ROBH RUPPEL – ART DIRECTOR ROBH Ruppel has been part of the Disney Feature Animation team since he was a visual development artist on MULAN. He was then a layout stylist on THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE and a colour key stylist on TARZAN. Ruppel’s talents have also been featured on other Disney titles such as ATLANTIS, TREASURE PLANET and BROTHER BEAR.
What was the inspiration for creating the look of MEET THE ROBINSONS?
The most important thing was to re-enforce the story point…that Lewis thinks the answer lies in the past, but it doesn’t, his answer lies in the future. So what we tried to do with the visuals was tell that same story. So the future has shapes that are very round and appealing, the colors are saturated, the sky is very blue, there is no pollution, and no traffic. The future is a very wonderful Utopian place to be. We want the audience to know that if Lewis thinks about the future instead of the past he’ll get to where he needs to go. The present is very boxy and square and everything is very repetitive and a little bit confining. So we have things pushing in on Lewis to create a little bit of claustrophobia. We get the feeling that even though the present isn’t bad; if he keeps thinking about it then he is not going to keep growing. If you look carefully at his room the subtle pattern of the wallpaper makes it feel like a cell. He keeps fixating on how everything will be ok if he finds his mum but the lesson is that he needs to keep looking forward. We tried to use the contrast of shape and color to emphasize the point of keep moving forward.
Would you describe this as an exciting time for animation with all the changes since you did MULAN?
Yes it is really changing. Every film has a different set of directors and we are there to help the directors. On MULAN I was following the art director’s lead in terms of what was established for the visuals. For The Emperor’s New Groove a very playful, Mayan look was wanted and Tarzan was very dense in terms of texture and colors and for Brother Bear we wanted it to feel like it was pained outdoors on the spot. For this film we were going more for a photographed look. We were inspired by the lighting of cinematographers Caleb Deschanel and Vittorio Storaro, two of the best in the world. We did a study of what makes these guys so good, what are they doing that’s different? And if you really break down their films there is an incredible simplicity of how they stage the shots and for the most part when you really need to focus on a character like in THE NATURAL, he has picked an area of the background and cleared it out. I thought that was a huge lesson in simplicity. These world class photographers are telling a very simple clear story.
You mentioned THE NATURAL, what other films did you look at?
TUCKER for how they light faces. These guys light faces like no one else. They set the face against a background that pops it out. If the face is light they use a dark background, if the face is dark they use a light background. I know it is so deceptively simple but when you see what they are doing on a consistent basis it is not an accident, they are actually planning it. This is a CG film so these characters are no longer painted flat drawings. They have dimension to them so we have to light them like a real person. We want the kids to look vibrant and young so front flat light is really good for that. Strong cross lighting on the kids would make them look older, not so vibrant or appealing. So all that stuff comes into play and for me it is exciting because I love cinematography. So to get the chance to take it into the virtual world and try to make a piece of art out of it was a wonderful opportunity.
Was there ever a suggestion to make elements of the film less dark?
When I showed one of the first pieces of visual development we did for the Evil Future City I was asked if I was going to do it that dark and I said I hoped so. For us as a company it was a bold step…to have this polluted, grungy city where everyone is a slave. The hats are being turned out in their hundreds, people are pulling the levers and smoke is pouring out if the stacks…all of that was something we had not done before and they let us do it.
Might it be too frightening for smaller kids?
I don’t want to underestimate children – I have my own – and I know they respond to strong emotion. So no I don’t think it is too frightening. The nice thing about going to a movie is that it is a safe environment and it challenges our emotions in wanting to experience something but in a safe way. When they see this and come out of the theatre everything is safe and fine. It kind of prepares us for things that happen in the world. So I don’t think it is too much.
What were the influences?
Bowler Hat Guy is full of envy and jealousy there is a lot of green in his palette. The Evil Future City was very green and the sky was almost sulfuric with pollution and there are bowler hat shapes everywhere. It is the worst future industrial city you could think of; people are slaves to what Doris wanted. We did not look at other films about a bleak future; we just took the bowler hat motif and cranked the lever all the way to 10. I grew up in Texas and one of the influences was Pasadena, Texas. When you drive through it there are all these refineries and the air is not the best. There is a certain smell to it. They are going to hate me now! So I thought what I we took that and turned it up bit. So it is actually something from my childhood.
What got you interested in Disney?
The thing that really made me think about it seriously was a re-release of 101 Dalmatians that I saw as an adult. I looked at the sophistication, the line work! As an adult having gone through art school I really understood the level of craftsmanship that was in these films.
How important has the computer age been?
I like to use the analogy that when Orson Welles made CITIZEN KANE the tools that he used were no different from anyone else’s tools but the choices he made was what was really important. I feel the same way about the computer, it is just another tool. It is how we use it to tell stories that is important. We have a history of making very good animated films; the computer is just another tool. In this film we have very cartoony characters lit in a very stylistic way and we are trying to light them in a way that it feels real…even though the characters are very stylized. It helps with the believability.
Did you stay with the look of the book?
It is based on a book so we tried to be true to the source material but we made choices that made for better performances. Lewis’s eyes are bigger so we get more acting out of them.