Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Interview With Lou Romano

Today is Monzuki's 100th post. In celebration, we conducted our first interview with an Annie Award winner, Lou Romano. Lou joined
Pixar as a production design and a concept artist, working on
The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Cars and Up. He is currently working for Laika, an animation studio in Portland, Oregon.

Monzuki > What one thing do you consider your biggest "break" in the industry?
Lou Romano > Ray Gunn in 1995, was my first job doing visual development. Up to that point I was doing efx assistant animation at Turner Feature Animation. I tried to get into the development department for several months doing my own art after work to make a decent portfolio. Brad Bird came to Turner to develop a feature project, and I was able to meet with him in 1994 to show him my work. The next year, I finished my efx work and officially started development on Brad's project, Ray Gunn. That was my big break, and I've been doing concept art and art direction ever since then.

Monzuki > What was the most interesting thing you saw at
Pixar that never made it to the screen, or ended up on cutting room floor?
Lou Romano > Many things, actually. Some of Teddy Newton's early development ideas for The Incredibles were great but didn't make it to the screen. He drew up some gags for baby Jack-Jack's powers that were wild and very funny. In one gag, Teddy had Jack-Jack purposefully crash through a plate glass door, get back up without a scratch, then happily run off to some other danger. He also got trapped in the refrigerator and had to bust his way out like The Hulk. To Brad's credit, he did put some of those ideas into the short, Jack-Jack Attack, and the feature film. If Brad feels the ideas are in line with the film, he's definitely open to using them.

Monzuki > From conceptual to finishing, what was the process like at Pixar, and how involved were you along the way?
Lou Romano > So far, The Incredibles has been the project I've been on all the way through film start to finish. In 1998-99 Brad pitched me the story while he was working on The Iron Giant. Teddy Newton, Tony Fucile, Don Shank and I did some early development work for Brad that he used to pitch the film to various studios. That's how I started on the film and I finished, nearly six years later, with the approvals of all the final lighting and digital dailies. The whole process in the middle was very difficult, and enormous challenge. I was part of the core team Brad brought with him to Pixar and all of us were new to CG. So, the learning curve was very steep. There were a lot of talented artists and technical directors that helped us get up to speed. In a sense everybody at the studio went through a very steep learning curve, because up until then The Incredibles was the largest film Pixar had ever made. The scale of the film is immense in terms of locations, efx and human characters. Brad was very demanding, but I think everybody is proud of the work they did on the film.

For me, the very beginning and very end of the process are the most enjoyable. Early development is wide open, everything is possible. At the end of the process, you're dealing with images that finally look like the film, and it's all about fine tuning the lighting, which I love. This is really where the film gels and starts to look exciting. The whole process in between is very important and the most difficult, because it's all about translating the original intention to the screen. It's a very laborious process and can be tedious and frustrating at any studio, but it's also the most important stage of the process.

Monzuki > Since you are currently working with Laika, how is life at Laika different from Pixar?
Lou Romano > So far, my experience at Laika has been good. It's much smaller studio than Pixar, which is one of the things that attracted me to it and the fact that there is a lot potential for creative growth. The projects in development are a little darker too, which I like. With one feature under it's belt, there isn't a house style or sensibility to adhere to, which is exciting because things are wide open to exploration and discovery. I feel encouraged by that.

Monzuki > What have you witnessed at Laika and/or Pixar that you think other creative companies should practice?
Lou Romano > I wish more CG studios built and painted practical models as part of their design process. I visited Laika for the first time in early 2006 and saw a lot of sets and character sculpts and puppets. I was really inspired by that and thought it applied perfectly to CG as a way to inform the design process. Even though CG is a virtual medium, where everything ultimately happens in the computer, there is a lot that can be gained by hand making and painting set and character models. Most studios do grey character sculpts on their films, but on Up we pushed to do more environmental and vehicle models and character sculpts and paint them. Making key sets and pieces, like the main character's house, jungle rocks and trees, dirigible, etc. make the end result much better. It's a way to bring every separate element in CG (modeling, shading, paint and lighting) into one place early on in the process. We could light and photograph the models and get a three dimensional realization that informed everybody. We had to convince some people to make it possible, but in the end I think people saw the value of it on screen. I think CG is particularly difficult because there is a lot of compartmentalizing of the art process. Think of backgrounds for instance: On 2D film there is a layout department drawing the BGs and the BG department painting them. On a CG film you have pre-viz and layout (building everything), the shade/paint department (planning all color and textures), the lighting department and the rendering department. The ratio is huge compared to 2D. So whatever you can do early on to realize a cohesive whole, the better off you are.

Monzuki > What projects are you currently working on, and can you give us any sneak peeks?
Lou Romano > I'm working on Jan Pinkava's CG project as a production designer and working one day a week on a stop-motion project. I also check in with artists on other projects to give art-related feedback. It's fairly open at the moment, but my primary focus is Jan's project. that's about all I can say at the moment.

Monzuki > Because of your early studies in theater arts,
how do you think your acting skills helped you creatively as a concept artist?
Lou Romano > I think it has helped in terms of communicating ideas and emotions, not only with characters but abstract imagery as well. As a kid, I spent most of my time in the theater so I saw the way shows were pulled together through many disciplines: set design, costumes, music, lighting as well as performance. I found all of it fascinating. Live performance is very different from doing artwork, but it is the same in one major way; communicating and making a connection with people.

Monzuki > Do you ever exhibit any of your illustrations? And if so, when and where?
Lou Romano > I have exhibited in group shows at Nucleus Gallery in Alhambra, CA. as well as The Gallery at The Metropolitan Opera House and MoMa in New York City. I'll also be attending the CTN-X Animation expo in Burbank this November, and plan on selling some prints and originals. I'm fairly new to gallery/museum exhibitions, but I really enjoy them. It's a great way to have your work seen, meet new people and get inspired by new work. It's a lot like going to movies, having a shared and personal experience.

Monzuki > What advice would you give to ambitious and talented artists who want to follow in your footsteps?
Lou Romano > I think the most important thing you must bring to the table is your own personal point of view. I've worked with many different artists. Some draw beautifully, but don't have their own point of view, other may draw in a more simple, crude way but have a great perspective on storytelling, specific to them. I've also worked with artists that can do everything exceptionally well; draw, design, animate and understand cinematic storytelling. This is like the triple threat in theater, the person that can act, sing and dance. The main thing throughout, and what I think is most valuable is your own voice and what you can bring to a project that is unique. Even when working on a big movie, that requires the skills of many and where you have to realize a director's vision, you must still bring part of yourself to the work. I think it makes the process more satisfying.

This concludes our interview with Lou Romano. We thank him for his participation. We hope you enjoyed this interview. For additional work of Lou Romano, check out his blog. Please send us a note and give us your comments about this site and/or this particular posting.
Peace out.