Denise Ream interview: Eraser, Cars 2, stop motion animation, Star Wars and Pixar

We chat to the producer of Cars 2, Denise Ream, as she tells us about the film and her special effects work at ILM, including Star Wars, Eraser and Deep Impact…

Denise Ream has a fascinating background. Her work on special effects has taken in the likes of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith, Deep Impact, Harry Potter and more. And more recently, she’s moved across to Pixar, where she first of all worked on Up, then stepped up to produce Cars 2.

We had the chance to spend a delightful twenty minutes in her company, where we chewed the fat about animation, and Arnold Schwarzenegger smashing crocodiles together. Here’s how it went…

I was going through your past credits, and one of them was for effects work on Eraser!

You’re the only person who’s asked me about that! [laughs]

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So, then, was Arnie and the two crocodiles down to you?

Yeah! When they had the big fight? It was Steve Williams. He was an animator, and yeah, we did the crocs. [laughs] That was really fun, actually!

A lot of your early credits seem to have that sense of fun to them.

I had a lot of fun. I always joke that I have the dubious distinction of working at ILM for thirteen years, and I never once got a movie that got nominated for an Academy Award.

Well done. That’s some achievement!

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[Laughs] That was hard to do there! It was just like, no one else! The horrible thing was that I did the last Star Wars movie, and that one was the only one of the six that didn’t get nominated. And I have to say, I was pretty gutted.

The last Star Wars was, for large parts, effectively an animated film, too?

Yeah, thank you. And I was halfway through that when I went, “Yeah, I want to work on an animated film now.” And that one, arguably, and I’m not just saying this, but many felt that those effects were the best [of the series].

I’d probably buy that.

So, that was a dark day, when we weren’t one of the three nominees.

But, anyway, I got to work on a lot of interesting projects where I was able to learn a lot from each one. I worked on this movie called Daylight, where we did pyrotechnics. And the interesting one was Deep Impact, which was one of the first big water effects.

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The tidal wave?

Yeah. Exactly. And that the water comes through the World Trade Center. That was a film where they developed a lot of the water particle technology that The Perfect Storm leveraged. So, I was really lucky to work on a lot of these movies that, okay, maybe weren’t iconically successful, but they were pioneering a lot of effects work in their own way.

Are water and kisses still about the hardest things to do in animation?

Water is still hard.

Aardman is using water on its upcoming Pirates film, and I think they’re bringing CG in to do it. But still working with models for most of the rest of the film.

Water is incredibly hard. It’s very difficult to do practically. Scale is obviously a huge problem if you’re doing any kind of models, but also, even if you get the scale right, things disintegrate. The models disintegrate.

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That’s part of the joys of stop motion! It’s a fascinating art.

I love it. That is one of my dreams. I’d love to produce a stop motion film.

I remember a sequence in Henry Selick’s Coraline, towards the end of the film, and it’s one of the few times I’ve looked at a cinema screen in many years and wondered just how it could be done. That’s one of the great things about stop motion.

I know. One of my first producing jobs ever, before I went to ILM, I worked at a company called Boss Film, which was owned by Richard Edlund. I started off as a purchasing agent, then became an optical co-ordinator, then became a producer doing commercials. Effects-intensive commercials.

That was really great, because we were able to get fast turnarounds. So, you’re able to do lots of different types of work in a pretty short amount of time. And it did combine live-action, so I got the experience of setting up live-action shoots and executing the effects.

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One of my projects, at the Superbowl, they used to have a thing called Bud Bowl. You would have the Bud Lite, and the regular Bud, and they’d play this stupid football game, and long story short, it was a stop motion project. I absolutely loved working on it. It was my first big producing job. I think we did about ten or thirteen commercials, and I worked with this very well known stop motion animator, who sadly has since died.

And he was just this curmudgeonly, quirky, interesting, strange guy who I absolutely loved. That was one of my first projects. But that was when computer graphics were starting to take off, so there wasn’t a lot of stop motion work that was being done. I ended up leaving that company to go to ILM, where I started the week that Jurassic Park came out.

That’s a good week to start.

It was literally that week. June of 1993, and the whole industry did change after that. And the puppetry and stop motion sort of, sadly, continued to fall by the wayside.

What I thought was really interesting, talking to stop motion animators, is that it’s a faster production than a CG film, because it cuts out some of the stages that you have to do. It’s clearly still labour intensive.

Reading some of the things you’ve been saying about Cars 2, meanwhile, this is a three and a half year project for Pixar. Which, by Pixar standards, is very, very fast.

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It’s quick. And it was hard. On average, they’re five years to make. That’s more accurate, to be honest, from beginning to conceptualising the story to completion. And we were supposed to come out in 2012. I got the job in 2008 when I was still on Up. Two weeks after I got the job, they said they’re moving it up a year.

And the thing that was a challenge was we knew it was going to be a big scope movie. But more scary was trying to iterate on the story as many times as we typically do. That was my biggest challenge, and we had to go on a pretty hard, rigorous screening schedule, where we were regularly screening the movie every twelve weeks, which is fast.

