As someone who has worked on a host of the biggest movies to have hit our cinemas in recent years, Susan Bradley has a wealth...
Lou Romano likes to get involved! During his time at Pixar, he worked as a production designer, concept artist and voice-over artist on features such as Up and Ratatouille, and he won a prestigious Annie Award for his design work on The Incredibles. He spared us some time to talk about colour scripts, tent poles, Brad Bird and his whole creative process!
Hello and welcome to Thunder Chunky, how do we find you today?
I’m doing well, thank you.
To any readers out there who may not be familiar with your work, how would you describe yourself in 3 easy-to-follow steps?
I work in animation as a production designer & art director, helping establish the visual style, look and tone of a project. I paint and illustrate various projects outside of the studio for myself and group shows. Occasionally I act in films or lend my voice to them.
Pixar’s latest release is Up and it’s opened to rave reviews. Could you talk us through your involvement in the film?
I came onto the show in 2005 as part of the art department, to do visual development work. I did concept design illustration, helping develop the look and feel of the film. In the early stages, I tried to touch upon everything: character and environmental studies, efx and lighting design and color styling. As things progressed I focused more on color design & lighting, concentrating more on the big picture (the emotional flow of the overall film, in color). It’s a little different on every film, depending on the structure of the department, but that is generally what I did on the film.
Some of Lou’s colour studies for Up © Pixar / Disney
One of the really interesting aspects of the work you did for Up was the colour scripts you posted on your blog. These are new to us, and they look really great! How do you go about putting one together? Do you work on each cell individually and then just put them all together or do you always have an idea of the wider colour scheme for the whole film?
I usually start by working broader, touching on the main beats or thematic ideas of the story. For example, early on we knew that Carl would lose his wife and retreat into himself. That self-imposed isolation is a main visual theme throughout the film. Most of that is established in the first act before Carl floats his house off to new adventures.
So, one of the first things I did was explore that idea visually with a series of paintings. They are concept paintings showing Carl at home, in his quiet, day-to-day existence. Color is subdued, he’s framed alone. They’re not moments from the script per se, only suggestions. But those images explore one of several big picture ideas (shutting yourself off from the world, in this case) that was in the film from the very beginning.
Lou’s exploratory paintings of Carl © Pixar / Disney
The surrounding details may change but those big ideas are where I try to start. Some people call them tent-pole images. Themes at their purest form. Carl shuts himself off from the world / he’s forced to engage in the present / he finds peace and balance. It’s good to start with those broad strokes.
Once up on reels, I will watch the film and start drawing long tableaux, almost like mini murals that describe a whole sequence or the statement within that sequence. These are the basis for the color scripts. I’ll scan those pencil drawings and start mapping out the color progressions.
Lou’s first-pass colour scripts for Act 1 of Up © Pixar / Disney
It helps me to have planted some stakes for the broader thematic concepts, on which all the individual scenes & shots must hang successfully. The color script is part inspiration and part continuity. But those big ideas should always be clear and present, especially when surrounded by all the secondary beats and details.
As research for your concept art you also get to visit some stunning locations around the world as research. What was the most inspiring place you visited?
The Tepuis of Venezuela were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Roraima, which is the tallest and where we camped longest, was really amazing. But it was Kukenan that was the most inspiring and alien place of all, pure Lord of the Rings. Some of us were nearly stranded there overnight due to stormy weather.
A photo taken during the research trip to Venezuela
I did some sketching while there, but once we got back I tried to draw more inspiration from my memories of the place. There was a really good 3-4 month sprint of inspired work from everybody when we got back from that trip. We were all trying to capture what the place looked and felt like.
Artwork that Lou produced upon return from Venezuela © Pixar / Disney
Is there a particular scene from Up that you worked on that you feel turned out particularly well?
I see my influence on the film, in a more general way. I wasn’t on it until the very end, nurturing certain ideas along, but they are still there on screen, the broad strokes color & lighting concepts. It’s nice to see that. I really like the Prologue and Act I (before Carl even lifts his house). I think the contrast between the storybook opening and the more bittersweet reality (post Ellie) is very strong. I like the pacing a lot in that whole first half and all of the visual storytelling.
