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    Sometimes, a studio discovers its best talent right under its nose. That was the case with Jason Deamer, 33, who is the character art director for Pixar Animation Studio’s upcoming feature animation ‘Wall-E,’ and was one of four character designers for the studio’s current release, Disney/Pixar’s scrumptious animated treat, ‘Ratatouille.’

    Deamer didn’t apply for a job as an artist at Pixar; he doodled his way up the career ladder. “I thought I would be a comic artist,” he says. “I had always wanted to be an artist and went to UC Davis because they had some amazing teachers.”

    When he found himself in classes filled with engineering students, though, he transferred to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (now, the California College of the Arts), not far from his Mill Valley hometown.
    After graduating from CCAC, Deamer began working as a freelance artist. He wasn’t exactly a starving artist, but he struggled to pay his bills. “I had borrowed money to go to school,” he says. “My student loans were costing me $500 a month.”

    So, when Jimmy Hayward, a skateboarding friend and Pixar animator, told him that Pixar was hiring office help, he applied. “It was right after ‘Toy Story,’” he says. “I knew about Pixar because I had seen their shorts in animation festivals, but it didn’t occur to me there would be any future for me at Pixar. I thought I’d just be moving furniture.”

    And, that’s what he did. Moved furniture, fetched sandwiches, made copies, sat at the front desk and walked through hallways filled with production art for ‘Monsters, Inc.’ and ‘A Bug’s Life.’ In his spare time, he doodled.

    I’m an obsessive compulsive doodler,” Deamer says. “So when I was making color copies, I’d hold one of my drawings on top of the lid.” While he waited for the copier to finish, he added lines to his drawings. He also drew faces on coffee cups. “It’s like the faces [comic book artist] R. Crumb draws on thread spools,” he says. “You draw the features, but not the silhouette edge.”

    Pixar’s Bob Pauley spotted one of Deamer’s face cups in a production office. At that time, Pauley had been a character designer for ‘Toy Story,’ and was art director for ‘A Bug’s Life.’ Later, he’d become production designer for ‘Monsters, Inc.’ and ‘Cars’. He asked Deamer to show him more drawings.
    And, that ended Deamer’s career as furniture mover, gofer, and clerk. He moved into the art department where he worked as a production artist on ‘Monsters, Inc,’ creating what Pixar calls model packets. “After a character is designed and sculpted,” Deamer explains, “we do formal drawings that describe every aspect of a character, what it exactly looks like from the front and the side.”

    By the time ‘Monsters, Inc.’ released in 2001, Deamer was doing full character design work on ‘Finding Nemo,’ for which he’s credited as “additional character designer.” For ‘Nemo,’ he drew the seagulls, Nigel the pelican, fish in the fish tank, and some background fish.

    Many artists on the ‘Finding Nemo’ crew moved onto ‘Ratatouille,’ including Deamer. In addition, though, Deamer and fellow character designer Greg Dykstra worked with director Gary Rydstrom on the alien characters in ‘Lifted,’ a short film that received a 2007 Oscar nomination.

    When Pixar character designers Deamer, Dykstra, and Don Lee, and freelance artist Carter Goodrich began working on ‘Ratatouille,’ Jan Pinkava, who won an Oscar for his short film ‘Geri’s Game,’ was the director. Then, after close to three years on the project, Brad Bird took over as director. Although Bird rewrote the script, he made only a few changes to the characters.

    “Most of the characters were designed while Jan [Pinkava] was still directing,” says Deamer. “He has a real eye for sculpture.”

    At Pixar, character design begins with pencil sketches. Sometimes the artists have a clear idea about the character, sometimes only a vague notion of the character’s personality. For example, Deamer says that Pinkava described the character Linguini, the hapless kitchen helper through which the little rat Remy channels his cooking skills, as a wimpy teenager. Pinkava suggested using Don Knotts as reference and, closer to home, Lou Romano, a Pixar artist who won an Annie for production design on Bird’s ‘The Incredibles.’ Fittingly, when Bird cast the voice talent for ‘Ratatouille,” he picked Romano to voice Linguini.

    Pinkava also cited actors to help the artists conceive the other characters. “So that we don’t caricature someone’s work, we looked at photographs and videos of real people,” Deamer says. “Then we started drawing.” And drawing, and drawing.

    All told, the character designers drew thousands of pencil and marker sketches to refine the look of ‘Ratatouille’s 20 main characters (10 humans and 10 rats) and around 50 background characters. “We drew some of them a thousand times,” says Deamer. “Some, only once.”

