Designing Nemo

Is this the little fish that could?

Pixar’s Ralph Eggleston has an Oscar, but he wouldn’t mind making history this year by winning another. Eggleston previously struck gold by directing “For the Birds,” an animated short honored by the Academy in 2000, and now he’s turning heads with his spectacular production design for box-office champ “Finding Nemo.” Pic is a Golden Globe best picture nominee, and Eggleston has received an Annie Award nomination, but could an animated film wiggle into Oscar’s production design category and win?

If so, it would mark a milestone, and “that’s an idea close to my heart,” Eggleston readily admits.

“Some animated films have been as well production-designed as the best live-action films. It would really excite me to see an animated film go head to head with some of those films,” he adds.

In some respects, Eggleston has a steeper hill to climb than a designer for live action does. His luminous pastel sketches (on display in “The Art of Finding Nemo” from Chronicle Books) typically indicate lighting ideas along with color and form. The extensive requirements of animated film design were noted by two of Eggleston’s production design heroes, Tony Walton (“All That Jazz”) and the late Richard Sylbert (“Chinatown”) when each toured Pixar a few years ago.

“They were really flabbergasted,” recalls Eggleston. “They said, ‘We build sets and someone else photographs them. But you have to build everything from scratch! Everything must be assigned a color and a texture — you can’t just grab a can of paint.'”

Both the Oscar-winning production designers likened Pixar to the old studio system, in which everyone was on hand during the entire course of making a film. Eggleston agrees. He credits intense, even relentless, collaboration for the success of his designs.

For “Nemo,” he met daily with Sharon Calahan, Pixar’s d.p., to fashion the pic’s soft look, which suggests a modern update of a 1940s Technicolor film. “Our story called for softness,” he says. “Fish are kind of slimy, (so) a certain softness made our characters more appealing.”

The underwater tale, unprecedented in computer-animated features, presented inherent difficulties. Executive producer John Lasseter, an avid scuba diver, cautioned Eggleston against the dangers of creating a film that looked too dark and monochromatic. Eggleston, who learned how to dive as part of his research, took Lasseter’s warning to heart.

He decided to shift the colors of water — starting with clear turquoise for the coral reef scenes, moving into dark blues for the open ocean, and eventually to the green water of Sydney Harbor. Once director Andrew Stanton approved a “color script,” Eggleston says, “we had the look of what this movie would be.”

Designing environments detailed enough to be believable, yet sufficiently simple to be animated economically, presented a huge challenge. The pic’s dazzling coral reefs appear incredibly complex, but Eggleston says: “It’s actually just 14 models. Each one has three or four textured variations, which gives the impression that there’s more.”

From a glowing “forest” of translucent jellyfish to a breathtaking trip inside a whale, Eggleston produced scores of beautiful designs. To illustrate this for industry insiders, Disney has widely distributed copies of “The Art of Finding Nemo.” The evidence is out there — whether he takes home another Oscar or not.

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