Friday 12 October 2012

Interview: Marcelo Vignali, Production Designer on Hotel Transylvania

Marcelo with Hotel Transylvania's vocal lead, Adam Sandler.

Last Friday, I had the chance to speak to Marcelo Vignali, the production designer on Hotel Transylvania, the latest film from Sony Pictures Animation. The Genndy Tartakovsky directed film is getting a lukewarm critical response, but is going down a treat with audiences everywhere, who are very receptive to its fun, cartoony style. Hotel T is playing now in the US and Canada, and opened here in the UK today!

I'd like to thank Lauren Woosey at Titan Books for putting me in contact with Sony in the first place and her constant kindness; I'd also like to extend huge thanks to Olivier Mouroux and Kyle Rapone at the Sony Pictures Animation PR team for setting the whole thing up and being so accommodating and friendly.

Of course, I also want to thank Marcelo. One thing I've been astounded at when doing these interviews is how kind and down-to-earth everyone is. Marcelo made a point of asking me about my own life, and acted very modestly, while displaying huge enthusiasm for the film and his work. Not to mention he's a really talented guy! Topics covered in our exclusive interview include his role on Hotel T and thoughts on the film, working around the many directorial changes, working with Genndy Tartakovsky, the film's visual and animation styles, animation at Sony and the future.

A113Animation: Right, on Hotel Transylvania, you worked as the production designer. Can you give us a little insight into what exactly that entails?
Marcelo Vignali: As the production designer, I’m in charge of the look of the film. The directors usually have a really tight leash on things like characters, because they have very specific needs that they need to have filled. So they keep a really tight leash on the character designs, but everything else that’s not character designs – whether that is the backgrounds, all the various sets, any of the props, any of the vehicles, special effects, all of that stuff – runs through my department. So I work with an art director – actually with two art directors, the way we divided the work is one art director was going to be in charge of colour and lighting, and the other art director was going to be in charge of textures. But, as a team collectively, we all work towards whatever it is that we need to do to get the job done. For the person doing the colour, sometimes it’s colour scripts, sometimes it’s painting characters, or taking the characters and putting all the textures and everything on. And then for the other art director that was in charge of textures, it included textures, it includes patterns, and it includes also set design and props. So you have a very wide variety of roles that you have to fill. We have our different responsibilities, but – especially at a studio like ours; it’s a little smaller than some of the major studios – we end up having to share a lot of the responsibilities.

A113: Yeah. So you’ve basically kind of got free reign over everything other than the characters then?
MV: Yeah, and even on the characters. You know, the characters have to go through our department, to be textured, whether that’s what type of fur they have, or costumes. Sometimes the designers will design a costume, and the costume doesn’t have the believability that it needs for when it hits the screen, and what we end up doing is, when it goes through our department, we sometimes go ahead and research. Okay, let’s take Dracula for instance, we take his suit and we look at whether or not he has a cummerbund – in this case he did – and he also had a cravat, he had a vest. All of those things were added after the fact, after the character had been designed; we had a character design that had been done, but all of those things were actually added by our department. So we don’t really change the character, but we embellish it.

A113: Yeah. And watching the trailers, and reading the Art and Making of book, one thing that really stands out is how great the film does look. It’s a monster film, but it’s full of life and very vibrant. There’s a very stylised look to it as well. And in the final clips we’ve seen, the poise in the animation is very considered and really, really funny. Was there anything in particular you set out to achieve with the art style of the film?
MV: Yeah, well, when we were working on the film – you’ve got to keep in mind that our film actually went through various different iterations. I came on board when we had our first set of directors, and within a very short amount of time, the project came to a standstill, the script was being rewritten, and those directors had been replaced. Jill Culton came on board, and Jill was instrumental in driving the look of the picture. One of the things that she really enjoyed was the work of Neil Ross, so we started going after that particular look. That was something I think she wanted, she wanted this monster film to not be a clich√© of other monster films. I think that there’s a tendency to create, or to fulfil, an expectation of what a monster film’s going to look like: it’s dark, there’s a lot of spider webs, if it’s a comedy it’s going to be very wacky; we, purposefully, didn’t want to do that, we thought ‘okay, let’s go against the grain, let’s create something that audiences hadn’t seen before’, and so we actually made a conscious effort to push away from what was expected for something like Hotel Transylvania. We thought, well monsters are coming here, it’s not that monsters want to live in these dark and dank and badly lit spaces, but instead, they come here to have fun, so let’s go ahead and make a beautiful hotel. And that was the intent, to create something that was really beautiful, but also beautiful for the audiences as well. Take, for instance, the pool: the pool in our hotel has murky green water, but the lights that you have inside of it are so beautiful that when you’re looking at it as an audience member, you’re thinking ‘wow, I’d like to jump in there!’, so we’re still creating things that the monsters would like, but we’re trying to create it in a way that would even be exciting for audience members to look at, so when an audience looks at something like this, they say ‘wow, I would like to visit this hotel’.