    Linguini wasn’t one of the “once” characters. “He was always skinny,” says Deamer, “but he had long hair, short hair, a big nose, a little nose. And not only did his appearance change, but imagine a scale with a smiley face on one end and a realistic photo on the other. We had to decide how cartoony, how iconic, how realistic we wanted this person to appear.”

    “Our early drawings of Linguini were all over the place,” he adds. “I did all kinds of drawings from extreme mouth open wide and eyebrows stretched, and extremely squashed face. Most of the other expressions fall within that range.”
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  • Once the artists nailed the look, sculptors modeled the characters in clay. Sometimes the modelers sculpted the expressions, but not always. Pixar’s animation system MenV doesn’t use blend shapes, so the digital modelers don’t need reference examples of such facial expressions as smiling, frowning, neutral, and so forth. “With MenV, animators re-sculpt one element at a time,” says Deamer. “They can move each little piece of the face. They don’t blend between a smile and a neutral face; they move the left center of an upper lip. Both methods have their advantages. The MenV advantage is that animators can create really subtle facial movements.”

    To make it easier for the animators to give the rats human emotions, the character designers altered basic rodent anatomy. “A human’s eyebrows, eyes, nose and mouth are basically all on one forward-facing surface,” writes Deamer in the ‘The Art of Ratatouille,’ “but a rat has a giant snout in the way. We gave our rats bigger eyes and pulled them farther up on the head so that you could see them with the mouth in a larger variety of head positions…”
    As the characters evolved into digital 3D models, the character designers stayed closely involved. “Sometimes, the modeler’s first stab looks even better than what we intended,” says Deamer, “but sometimes, we do trace-over drawings.”

    For Linguini, Pixar scanned the clay maquette in high resolution, fit that mesh onto a neutral head shape, and then finessed the digital model. “Once you put the scan into the computer, you realize how asymmetrical the sculptures are,” says Deamer. “The [digital] modelers had to take the sculptures to the next level.”

    Each time the designers added or changed a character, they always looked at them in a group with all the other characters. “The idea is to have distinct silhouettes,” says Deamer. “I equate it to film scoring. Even though you might not notice, each character has a theme when it appears on screen. We try to do that in a visual way. We want the audience to read each character instantly.”

    Of all the characters, Deamer believes the most difficult was Gusteau. In early versions of the story, Gusteau was a main character, a huge chef and the owner of a five star restaurant in Paris, who had lost his passion for cooking. And in that story, Remy helped Gusteau rediscover the art of cooking.

    “Gusteau was the most difficult to nail, because he was the one that really defined the film,” says Deamer. “He was the first one to have a final maquette, but because it was so early, we weren’t convinced it was the right direction. So we went around and around and ended up back at the original maquette. Weirdly, that happens a lot – our first instincts are right. But we still have to go through the process.”
    When Bird became director, he killed Gusteau and turned him into a figment of Remy’s imagination. Gusteau’s design didn’t change; he just became tiny and transparent. “It was a really great solution,” says Deamer. “We had so many characters and story arcs to tell in one movie. Killing Gusteau solved a lot of problems and we could use [his spirit] as a device to explain things.”

    Bird also changed the rats. “There was an initial worry that people would react negatively to rats, so we tried to make them appealing,” says Deamer. “In that process, we had them always on two feet.” Now, all the rats walk on all fours, so when Remy stands up, he stands out. But, although the rigs had to change, and the characters gained a little bottom weight, otherwise the rats looked the same; their faces didn’t change.

    Once the digital models moved into rigging, the character designers still checked on the characters, but their involvement lessened. Deamer, for example, moved on to ‘Wall-E,’ a story of a robot, written and directed by Andrew Stanton, who last wrote and directed ‘Finding Nemo.’ For ‘Wall-E,’ Deamer is the character art director, overseeing the design of all the characters. But he’s still drawing – on the job and at home.

    “I do a lot of drawings of buildings in San Francisco and characters of my own,” he says. “People in airports, whatever’s in front of me.” Even, still, on coffee cups. A San Francisco gallery recently included his face cups in a joint show; Deamer’s climb from copy machine operator to art director hasn’t quelled his impulse to doodle.

    “I’m doodling while we’re talking,” he says. When he told us what he was drawing, we weren’t surprised: an on/off switch for a robot. We’ll be watching for the next results of Deamer’s character designs in June 2008.

    Related links:
    ‘Ratatouille’ site
    ‘Wall•E’ site
    CGSociety Disney / Pixar ‘Cars’ story
    Photos of R. Crumb’s Spoolmen (scroll down)
    Deamer’s face cups (scroll down)
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