Interview: Brad Bird and Brad Lewis from “Ratatouille”
The Massie Twins recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with director Brad Bird and producer Brad Lewis from Pixar’s upcoming computer-animated feature “Ratatouille.”
The Massie Twins: About how many people did it take to create Ratatouille?
Brad Bird: Probably around 400 or 500 people. Our credits go on and on in the movie and we kind of went crazy this time thanking everyone at Pixar.
Brad Lewis: And it took over six years.
MT: You’re quoted in Time Magazine as having said “Great voices inspire great animation.” And you have some great voices in this movie. Explain how you picked your voice cast.
BB: I entered this movie as director kind of late. I was asked to come on the project a little less than a year and a half ago, so several characters had been cast before I got there. Famous people like Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, and Brad Garrett were already on board and there were also some Pixar people who happened to have perfect voices, like Lou Romano who did Linguini. He was production designer on The Incredibles. And Pete Sohn is a young, very gifted story guide and animator who worked on Iron Giant and Incredibles and he did the voice of Emile, who is Remy’s brother. So those guys are in-house and they were already involved in the project and I didn’t see any reason to change what was perfect. I re-cast a couple characters and there was a lot of difficulty in casting Remy and I heard Patton Oswalt on the radio and I thought he’d be perfect. I brought Peter O’Toole on and when I was first writing the character of Anton Ego that was the voice I heard in my mind and I was just hoping that he would say yes and he did. But Janeane Garofalo we cast after I came on and she does Colette and a lot of people can’t even recognize her because she so completely disappears into this role, which is a testament to how great an actress she is, and I’m really happy with the voice track on this film because it put the challenge to the animators to come up to the quality and be inspired by the voices – and I think they did.
BL: I think this is the full spectrum too. It’s got legendary great actors like Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, and Peter O’Toole, and almost first time actors like Lou and Pete, who are very good, and comedians who can act like Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo, and Patton Oswalt. We try to find the voice that’s right for the character. We don’t look outside first and then figure out how the character can fit into a personality or a legendary actor. We do the reverse.
MT: In a lot of animated movies there’s a physical resemblance between the animated character and the voice. In this one, not so much.
BB: Well, I think that that’s lazy. It’s easy to get a famous person and then draw a character that resembles them. I just think that’s somebody who doesn’t really want to work and imagine the character from the inside out. They’re just kind of hoping to draft on someone else’s momentum and to me that’s just lazy filmmaking.
MT: Ian Holm as Chef Skinner is one of the greatest characters ever created in animated movies.
BB: He was designed when I came on board and I think that the first drawing that really kind of nailed him was by Carter Goodrich. He’s this wonderful illustrator that has worked on several Pixar films. He’s a freelance guy and does covers for the New Yorker and stuff like that, and he did lots of the first sketches for these characters and his first sketch of Skinner really had a lot of those qualities.
MT: What was your favorite part of making Ratatouille?
BL: I have to pull back to about 30,000 feet on it, and having worked on it for almost six years with four or five hundred people; it’s a test of perseverance for everyone involved and I think that under duress you find out the true character of who you work with. We assemble lots of really talented people but you don’t really know what you’ve got until they’re all together and put to the test and this is one of the harder films we’ve ever made and I’m proudest and feel the best about all these incredible people, whether it’s the actors or the crew that just stuck with it. So the greatest thing is getting such an incredible crew together to accomplish this movie.
BB: For me, the thing that was most enjoyable was the stealth nature of the movie for me because it began as a really good idea and it was like a really great toy that everyone loved but no one knew quite how to play with. So I was brought in to kind of solve some problems that were persistent, and at the beginning I knew we had to hit deadlines and we had to start animation on a certain date, so there was a lot of fear and stress. But as I got into the film and started finding solutions that made sense to me, I got closer and closer to the film and ended up feeling very attached to it and very involved with it, and certainly the film could not look the way it does A.) if they hadn’t had a great foundation that Jan Pinkova laid and B.) had all this work preceding my arrival, but also C.) when I added a bunch of elements to the story the crew was so good at immediately getting to that stuff. If you were clear on what you wanted they could get it for you and they’re probably the greatest crew of talent on the face of the earth.
MT: Were there any scenes that didn’t make it into the movie that you might have created or concepts that you didn’t get to flesh out for the final product?
BB: Actually no, not for me. There were many sequences that we created during the time that it was developed that didn’t make it into the movie, and some of them were pretty cool, but my challenge was to clear the storyline out because there were too many storylines and too many possibilities and directions for the movie to go. I had to figure out what the most important aspects were to focus on, and for me I didn’t have time to try anything that might not work. I had to go full steam ahead because all the time to think about it had been used up. So that was really frightening, but in retrospect it was really exhilarating and I think the movie has a certain spontaneity because we were really changing it up to the last second and just running with the ball.
MT: Were you aware when you were starting the movie how much it was going to advance the tech and how much smoother the animation was going to look as opposed to what has gone before it?
BL: It was six years ago and you look at the scope of your film and we knew it would be about rats and we knew we needed the rats to be able to move in certain ways. Pixar’s never really done a film with four-legged critters in it to any great extent, so I was excited because some of Disney’s great classical animated films have critters running around like this. We threw down to the tools group, who writes our code because it’s all proprietary software, that we need this to be phenomenal so we actually experimented for about a year in sort of a dead end, but it was always going to be promising and something special. Brad Bird made several things work that weren’t working. We figured that once we got them outfitted correctly with the right technical setup so that they could squash and stretch beyond what’s been done before in animation, that in the hands of a director like Brad who knows animation inside and out, that it would be phenomenal. As far as the food looking great, we hoped we would pull it off and I think we did. I think appetizing food in a film like this is a surprise and if people come out hungry, which I’ve heard has happened, then that’s a testament to that.
BB: They had a million little breakthroughs that were well underway by the time I came on board and what it meant for me was having more colors to paint with. The rigs were very hearty, the rigs essentially being the instruments the animators could play, and there were more possibilities for expressions, and the faces were very mobile. The fur was working really well so that it didn’t hide expressions. Sometimes you animate the characters somewhat naked and hairless and you get all this stuff happening beautifully so you can see it and then you put the fur over it and you can’t see it. They were so smart about how they designed the hair so that it actually amplifies the expressions and it was a pleasure to work with. The tools group gave the animators Stradivarius [violins] to play and then it’s up to the animators to be great musicians.
MT: Do you prefer working with animated films over live action?
BB: I don’t. I think that they’re both great. I think that it’s all film and too much is made of how you use the language. It’s all the same language, and you’re still dealing with close-ups, and medium shots, and long shots, and tracking shots, and the rhythm of editing and music and color and design and acting and all of those things are the language of film and it’s just how you get it on film that’s slightly different. But to me it’s all film and I love it all.
BL: I wouldn’t argue with any of that, but the only other prism I would give you on it from my perspective is that we spend so much time in story in animated films, that for me, personally, telling really good stories has a permanence to it that I love being a part of, and it almost seems luxurious – it’s not necessarily – but we spend a lot of time getting that right and for me as an artist, that’s what I love about animated films – that time to really keep crafting and make a great story. And sometimes in live action I don’t know if you get that same opportunity and that much time.
BB: That’s true and also in live action a lot of times you’ll look for locations and you may add a few things, but you kind of find a place, and with animation the thing that’s hard about it, but ultimately very rewarding, is that every single thing you have to design and so you’re making choices constantly. And if you make good choices you get a really rich film that you can see a number of times and find new things in every time you see it.