A113: Yeah, and you’ve actually answered two of my questions in one there! So, you’ve been on the production right since the start did you say?
MV: Yeah, I actually came on board – the original directors were on for one year, and I came on board just at the tail end of that. I did a few designs for the project, I think I was probably on the project maybe three months, and then the project came to a standstill. We weren’t quite sure what was going to happen with it, and I think for about sixth months it went on hiatus. But when it came back up, I was back on the project. From that point, I’ve been on the project for six years. Which is the longest I’ve worked on any project.

A113: So you must feel very affectionately towards the film; you must feel an attachment to it?
MV: Yeah, you know, I absolutely do. One of the things that has been an advantage for us on this film is that we had a very small crew working on it. We would work on the project, and just before it would hit the moment where we needed to call some other artists on board to complete the film, we would run into a particular problem. I think part of the problem, in fairness to the project, part of the problem came when our studio went through a transition, and during that transition, a lot of changes were made, and it ended up affecting our project. But the design of the project, from the moment that Jill picked the direction, hadn’t really changed all that much. So were able to consistently keep going at that particular direction, and since more people didn’t come on, we had the ability to really control that. So when you’re looking at the picture, you’re looking at a movie where the design was actually handled by a very small number of people. So when you’re looking at that, there’s a level of consistency that I think is a real strength for our film.

A113: Yeah. And, that said, what’s it been like working with the film’s final director, Genndy Tartakovsky?
MV: Genndy’s wonderful. One of the things that he has given is his ability to drive at the project, the idea, and the deadline. He’s very, very motivating, and he’s a very strong personality, and I think that that’s really what the project needed. And I think he brought a lot of life to it. One of the things that we were thinking of is that, in different iterations, we thought this movie really needs to be funny, and when Genndy Tartakovsky came on board, that’s exactly what happened, we end up with a very funny movie; a very funny and very fun movie. And that’s something that we’re really grateful for.

A113: Yeah, because that’s something  that shows in all of his shows as well, isn’t it? Very funny, very stylised, and obviously, like you said, with the deadline, him coming in from a TV background, where he’s got to meet that deadline every week…
MV: Absolutely, absolutely. And he really drove it, he drove the project exactly like that. I worked in television, but I worked in television years ago, and there is a huge difference in the way the television drives at its deadline, and the way features drive at its deadline. I really appreciated his, for lack of a better word, attack, in terms of the work load, I mean, he really did attack it, and I think it was the right the thing to do.

A113: Yeah. And who else, on the film, did you really enjoy working with?
MV: I have to say that I had a dynamite crew working with me. Ron Lukas is, in my opinion, one of the best in the industry in terms of colour, and when you look at the film, you’re going to see the level of nuance that he has in terms of how he sees light and how he sees colour. And in an environment where you have grey walls, and you have brightly coloured monsters, it could easily have gotten very garish, with all the different colours, but Ron was very good, and he was very instrumental, and he tried to control those colours, so that it never crossed the line and became garish or vulgar, and I think that one of the strength of our movie is the colour, and I really appreciated all the work that Ron did for us on the project. And Noelle Triaureau, it was her first time working as an art director, and she completely exceeded all expectations. Both of my art directors were absolutely wonderful people to work with, they’re easy to get along with, and they work really hard. Noelle was instrumental in coming up with a method by which we could organise our textures, so, in terms of having, or of trying to avoid our textures, from becoming a field composition, or becoming noisy, and chatter like, she had a way of organising them with patterns – it was a method that we had developed on the project, and it was instrumental, and I thought that was a brilliant solution to the problems that we would have had on this particular project. And also we had several other people that came on board at various different times, one of them, that came towards the latter part of the project, was Dean Gordon. Dean was fantastic, he really exceeded our expectations as well, he came in to do colour, but he wanted to step up, he wanted to do some prop designs, we had given him the opportunity, and, again, he’s one of these people that just rose to the occasion and exceeded all expectations of him, and I’m really grateful that he was on the project, he made a difference. We also had Peter Chan, and Peter Chan worked – he didn’t work with us towards the end of the project – but he worked with us at a point where we were developing some of the textures for our film. And he was also working on the exterior environments of the castle. He did an amazing job, one of the things that he had done was he was painting his textures and his bump maps with a lost and found edge to them, and we thought ‘that’s it, that’s absolutely brilliant!’ and we took that idea, and we started to adopt it in various different parts of our film, and then that became part of our design language for the film, so we’re really indebted to Peter for that. And last, but certainly not least, is Luc Desmarchelier. Luc Desmarchelier is absolutely fantastic, he was actually one of – when Jill was on board – he was the production designer for the project and he went to Transylvania, on our field research, and he took a bunch of pictures. His research was instrumental in getting the project to look as authentic, I think, as we were able to do it. And he was also instrumental in the castle design, the exterior of the castle, both he and Jill had come to the decision to go with a Romanesque architecture, as opposed to Gothic architecture, and all of those decisions, I think, were the right decisions. His work is absolutely outstanding, when you look at the film and you look at the exterior of the castle that is Luc’s work, and, like I said, we’re really indebted to him for that.

