Brandon Oldenburg and Ralph Eggleston have many things in common. They both work as designers and artists for animated films. They both won the Academy Award for best short film. And, most importantly, they both eat breakfast.
Eggleston, a Louisiana native, works at Pixar and contributed his talents to animated films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL•E and most recently, Inside Out with roles ranging from production designer to art director to general artistic problem solver. Oldenburg was featured on the cover of Shreveport Magazine’s first issue, where you can learn about the massive pile of accolades and awards he’s garnered as the co-founder of Moonbot Studios. Oldenburg won his Oscar for The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore in 2012. Eggleston won in 2002 with For The Birds. Both short films were directorial debuts.
This summer, as part of a Moonbot Studios retrospective exhibit, artspace and the Shreveport Regional Arts Council hosted several animation professionals to teach locals the tricks of the trade. Eggleston visited in August and kicked off his time in Shreveport by sharing a meal with Oldenburg at Strawn’s Eat Shop. Shreveport Magazine listened in as the pair discussed growing up, making movies and everything in between.
THREE TV CHANNELS AND FLIPBOOKS
BRANDON: When you were growing up, how did you find your
inspiration, besides the three TV channels?
RALPH: We almost had three and a half because there was a UHF channel. I think it might have been out of Lafayette, though. It was PBS. So, I woke up to Bugs Bunny—the pre-1945 ones were the ones syndicated. On Saturday morning, some of the older ones. Like everybody, you got up and watched cartoons. It was on my tenth birthday that my sister took me to see a double feature of Helen Hayes and Derek Nimmo at the apex of their careers: One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing. One of those horrible Disney movies that was live action. But, the double feature was with Cinderella and that’s what did it. That’s what flipped the switch.
BRANDON: Was that common to see the live action and animated combo at a cinema?
RALPH: There was something called the Disney summer movie series where they would re-issue films and it would be a film a week. It was good for families to drop their kids off at and be there for a few hours or be there together.
BRANDON: (There’s your OJ, nice and foamy, just like we like it.) I do remember the live action Disney films, but they were later. It wasn’t like the Davy Crockett things. Return to Witch Mountain—that’s the era I remember clearest—Something Wicked This Way Comes, that stuff.
RALPH: The stuff I grew up in and around in—terms of that kind of movie—it was the Apple Dumpling Gang.
BRANDON: Which, by the way, was the first movie I saw. My parents always said my bottle was stolen by the Apple Dumpling Gang in that theater.
RALPH: Yeah, so that stuff, No Deposit, No Return.
BRANDON: Had we been in a boat, we would have passed through Uncertain, TX, which was where Disney owned property that they used for exteriors that included anything swampy. But, even prior to that they shot a silent-era Tarzan there.
RALPH: When I saw Cinderella that was it. I was only 10, but, I knew I wanted to do that. It took me somewhere that no other film had at the time. And, so I started using the library a lot: researching how did they make this, how did they do this. I ruined every book in my parent’s house by turning them into flipbooks. Cut some stuff. Ruined all of my school books. My mom was so mad!
BRANDON: Did you keep any?
RALPH: I think I may have kept one.
BRANDON: It’s funny, when you do flipbooks for the first time—I did it all wrong. I started at the top front and worked my way to the back. And I’m like, “I can’t see through these so I don’t know what to draw next.”
RALPH: And then, you find out what paper works best and what paper doesn’t work well. My parent’s bibles were always that thin paper, so they didn’t work well.
BRANDON: Oh yeah, the Bible paper!
RALPH: I was so excited because look at all the pages!
BRANDON: Why aren’t there more books published on Bible paper? It is amazingly thin. I don’t understand how they cut that paper so thin.
RALPH: Did you do the same thing?
BRANDON: Flipbooks? Yeah, in my dad’s office. But, you know, it was pre-Post it notes, they didn’t have the sticky gum on them; but, they were on top of each other and you would get stacks.