I would say the screenings that Pixar typically do range from twelve to sixteen weeks. If we’d done sixteen weeks, we’d have probably had one, if not two less iterations. So, we throw the movie up and see what works and doesn’t work. That was what Andrew Stanton would say, “Fail quickly, and fail often.”

I read one of the things that John Lasseter was saying in preparing for Cars 2, that he was watching the Bourne trilogy fairly regularly. But you can’t do those films in Cars 2. As soon as I heard that Cars 2 was to have elements of a spy thriller, it was the tonal constraint that came to mind. Because spy movies tend to be quite hard, yet you’ve got to marry that up to a family audience. How much of the screening programme was about refining that tone?

That was a large part of what we ended up doing, trying to get the spy story correct and clear, so everyone could understand it. That was really tricky. The locations were sort of set. We were originally going to add more, but those fell by the wayside pretty early, because there wasn’t enough time.

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Fortunately, locations were chosen pretty quickly. We tried to pick countries that had strong automotive histories. That was how we determined we were going to England, Japan, France, originally Germany was in, and Italy. They had strong racing traditions and beautiful car design. So, that was how we determined that.

Fortunately, picking the locations did help keep everyone working. We had to build this world, and that was helpful.

The locations you homed in on have very different lighting demands. Japan has artificial lighting in the film, Britain is cloudy and miserable, and then Italy was bright sunlight. From a technical point of you, that goes far behind designing the cars for the film.

Absolutely. That was hard, and that made it very difficult. Fortunately, our DP is an amazing lighting DP, and she was just remarkable. The Japan race was extremely difficult.

There were two things. I wanted to do that opening scene, because of my effects experience. I wanted to get it done first. Fortunately, that was in a really good story place. That was a scene John [Lasseter] had already envisioned in his mind, and articulated, and how he wanted it was how he executed it.

That, fortunately, was one we could get in production very quickly. It became very imperative that we needed to get a race in the pipeline, because it’s really hard figuring out where the camera is looking. Because you’re building these cities. And we just had to know what we were up against, because there was a practicality of getting the movie done. And it’s like, how hard are these races going to be?

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The Japan race was inspired by the Singapore race. I wanted to do that one because it was night time, and all the graphics involved in that are phenomenal. Not only do they have to be designed, they have to be legally cleared and executed.

Jumping to London, the fact that it is typically cloudy really helped Sharon, our DP, limit how many master lighting set-ups she had to do. If we’d gone day and night, and the sun and clouds, that would have made her job a lot harder.

But we had a huge team, also, to execute this work.

With Pixar, though, it’s almost as though things should be hard.

That’s what people expect.

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Yeah. There’s the perception of the technological arms race that’s going on in CG animation. But also, with Pixar, it’s the stories that tend to be tougher.

Yes. I keep saying that right now we have a workforce at the studio that could probably execute anything. So, I think that, truly, they are really great at execution and production. We have a robust pipeline, really talented R&D. An unrivalled animation department. I’ve worked with some great animators, and I think that department is amazing.

So, I think, in terms of production, execution isn’t the issue. It is, instead, about what story do you want to tell. It doesn’t matter how great it looks if the story isn’t entertaining. I think they will always continue to be our biggest challenge, and the thing we care about the most.

In the three and half years since you started making this, the state of the competition has come on enormously. The storytelling, too, has improved amongst your rivals, which I think is the biggest shift.

I think that’s fantastic.

Pixar producers seem to have a more creative than technical role. But the hands-on filmmakers have to be alien to the pressures of what everyone else is doing. But you, as producer, don’t have the same luxury. When you’re halfway through Cars 2, and you see all this stuff firing at you, how do you rally it? How conscious are you of the outside pressures?

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At a certain point, I literally had to put that stuff aside. I couldn’t think about. I did feel like it would have been easy to get bogged down, fret and be intimidated. But that wouldn’t have helped my team. My job was really to say, “Alright, this is the movie we’re doing now. I want to make it as great as possible. And what does our team need to do that?”

I had to trust my colleagues at Disney to take care of our movie. My job was to protect the show from outside influences, and say, “Alright, I’m going to get you whatever you need to do what you need to do.” And I felt supported by Ed Catmull and Jim Morris, my bosses. That took relief off of me, knowing that I had that support.

Did you enjoy it? I know that’s an odd question, but when you look back at the end, how did you feel?

Actually, I felt very melancholy when it ended.

I was happy, because it was exciting to see how fans would embrace the movie. But I loved the team we put together. It was really fun working with John [Lasseter]. And part of me didn’t want it to end.

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I would say I absolutely loved it, but it was really hard. There were days when, honestly, I would go home and cry. [laughs] But then you come back, and it is a stiff upper lip, and you plough through and take it a day at a time.

Denise Ream, thank you very much!

Cars 2 is out now. 

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