A113: Mm. And almost everyone you’ve mentioned there, and a few others as well, there work really stood out in The Art and Making of Hotel Transylvania book – a very beautiful book. Like you say, it’s not gothic, it’s not grim, I was actually surprised by just how lively and fun it all was. I said in our review, how bright and vibrant it was. But of the work you yourself contributed to the book, are there any you’re particularly proud of?
MV: Oh absolutely. The lobby was one of those that I’m very, very proud of. When I first got the assignment of doing the lobby for the hotel, I was thinking about it as one space, as one environment, and I quickly realised, because of the size, and the scale, of this environment, that it wasn’t one space, but rather it was like many spaces all put together. So when you think about it, we had an anteroom, a revolving door, and then you go into the hotel. Once you’re in the hotel, we have entire areas; there’s an area that’s the elevator, we’ve got colonnades, we have an arch, we have a fireplace, then we have the entrance to the bar – that also goes through those little colonnades – we have staircases, we have the lobby. Then you keep moving off to the side and then we have more elevators, we have another arch, we the organ. So when you start thinking about that space, it’s almost like each one of these is an individual environment, but I had to find a way of being able to connect all of these, so that they all worked in a very seamless way. And the other thing is, because of the scale, it was almost like trying to design a city block, and I think that that was – once I got my head around the scale, once I started thinking about it in terms of, like I’m designing a village or a city block – I think I was able to get my head around it and create effectively for it. The other thing is, having come from a theme park design background; I think that really helped me as well. And one of the things that we were able to do in theme parks is divide our environments, or control our environments, by how we lit them. So we made sure that when we had, in terms of the lobby, the lobby has a certain ambient light that keeps it lit, and as you go up, and you start looking up towards the ceiling, you’ll see that the light begins to fall off, and that was purposeful in order to keep our attention down lower. The other thing that we had done, was that we created spotlights and pools of light, so when you’re looking in front of the fireplace, you’ll notice that things are handled in pools of light, to help control the environment, so that it didn’t look like we had furniture inside an airport runway, but rather that these were actually spaces that you could be involved in. I think that there was a lot of learning that all of us did on this project, but certainly working out that lobby which was so important to the film, we had to create it, create the lobby, with a sense of character, and then also handle all of the design needs.

A113: Like you say, the castle is, well it’s the Hotel, it’s in the title isn’t it? It’s one of the key parts, and the lobby is arguably the key part to that.
MV: Yes, yes. Because when it opens up and we have that one scene where the camera starts from the outside – well actually it follows the hearse as it comes up – and we start to push in, we go through the revolving door, and then we’re inside the hotel. And just being able to take that camera and push all the way in, that’s a big moment, because it tells us that – well, it explains the title, this is Hotel Transylvania, this is how the audience wants to see it, and certainly we had to deliver.

A113: Yeah. That leads me perfectly into my next question: what would you say your favourite part, or favourite scene, of the actual film is then?
MV: Well that’s interesting…

[Both laugh]

MV: I don’t know if there’s a particular scene that I am a fan of – there are characters that I am sympathetic with, one of them is, obviously, the zombies; I think the zombies absolutely steal the movie, I mean, in terms of their sort of mindless activities. But they’re not necessarily so mindless, because you can see there’s a little subtlety to their expression, it’s really wonderful; it’s wonderfully funny. But I think, Dracula, I have an affinity with the Dracula character, in part because I have a 16 year old daughter, so some of the same problems that Dracula was going through I seem to be going through in my own life.

