THE COOKS IN THE KITCHEN: BRINGING TO LIFE THE CHARACTERS OF RATATOUILLE
As with all Pixar films, the heart of RATATOUILLE lies in the characters who - whether homo sapiens or genus rattus - bring their own unique personalities, quirks and passions to the story's mix. Their life-like natures and wonderfully familiar dilemmas - from family squabbles to job headaches to standing up for friends -- are the result of a collaborative artistic effort that starts with a stellar voice cast and continues with the film's cutting-edge animation, filled with a layered artistry that makes both the film's animal and the human characters stand out creatively in the CG world.
The cast of RATATOUILLE spans the gamut, from some of the greatest actors in cinema to character-obsessed in-house Pixar staff, which is just the way Brad Bird likes it. "Great voices inspire great animation," he explains, "because it's those little nuances in the voice that animators can grab a hold of and use physically. Pixar has been very good about casting people who are right for the roles, whether they're famous or not. So on the one hand, we have some of our talented in-house artists doing voices and on the other we have acting legends such as Brian Dennehy, Ian Holm and Peter O'Toole - yet they each bring something really specific and special to their roles. We also were lucky to cast Patton Oswalt, Janeane Garofalo and Brad Garrett, who are all gifted stand-up comedians. I think they give the film a special comic edge. In every case, the voice performers provided the animators with a creative turbo charge."
It all began with Remy, who might be a rat but had to be a true underdog hero at heart. Behind his whiskers, tail and perked-up ears are aspirations and dreams to which anyone could relate. "What I love about the character of Remy is that he doesn't settle," says Bird. "He's always looking to the horizon for a new experience. Of course, that's why he's the skinniest of all the rats - because he only wants to take in the very best. He always wants something more from life, and I like that about him."
To bring Remy's voice to life, the production considered a wide range of actors, but it was only when Brad Bird heard comedian Patton Oswalt doing one of his outrageous routines on the radio, that a light went off. "In one of his routines he was actually talking about food, besides being hilarious, I was really impressed by his passion, exuberance and volatility," Bird recalls. "He has a great voice that sounds like it's coming from a smaller being but there's also a tremendous force of personality. To me, that was Remy - a small guy with very big feelings, who can be passionate one minute and outraged the next, and you believe it all."
Oswalt, who was chosen by Variety as one of ten "comedians to watch" and was Entertainment Weekly's "It Comedian" in 2002, was already a huge fan of Pixar's movies, so getting offered the role of Remy was like a dream come true. "I can't even call it a dream," he corrects, "because it was so far beyond anything I ever could conceived of as happening. It was on the crazy list, along with getting the secret powers of Shazam." While secret powers were not forthcoming, the role of Remy now belonged to Oswalt. He quickly fell in love with the tiny fellow and his irrepressible yearning to be who he is no matter what obstacles stand in his way. "He has such a huge hurdle to his goals, because the one place he wants to be - a gourmet kitchen - is made worse by his very presence!" Oswalt notes. "But Remy is one of those guys who is openly, unapologetically passionate. His enthusiasm is infectious and he isn't going to give up. He decides to put everything on the line to try to make his dreams happen. The little guy has quite a journey ahead of him." Oswalt also had quite a journey. "Playing Remy was exhausting," he laughs. "I've actually never done more physical stuff than in playing this pure voice role! Trying to conjure up all these different actions and emotions while standing in one place, it's like a kind of Kung-Fu…Voice-Fu, perhaps."
He was thrilled to be guided along the way by Brad Bird. "Brad is an even bigger animation geek than I am. He has the entire universe of the movie in his head and he is so creative that it seems he can always give you that one tip that really makes for a great line or scene," says Oswalt. "I'm also a big foodie and a lot of people on this movie are foodies, so that was a lot of fun. The food itself in this movie is a landscape of deliciousness that is just so artistically done. I love that Pixar is always deepening and deepening the experience of animated movies."
When it came to forging Remy's features, Bird wanted to give him as much opportunity for expression as an animated rodent could possibly get. "The facial articulation of characters is getting better and better all the time, and we wound up with about 160 individual controls for Remy's face," Bird explains. "It's like having more keys on a keyboard, because it opens up so many more possibilities. Still, one of the big challenges for us is that a rat's face doesn't necessarily shoot well from all angles. Because rats have such a long snout, the mouth can be kind of hidden underneath if Remy's head is angled down, for example. So it was something we tried to work around quite a bit, to make sure the audience is always really getting to know him."
Remy's dreams would never get a chance to come true if it weren't for Linguini, the lowly garbage boy at Gusteau's who discovers the rat's talents and finds them changing his own fortunes. Although they start out partnered together out of mutual desperation - Linguini needing to hang onto his job and Remy hoping to finally get his chance to work in a real live restaurant kitchen -- Remy and Linguini slowly become buddies who learn they can truly count on one another.
