THE RATATOUILLE CHALLENGE:CREATING ADORABLE BUT BELIEVABLE RATS
With so many original characters and situations, RATATOUILLE constantly inspired the filmmakers to push the technology to new limits. Notes the film's supervising technical director Michael Fong: "There were so many technical challenges to tackle on this film, starting with lots and lots of furry characters, as well as very complex human characters, intense water scenes with rapids and the recreation of the beloved city of Paris. Along the way, we significantly changed the way we shaded models, the way we light the scenes and the way we do cloth. We took technology from our previous films and found ways to make it even better. And all of this contributes to a really different, original look that audiences will experience along with all the fun of the story of RATATOUILLE."
The challenges began with animating a whole new species never tackled before. The animators at Pixar have created all manner of menageries from toys to bugs to fish and even monsters, but even for them, rats were an unexplored - even forbidden -- species. Often type-cast in bad guy roles in cartoons, rats haven't always received a fair shake in the animation world. But for RATATOUILLE, the filmmakers decided to look at these new furry friends from a fresh perspective, re-assessing some of their most amazing talents and qualities, and analyzing every aspect of how they interact with the world, from the swish of their tails to the twitch of their whiskers to the amazing shapes they can assume, to find the joyfulness and expression in their beings.
Since the best way to get to know rats is to spend time with them, the offices of Pixar were soon adorned with curious pets in cages. Although it took some getting used to, many of the filmmakers quickly found themselves feeling quite affectionate towards the socially minded critters, which inspired their designs even further. Explains the film's character supervisor, Brian Green: "We spent a lot of time at first just observing and getting to know the rats and then incorporating all their behavior into models so that, ultimately, the animators were able to give them such compelling performances. Living with rats, you really get to see all of their little mannerisms. They're really quite social animals. They'll play with you and even cuddle on your arm."
Continues supervising animator Dylan Brown: "We like to respect the real nature of the animals who become characters in our films and then build caricature and personality on top of that. With RATATOUILLE, the challenge was to find ways to get these little guys and their world to be very appealing just as we found ways to make fish, which aren't really thought of as being that cute, appealing in 'Finding Nemo.'"
Watching their new pets lead their daily lives also gave Green and his team plenty of fun ideas and opened up new areas of exploration. "One of the things that became very important to the film is that we began to realize how squishy rats are. A rat can do all kind of amazing things with its body - they go through tiny holes you would think impossible or shrink into a little tiny ball because their rib cages are so small and flexible - and that was something that we knew would be a lot of fun inside the story. But first, we had to create special technology to simulate that and try to capture it in a way that was realistic," Green explains.
Supervising technical director Michael Fong continues: "There are a lot of challenges in making a rat squishy. It involved a really laborious and long process where the animators and the articulators - the people who actually build the skeletons inside the characters - would test models over months on end to figure out how to create all the extreme poses with all the skin and fur and bones all moving in a way that looked both right and expressive."
Once the filmmakers had a better sense of how rats move in real-world situations, their investigations quickly moved into the fantastical -- how, for example, would a rat such as Remy hold a spoon or a pan?
"We needed to build into the rat characters the ability to interact at the human level and to actually cook with human chefs. There were a lot of challenges there, especially in managing scale," says Green. "You see the difference in scale even in a simple thing, like heartbeat. When Remy is running you can see his heart fluttering really quickly, while Skinner is breathing at an entirely different rate. Trying to capture these differences really sells the story as a believable meeting of two worlds."
Shading was also key. "Each of the rats has their own palettes to make them even more appealing and interesting," explains shading art director Belinda Van Valkenburg. "We used pointillism to mix different colors for each character. So if you look very closely at Remy's hair, he's got purple, yellow and green hair. But if he's far away, he's just a nice shade of blue." Van Valkenburg also looked to peaches for inspiration. "I wanted them to have cute little peach fuzz on their noses and ears, as well as their tails."
The biggest challenges of all came in creating Remy, who tries to straddle the rat and human worlds with often hilarious results. Bird made the decision that while all the other rats would walk around on all four legs, Remy would teach himself to stand up on two legs - to avoid the faux pas of dirty paws scampering all over the food! "Ultimately what happens in the movie is that Remy evolves," Green explains. "He starts off very rat-like, but as he goes deeper in the human environment, he picks up more and more human characteristics. It was a lot of work but it really introduced a lot of magic into the story. For Brad, the real heart of the story was always that this was an outsider trying to fit into a human world."
