“Inside Out” Interview with Production Designer Ralph Eggleston
We interviewed production designer Ralph Eggleston about his work on the film Inside Out, which releases on Blu-ray/DVD on November 3rd (our review is here). He was very enthusiastic about his work on the film, and it was fun talking to him about the evolution of Pixar projects through the years. Partway through, he realized we were the same age, my remembrances of all the Pixar films come from an adult viewpoint. He worked on Toy Story, and I was almost 30 when that debuted in 1995.
Eggleston received an Oscar for his short, “For the Birds”, which can be found in the Pixar Short Films Collection, Volume 1.
MS: You’ve held so many job titles with Pixar, including as animator, writer, director (including “For the Birds”) and more. What does it mean to be a production designer on an animated film?
RE: The setting, the colors, the texture, the form, the environments, the characters, the hair, the costumes…that’s the responsibility of the production designer. Everything you see on screen…graphics, all of it. And so my job is to create a world that the characters, the animation and the story can inhabit, and the film can take place in. Some films are…I don’t want to say easier than others, that isn’t the right way to put it. But some are more based on things we know…say, for example, Finding Nemo was based on a reef and dentist’s office in Sydney, Australia. Some are completely made up from whole cloth like Monsters University or Inside Out, where you’re having to be true to the research you’ve done, but create a world that’s not real, but intimately believable. In every case, the world building starts with character – not a character, but character meaning who, when, what, where of the people or the characters in the film. What do they do for a living? What is their family life like? How old are they? What kind of car do they drive? Once you start answering those questions that are believeable to that particular character, before you know it you’ve got an entire world that the audience has bought into and believes. The other part of the production designers job is that if I do my job right, no one should notice.
MS: When you did Toy Story, you went into a world that was very familar – Andy’s room. In Inside Out, you aren’t going into a familiar place at all. How hard was that to create something (the mind) out of nothing?
RE: Insanely difficult. It’s 5 1/2 years of my life spent on that film. Part of it was the churn of the story. The challenge we had on Inside Out was figuring out what questions to ask, because no one has actually seen inside a mind. So that was really the challenge for me and Pete, figuring out what the questions were, so that we could begin building in the limitations of what the characters could and couldn’t do and how the world actually worked. Yeah, it was very difficult. Toy Story was difficult for other reasons. I was the first production designer on an all-computer animated film of any kind. I had primarily come from traditional animation and a little bit of live action production design. Having done that now, looking back, it was pretty crazy to think that we could actually do it at all. The world of Toy Story we know, but again – no one had ever done it. Not only that, but the people who were making the film in the computer were literally writing the tools to make the film as we were designing it. So, that is how crazy that was. So they are always difficult for different reasons, and fun and hard for all kinds of other reasons.
MS: I will say that some of my most memorable moments in theaters come from Pixar films, whether it be Toy Story, which I remember watching for the first time as well as when you created the fur on Sully – that was an incredible moment to be in the theater.
RE: How old are you, may I ask?
MS: It isn’t a problem at all, I’m 49.
RE: I’m the same age. I was just curious because when I talk to people now, especially new employees, (they say) “I grew up on Toy Story, I saw it when I was 3“. (MS note: Thinking I was 10 times that age when I saw it).
MS: What were the top 3 emotions you had while making Inside Out and why?
RE: That is a hard question to answer. Terror, terror and terror! Creating a world from whole cloth was really difficult. And the story was really difficult. Pete and I met many times during the day for 5 1/2 years. We had a standing meeting once a week where we would just sit there and bang our heads against the wall and say, “I can’t believe the film is this hard”. And one thing we knew going in, if it’s a film about emotions and it wasn’t emotional, we would have failed. I’m always so grateful when we are done that people seem to enjoy the films, they are very complimentary about how things might look or whatever. But when you make it, you’re just too close – you can’t see the forest for the trees, AND you’ve got budgets and schedules, AND personalities to deal with, AND a deadline. Those are the things you’re juggling. I once said – someone actually wrote it down – that making a Pixar film is like roller skating on marbles on ice, drunk in an earthquake, upside down while spinning plates for 5 1/2 years. it’s the constant change on every level, hopefully always making the film better. But being able to juggle that and keep track of it, it is really difficult. So honestly, the Inside Out thing is terror, and fear – all of the emotions. For me, it was just the complete unknown…”Is this working, we don’t know, let’s try something else”. Or, “Is it clear to us, is it clear to an audience?” It was constantly that. And I’m not talking about the normal stuff…about making something more clear to an audience. This got all the way back to the actual design to the world and set. So that is what we were challenged with. It really was massive. By far, the largest design job I’ve ever had at Pixar. I had a terrific crew, very patient with me and certainly patient with the story. Just the enormity of it didn’t sink in until we were in the middle of the process. Did you ever see the movie Black Swan? It’s one of my favorite films. Natalie Portman could do all of the technical stuff, very very well. But she couldn’t make that leap that Mila Kunis could – letting go of all that technical stuff and really just kind of doing it. That’s the way the film was. I know how to do all the technical, I know how to run the department, I know how to deal with the director, and the change, and the story. Now, how do you make it walk on its own, make that leap and trusting that you’ve got everything that you can to make it as clear and understandable as possible to an audience, and trust the way Mila Kunis did that the audience would understand. And we are so lucky that they did. You really feel blessed that they got it. That is the clearest way I could explain it, honestly.
MS: I’ve never seen so many people sobbing after an animated film. You definitely did your job.
When you work on the characters, do you know who will be voicing them? Especially Phyllis Smith (Sadness), the character seems to have been made for her.
RE: No, we don’t. Initially we work with just types – like this character, or this actor. And then we start the casting process. That will go on for a while. In the case of Phyllis Smith, we knew her voice was great. But her character wasn’t as prominent originally. Through the churn of the process of making the film, Fear receded and Sadness moved forward. And it seemed that the relationship between Joy and Sadness was the one that was really working. So it was fascinating to know that from the inside, that Phyllis Smith didn’t really know that she had become such a major character. And I was always asking Pete, “When are you going to tell her that she’s now a major character” (laughing). She had no idea, this is how the process works. Bill Hader is so great too, it was funny experience – I’m a giant fan of his from Saturday Night Live. He just happened to be visiting San Francisco, and he called up and asked if could take a tour. I got called, Jonas (the producer) got called, to kind of give him a tour. And as we approached him at the entryway at Pixar, he turned around and went “Oh my God, you are Ralph Eggleston”!, “Oh my God, you are Jonas Rivera!” – he knew us. And it was so funny, we laughed so hard…”We’re supposed to be doing that to you!” And Hader goes, “No, no, no – we were big fans of Pixar at Saturday Night Live, and we were always watching the extras and the “making of” stuff that you guys do for the films. We love what you guys do.” It was really funny. It turned out that he not only was a great voice, but a wonderful guy. Really, really helpful in the process of creating the character. Really fun to work with.
MS: At what point in the 5 1/2 years of working on Inside Out do you say, “That’s a wrap”?
RE: You never say it (laughing). It’s pried from your fingers. It’s the truth. People always say, “What’s the scariest part of making your film?”, and I’m like, “From the moment it’s taken from our hands, to the moment it’s in the theater – that’s the scariest part”. And they’ll go “What do you mean?” And I’ll say, “I can’t even see movies”. And they go “What do you mean?” Sitting there in a theater, staring at an empty screen before the movie starts – I get really scared and nervous that in a few weeks or months, however long that time period might be, a film I spent a chunk of my life on will be up there and being judged. So it’s really terrifying.
Thank you to Ralph Eggleston for talking with us!