[Both laugh]

A113: With less flying and sucking blood?
MV: Yes, that’s right.

[Both laugh]

A113: That is definitely a standout from what I’ve seen of the film as well: Dracula is so beautifully designed, and the poise in his animation is – it’s like a feature length cartoon, which I think is something, definitely, that’s a massive plus for the film.
MV: Yes, yes, that’s one of the things that Genndy really brought to the project, was the sense of animation. Because a lot of the sets had already been designed by the time Genndy came on board, and many of the characters had been designed, but he made sure that he was going to design the main characters, so he designed Jonathan – he was overseeing the designs for Jonathan – and he designed Dracula. And then he also was instrumental in overseeing the designs of several other characters that we needed, after he came on board and we got the direction that his story was going. But I think that his biggest contribution was the contribution to – well, obviously the humour – but the animation style, and one of the things that he wanted was to create a Tex Avery style animation and he was very successful in doing that. And I don’t think anyone has ever attempted anything like this in CG animation.

A113: Mm. And that was one of the things I was really most eager to see about the film, because, obviously, as you say, Genndy Tartakovsky, well known for his very stylised animation, I was eager to see how he’d pull that off – how the team would pull that off – with CG.
MV: Yes, and you can see it more in Dracula, because he allowed Dracula’s cape to be used as a graphic image. And I think that, yeah, certainly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone handle CG animation in such a graphic way.

What Marcelo and I discussed: transferring the cartoony tropes of 2D animation to this CG film.

A113: It’s very refreshing, with other studios pushing more and more towards realism and photo-realism, to see a studio embracing, kind of, the cartoon origins of it, and the stylised – not rubber hose, but close.
MV: Yes, well, it’s to embrace the two-dimensional aspects of animation, because there are a lot of lessons that were learned in animation over the 80 years that it had developed. And it was a shame that when computer animation came on the scene, that a lot of those instrumental lessons had then kind of been lost. And, today, we’re seeing a resurgence of some of those principles, finding their way back into animation. You know, computer graphics, or CG animation, is going through its growing pains and learning what it can and can’t do, in the same way that any new industry needs to. And we can see that with this particular film that a lot of the lessons that had been learned in 2D, are, especially with Genndy coming from a two-dimensional background with his television experience, finding its way back into a CG animated film. And I really do think that this film is going to be noticed by the industry, and people – and hopefully a lot of the lessons that we learned on our film, at other studios, they’re going to start to pick up on that. So I’m really hopeful for what this film can do for the industry.

A113: Yeah! The audience reception to the film has been really, really good. And on Cartoon Brew as well, Jerry Beck said, again, what he admired most about it was how it was like a feature length cartoon; the animation was getting away what it seemed like you had to do, and exploring what you could do.
MV: That’s absolutely right, yeah. And that’s one of the things that make our movie really stand out – well, it’s not just the main thing, but one of the things, but when you look at it, we were able to go against the grain in terms of the visuals, and we created something that was unexpected, and now the animation is doing exactly the same thing, it’s creating something that was unexpected for a CG animated film.

A113: Yeah, because you’ve worked on quite a lot of high-profile animated film – I had a quick browse of your IMDb page – you worked on: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Surf’s Up and Open Season, all for Sony, and even Mulan and Lilo & Stitch for Disney! What’s been your favourite film to work on then and why?
MV: Hmm. I think each one of the projects that I work on has their own, well they certainly have their own charm, and they have their own beauty, and with them comes different lessons, different experiences. When I think of the work that I did for Kingdom of the Sun, which later turned into The Emperor’s New Groove, it was wonderful because I was able to research that particular area – this is the Incas: the Inca Empire, how they built their structures – that to me was really exciting because I really enjoy research. Working on Lilo & Stitch was an absolute joy, I love working with Dean [DeBlois] and Chris [Sanders], both of them are really strong in the story department and really strong in giving characters and story a sense of heart. But also working in Chris’s style, I think was really enjoyable as well. Atlantis, I have to say, Atlantis was one of the funnest projects I’ve worked on, because the subject matter was exceptionally fun.