Rats also bring with them another tough job for CG animators to tackle: fur, which has its own highly dynamic, and not easily imitated, ways of moving with an animal. While Pixar had pioneered new methods of handling fur and hair in "Monsters, Inc." and "The Incredibles," for RATATOUILLE, the fur was literally flying. "This time, we had thousands of characters with hair, and all that hair needs to interact with everything else that's happening," Green notes. "So we had to really upgrade our 'hair pipeline' to allow for this. This meant a lot of angst but also a lot of new, clever tricks."
While real rats might have as many as half a millions hairs, that was, well, a bit too hairy even for today's computers. Instead, the filmmakers focused on some 30,000 "key" hairs per rat, which was still a massive undertaking. "We choose key hairs to simulate and then rendered the rest because otherwise we would have more data than you could possibly store," comments simulation supervisor Christine Waggoner. "Even so, we still had huge files of hair!"
The rats of RATATOUILLE might have an engaging realism, even humanism, to them, but they are also very much a part of a fairy tale - which becomes especially clear in the scenes in which Remy controls Linguini like his own chef marionette. For the filmmakers, the entire success of the film hung on getting the audience to believe in this fantastical and funny notion. "The animators worked it out so just the slightest tug of Linguini's hair creates a movement of his hand," says Brad Lewis. "It's just so funny. This film has so much old school Buster Keaton physical humor, it has you laughing your pants off without a single word being uttered."
RATATOUILLE'S PARIS: A BREATHTAKING NEW WAY TO LOOK AT THE CITY OF LIGHT
Paris may be the most photographed, painted, written about, dreamed about and adored city in the world - but RATATOUILLE manages to take an entirely new look at it. The story of RATATOUILLE unfolds in two very different but equally enchanted sides of the city: an ethereally charming and urbane world of restaurants and cafes above ground; and the intricate, mysterious, industrious realm beneath the streets where Django's furry family makes their home.
"Paris has been seen many different ways, but never from a rat's point of view," muses Brad Bird. In revealing this whimsical vision, Bird worked closely with production designer Harley Jessup, who found himself with one of the most exciting missions any animated designer has ever been issued: not only to distill the essence of the City of Light into a CG world, but to create a landscape that is more than just a backdrop, but a character that breathes passion and life into Remy's world.
Naturally, Jessup started with an inspirational journey, along with director of photography/lighting Sharon Calahan, to France. "We were looking mainly at color, shapes and surfaces," Jessup explains of their whirlwind trip. "It really inspired us to use a very different kind of a palette than ever before. We realized that much of Paris has this kind of classical, stone quality that is then filled in with little accents of color. We'd see a woman walk by in a red coat and she would just sparkle against the gray background - and we wanted to get that in the film. That's why the palette is more muted than any other Pixar film. It was a little scary, because usually animated films are so outrageously colorful we were using colors more as accents, but I think the restraint of color can also make it much more powerful."
When it came to flourishes, Jessup was less restrained. "We wanted to create a classical, fairy tale Paris," he says. "It's already such a magical city but we made all the spires and domes a little more prominent to really accentuate the enchanted aspect of it."
Although many of the film's locations are fanciful, Jessup faithfully recreated several legendary landmarks, most notably the Pont Alexandre III, the beautiful arched, lamp-lined bridge that spans the Seine, where Linguini and Remy first form their reluctant partnership. "That's really a low point emotionally for Linguini and Remy so Brad wanted it to play out against the dramatic scenery by the Seine with the soaring Notre Dame cathedral in the background," explains Jessup. "We tried to recreate it very authentically."
Even the oft-praised Parisian skies inspired the production design. "There's a very particular look to French skies, which is why Impressionism was born there," observes Jessup. "There's a beautiful quality to the light, a slightly misty quality, and we really tried to find ways to add that touch to all the outdoor scenes."
When it came to researching for the underground world of Remy and his fellow rodents, Jessup got to literally see the underbelly of Paris, descending into the famous flowing sewers beneath the city that Napoleon himself pioneered. "We toured the sewers as well as the catacombs and the quarry tunnels where all the limestone was quarried to build all the famous structures," recalls Jessup. "It was really a trip of polar opposites - crawling around the sewers by day and dining at the finest restaurants by night! But that's also what the movie is all about: a rat like Remy isn't supposed to go to the places where humans go but that's where he winds up."
Since Jessup found the real sewers a bit too dank and narrow, he embellished upon them. "We wanted a more evocative, dramatic feeling," he notes, "but at the same time, we didn't want it to be too grand, either. We use some of the same classical shapes we use in the human world up above but in a rougher way, in a sort of mossy, algae-covered way. We also created the rat encampments to have a kind of Gypsy character. There's a very warm, family feeling that comes out of the little scraps of cloth and French wine boxes they use and the campfire they live by."
