Films as wonderful and imaginative as Pixar’s Inside Out don’t just happen. It’s a long road to the big screen, and that journey begins with characters story. According to production designer Ralph Eggleston, storytelling is the key to a successful movie and imbues its world with a life that enables it to connect with an audience. We sat down with the long time creator to discuss his methods and how Inside Out came to be.
In your own words what does the job of production designer entail?
A production designer designs the character of the film. The world that the characters inhabit, what it looks like and how they interact with each other. In terms of the visuals, I help tell the story. I have a crew of people, usually several art directors who help me out, but I work directly with the director. We’re there to give a history to the world, a history to the story and to make the world seem as though it was either always there, or the world was inevitable for this story to take place. That’s kind of what i do in a practical sense. We’re designing characters, costumes, hair, makeup, lighting, textures, and graphics. It’s a little bit of everything. I draw and paint a lot. I do it on the computer now too, but mostly ink, paint, and chalk. I do everything by hand.
So, sort of like bringing life to the movie?
Bringing life and bringing a believability to the world that our characters inhabit, so that the story can unfold.
To my understanding you’ve been in this role two previous times, Finding Nemo and WALL-E, are there any others besides that that i’m missing?
Yeah I did Toy Story. I’d done a lot of other things before I came to Pixar. I was directing commercials and doing effects. A little bit of a lot of different stuff.
Looking back at WALL-E and Finding Nemo specifically, they have worlds that are rooted in reality. How would you compare that to Inside Out? Do you prefer that freedom, or is it easier to stick with something more concrete and real like the ocean or Earth?
It’s always hard. It’s easier to character something you know. Monsters Inc. I also worked on. I didn’t design it, but i worked on it. It was the same issue as with Inside Out. The big challenge was “what does the mind look like?” Draw me the mind. Somebody please tell me what it looks like. As we were conceiving what it would be and how it would work the story came. Everyone always says story is king, well that’s a bunch of bologna. Storytelling is king. Story is what it is, but the actual telling of the story is the most difficult thing. Making an audience care about a story you’re telling, and making it clear to the audience so that nothing is getting in the way of telling that story is really hard.
One of the all time great film production designers Richard Zilbert came up and took a tour of Pixar, and he was flabbergasted at what we do. He goes “you guys get to design everything?” We said “yes, because we have to.” None of it exists beforehand. We do not get physics. Physics doesn’t exist in our world; we have to create it.
What he told me was that if you’ve done your job right, no one should notice. It should seem inevitable that this is what the world is. That’s always stuck with me, and that’s what we strive for.
Is there a give and take between what the writers of the script had in mind and what you draw up? Do you end up adding to the story in a way?
It’s always a back and forth. We have several writers on the film through the course of the process. Sometimes they come up with something, and I’ll run off and draw it. Other times we’ll bring them something, and they’re like “oh that’s better than what I thought of.” They take it back and suddenly it’s in the movie.
Do you have a favorite part of the world, some you feel is extra imaginative?
I like everything, but my favorite part of what I got to work on is honestly the very very beginning; the birth of Riley. I’d come up with this idea of showing how the world is created, how the world reveals itself, and that was something I really pushed for. Pete [Doctor] got John [Lasseter] really excited about it too, so that was my favorite part
You also have some writing credits for Monsters Inc., and you wrote, directed, and designed its short For the Birds. What elements of those jobs do you take into your production design job and vice versa?
All of it. Production design isn’t just designing assets. It’s creating a character for the film. The character is the world they live in, and it’s all encompassing in regards to that.
Is that particularly difficult? Where does the process start?
Well you start with a story and you have to begin to tell that story. You have characters, and you start asking all kinds of questions. I get 3×5 cards and put them up on a big board, and I just start writing questions down. Then we begin answering them one at a time. It starts filling in the world. It’s almost like building a fence around a bunch of wild horses. You have the wild horses, that’s the story, but now you have to make it clear and tell that story so you start putting fence posts in. It’s messy and horses are escaping, you have to go catch them and bring them back, or let them go. Hopefully by the time you finish building the corral then you can really start telling the story well. It’s one of those things where you just don’t know. At a certain point, after answering as many questions as you can, they start answering themselves because you built a world that makes logical sense. Not to us in the real world, but to the characters in the film. You’re creating their world not our world. That’s how i start thinking about it.
I mean every film is different. Sometimes I just dive in and start doing pretty pictures. Pretty pictures are easy compared to creating a world. Sometimes I find when I just dive in painting pretty pictures, I start getting excited about that, but at the same time I’m not really solving the problem of understandability to the audience.
Like on my current project, which i can’t really talk about, I haven’t been doing that many pictures. I really have been asking a lot of questions and then narrowing them down and putting them in different columns for different characters and trying to understand it. Our directors are trying to figure it out at the same time, so we have to help them understand it as well.
It sounds like you’re helping mold this thing, giving it a shape.
Yes, using the answers to those initial questions. Then you can start making forms and shapes, and colors and textures, and big picture ideas.
Inside Out was really hard because the world of Riley’s mind had no history, and that’s something you can usually get your claws into to really help the audience understand where she’s coming from. In a film like Finding Nemo the idea came from a warning that one of the producers from Disney had. He said, “You know what, it’s underwater. If the whole film is dark it’s going to get really tiresome for the audience.” I said, “Don’t worry about it I have a plan.” I actually had an idea, but I had not pitched it to the director. When I finally did he said, “That’s what we’re going to do.” The idea was, the closer Marlin got to his goal, Nemo in Sydney, the less you could see and the more you had to trust. The idea was that the water in the reef was very clear and turquoise, and the further he got away the darker and more murky it got. By the time you get to Sydney, it’s not polluted water but the surge and swell of the tide. There’s a lot of that in the water and you can’t see very far. That was the big visual theme for that film.
Finding that for Inside Out was hard on that level. It’s also because we were telling two and a half stories: the Riley story, the mind world story, and the headquarters story once Joy and Sadness leave. So, what we decided to do was rely on the idea of lighting and the impact of color, more than form or history. The beginning of the film is bright, and as it progresses it becomes darker and more saturated. That sounded so simplistic at the time, but with so much going on it was just the kind of simplicity it needed to make it clear to the audience. Very often I thought it felt too simple, but then I remembered that sometimes simple is really hard.
If given the opportunity to go back into the world of Inside Out, what would you like to expand on or add to the world?
We had so many other great ideas for the subconscious. There was some really fun wacked out stuff in abstract thought as well. The train of thought was in the film a lot more originally, and we had some really great fun ideas for the stream of consciousness. There was some pretty wacky stuff that would be fun to explore. Take a look at the “Art of” book, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.