HDD Attends a Virtual Roundtable with Tia Kratter of Pixar

Posted Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 02:40 PM PST by

One of the biggest Blu-ray releases this month is Disney/Pixar's 'Brave.' The Blu-ray Disc Association put together a 'Brave'-related virtual roundtable with Pixar's Shading Art Director, Tia Kratter, and we were there.

Many of these roundtables have focused solely on the business and restoration side of Blu-rays. This Q&A is much more specific. Focusing mainly on 'Brave' we learn oodles of information about what it's like creating this type of animation and the seemingly endless amount of work that goes into animating a Pixar movie. This turns out to be a much more personal roundtable that really takes you into the inner workings of Pixar and what it's like to be employed by them.

[Note: As always with these live roundtables that are produced in a chat room type of forum, spelling and punctuation don't always turn out splendidly. As a result some spelling and punctuation errors have been changed, but all the questions and answers retain their original voice and meaning.]

Q: Can you tell us about the resources used (and the research done) to make all the details in the movie about ancient Scotland accurate?

Tia Kratter: Well, we have a few different ways of getting our information. Thank goodness for the internet because now a lot of our research can be done pretty quickly that way. But there's nothing like going to a real location and feeling and seeing things in person. Even though we really do our research, we don't remain tied to getting the facts exactly perfect. We take what we need to make the story believable. So, for instance, plaids and clan tartans didn't really exist during the time in which our film takes place. But tartans are such an iconic image of Scottish life that we decided to incorporate them into 'Brave.'

Q: In 'Brave' the landscapes, Merida's hair, and in general, the care for details is really impressive. Can you tell us about the processes required to bring these details to life?

Tia Kratter: Thanks for your nice note! What we discovered in both the landscapes and Merida's hair was the beauty of chaos. The landscapes were a combination of grasses, mosses, ferns, rocks - different textures across any environment. Similarly, Merida's hair was lots of different oranges and yellows, and every ringlet had its own personality. A lot of times you think characters and landscapes are quite different, but in this case they took on the same types of challenges. So, in order to make them look believable, we gathered a lot of research for both the hair and the landscapes and took that all the way through the process, even getting some help from the lighting team to bring it all together.

Q: With the sun hitting the mountains in Scotland, rendering the right amount of shade within the environmental colors must be a huge task?

Tia Kratter: You're right. It is a big task. Throw in the challenge of constantly changing weather and you have even more work. I give Danielle Feinberg, our Director of Photography-Lighting and her great team the credit for pulling it all together. Yes, the modeling and textures are a big task, but lighting is at the end of the process, and they're really pushed to bring it all together within our deadlines. I'm always in awe of how beautiful their work is.

Q: We read that one of the biggest challenges in 'Brave' was the hair of Merida, that you wanted it to stand out against the stunning film backgrounds. What can you tell us about this?

Tia Kratter: I agree, but I have to say that this is one of solutions that came easily to us. From the very beginning our director knew that Merida was going to have wild, fiery, orange hair. The big payoff was that it worked so well against the complex and rich violets and greens of the Scottish landscape. It was a wonderful discovery for us to see that if we had a shot in the film with Merida against a huge, rich environment, even if she was tiny in the shot, you could always spot her with that beautiful head of hair.

Q: Did you go to the Scottish Highlands for shots and sketches?

Tia Kratter: We did! We took 2 trips: one in 2006 and another in 2007. Although we have lots of resources at our fingertips now with the internet, there's nothing like being there in person. We never would have known about the hummocks (big round mounds of moss) and how thick and dense they were. We wouldn't have been as aware of the constantly changing weather, and we wouldn't have felt the icy cold water of the lochs (lakes). All those things helped to define the 'Brave' world more clearly for us.

Q: Your director said it was critical for artists to go to Scotland. How did you find that to be true, as you worked on the project?