A113: Mm, the art style on Atlantis is brilliant!
MV: Oh the art style! I absolutely enjoyed that film. So, different projects become like different challenges and different things to be excited about, so it’s kind of hard to pick, it’s sort of like, you know, it’s apples and oranges.

A113: What’s next for you then? What are you moving onto next? Are you maybe going to be working with Genndy on Popeye, or another Sony feature?
MV: I’m not sure that I’m going to be working with Genndy on Popeye. Currently I’m working on another project that I’m not at liberty to disclose. But I had done some work on Popeye, but then I – when Popeye wasn’t ready, they put Popeye on hold and then they moved me to another project – so I think that Popeye, unfortunately, is going to sail without me.

A113: [Laughs] So what’s Sony like to work at, as a place then?
MV: Sony’s animation studio is a lot different to Disney, in the sense that it’s a lot smaller. When I worked at Disney, it was in the heyday of animation, so you think 1994, the studio had come out with The Lion King I think it was, and Pocahontas came out around that time, and I came on board for Mulan. So there was a lot of excitement to deal with, absolutely huge, and this studio’s very small, and the way it’s structured is that Sony Pictures Animation is in one building, and just a stone’s throw away, we have another building, which is the CG pipeline for Sony Pictures Animation, which is called Imageworks, Sony Imageworks. That studio was there before we were, and what they’ve done, or the type of work that they were doing, was all effects for film, whether that’s Spider-Man, or Alice in Wonderland, or Starship Troopers, they’d do effects for all these different films. At one point, the studio decided, you know, we have an entire pipeline for an animated film, but what we don’t have is we don’t have the creative part of it, and that’s how Sony Pictures Animation came into fruition. We’re still seen as two separate companies, but I think that really is an advantage for us, because it creates a certain dynamic aspect that no other studio in the industry has. On our side we’re doing animation, we can also do hybrid movies like The Smurfs, and we can also do special effects for movies like The Wizard of Oz, or Spider-Man. So when you think of the variety of different things that the artists can work on, different projects that the artists can work on, I really think that there’s no other studio, that I’m aware of, that has that kind of flexibility.

A113: Yeah. Because, I really am a fan of Sony; I’d say my favourite Sony Pictures Animation film would be Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, just because I absolutely love that film.
MV: [Laughs] Yeah, that one was a lot of fun! I didn’t work on that one that long, but when I finished Surf’s Up, they needed some help on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and it was a lot of fun working with that team, they had a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, and Justin Thompson is an unbelievable artist.

A113: Mm, it was just so fun and wacky. I actually interviewed Peter Lord, The Pirates! director recently, and he was saying how much he loves Cloudy as well!
MV: [Laughs] it’s a lot of fun. And again, we were breaking new ground in terms of our animation. If you look at the animation for the Mr. T character, the police officer, and the way he bounces around, at one point he says “oh, my chest hairs are tingling!”, and then he starts to leap around the crowd, in such a fun and cartoony way. You’re absolutely right when you made your comment before, that a lot of other studios have been taking CG animation and limiting themselves into realistic – to the rules of realism – and what Sony did was say ‘this is a cartoon. And we’re going to play it like a cartoon’. You see it in Cloudy, and you’re going to see it again in Hotel Transylvania.

A113: Yeah. Because, it might be with a computer, but it’s still animation; the point is to try and push what you can do.
MV: Certainly, absolutely. And it’s funny that, because it looks realistic, or because it has the potential to create things that look realistic, I think that the industry has been limiting itself in terms of its possibilities.

A113: And, the question I ask everyone is: what’s your favourite animated film, if you had to pick one?
MV: If I had to pick one? Of all time? Wow, I’d have to say Snow White. It’s funny, it’s like the first animated feature, but gosh I really enjoy that film. I think there’s so many wonderful things that happen in that film.

A113: Well, it set the precedent didn’t it, for years to come, of what animation was.
MV: Yeah, yeah. Another one that is one of my favourites is Pinocchio. I feel really blessed that I had the opportunity to talk to Marc Davis about his work on Pinocchio.

A113: Mm, big Disney fan then? [Laughs]
MV: Yes, yes.


You can check out some of Marcelo's work in The Art and Making of Hotel Transylvania, which is out now! UK readers can order the book by following our Amazon Associates link below. -- The Art and Making of Hotel Transylvania, by Tracey Miller-Zarneke, Titan Books. [21st September 2012, £24.99 (UK); 25th September 2012, $34.95 (US)]

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