before computers was so different. In the 30’s and 40’s, when they had the whole studio system, you got to design and build everything in a sound stage. There’s plusses and minuses to that. Then in the 70’s and the 80’s, you’d go on location, but then you have to deal with weather and physics. With the computer, you can design and build everything again, except that you don’t get physics for free. But he was flabbergasted and he said, “You guys get to design everything?” And we said, “Get to? We HAVE to. It doesn’t exist.”
So he’d come to Pixar, got a tour, gave his talk, and left. And his mentor was William Cameron Menzies, who designed Gone with the Wind. Six years later, he wrote his autobiography, and in his introduction, he says if he and William Cameron Menzies were starting out, they’d be working at Pixar. That made us feel SO good. He also told me something I’ll never forget, though, which was, “start from character and everything else will follow.” That was number one. The number two thing he said was, “If you’ve done your job right, no one will notice.” That’s the catch-22 of production design.
I’m going through a thing now too, with Harley Jessup. Harley did Monsters Inc. and Ratatouille. We are the first folks from primarily animation in the design branch of the Motion Picture Academy, and we’re going through the process now of educating them what an animation production designer does, which is really exactly the same as what they do. Harley and I are really interested in making sure that they understand that animation production design is exactly the same. There’s no difference. Not one iota of difference. It’s been really interesting to hear what they think. Animation has always kind of relegated to the kids’ table in a lot of ways, and yet I personally have thought that the year Ratatouille came out, there was no better designed film. I thought Harley did the single best designed film, animated or live-action, that particular year. I can’t say that about all our films, but I certainly thought that one was. So you know, it’s like we’re working towards that. It was really nice to hear someone of the stature of Richard Sylbert think that, too, and say so in his autobiography.
RALPH EGGLESTON: I’m working on a pot of coffee (laughs).
TOONZONE NEWS: Can you talk about anything at all? Any particular challenge or something that you’re trying to tackle in the next project?
RALPH EGGLESTON: Oh, they are all challenging. They’re all different. Here’s what I’ll say about upcoming projects at Pixar: I’ve seen a lot of them, and there’s a lot of big surprises coming. It’s fun. It’s like I get to see the Christmas gift before they wrap it and put it under the tree, you know? It is exciting. There are so many weird, diverse projects coming. Just a ton of really original stuff. And the tools that they’ve been developing for us to make these films have gotten to the point where, at least as a designer, I don’t worry about anything. The hardest thing is figuring out what the design is, or what it needs to be. Once you figure that out, I’m not even worried about, “Can we do it?” We can. That’s a non-issue, so that’s the exciting part for me.
Toonzone News would like to thank Ralph Eggleston for taking the time to talk with us, as well as the team at Disney/Pixar PR and Click Communications for making this interview possible. Inside Out is available now via digital download services, and will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on November 3, 2015.