Tia Kratter: So SO true! There's nothing like being somewhere in person. At Pixar we tend to do this for every one of our films. To be able to go to places like Dunottar Castle, Stirling, and the Isles of Skye, Lewis and Harris was a massive payoff, visually.

Q: You've been at Pixar since the first 'Toy Story,' working in the art department. How has your work evolved over the past few years?

Tia Kratter: You've done your homework! Back in 1993, when I began to work on 'Toy Story,' the internet as we now know it didn't exist. So all of our reference on that film was personally-found. In other words, when we had to figure out Sid's hair, I went directly to my oldest son's flattop haircut and used that as reference. Nowadays we back up real reference with information we find online. It helps streamline things. Still, and you'll hear this a lot this morning, there's nothing like touching and seeing the real thing. Also, on 'Toy Story,' we really didn't know what the heck we were doing. Now we've got all sorts of hoops to jump through. Making a computer animated film is not a quick process, and just because we're using a computer it doesn't really go any faster than classic hand-drawn animation.

Q: What is the coolest thing about working at Pixar?

Tia Kratter: 1. The cereal bar. We get a choice of about 18 different cereals in our brown bag kitchen to choose from every morning. Once a week I go for the Captain Crunch, which my mom never let me eat when I was a kid. 2. The people (actually that should be my number 1). You can't believe how many thoughtful, kind and creative people work here. I'm in awe of the talent around me every single day. 3. The commitment to making great films. We try hard, really hard, to make our films something that we love. And, by feeling solid about them ourselves, we hope the audience does too.

Q: Are you already working on another project? Can you talk about it?

Tia Kratter: I'm not. Pixar is really thoughtful about giving us a break after we've worked for 6 years on a film. So for the past few months I've been working for Pixar University, the internal, educational branch of Pixar. It's a great chance to recharge before moving on to another film.

Q: The color and the movements are incredible, red hair floating in the air reminded me the first time I saw that technique in 'Monster Inc.,' can you explain it in some detail?

Tia Kratter: Thank you! A lot of the research and discovery we made on Sullivan's fur in 'Monsters Inc.' was used as a foundation for what we developed on 'Ratatouille' and ultimately 'Brave.' 'Brave,' of course, raised the bar quite a bit with Merida's wild hair. We've come a long way, and I'm really impressed with what our Simulation team did. From the beginning of 'Brave' we knew that her hair was going to prove to be a technical challenge, so we put a good deal of our initial time and research into making it work. When we know, ahead of time, what our big challenges are, we tend to do pretty well at solving the issues.

Q: Our readers always love fun facts. Do you have any fun stats or numbers concerning the art design and renditions?

Tia Kratter: Here's a number: A113 is seen in every one of our films. It's the animation classroom at Cal Arts, one of the schools where quite a few of our artists studied. You can find that over the entry door in the Witches cottage. (But look carefully...it's not easy to find). Merida has a total of 22 different costumes. Merida has more than 1500 individually sculpted "keyhairs" that once rendered in the computer generate about 111,700 hairs. Yikes!

Q: Do you use a kind of library for objects and textures? The look is getting more and more realistic- are there still objects in the library from the beginning that could be used?

Tia Kratter: You've asked a good question. Ideally we would keep a library of objects and textures that we could use over and over. Here's the rub: computer technology changes so quickly that the Woody model we used on 'Toy Story 3' is quite different from the original on 'Toy Story.' So, we do try to maintain the look of our original characters, but we're constantly upgrading, too.

Q: The arrow shot in slow motion is something very cool, what are the implications during the designing of that movie and how many drawings you had to do for the preparing of the shooting?

Tia Kratter: I love that shot, too. The art department on 'Brave,' generated quite a few drawings to show what the bow and arrow look like, and how its design is unique, but the credit goes to the animation department for how the arrow behaves in that shot. Did you notice how the shaft of the arrow actually bends around the bow? That comes from lots of research on their part, along with some archery lessons, that gives the animators good information to extend to the screen. So it's less drawing on our part and more research by the animation department that really brings that beautiful shot to fruition.

