Thursday, October 7, 2010

Unsung Heroes: The Chefs of Ratatouille

Hi everybody. Michael C from Serious Film back again with another unsung contribution to cinematic brilliance. This week it's an achievement I'm sure most of you will recognize -- just don't read it on an empty stomach.

I have always been a little taken aback by the depth of Brad Bird and Jim Capobianco's screenplay for Ratatouille. I mean, here is a big-budget family film starring a talking rat and it is about nothing less than what it means to be an artist. I was reading W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, the story of a man who drops out of society in order to follow his passion to paint, and I couldn't help but think, "This reminds me of Remy." It should come as no surprise that the filmmakers behind such an ambitious project went the extra mile and sought out the help of real master chefs in order to do their material justice.

Organic objects are traditionally the hardest to render in computer animation (It's no accident Pixar's first film was a love letter to the textures of plastic) so a major challenge for Ratatouille was food that not only looked delicious but was also convincing gourmet cooking. Luckily, they had Michael Warch, who in addition to being set and layout manager for the film was also a Sous Chef who could prepare dishes on command for the designers to study. Adapting and expanding the sub-surface lighting technique developed for better skin tones in The Incredibles, they were so successful with the food design that Ratatouille is often mentioned with Big Night and Eat Drink Man Woman as one of the most appetizing food movies ever made.

And this being a Pixar film, they didn't stop there. Not content for Remy to merely be a credible cook they endeavored to show him as a great artist. The production turned for advice to Thomas Keller, one of America's great chefs.  Keller opened up his restaurant to the Pixar artists so that they could get a feel for the energy of a professional kitchen. The backstage knowledge shows. Gusteau's is more than a stock movie restaurant with waiters jostling each other out of the way. It has a dynamic that has been thought through down to the smallest details, from the constant movement of the chefs, to the shorthand communication, to the way they hold the utensils.

Perhaps Keller's greatest contribution to the movie is his creation of the title dish served to the critic at the film's climax. The thinly sliced version of ratatouille is a Keller specialty, and when he learned of the context in which it was to be used he improvised that graceful little mound of food in the center of the plate, an artistic flourish reproduced faithfully in the film. Keller's dramatic instincts were correct. The dish is as memorable to look at as it is supposed to be to taste.

It is notoriously difficult to portray an artist at work cinematically. In the case of Ratatouille, the final product is so entertaining that is easy to miss the fact that they conquered the dilemma. Besides being named among the great food movies Ratatouille could also be listed beside films like Amadeus and Scorsese's Life Lessons as a great depiction of an artist.


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