Says Oswalt: "Linguini is the one human Remy can sort of trust and they wind up collaborating in a very funny and unique way. You just so want to root for poor Linguini."
In some of the film's most uproarious scenes, Linguini lets Remy literally control his own attempts at cooking. Explains Bird: "Linguini is somebody who doesn't like to attract attention and thanks to Remy he gets a huge amount of it. He's a great example of someone who thinks they aren't anything special, but when the going gets tough, they find it within themselves to be amazing and do the right thing." Character supervisor Brian Green admits he had another contemporary movie character in the back of his mind when it came to Linguini - "I thought of him a little bit like Napoleon Dynamite; he's appealing, he's funny and somehow you can't help but root for him," he says.
Adds directing animator David DeVan: "Linguini was really fun to animate because he's got this great quality of always being kind of wide-eyed and witnessing everything for the very first time." Also a challenge for the filmmakers was Linguini's hair, which is not only a key to his character, but becomes the kind of "joystick" with which Remy controls his brilliant cooking moves. "Linguini's hair is wild and out of control, just like him," notes groom supervisor, Sanjay Bakshi. "It's a type of style we haven't done before."
To play Linguini, Pixar ultimately went in-house, tapping Lou Romano, who had served as a production designer on "The Incredibles" and had voiced some smaller roles in earlier productions. When Bird heard Romano doing Linguini's voice on a temporary track, he was struck by how beautifully it worked. "He's studied for years and he's a terrific actor," says Bird. "Knowing the whole process so well frees him up to be very inventive. The film wouldn't work without him. Lou has a certain shy hesitancy but he also has this reserve of passion where he can become very assertive and powerful, just like Linguini. And Lou acted Linguini just crazy enough to make it believable that he'd let himself be controlled by this little rat."
"It was really exciting when I heard that I would be cast," recalls Romano. "To be a great filmmaker, I think you have to already have a real appreciation and understanding of performance. People at Pixar have that appreciation and what's great is that the studio allows a lot of us the chance to voice the characters they create."
Adds Romano, "Of course Linguini is very insecure and completely out of his element in the kitchen, so I was able to draw on my own experiences of feeling out of my element for the role."
Definitely in his element in the kitchen is Auguste Gusteau, the legendary chef who was Remy's lifelong idol - and is now an inspirational apparition. Of Gusteau, Brad Bird says: "He was once the toast of the culinary world and he just exudes passion and authority. He's kind of Remy's mentor or conscience, like a Jiminy Cricket or Obi Wan Kenobi, who inspires Remy to be more courageous and inventive."
To play Gusteau, the filmmakers recruited popular comedian Brad Garrett ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), a veteran of past Pixar films who, despite being featured in "Finding Nemo" and "A Bug's Life," was very excited about his role in RATATOUILLE. "This is the first time I don't have fins or nine legs," laughs Garrett. "Gusteau is a great character who also has a lot of heartfelt moments."
"Brad Garrett is another piece of wonderful casting," says Bird. "He has an innate sense of comic timing and that great basso profundo voice that is perfect for Gusteau. It was also tremendous fun to work with him because he's always got something funny to say."
The character required special technological touches. "We had to create a special rig for him because he has so much fat that sloshes around, and he's so flexible and as a figment of Remy's imagination, he's able to fly, so he's a really unique character," says Brian Green.
To voice the role of Skinner, the dictatorial head chef of Gusteau's kitchen who is dubious of Linguini's new found cooking talent, the filmmakers found themselves blessed with an Academy Award®-nominated, Shakespearean tour de force: British star of stage and screen Ian Holm, who recently played the hobbit Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
"You simply can't do better than Ian Holm," remarks Bird. "He's such a wonderfully gifted actor that he challenged me as a writer to give him a lot of colors to play with. The character reminds me of Inspector Dreyfus in the 'Pink Panther' movies because he really believes Linguini is incompetent but he can't quite catch him in the act. It's a wonderful comic situation and I think Ian hits it out of the park."
It was the story that lured Holm to the part. "It's very touching and moving and there's lots of laughter, so you have that great combination," he says. "I'm really proud to be in a Pixar movie." But Holm acknowledges that it wasn't an easy gig. "I think it was Tom Hanks who said that doing 'Toy Story' was the hardest work he'd even done in his career. I understand that sentiment - and I would go along with that."
In drawing the 3' 6"-tall Skinner, the filmmakers had a lot of fun. "The big challenge with Skinner was his expressiveness - the way his lips are really big and how they move and the way his neck jumps around," says Green. "He's very dynamic."
Laughs Holm: "I don't think he look likes me! He's small, he has a very large eyes, a tiny pencil moustache and a comb-over. He's really quite an unpleasant looking fellow. It's actually quite a shock to see this character you've helped bring to life."
