Neil Blevins is a digital effects artist who works as a technical director at world-renowned film studio Pixar. We spoke to him about his work...
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 of experience in title design, graphics and direction in the movie industry. She was manager of Walt Disney Studios’ Title Graphics Department for six years before moving on to design titles for a number of live action films. In 2006 she teamed up with the Pixar gang and was involved in their animated success, Ratatouille. We were lucky enough to grab some of her time to ask her some questions about the film, the studio and her love of title design.
Hi welcome to Thunder Chunky. Are you having a good day?
Most definitely… thanks for asking.
Firstly, congratulations on your involvement in the recent Pixar movie Ratatouille. In the press, Ratatouille had a bit of a mixed build up, but when it finally launched it opened to rave reviews. Was everyone on the team happy with how it turned out?
Yes – very happy and very proud. It’s amazing what commitment, authenticity and sleep deprivation can produce. At every step, every pixel was cared for. The minute you go on about how amazing the story and the lighting was, you can’t help but go down a long list.
One of your roles on the film was graphic designer; what sort of things did this entail?
There were a few of us working with the talented Harley Jessup and we basically took different scenes and developed them graphically. Our research, done in and about Paris, was vast and we tried to keep a consistent style going for Brad; a touch of whimsy, but not too much. My biggest scene was the design of the rat poison products for the front window of the Paris exterminator shop – which is a real place! It was strange developing something evil in the world of our adorable little friends, but that was the point.
The Paris exterminator shop and products for ‘Ratatouille’
¬© 2007 Disney/Pixar
You designed a custom typeface for the credits on Ratatouille. Could you talk us through the process involved in creating it and how you came up with the style?
I was a type geek long before I arrived at Pixar, so I was thrilled to create a handmade quality for the typography. It might be the first time I’ve ever created a main and end layout combination that was so different in personality, but it works for the film. The hand-drawn cursive in the beginning credits was a variation on some sketches from Harley so we’d feel like we were in Paris. The serif typography in the end cards I drew initially in pencil inspired by a slab serif typeface called Rockwell. They were scanned and re-painted in photoshop. I was hoping to do something with Rockwell for this because it really marries well with all the wonderful hand-drawn 2D animation Brad encouraged for the end sequence.
‘Ratatouille’ type examples
¬© 2007 Disney/Pixar
It’s been a couple of years since you joined the Pixar team, what was the biggest attraction of working there?
I was fortunate to be at Disney when Pixar was tackling Toy Story. It was always the brightest most exciting time of the year when the Pixar films came calling, as they were all conceived and produced in the San Francisco Bay Area, not at Disney, (except various post production). My first trips up north to work with them were my first trips to the Bay area also, and the love affair never went away. John Lasseter and his team then had (and still has) this warm and infectious energy of super curious and best-it-can-be ethic, and I knew then that Pixar was where I wanted to be. You can get a sense of this in “The Pixar Story” documentary that’s just coming out. Feeling that you have a professional family is very necessary and nurturing when the days are long.
What would a normal days work at Pixar involve?
Well lets see; after grabbing some morning nibblets at Luxo Cafe you’re sure to see and visit with people in the Atrium to get your day going. The Atrium is our 200ft. x 132ft. open air thoroughfare off the lobby in the center of the building I would call the cathedral for spontaneous gatherings. Our studio is an insanely busy place housing almost 1,000 people, so you have groups taking meetings or dailies, producers and managers planning scene schedules, and folks losing themselves in their creations. Hopefully at some point you’ve made it outside on the grounds to refresh the senses before the day goes by in a flash.
Before working at Pixar you were lead title designer at Disney, working on films such as Toy Story and the Lion King. How important would you say titles are to the success of a movie?
Film titles certainly welcome you and wave goodbye in a very crucial and visceral way, but I don’t think they have much weight as it relates to “success”, unless that’s all the film has going for it. I think the biggest mistake is seeing the title sequence as separate from its film. In my opinion, they can do very much or very little; but really shine when they live within the story and reflect an important quality driven by your Director. Just like the mark of a great soundtrack should enchant and support but feel rather seamless and invisible. Walter Salles is another authentic and character-driven storyteller, and on “The Motorcycle Diaries” we tried many things. For as inspiring as that film was for me personally, the titles accented a 1950s sojourn in South America and had to be subtle with humility for the story. “Dark Water” could have been super creepy motion graphics extravaganza, but Walter didn’t want to give it away. It needed to be under the radar, not hitting you over the head.
Titles for ‘Dark Water’ and ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’
Which of your projects are you most proud of?
That’s a hard question; I love my job and every project is so very different… but I will say that in live-action “The Matador” title design was an invigorating puzzle to solve. I had to design and cut the main title sequence between the week of Christmas and New Years in LA, and we couldn’t show any blood in the bullfight footage. These bullfights were beautifully shot in Spain, but they are intense! so… you lock yourself in the Studio with some eggnog and hammer away. My family barely understood that one.
Titles for ‘The Matador’
You must have worked with a complete cross-section of the animation industry in your time at Disney and Pixar, who do you feel were the most inspirational to you?
Career-wise I would say John Lasseter and hand-lettering artist Harold Adler. John for the reasons I mention above and Harold for others. Harold tutored me in calligraphy and shared his hand-lettering and production experience with Saul Bass and Hitchcock. He was a true craftsman, penning most all Saul Bass’ titles and for many other designers in the industry. He was part of the birth of title design as we know it. We worked together in 1990 at my first title graphics job and stayed in touch until his retirement and subsequent passing at age 89. He is missed beyond expectation.
Outside of the industry, what would you say were(are) your biggest inspirations?
Photography, music and motorcycles are big on the list, the first two being fueled from my parents at a young age. My dad was a commercial photographer studying at Art Center and mom was a layout artist in advertising when they met. Mom had a choice between a diamond wedding ring or an Eames leather ottoman. Of course she made the only choice: the ultimate chair. We had a design-centric household for as super modest as it was, and I was very devoted to losing myself in music and what my folks were up to. I adored working in the darkroom and had several jobs as a custom darkroom printer before typography changed everything. And the motorcycles? Well… that goes without saying.
Are you able to say what you’ll be working on in 2008?
I can’t discuss Pixar work, but I do hope to be paying tribute to Harold Adler and sharing his artwork in the coming years through exhibition and possibly a film.
Finally, what’s the one thing everybody should do today?
Something backwards or something analog you’d normally computerize. It’s fun.
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