Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Conversation With Joe Ranft

This interview with Pixar legend Joe Ranft will appear in a future volume of the “Walt’s People” book series that features interviews with people who worked at Disney. Disney historian Jim Korkis has been gracious enough to give us this advance peek at one of his shorter interviews as a way of reminding readers of 2719 Hyperion to check out this fantastic book series as well as the website of the editor of the series, Didier Ghez.

Special to 2719 Hyperion by Jim Korkis

Born in Pasadena, California (but raised in Whittier, California) on March 13, 1960, Joseph Henry “Joe” Ranft was an animator, storyboard artist and voice actor who worked for Disney and Pixar.

He studied character animation at California Institute of the Arts. His student film caught the attention of Disney where he worked starting in 1980 for the next years on a variety of television projects that never got made. He received additional training from Disney Legend Eric Larson as well as getting some improvisational theater training from a local Los Angeles group called the Groundlings. He did some story work on The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

Ranft had known John Lasseter at California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s and ended up joining Pixar in 1992. His first work included pitching and storyboarding the Green Army Men sequence for Toy Story. He worked on story development for all the Pixar feature films including some work on Cars.

Because of his performing background, he provided voices for some of the characters in the Pixar films: Lenny the Binoculars (Toy Story), Heimlich the Caterpillar (A Bug’s Life), Wheezy the Penguin (Toy Story 2), various incidental voices (Monsters, Inc.), Jacques the Shrimp (Finding Nemo), various incidental voices (The Incredibles) and Red and a Peterbilt (Cars).

He also contributed to many other films including The Brave Little Toaster, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Monkeybone, and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.

On August 16,2005, Ranft was killed tragically when his car crashed through a guard rail and plunged into the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino County, California. He died during the production of Cars which he co-directed.

On April 23, 1999, Joe was out on vacation with his family to Florida and had never been to Walt Disney World when he did a presentation for Disney Feature Animation Florida. He also dropped by the Disney Institute later that day and spent some time with the Animation Team. Jim Korkis was an Animation Instructor at the Disney Institute at the time and got to spend a little time with Joe.

One of Jim’s biggest thrills was introducing himself to Joe and Joe’s face lighting up as he shouted, “You write stuff!” He was familiar with the books on animation that Jim had co-written with John Cawley and Joe was gracious enough not only to autograph Jim’s copy of a book adapting A Bug’s Life but also sketched a drawing of Hemlich the caterpillar, the character he provide the voice for in the film in Jim’s book. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, like John Lasseter, Joe very graciously answered some of Jim’s questions as they talked casually before his presentation and it was very apparent Joe had a childlike enthusiasm for telling stories.

Jim Korkis: What are some hints you can share with us about storyboarding?

Joe Ranft: Storyboarding is really re-boarding. Your first idea is never good enough and you have to keep changing. In the two and half years we worked on A Bug’s Life we ended up with over 27,500 storyboard drawings we eventually used but tossed out tons of others.

JK: How can you tell whether you need to toss away a storyboard drawing?

JR: A good storyboard panel tells just one thing and is staged to tell just that one thing. How can you check? You put it on the board and walk away from it with your back towards it and then spin around quickly and look at it and see if it clearly tells what you want it to tell. And if you feel that you are lying to yourself, you bring someone else to look at it.

JK: What qualities make a good storyboard artist?

JR: A good storyman has to juggle so many things like acting, staging, and composition…all in one panel!

JK: How is it pitching a storyboard to John Lasseter?

JR: When you pitch, you might get John’s attention for maybe twenty minutes before he is reeling off suggestions like “let’s make that wider”, “do that from a different angle” and we are scrambling to take these quick notes on post-it notes and put it on the board.

JK: So is John pretty casual at these pitches?

JR: We have a storyboard reel with a caricature of John Lasseter wearing a purple sweatshirt instead of his Hawaiian shirt. That is the truth. For story meetings, John will wear a purple sweatshirt. And early in the morning, his hair isn’t quite combed. (laughs)

JK: You seem to use John Ratzenberg a lot.

JR: John Ratzenberg who did the voice of P.T. Flea is so wonderful that you can just send him a script and a tape and he could send you back a terrific performance. In the booth, after he did the lines as they were in the script, he’d say, “Let me give you it this way” and did some marvelous things. In the flea circus scene where he goes right to camera and says “in just fifteen seconds” was something he added and we went back and adjusted our boards. And his line where he introduces himself was his improv and he said it came from an old radio show.

JK: You’re pretty modest but you’ve done some great voice work as well like Hemlich in A Bug’s Life.

JR: I think I got Hemlich because of John Lasseter’s wife. She laughed when I did the lines but didn’t when they brought in this professional actor to do them. My son, Joe, did a kid ant voice in A Bug’s Life. Doing all these voices, I had to join the Screen Actor’s Guild.

JK: I know you sometimes do “incidental voices” as well. Did you do any on A Bug’s Life?

JR: I did some incidental voices like the flies that say “Burn him again” and “I’ve only got twenty-four hours to live and I’m not spending it here.”

JK: Do you do those voices for your kids as well?

JR: I read stories to my kids and I do the funny voices and sometimes they tell me to stop doing the voices and just read the story.

JK: Do you script the outtakes that appear at the end of the film for the voice actors?

JR: The outtakes are done on the last day of voice recording for each actor if time permitted. They were not boarded but quick sketch suggestions were done of some of them. Some of them obviously were for adults so we purposely tried to include some slapstick bits for the kids. Those are my favorites.

JK: I understand the story began in a different direction for “A Bug’s Life”.

JR: Originally, the story of A Bug’s Life was supposed to be about a red ant named “Red” who ran the circus instead of P.T. Flea but they hit a stonewall in terms of developing the story.

JK: The final story seems similar to The Magnificent Seven.

JR: We get asked if the film was influenced by The Magnificient Seven and all I can say is that all the guys at Pixar are big film buffs and I also see some elements from The Three Amigos but that story falls apart for me when they are discovered not to be gunfighters. We solved that problem by coming up with the bird device storyline after the revelation. Of course, the original inspiration was the story of The Grasshopper and the Ants.

JK: Anything you remember getting cut from the film after it was in production?

JR: On the original boards, the circus bugs were doing all sorts of things offstage that eventually got cut because the scene was so long. For instance, the spider is practicing weaving the safety web within fifteen seconds while Dim times her and it is a terrible mess. “Are you sure it was fifteen seconds?” “Let me check.” “You have to check whether it was fifteen seconds?”

The praying mantis was much harsher in ignoring his wife, Gypsy. “Haven’t you forgotten half your act?” she asks extending her hand to be kissed. He replies, “You are right” and he comes back and grabs his turban to put on his head.

In the arena, when Hemlich sees the kid flies with the candy corn and offers to help them finish it, the line on the storyboard was “Get out of here, Fatso” which was cut from the film.

JK: Joe, thanks for spending time with us today. This is great.

JR: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks.


kasandria said...

Enjoyed reading your blog! I am a fellow Disney fanatic. :)

Stelth said...

I think the word "legend" is thrown around too much. Why are some so eager to canonize anyone who does or did creative work for Disney? I have nothing against Joe Ranft but to me this label is way over-used.