Q: I know it was particularly difficult to recreate the moss in 'Brave,' and that initially few of your team members thought it was impossible. Can you tell us about this anecdote, and if there have been during your career other episodes like this one, where something that seemed impossible then took life brilliantly?

Tia Kratter: It was tough! I naively thought that since Scotland was the birthplace of golf that all Scottish landscapes were lovely, close-cropped lawns. What a surprise to discover that it's a wild cacophony of mosses, rocks, and grasses of all lengths combined. We probably took 10,000 photos of this wild beauty back to our technical team and said, "Wow! Isn't this cool, wild and beautiful?!" They were initially pretty cautious about promising to get that chaotic look, but they put some smart heads together and over the course of about a year came up with some really innovative discoveries for giving us that complex world without breaking the bank. I'm so indebted to them, both for their commitment to rising to the challenge and to their visual final product. Our sets are so lovely they play just as important a part in the film as our characters.

Q: Does the shading vary significantly with 3D as opposed to 2D animation?

Tia Kratter: I think it does. In 2D animation you're filling a hand-drawn shape, usually, with a flat color. In 3D you have the added benefit of adding complex color and texture to everything. I love this added world, and feel so lucky to be part of it. You should see my office: it's filled with furs and fabrics, mosses, lichen, birch branches - all used to define the surface quality of models in 'Brave.' I can't imagine what I'd do without this added bonus of the computer animated world.

Q: Of all the Pixar movies you worked on, which one is your favorite?

Tia Kratter: Fun Fact: I tend to love the Pixar films that I didn't work on. Why? Oh, I get to see them for what they are. For example, I don't have to look at 'Finding Nemo' (which I didn't work on) and say, "That was a heckuva lot of work to get that jellyfish to look right." On the films I've worked on it's hard for me to separate the film on the screen from the day-to-day building of the film. I can say, though, that I had the best experience working on 'Brave.' Our art department was very small and close. I loved the subject matter of Scotland, and, even after 6 years, never grew tired of seeing it every day.

Q: Thanks for sharing about Captain Crunch. Funny. This is not a question, but just wanted to share that last night I watched Brave with my Scottish boyfriend and his friends. Although he is 41, he looks very similar to the three princes, same hair. We all enjoyed our Scottish culture night. He did a running commentary on the landscape. It was a terrific time and we all thought it was incredibly beautiful and fun. Thanks for making such cool work.

Tia Kratter: Thanks for your kind kind note. First off, does your 41-year-old boyfriend tend to sneak around, tie peoples' legs to tables, and steal food? I wish I'd known of him about 6 years ago. Researching the red hair for 'Brave' was really fun but also a challenge. It was hard to find either the right curliness or the right redness for our characters. I'd often stop people on the street and ask them if I could photograph them, either for their hair color or the texture of their hair. And he's right about the Scottish landscape: I've never seen any place quite like it myself. I was impressed that there were such wide stretches of land with no man-made structures in sight. It's absolutely beautiful country. (Make him take you there).

Q: How long did it take you and your team to complete the movie?

Tia Kratter: I worked on 'Brave' for 6 years, which is a little longer than normal. The typical production time on a Pixar film is 4-6 years, so we were on the longer end for 'Brave.'

Q: Working at Pixar is a challenge every day, do you have to learn new computer programs and follow the new technologies available?

Tia Kratter: Sometimes. Our technical folks do have to be on top of new software and technological advancements, much more than we do in the art department. But anytime a new piece of painting software comes out, we tend to jump on that and take a look at how we can use it.

Q: How many different objects, persons and animals were created for 'Brave'?

Tia Kratter: I'm afraid I can't answer your question with real numbers. But, if you start to think about all of the objects in the Great Hall, it must be in the thousands.

Q: What makes the better movie - a director with a specific vision or a team that creates the vision of a movie together?