Remy's family uses their environment in all kinds of clever and creative ways. Jessup especially got a kick out of creating the makeshift boats on which they escape from the French countryside into a storm drain. "All of the little boats are made out of found objects," Jessup muses. "They're made out of barrels and watering cans and tea pots and it's a lot of fun."
Effects came into play in creating the rapids that the rats are sucked into in their ramshackle watercraft. "It's technically very challenging to deal with moving water," notes effects supervisor Apurva Shah. "There was a lot of effort that went into creating the whole environment for the river and creating that dynamism with the rain and the river and the exodus of the rats. There's been a lot of work done in the last few years in coming up with simulations to make water look and behave more realistic, and we took advantage of that." To assure authentic understanding of how rapids work, Shah and his team even took a trip down the Class III American River near Sacramento!
The piece de resistance for Jessup was designing the place where Remy first gets a taste of his dreams coming true: the kitchen at Gusteau's. "The design of the kitchen evolved over about two years," he says. "We visited lots of real French kitchens and used some very specific references from them. The main difference is that our kitchen is much more open, whereas many kitchens are a series of small, interconnected rooms that wouldn't work cinematically. But we still kept the separate areas where the baking is done, where the fish is cooked, where the meat is cooked, where the cold food preparation is done and so forth, so we needed quite a large space."
That space becomes the scene of all kinds of comic mayhem when Remy enters it, which also challenged the film's directors of photography. Although Remy loves to cook, a human kitchen is filled with dangers he has to avoid, from falling into pots to paddling through a sink filled with dishwater, which leads to much of the film's physical comedy. Says Robert Anderson, director of photography/camera: "A lot of times, the cameras are hustling just like the kitchen is hustling. In some scenes you've got Remy cooking in his own world and the camera will start out graceful and flowing with the music as he prepares this amazing meal. And then suddenly, Remy will be discovered in the kitchen and now the camera's chasing after him, as people are throwing things at him and he's almost getting run over and thrown into an oven. The camera is always right there with him."
The dining room at Gusteau's was equally important to the film's whimsical look. It was inspired by an amalgam of several famous Parisian restaurants, including Guy Savoy, Taillevent, La Tour d'Argent and Le Train Bleu, the beloved Belle Epoque dining spot in the Gare de Lyon railway station, as renowned for its grand, eclectic décor as for its classical cuisine.
"We were inspired by several French restaurants - but Gusteau's is the most ornate restaurant of all," confesses Jessup. "It's filled with huge, gilded arches, ceiling murals and thick red drapes, and it's palatial in scale, making it the perfect backdrop for tiny little Remy to try to become a chef."
THE RECIPE FOR SUCCESS: CREATING RATATOUILLE'S DELECTABLE ARRAY OF FINE FOOD
Once inside Gusteau's, Remy gets the chance he has waited for all his life - albeit in disguise -- to completely revamp their fading menu with his own creative concoctions. For the filmmakers, bringing to life this culinary world that means everything to Remy in an accurate and exciting way was key to the entire story. So, first, they immersed themselves in the world of fine cooking. "This story is about much more than cooking, but I felt that by creating a real kitchen atmosphere and real-looking food, you could give the fantasy a believability that you otherwise wouldn't have," says Bird.
The process started in Paris, where the filmmakers' "research" consisted of eating their way from one famous restaurant to the next, sampling the mouth-watering delights and peeking behind-the-scenes at the most creative kitchens in the world. "There was some concern that we might die of eating too much good food in too short a time," laughs Bird. "But we really learned a lot that adds to the fun of the film."
Back home, the entire team got into the act with a series of cooking classes, in which computer artists more used to clicking and tapping instead learned to slice and dice like the pros -- gaining essential insight into tiny but vital details about how chefs hold a knife, chop an onion, stir a soup and interact with others in a wildly busy kitchen. The cooking classes provided lots of creative fodder - and even had some interesting side effects. "It kind of ruined me," laughs supervising animator Mark Walsh. "I used to be a Top Ramen, tuna-out-of-the-can man and suddenly I realized how much more fun it is to make something really good!"
Meanwhile, Brad Lewis was shipped off to Napa Valley, where he spent two days doing a "total immersion" internship at one of America's finest (and hardest to get into) restaurants: the French Laundry, where superstar chef Thomas Keller, lauded as one of today's most creative innovators, turns out new riffs on beloved classics from the kitchen every night.
