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Immersed in Movies: Going ‘Inside Out’ with Pixar’s Ralph Eggleston

Immersed in Movies: Going 'Inside Out' with Pixar's Ralph Eggleston

Production Designer Ralph Eggleston has taken us undersea (Finding Nemo) to outer space (WALL·E) and to other imaginative Pixar places, but nothing compares with going inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley in Pete Docter’s Inside Out (screening out of competition at Cannes ahead of its June 19th release). It’s his boldest and most difficult achievement, designing in a more abstract, cartoony way and experimenting with light as a character. It’s literally mind-blowing: soft surfaces, super saturation, high-contrast light, electro-chemical colors and translucence. He was inspired by Brainbows and Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart and David Hockney’s theater productions and we discussed his exciting and terrifying experience during my recent Pixar trip.

Bill Desowitz: This is new, uncharted territory but what was it like going back to the roots of animation?
Ralph Eggleston: We always knew in some way or another that we were going to be walking through some of this world. That was extremely challenging. What does it look like? The hardest part was we could come up with anything but what does the story need? And that just changed so dramatically several times in the film. I’d love to say we had a grasp on it — we never really did. We got enough of a grasp on it to produce elements that could be photographed as the story was shifting under our feet.
BD: So what was the process like coming up with a grand concept?
RE: I always try to come up with a grand concept and sometimes it has worked better than others. Nemo and WALL·E…even Toy Story. Even with this film I tried early on and it seemed to be working occasionally. For example, Riley’s grandmother was going to die at some point and the family was moving to New York City from the mid-west. And her grandmother was a hoofer for Florenz Ziegfeld and Riley was a dancer and she wanted to be like her grandmother. 
And then the mind world was going to replicate from the upper rafters of the theater down to the sub levels of the theater. And the stage itself was going to become what later became headquarters. We had another version where they floated on the ocean of the mind and part of that became the lower levels of the mind where all broken memories went that formed the ocean. At one point, Joy jumped in there and swam through Riley’s history. It was such a great idea and I got really excited about it but it wasn’t right for the film. It just changes. There were little islands out there. Then they finally moved to San Francisco, where it was foggy, and I wanted to use that, and then over the course of the story it became less foggy and I wanted to use that in the mind as well, representing where she lived in Minnesota and what she knew. Now she doesn’t know San Francisco so it’s like starting all over again. So there were all these grand concepts but the characters always come first so they needed to resolve that. They knew it had to be about these five emotions, but nobody would care as much until they understood Riley and her parents.
BD: It’s about Joy and Sadness and learning to live together but it’s also about Riley learning to step up.
RE: Absolutely. 

BD: So it’s an interesting playground with theme parks and lots of abstract, cartoony concepts.
RE: Yeah, Small World and One From the Heart and the Powell & Pressburger films were a big inspiration for the lighting ideas. At one point, I did a series of paintings which aren’t in here which had Joy in a version of headquarters walking downstairs but you never saw the stairs, you only saw the light’s reaction on certain portions. And she threw herself down on a chair and it was like nothing was there and then the chair was lit up. It was almost like a slow-motion splash of light filling in right along the areas that we as filmmakers wanted the audience to focus on — very theatrical but in an animation way. I wish we could’ve taken some of that a little further. But we do get to do a little bit of that, maybe just enough for the film.
BD: Like Abstract Thought and where memories reside?
RE: It gets pretty nutty later on in the film. I’m excited. I have not seen the finished, finished, finished, finished film. 
BD: Are you pleased with your work?
RE: That’s such a hard question. I’m pleased with all the hard work everyone did. I’m just too close to the parts. It’s not fair. The first week I took off for vacation, I helped with the Bay Area Children’s Film Festival and I talked about For the Birds [his Oscar-winning short] and they showed WALL·E and I hadn’t seen WALL·E since we finished the film. It takes me about five or six years to even re-approach it. I sat and watched it and I thought it was going to be such a chore and I found myself enjoying it.
BD: I remember at the time you were so uncertain about the dramatic shift at the end.
RE: That was one big change: this was a million smaller changes along the way. The details… Pete and I would have a lot of meetings together through the course of production and then our once or twice alone together meetings. And he would just come in and shut the door and sigh. Or I would come in and do that in his office. It was so comforting to hear him say this film is just that hard. Who knew?  It was only two words and I wish I could explain it better. I can draw cartoons…

BD: What’s your favorite moment?
RE: One of my favorite moments is Joy getting born out of the ether, but primarily the reveal of the room, like a paint brush coming out and filling the scene. It’s one of those animation-y kinds of things I just always loved. The beginning of the film with Riley getting born and Joy getting born, it’s like sitting in the theater and watching the orchestra tune up and the overture starting. But that moment where that memory sphere reveals the room to me was like the curtains opening. Now we’re going to take you into the world of the mind. That little idea — that’s what makes me the happiest.

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