The contrasting visual tones in Up Act 1 © Pixar / Disney
On Ratatouille you famously filled the co-starring voiceover role as Linguini the chef. That must be a somewhat unique position to be working both as a production & concept artist and also as an voice actor. How did that situation come about?
I think I was doing scratch on Ratatouille while I was working on The Incredibles. It was only ever intended as a temporary place holder. That’s what scratch or temp music is. I was on leave after Incredibles, but would still come in occasionally to do voice work. It was Brad who really pushed to keep my voice in the film. When I started on Up I would still get called away to do voice work, but it wasn’t until fairly late in the process that I was told my voice would actually be used in the final film. I would go to the sound studio (downstairs) do some recording with Brad, then go back to my office to do artwork on Up. That is not unusual at the studio. There are a lot of people that lend their voices to the scratch track reels. And sometimes they are cast in the film.
Lou (right) with Brad Bird and Peter Sohn at the Ratatouille premiere
Did you ever have aspirations to be an actor?
Throughout junior high and high school I did. I was studying and performing in theater in and outside of school and looking at universities with theater programs in my junior year. But, I also like to draw and paint and started thinking about ways to incorporate both interests. A friend told me about Cal Arts in Valencia, Ca. and my parents took me there to visit. That was it. For me animation seemed like the best way to bring all these different interests: film, drama, art and music together. I still acted in short films and took some breaks to study acting and improv in Los Angeles, but animation and film were always the main focus.
Do you think your experience in the art department helped you at all when it came to recording the voice?
Usually an actor comes in to do a role and is shown key drawings, paintings and sculpts of the character he or she will be voicing. Since I was in the art department, I was around earlier to see character designs evolve and change, before arriving at their final versions. But, I can’t say that it gave me an advantage personally. Working on E from The Incredibles however, was a different story. That was a case where Brad Bird would act out her character, and his voice became the key to unlocking her design.
Lou’s character, Linguini, in Ratatouille © Pixar / Disney
Congratulations for winning an Annie Award for your work on The Incredibles! It had a very distinctive style that stood out from other CGI films and really captured the feel of 60s Hollywood spy genre. How did you go about creating that look?
We immersed ourselves with reference and inspiration from the period: architecture, fashion, fine art, film, automotive and product design. You name it. We tried to distil all of it and create something classic and new, at the same time.
One of Lou’s lighting thumbnails for The Incredibles © Pixar / Disney
One of our key points of inspiration was Ken Adam who was Production Designer on Dr. Strangelove, and many of the classic James Bond films like Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. His work has a bold, clean look and feel to it. He works with big, broad forms and always finds interesting ways of using materials like concrete, metal, wood and stone. We also looked to some of the architects who inspired him, namely John Lautner, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in his early days and went on to design some spectacular buildings and homes.
A mini feature about designing for Bond, featuring Ken Adam
For me the warmth and elegance of the period was key. Brad also impressed on us the importance of contrasting the super with the mundane, or the Island and the Home life. Those were the key poles to the whole world. Everything pertaining to the home was our starting point for the mid-century modern time and place. The island takes that even further imagining a future designed from the 1960’s.
A selection of Lou’s lighting studies for The Incredibles © Pixar / Disney
It was also intended to be cooler and sexier than the real world, which is part of it’s allure for Bob (the lovely assistant, the technology, the organic paradise, etc). E was in her own sphere of design, modern minimalism with a nod to the ancient classical era (the time of the original Superheroes).
There were some brilliant locations and characters in The Incredibles. What was your favourite scene in the film?
My favorite part of the film starts when Bob returns to the Island for the second time. He’s walking into a trap but it begins so luxuriously: the private jet, underwater landing platform, special monorail pod. Michael Giacchino’s score here is brilliant too, which is very evocative of the period.
