This article is from 2007


Rat’s tale

How do you make an audience fall in love with a rat? It’s all in a day’s work for Dylan Brown, left, animation supervisor on Ratatouille. He talks to Eddie Harrison

The adventures of an aspiring rodent chef whose gastronomic endeavours make him the toast of Paris is hardly a conventional dish to serve up to audiences. But Pixar’s attention to character and detail has already created such unlikely characters as Nemo, Buzz Lightyear and Lightning McQueen. So making the world fall in love with Remy the rat wasn’t as hard as it might sound for animation supervisor Dylan Brown and his team.

‘We realised quite quickly that rats are creatures that most people don’t have strong empathetic feelings for,’ says Brown, who is coming to the EIFF this month. ‘In some animations, like Aardman’s Flushed Away, you can give the creatures more of a human form, but Ratatouille is about a rat from a compost heap who wants to be a chef in Paris’s finest restaurant, and we had to emphasise that these two worlds could not be further apart. Stuart Little, for example, is a mouse who wears clothes and drives a car, but if our rat acted like a person in the way Stuart Little does, it wouldn’t fit in with our film’s central conflict.’

Brown’s day at Pixar begins with viewing dailies in the company’s three screening rooms, where the latest versions of drawings and scenes are projected for director Brad Bird and the assembled animation team.
‘The whole team viewing the dailies is actually the way that Disney used to work, back in the day,’ says Brown. ‘It’s a kind of Pollyanna philosophy, that no one here is the best or the worst, but by all working together, we can create something better than what any one of us could achieve. My job is to gauge the reactions in the screening room; on this film, it was a four-year process, and often things which looks great on the conceptual designs or the storyboard don’t work the same way on the screen. The muzzles on the rats looked fine on paper, but when animated, you couldn’t see both their eyes at the same time and therefore couldn’t see their expressions properly. They have to seem like living, breathing creatures for us to make the right connection with the audience.’

Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and Cars have all helped make Pixar the animation industry leaders, but competition is increasing. ‘There was an initial novelty to computer generated animation,’ says Brown, ‘but I guess we’re close to saturation point with films about animal ensembles. Too often these films just have lots of goofy faces and jokes, but none of the careful story-building and character-work that we like to think is our trademark.

‘Most of the people here are individual artists, not working under contract, and what keeps us here is the incredible challenges we get, whether it’s creating the fish for Nemo, or robots for forthcoming project Wall-E.’

One delightful scene from Ratatouille captures the essence of the Pixar approach; when misery-guts critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) is served up a dish concocted by the gifted Remy, the taste sensation is visualised by a flashback to his subconscious memories of being a child playing outside his parent’s farmhouse, as the aroma of his mother’s home cooking reaches him.

‘You know, it’s funny, that scene splits audiences,’ says Brown, ‘some people find it very moving, some people find it very funny. I guess it’s both. It harks back to the wonderment of childhood, and a time in your life before you start to judge things, when your mind is alive and open to the possibilities of the world around you.’

‘One of our favourite questions at Pixar is “What if . . . ?” So Brad [Bird, the director] was saying, what if this critic, who has lost his way a little over a lifetime of tasting food, suddenly discovered something that reminded him of what he loved about it in the first place.’

The 2007 EIFF will give Brown a platform to discuss his work, in a city where companies like Red Kite and Sylvain Chomet’s Django Films are already blazing a trail in animation.

‘It’s great to have the chance to talk to people internationally about the developments in animated story-telling, so I can’t wait to get over to Edinburgh,’ says Brown. ‘I know the Pixar exhibition was recently at the Royal Museum there, including some of the original art for this film, and we’ve recently been in discussions with the New York Museum of Modern Art about having some of Pixar’s work exhibited there. It’s such a challenge to envisage a world like the one in Ratatouille, which is so fantastic and yet has to seem so real. So to get this kind of recognition and be noticed for the art of what we do really is a great honour.’

Cineworld, 623 8030, 18 Aug, 2.10pm & 25 Aug, 2.45pm, both £7.95 (£5.50). Dylan Brown will be taking part in a Q&A after the screening on 18 Aug.

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