Harley Jessup as a production designer on James and the Giant Peach (1996, dir. Henry Selick), Monsters Inc. (2001, dir. Pete Docter, David Silverman & Lee Unkrich), Ratatouille (2007, dir. Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava), Presto (2008, dir. Doug Sweetland), and Cars 2 (2011, dir. John Lasseter & Brad Lewis). He joined Pixar in 1996 to work on Monsters Inc.
‘The illustrations I do for a film project are really to communicate an idea that’s eventually gonna go up on a screen
On Monsters Inc., they were working for a while trying to figure out what the universe was going to be like. They came up with a bunch of nutty ideas, but John Lasseter wanted the world to be believable: a place where the monsters have personal problems, they have jobs, and they have a place to go home to at the end of the day. Jessup was working with the concepts of time and clocks, and how scaring children would be an actual logistical problem in the monster world. Some of the early concepts included a factory with different departments featuring different parts of the world, i.e. one with the Eiffel Tower symbolizing France, one with the Big Ben symbolizing England, etc…
Eventually they settled on a 1960’s industrial theme, as this proved to be more realistic.
Films at Pixar are director driven and I begin the production design process by just talking with the director and trying to get a clear picture of his version for the film. It’s funny because it involves discovering both what the director loves and hates not just in films, but all the arts, including art, architecture, theater, everything. Just to get my head around the project, at this point I’ll break down the script or story treatment into simple lists, noting the main characters and settings.
The lists develop into script breakdowns, including time of day, props, along with photo references for costumes and sets. Jessups gathers character type samples as inspiration for the director and story team. He ensures that a research trip is very important, as it gives references unavailable from other sources. You can’t experience a place without being there (Barbagallo, 2008).
On Ratatouille’s production design:
Palettewise, we’re taking things from Paris itself. (…) limestone buildings, gray-green rooftops, and terra-cotta chimney pots. (…) with all the stone architecture, any accent of colour- a red awning, or a woman in a red coat- becomes brilliantly beautiful against that muted gray background.
(Jessup cited by Paik, 2007)
This red-against-mute contrast is exactly what of Ratatouille that dazzled me. It served as a great source of inspiration for my studio project, as my concept plays on light sources.