When creating a piece of concept art or production art how much involvement is there from other members of the team, such as the director or story writers?
It depends on the piece or assignment. I try to do some pieces without anyone’s input. This helps me wrap my head around my own take or point of view on the film. It also gives something for the director and other artists to respond too. It’s not always important for this kind of artwork to adhere directly to the story. It’s meant more to inspire and get people thinking about the possibilities.
One of Lou’s concept pieces for Bob in The Incredibles © Pixar / Disney
If it’s useful that’s great, if not, at least I did it and got it out of my system and communicated my perspective. I think this type of artwork is very important during the development process, because when production really gets going you have little to no time for it. But, I often refer to it as a reminder of the possibilities.
A snapshot of Lou’s colour script for The Incredibles © Pixar / Disney
Then there are the assignments, like environmental designs or the color script, where I need the input of the director and other team members. This is when things have to get more specific, when they must pertain directly to the story. Being around other artists is an advantage in that you are always learning and exposed to new things. If I get stuck on something it’s helpful to get a fresh perspective and critique.
We’re big advocates of the traditional sketchbook here at TC. Do you use a sketchbook much? If so, do you have a sketchbook and pen/pencil of choice?
I started keeping sketchbooks in 2000 when I started on The Incredibles. It was a good way to keep my own ideas and studies organized and in one place. My sketchbooks are full of doodles and notes for paintings and projects that I don’t realize for weeks, months or sometimes years. But I do refer to old sketchbooks and usually have one with me. I like using 4B and 6B pencils and brush pens. But I’ll use whatever is available. And If I do a sketch on a napkin or scrap paper, I usually tape it inside the sketchbook to keep it all together.
A recent sketchbook piece by Lou (this time in pen)
Of all the different projects you’ve worked on over the years, do you have a particular one that you’re fond of?
The Incredibles is the film I’m most proud of. Of all the projects I’ve worked on it is the most cohesive and was the experience from beginning to end where the original integrity of the design was maintained throughout.
There are some things in the film that could have benefited from more time and budget, but all of the important things are intact, which is what really matters. I feel lucky that I was part of that film and part of the studio then. I think it was a creative high point for Pixar and for feature animation in general.
Who have been the biggest influences and inspirations on your career?
I would have to say Brad Bird. He’s been the best teacher in terms of articulating and defending a personal vision. He has a great knowledge of film and a deep respect and interest in all the facets of movie making. He’s tough on artists but can inspire you to do your best work. He’s never wishy-washy, always articulate of the vision, which I think is key to his strength as a film maker. He’s not afraid to speak his mind and encourages creative debate and discussion, which I feel is essential to good work. And his passion for art, film and life is inspiring.
If you ever get brain-freeze or need a bit of break what do you like to go and do?
If I’m stuck on something it’s usually because I’m struggling with somebody else’s notes or wishes. Sometimes I will put aside the thing I’m stuck on and draw or paint something totally unrelated, for myself. It really helps when I finally revisit the challenge. I might put on a movie or piece of music I love, which helps reconnect me to what I like. Then I can address the notes with a clear mind.
What sort of things are you liking at the moment? (artists, links, random stuff)
I recently visited Michael Sporn’s website & blog and discovered two Italian artists I had never heard of before: Giulio Gianini & Emanuele Luzzati. They both passed away not too long ago. Gianini was an animator and director and Luzzati was a designer of opera and illustrator of children’s books.
Giulio Gianini’s La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie)
They produced some beautiful cut out animated films together that I’ve been watching online. I also recently ordered a book of Luzzati’s stage work and fine art, which I can’t wait to see. Learning about these artists was like finding a treasure. They’ve always been around, but I didn’t know about them. I love it when that happens.
Finally, what’s the one thing everyone should do today?
I’d recommend taking a break from your job (even if it’s just 15 minutes) and go do something creative for yourself.
A huge thanks to Lou for his time. If you’d like to explore more of Lou’s work, and keep up to date with his goings-on then head over to his blog.
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