Tia Kratter: Both. A director has a passion, something from their heart, that inspires the initial idea for a film. While working with their crew to develop their vision, the director is getting constant feedback from all sorts of people at Pixar. That balance, while delicate, make the film richer and more interesting to watch.

Q: How did the change of the director during the filmmaking influenced your work, for example the decision not to use the snowy environments in the second half of the movie?

Tia Kratter: I worked with both Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman on the film, and each of them brought their own sensibilities to the table. The decision to pull the snow from most of the film was made because it was not doing much to enhance our story. We make these kinds of decisions all of the time when crafting our stories and films at Pixar.

Q: If you could wish for special software for your work - what would that be?

Tia Kratter: A software that would let me eat Captain Crunch every day without consequence. Because I'm in the art department, I'm not faced with big technological issues. So when my paintbrush gets old and ragged, I just throw it away and grab another. It's a lot easier than navigating technical challenges.

Q: Was there a challenge that arose during the rendering of 'Brave' that forced you to look for a solution that ultimately ended up advancing the technology or the realm of what's possible?

Tia Kratter: There were two, I'd say. First, and I've mentioned it a bit earlier, was with the rendering of our very complex environments. We really had to push things technically to get our rich forests without blowing up our rendering computers. We had some very smart technical folks (we call them our wizards) who holed up in their offices to make it work. It ended up being so rich yet streamlined that some of our subsequent films have used this technology for their own benefit. Secondly, we knew that the cloth needed to be seen at very close angles. That, coupled with the notion that cloth back in the 10th or 11th century was not manufactured but hand-woven, pushed our character texturing team to figure out how to "weave" actual strands of cloth so it would look uneven, ragged and bumpy. Merida's dress, the tapestry, and Fergus' tartan are great places to see this hand-made feel. I think it's beautiful. I predict you'll see some of these advances seen in our future films.

Q: Which were the most difficult elements to translate to the movie?

Tia Kratter: Initially, Merida's hair of course was a challenge. But we knew it was going to be from the very beginning. And when we can anticipate our challenges, we tend to do really well. It's those little surprises that come up along the way that can really throw us for a loop. We had never done a horse, except for Bullseye in 'Toy Story 2' and 'Toy Story 3.' In 'Brave,' we wanted to create a fairly realistic horse, one that didn't talk or make funny faces. Although Angus was a challenge, he remains one of my favorite characters in the film because he is elegant, strong and visually beautiful.

Q: How has animation changed over the past 15 years to create realistic light and shadow, based on sources such as the sun and fire?

Tia Kratter: Our lighting team has developed new tools over the years that have given them greater control over lighting their environments. The tricky part about 'Brave' was that our weather was constantly changing. And so even in one shot, you might find that things were first in shadow and then bathed in light. We probably couldn't have lit that kind of a shot back on 'Monsters, Inc.' but now because technology has improved, we are able to do that sort of thing.

Q: Can you tell us about the creative process? What are the first steps that happen after you read the screenplay? Was Merida the first character created?

Tia Kratter: Let me answer this from the art department's point of view: Usually when you are pitched a story or read a treatment, all sorts of visuals start running through your head. So the first steps a production designer might take could be very broad and general, maybe small impressions of the emotions or story points that resonate from the initial pitch. On 'Brave,' Merida was always the main character in the film. When developing the story, Brenda Chapman recognized a fiery, headstrong spirit in her daughter and used their relationship as inspiration for Merida's relationship with her mother, Elinor. From that point, it was up to our production designer, Steve Pilcher, to describe that relationship visually.

Q: As a young girl, what would catch your eye? What inspired you artistically? Did you always draw? What did you love to play with as a child?

Tia Kratter: My mom is an artist, my husband is an artist, my son is an artist. And my whole life, I have been surrounded by creative people, so it's been second nature for me, even as a young child to draw and paint.

Q: In your words, how would you describe the ultimate goal of the shading art director? Are you responsible for the overall look and feel of the film? Perhaps you'd describe the role as bringing beauty to each frame? Curious to know how you view the ultimate responsibility of your job.