RALPH: Yeah, I would ask my dad and he would bring the same stuff home from work. He would steal—rather maybe, abscond—11x17 Xerox paper and that was my drawing paper. I had an aunt that had a Super 8 camera and I remember that I never saw the footage. Maybe once I did. It didn’t have the single frame capability.
BRANDON: Did you use a tripod?
RALPH: I didn’t even know what that was. I was just holding the camera. They were always worried about what an expensive piece of equipment it was. I remember begging and begging and begging my parents for a Super 8 camera and, finally, they did get it for me. I can’t remember the brand but it had single frame capability. Of course, once I got it, the film was expensive. Like buying a car, insurance…oh yeah.
BRANDON: So much time and effort. You have to make sure, first off, you have enough lighting so you can see it correctly. And then, a month later you get the film back, half the time it wasn’t lit right. You’d have to start all over. It took so much time!
RALPH: There was no one to teach me and I had to literally figure it all out. The closest thing to it was being able to find photography books. But even still, I had not equated things like a lens of a still camera to lenses of a movie camera. The Super 8 cameras of the time—unless you had really expensive cameras—you couldn’t change the lenses or anything.
Finding Your People
BRANDON: How did you find out about CalArts?
RALPH: So, I wrote [Disney animator] Glen Keane a letter and he told me about CalArts and that was it: I’m going there.
BRANDON: So, Glen helped you find your path.
RALPH: Well, he didn’t help me. But, he wrote me a letter back.
BRANDON: It was just what you needed though.
RALPH: Yeah, right, I had no idea what CalArts was before then. I was a dopey kid; so, I didn’t think of anything like my parents couldn’t afford it. It wasn’t really important. It was like I have to go there. I’m not going to learn about animation anywhere else, which, actually wasn’t that far from the truth.
BRANDON: I imagine you were a pretty passionate kid, that once you found what you loved they went, “oh, okay, CalArts is where he needs to be. He loves this. Let’s make it happen.”
RALPH: Oh yeah, they absolutely helped.
BRANDON: How did you afford to go?
RALPH: I had made a decent little short film and a portfolio. I didn’t know what good drawing was; but, I had made a decent short film and that’s what got me in. I actually animated a very short film—it made no sense—
BRANDON: But you did it. I would love to see it. You have to show me it.
RALPH: Oh yes. And, I got a full scholarship. I still had to pay for certain things. I had never been on a plane before, you know. It was very life changing. For years, I was embarrassed to talk about it. I left home wearing a suit on a plane, like you did then. God bless my mom and dad. When I got to CalArts, it’s an extremely liberal college. It’s an art school right? I had no idea what that was. But, the moment I got there, I felt like I was home.
BRANDON: Yeah, like this is my world. There are other people influenced by the same things. It is a weird moment when you find those people. I had the same experience at Ringling [College of Art and Design].
The Scariest Part
RALPH: People would ask me sometimes what’s the scariest or the hardest part of a movie you’ve worked on. And, the hardest part is actually—the scariest part, I should say—is finishing the film and waiting for it to be in theaters. It’s because you can’t change it anymore. And yet, now you are going to be judged on it. You’ve been working on it for five years. Or even, if it’s a short film, the first time you have to screen it for somebody: it’s scary.
BRANDON: We were very fortunate with our first screening of Flying Books to do it here, locally, at the Robinson Film Center. It had an additional minute and a half in it. We needed to present it as the world premiere, and that it was finished. There were several shots in the piece—how do I describe this—that were playblasts that had color tinting in it. To my grandmother’s eye, they appeared finished. But, a lot of friends were like, “were there a few shots in there that weren’t finished?” Yeah, yeah yeah… let’s not talk about that. But, to be able to have that luxury, to be able to digest it, sit in the audience with them, and say, “yeah, that minute there, we should just lose that.” That was a luxury.
I assume with screenings you do that with your own team and you go, “let’s be honest with ourselves that doesn’t have to be there.” Sometimes, it’s because you didn’t have the money or time to render it. That made you be more resourceful; and then, it made it better. It’s these robot sharks like in Jaws that broke on set but in the end the lack of shark makes the imagination take flight and in the end makes the story better.