How Production Designers Created the Looks of This Year's Animated Movies

11:42 AM 11/15/2017

by Carolyn Giardina

THR examines films including 'Coco,' 'Lego Batman' and 'Despicable Me 3.'

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
  • In This Corner of the World

    Courtesy of Shout! Factory

    This animated historical drama (released in the U.S. by Shout! Factory and Funimation Films) follows a fictional young woman, Suzu, who lived near Hiroshima, Japan during WWII, and this image places her at Nakajima Hon-machi, a busy shopping area in Hiroshima during 1933. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945, this actual area was only 170 meters (558 feet) away from ground zero. 

    "I felt that I had to take special care in re-creating this area of Hiroshima," explains director Sunao Katabuchi. "This building, Taishoya Gofukuten, survived the atomic bomb blast, even though it was only 170 meters away, and still stands today. The rest of the town that surrounded the building is now gone and is part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park. Trees and grass have now replaced the original town."

    Katabuchi adds, "I would like audience members to know that that they can still experience the reality of the movie so that is also why I specifically featured that building. Onscreen, you can see other stores surrounding the building. There is a store in the right foreground of the picture called Otsuya Mosurindo. There were no photos available of that store. We were trying to re-create that storefront by piecing together small clues from other photos. Of course, that has its limits and we did the best we could to accurately re-create it. We posted a picture of what we thought the area look liked on a bulletin board in Hiroshima. The daughter of the owner of the store next to Otsuya Mosurindo, called Hatsukaichiya, contacted us. She then told us what she remembered from her childhood of Otsuya Mosurindo. That is how we were able to more accurately re-create the store. The son of Otsuya Mosurindo had unfortunately passed away before we were able to talk to him. We were able to meet the granddaughter of Otsuya Mosurindo, who was born after the war."

  • The Lego Batman Movie

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    Production designer Grant Freckelton says a lot of the production design in this Warner Animation Group comedy based on the Lego Batman toy franchise was driven by "contrasting pathos with parody, homage with humor while making a film that appeared huge in scope while being rendered at a small scale. Our approach to designing the Batcave was no different."

    “We wanted to make a Batcave that appeared ludicrously huge because on one level it drew attention to the absurdity of the Batman myth. We wanted people to ask themselves, 'How on Earth does one guy and his butler make all of this stuff?'" Freckelton says. "On another level, it allowed us to frame the tiny figure of Batman against the dark, massive, technology fuelled world that he had created for himself."

    Parts of this environment uses platforms "which were designed with no clear walkways linking them together. Batman could easily grapple his way between these high tech 'bat islands' while mere mortals would be forced to ride on bat ‘puter controlled robotic platforms. The color palette mixed cold, uninviting blues and cyans with aggressive reds while using yellow trim lighting. Despite plastic Lego bricks being our medium, we tended to use bricks with a metallic coating to create the impression of a dehumanized environment. We offset the brooding Batmaniness of the cave with splash of humor throughout. There were references to Batman lore, silly signage or absurdly specific bat vehicles. Hidden in our Batcave are Bat-taxis, Bat-tow trucks and even a Bat-pirate ship."

  • Coco

    Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

    In Coco, Pixar’s Nov. 22 release set on Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is inadvertently transported to the "Land of the Dead." Its production design was profiled here.

  • Boss Baby

    "For Tim, life was perfect before the arrival of his new baby brother (Boss Baby, voiced by Alec Baldwin). He had everything and would like things to return to the way they were," explains DreamWorks Animation art director Ruben Perez. "In this scene, Tim is all alone in his room, grounded for the first time. When designing the scene, we put ourselves in Tim's emotional state and decided to create a literal illustration of the feelings that would be going through his mind. At the beginning of the scene, Tim feels devastated, and the room appears as a cold empty prison. Later in the scene, Boss Baby comes in, causing Tim to hide his tears. Then, we transition to the real world and see that Tim is actually sitting in his room, surrounded by his toys. This pattern, going in and out of Tim's imagination, repeats itself throughout the film every time we are meant to experience an event through the eyes of a kid."

  • Napping Princess

    Courtesy of GKIDS

    This image, from GKIDS' release Napping Princess, is the headquarters of the fictional Shijima Motorsin Tokyo, where in the film, self-driving cars are being developed, with a showcase planned during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. "I didn’t refer to any particular automobile company, but I visited the motor show held in Japan and asked some of the manufacturers about self-driving car and automatic breaking system, and I did test drives as well," explains director Kenji Kamiyama. "The hard part was to portray elaboration, sophistication, precision since I had to draw the robot at the factory by hand."

    The director continues, "[I wanted to convey] a way of being of technology in the current era. People were able to become successful only with mechanical technology until the twentieth century, but it needs to integrate with software nowadays. I was thinking to express that machine-only is so outdated."

  • Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

    Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

    In DWA's Captain Underpants, this tree house is the "creative headquarters" of best friends George Beard and Harold Hutchins, where they draw comics and try to make each other laugh.

    "During our design process, we wanted to make sure that this tree house not only felt like the boys favorite place to hang out, but truly felt like a warm and inspirational place where they could let loose in their creative and silly ways," explains production designer Nate Wragg. "We dressed the walls with their comic drawings and sketches like a tree house art gallery. We placed items like whoopee cushions, action figures and toilet plungers around the space to feel like the boys decorated it with the coolest and funniest things they could find. And we gave the whole tree house structure and tree itself a subtle level of ‘wobbliness’ in its modeling and design to call back to the loose style of illustrations from the [Dave Pilkey] books that inspired the film."

    Wragg adds, "In this sequence, the boys bring Captain Underpants back to their treehouse. It's the first time in the film that they can really sit back and take in the reality that they have hypnotized their evil principal into thinking he's Captain Underpants, and now he's standing in the very treehouse where the boys created him in their comics."

  • Cars 3

    Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

    In the third installment of Pixar's Cars franchise, Lightning McQueen arrives at the Rust-eze Racing Center. Production designer Bill Cone says to create the high-tech training facility, research included visits to Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing, as well as the Windshear wind tunnel.

    The training center, as pictured here, is an “imposing and flashy but somewhat sterile environment of concrete and glass. While Lighting sees the huge, red 95 as a monument to himself, and a measure of Sterling’s adulation of him, it is actually a symbol of depersonalization, separating Lightning from the heroic status symbol that he helped create.”

  • Despicable Me 3

    In Illumination’s Despicable Me 3, Gru and his twin brother Dru, dressed in sticky Super-villain suits, are climbing villain Balthazar Bratt's tower.

    Since the Bratt character is obsessed with the ‘80s, art director Olivier Adam explains, "The overall shape [of the tower] is graphic and simple as in many ‘80s arcade video games and colorful iconic 80's toys [such as Rubik's Cube and Simon]. The menacing scanning camera is based on an ‘80s Polaroid camera. The shiny purple color echoes the primary colors and the textures of the huge Rubik's Cube located on top of the tower."

    For the suits on the characters, Gru wears black and Dru wears white. “As we can't see Dru's blond hair once dressed in his suit, it was important to identify him very clearly from his twin," says Adam. "The black and white colors are a straightful code and also played nicely in contrast with the colorful palette outside and inside Bratt's world."