Golden Globe®-winner Brian Dennehy, who is well known for playing tough and imposing men on screen, was cast this time as a tough and imposing rat - Remy's father, Django, who can't quite understand why his son is drawn to a world where his kind has never been welcome. Dennehy was also drawn to the thrill of joining a Pixar production. "Just to be a part of this is a kick because you're working for the most cutting-edge company and unquestionably some of the most creative people in the business. It's some bunch," he sums up. "It's also hard to resist a clever, funny, beautifully written story set in classic Paris."
For Brad Bird, Dennehy was the perfect choice for Django. "Django represents the kind of wisdom of the Old World, from the time when rats and humans didn't mix. And Brian has such a sense of authority in his voice that I think he really sounds like someone who's been around awhile and has gained a lot of knowledge. He's a marvelous actor."
As the voice of Collette, one of the cooks struggling to remake Gusteau's restaurant, the filmmakers cast popular comedienne Janeane Garofalo, who dons a French accent for the role. "Colette is a female chef in a world populated mostly by men," notes Bird, "so she's someone who comes in hard as nails, very determined, but is really a softie underneath. Janeane is also a tough cookie who can also be very vulnerable. She's a very gifted actress. The animators loved working with her voice and she was very game to do a French accent."
Garofalo enjoyed the character's open-minded approach, putting the quality of the food above all else. "Colette doesn't have any 'us versus them' feelings about rats and she is ultimately willing to live peacefully with them. I admire that about her," says the actress.
Once she saw her character's look, Garofalo also came to admire her ravishing, ultra-shiny hair, which is cut into a typically chic bob. "We wanted to make her hair very striking," says Green. "She's very French and very elegant in the way she is designed. I thought of her as a kind of flower who hasn't quite blossomed yet, and you really see her grow in the course of the story."
Also joining the main cast is one of the greatest actors of our time, 8-time Academy Award® nominee Peter O'Toole as the hard-to-impress restaurant critic Anton Ego. "The proudest casting moment was when Peter O'Toole agreed to voice Ego," says Bird. "I was over the moon. I'm a huge Peter O'Toole fan and I had written every line of Ego hoping against hope that Peter O'Toole would agree to be our guy. His voice is the one I heard in my head as I was writing."
O'Toole enjoyed the character's supreme powers as an unforgiving critic. "His opinion can and does make or break restaurants," says O'Toole. "If he says 'the Yorkshire Pudding was splendid,' you're in business but if he says 'the New England Clam Chowder was ghastly,' you're out!"
Yet O'Toole was not without sympathy for Mr. Ego. "His saving grace is that he loves food," he says. "I can always forgive any critic if they are criticizing something they love."
Most of all, O'Toole had a blast just watching Pixar do what Pixar does. "The whole thing for me was a revelation. Bit by bit, I've come to understand the process more and more, but I'm still getting over it. The way the non-human characters become even more human than the human figure is astounding, as is the beautiful use of camera angle, dimension and perspective," he says. "I've really enjoyed it thoroughly."
Another in-house Pixar story artist and animator who had a blast taking on a major role is Peter Sohn, who was tapped to play Remy's garbage-loving, pear-shaped brother and taste-tester, Emile. "Emile is a very relaxed dude," notes Sohn. "He's chubby and he'll basically eat anything, so he and Remy, who has this very peculiar high taste, have an interesting dynamic. But, also, Emile will always be there for Remy. His feeling is 'I guess you've got to be who you are.'"
Topping off the cast is the so-called "Pixar good luck charm": John Ratzenberger, who came to fame in the role of lovable postman Cliff Claven on the hit television "Cheers," and has been in every single one of the studio's movies since "Toy Story." From the school of fish in "Finding Nemo" to The Under-Miner in "The Incredibles" to Mack in "Cars," it's become an enjoyable puzzle for Pixar fans to figure out which voice is his in every film. In RATATOUILLE he plays the waiter Mustafa, who he describes as "always in a panic. He's very smooth with his customers, but once he crosses the threshold of the kitchen he's always worried the food isn't coming fast enough, the soup isn't hot enough, etcetera."
Once the voices were recorded, the animators faced the unforeseen challenge of animating characters who speak with French accents which meant that their mouths would have to move in mysterious new ways. "When someone's speaking with a French accent, the mouth shapes are different," notes supervising animator Mark Walsh. "We had to find a way to capture that, not only in the voice performances, but to infuse some of those authentic gestures and mannerisms into the animation."
For inspiration, the animators literally watched the French…being French. "We even watched classic French films and modeled some of the characters from great French actors," says Brian Green. Ultimately, the faces of such French icons as Brigitte Bardot, Serge Gainsbourg and even Charles de Gaulle helped to inspire some of the character designs.
Sums up Brad Bird of the interaction between the voice actors and animators: "The situations in the story and the great vocal performances were like catnip to the animators!"
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