Tia Kratter: My ultimate goal is to support the visual inspiration of the director and the production designer. I'm responsible for specifying the colors and textures for things that are modeled in the film. Its one small part of a greater group of people who come together to make the visuals work as a whole. There's really no part of the film that I can point to and say, "I did that." Making a CG animation film is so collaborative, that if you're looking for individual accolades, this probably isn't the right medium for it.

Q: The shading art, is it a difficult one to master?

Tia Kratter: Well, first off I hope I never master it, and one of the reasons why I love it so much is that I am constantly challenged when put on a new film. It's kind of like going to college over and over again, and by the time I finish I have a degree in, say, monster fur.

Q: In the video we could see how you were taking photos of landscapes and how you were drawing details with brush and watercolors. Was it difficult to move all those textures, spongy grass and hardness of the rocks, to the film?

Tia Kratter: From an artistic point of view, it's not difficult at all. We take our drawings, photographs and real reference from our trip, show them to our technical team and describe how they inspired us. Now, if you ask the same question to our technical team, they would probably have a different answer. It's one thing to be inspired by something; it's another to actually bring it to the screen. We worked together, sometimes for months, to get the look and texture of something right. We'll go back and forth between arts and, in my case, shading or texturing, to come up with a solution that's visually pleasing technically feasible.

Q: Pixar seems to be all about big leaps forward in animation. 'Finding Nemo' showed off advances in animating water, 'Wall-e' showed off dust and sand, and Brave has lots of new things. Where do you think Pixar will go next?

Tia Kratter: It's not my strength to forecast the future. I think I'm better at being posed a challenge and finding ways to make it work visually, and I think there are others here who I'll leave to discover our next advances.

Q: What struck me most about 'Brave' is how cinematic it looked, from the helicopter shots of the Highlands to stationary cameras and two-shots. It was as if I was watching a film where the characters just happened to be animated. Can you talk about how the art department achieved that look?

Tia Kratter: I give a lot of credit to our director of photography-camera, Rob Anderson and his team, for being able to virtually scout the world of Scotland as we knew it on 'Brave.' We didn't create this film to be photo-realistic, but if it's believable to you then we feel we have done our job. Thanks for the nice compliment. (In one of the helicopter shots, if you look carefully, you'll see the shadow of the helicopter in the shot. But of course, there were no helicopters in ancient Scotland - just one of the many additions our director Mark Andrews brought to the table.)

Q: Is there any funny anecdote that happened during your trip to Scotland with your team, which eventually ended up being part of a scene in the movie?

Tia Kratter: The "Wee Bunk House" definitely did not end up as part of the film, but it was certainly funny! Our Story Supervisor Brian Larsen made it a personal goal to eat haggis every evening of our 12-day trip in 2006. Most of his experiences were quite positive, but every once in a while he would run into a pretty gamey meal. All of this eating inspired a lot of what you see in the "Family Meal" sequence where Merida's triplet brothers are refusing to eat their haggis. Oh, and if you haven't tried haggis you should! It's Scottish meatloaf without the ketchup, in my opinion.

Q: What do you think of 3D? Did 3D ever come up as part of the design process?

Tia Kratter: That's a great question. We never make creative decisions for our films based on the 3D, but we find that it's another good mechanism for conveying our stories. I loved seeing 'Finding Nemo' in 3D. That deep, atmospheric world lent itself so well to another dimension of viewing. As far as the art and design of 'Brave,' we never stopped and rejiggered things specifically for 3D. We do our best to make a visually gratifying film for whatever medium it's shown in.

Q: Tia, any final thoughts on 'Brave' as we close out this virtual roundtable?

Tia Kratter: First off, many thanks to all of you who posed such interesting questions. It's been a real treat to spend a few hours with you. Hopefully you got a better sense of how we made 'Brave' and how we work at Pixar.

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