When Keller heard about the story of Remy, he was instantly taken, and immediately began rooting for him. "I'm not as shocked by the idea of a rat in the kitchen as some people might think," he laughs. "I think instead Remy is someone that anyone can really relate to, an underdog who triumphs, which gives you such a wonderful feeling to see."
Eventually, Keller would also voice the role of a restaurant patron in the film, but first he served as a dynamic guide into the world of culinary adventure for Lewis. "Brad wanted to see what a real kitchen looks like and feels like, the energy, the dynamic, how people work together and move around the kitchen - "the dance" as we call it in our restaurant" explains Keller. "Brad and his team also took a lot of video at the French Laundry so they could study it and turn reality into animation."
Lewis, who worked until 1:30 a.m. the first night and was back in the kitchen at 5:30 the next morning, notes that it was all worth it, as he learned more about what motivates a character like Remy to be so passionate about food. "There's just tons of details and secret knowledge involved in a kitchen like the French Laundry," Lewis observes, "but the important thing I realized is that Thomas has the same kind of emotional connection to his food and his customers as we do with our movie-going audiences at Pixar. We found ourselves relating to each other on a much broader level of how much our teams care about what they do. I also discovered that I love to cook for the same reason most chefs do: because it brings people together."
Yet, even with everything the filmmakers had seen and tasted in Paris, in cooking classes and at the French Laundry, they knew it wouldn't be easy to translate the distinctive yumminess of a fresh plate of food into computer imagery. "Our mission was to create the most beautiful food you've ever seen. We wanted the audience to be thinking, 'Mmmm, I'd like to jump into the screen and actually eat that!' But it's hard enough to create such meals in real life, let alone in the CG milieu," says Michael Fong. "So the filmmakers had to cook up a series of unique creative and technical processes.
To start with, the technical team realized that they would need real-life models of the food to study. "The only way to recreate what the dishes look like when the sauces are bubbling and the steam is rising off them was to actually cook the dishes on a real stove and then photograph them," says Fong.
Enter the film's in-house culinary consultant, Michael Warch, who was a professional chef before he entered the film business, and also worked as a manager for RATATOUILLE's sets and layout departments. "Basically, I was always at the ready. The effects people would call me up and say we need to recreate the soup that Remy fixes and I would go down and make the soup," explains Warch.
Warch worked throughout the film to assure the kind of authenticity that even the snobbiest gourmand would appreciate. This was especially true in Gusteau's kitchen. "The idea was always to create something that was stylized and fun but also true to a real French kitchen," he says. "We needed to have the right French copper pots, the right French knives, the correct sense of the workflow with the chefs always in perpetual motion - right down to the way the food is plated with the different types of sauces and the architectural presentation. We wanted anybody who has been behind the scenes of a great kitchen to say 'wow, they really got it'!"
When it came to the actual CG representations of the food, there were a lot of technical challenges for the team to tackle. "One thing we discovered is that the simulation group needed to soften a lot of the food so it would meld into each other on the plate," says Fong. "That made it look more delicious. The lighting group and shading group also added more translucency which makes the food really appetizing. And finally the effects group created steam and waves of heat coming off the food. It all adds up to a yummy looking image!"
Certain foods presented surprising challenges - for example, bread, which sounds simple to create but if you want it to have a so-good-you-can-taste-it look, all kinds of difficulties arise. "Bread is challenging because it has to have a feeling of volume to it," explains Fong. "You can't just have a flat surface painted to look like bread. It has to have the air bubbles that are formed as it bakes so it looks soft and steamy. The crust has to somehow look flaky and at the same time crispy. So we had to get some really smart people together to attack these problems."
Another problem the food team had to tackle was that of the restaurant's many liquids, from thick specialty sauces to flowing red wine. "Simulating things like mandarin oranges in a sauce is very complex and can be a very arduous process," Fong notes. "Simulating water is hard. Simulating a viscous, slow-moving fluid like gravy or a delicious sauce borders on impossible because very few simulators can robustly handle the physics. Suspending things in this liquid just multiplies the difficulty." He continues: "We also needed special fluid simulations for how liquid would move inside a spoon, for example, in the scene when Remy saves the all-important soup."
The proof of the food team's work literally lay in the pudding and no less an authority than Thomas Keller found that his appetite was whet. "Some of the dishes they created truly made me want to taste them," says Keller. "They way they're plated, presented and sauced - they really captured that wonderful appeal of great food in an animation process."
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