• Ashton Blyth

Visual Development in Film with Ralph Eggleston


As part of SPARK Animation Festival 2021, which I was fortunate enough to be a part of, they had a series of Masterclass talks - this include one from Ralph Eggleston on Visual Development.


Overall I found this talk, or 'key-notes', on the subject very informative as a beginner to animation. Although what I plan on creating will be rotoscoped, at least for the majority, it still has me thinking about my layout and story arcs in a whole new way. My visuals need to compliment the story, I need to subtly highlight emotional scenes with lighting and colour to direct the viewer's eye.




Below are all my notes from the session:


  • Worked in film production for many years - nearly every Pixar film and short, Ferngully, Garfield and the Simpsons

  • Most persistent role of production designer - visual development and prepping the research

  • Visual development is what sells an idea to an audience, shows you how to best tell a visual story


What is "Visual Development"?

  • The creation of inspiring visuals with unbridled creative freedom to help find the tone and best presentation of a story idea

  • Visual Story Development - PRIOR to pre-production that helps explore key visual guide posts for the story being told, visual "Haiku"

  • World Building, Character Development

  • A method of creating artwork that helps "sell" a film or idea

  • A MESSY, in many ways unquantifiable process


What "Visual Development" SHOULDN'T be:

  • A way to distract from the REALLY difficult job of tying up story issues. Use it to help SOLVE those issues

  • An overly "precious" unchangeable process focused on the "art" over the "idea"

  • A tool expected to dispense with the really time consuming, difficult and challenging aspects of translating a "look" into a thousand or more shots

  • A "magical process" that will solve your every problem


  • Visual Development is a verb, not a noun, development should take precedence.

  • Seeing the things that you're researching yourself in-person - not using the first few pages of Google

  • Strong visuals are what captures the imagination


Story is not key, story-telling is key!


Why Visual Development is important?

  • Visual Development can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Focused discipline, with the emphasis on the word "DEVELOPMENT" is key to its successful use

  • Film is a visual medium; our day to day currency in production are visuals. Having images to refer to that inspire and inform everyone encourages productive collaboration and creative problem solving

  • Pushing the boundaries of visual style in a story appropriate manner while contributing to the audience understanding of the story is key. Pretty pictures are nice: hang them on a wall. Visual Development is a means to an end - not the end result


Notable Artists:

  • William Cameron Menzies - only VD Artist on a film with five Directors that called for a singular vision - Gone with the Wind

  • Walt Disney Studios - scripts developed hand-in-hand with storyboard visuals

  • Gustaf Tenngren - more environment that characters, his designs are notable in Pinocchio

  • Tom Codrick - Walt's secret weapon, worked on three out of the first five Disney feature films, his role as Art Director was to crate a singular vision, a highly underrated artist

  • Mary Blair - off and on with Disney for 30 years, using her unique forms of shape, colour compositions, texture and value, her work made an impact on the imaginations of the entire filmmaking staff, encouraging them to incorporate her divine approach to staging throughout. From layout, to colour and background, styling, her influence o the ability to grab an audiences attention clearly, simply, and efficiently, significantly impacts the work of Disney today

  • Roy Harryhausen did his own visual development

  • Rick Guidice - created artwork of other worlds inspiring NASA in their search for other worlds

  • Ken Adams - Goldfinger and Thunderball, an architectural approach to layout and visuals

  • Ralph McQuarrie - Star Wars, creating whole new fantasy worlds that set imaginations alight

  • Harley Jessup - Ratatouille and Monsters Inc, bright and bold colours of creatures in contrast to the colours of food that evoked the senses



My experiences in "Visual Development" or "how visual development impacts story and production"

  • I started as an animator

  • Fell into Production Designer and Art Director by accident

  • Learned from the trenches how Visual Development influences production

  • Doing Visual Development is fun. And HARD. A thick skin and sense of humour helps


Ferngully - Getting My Feet Wet

  • Hired as an animator, doing some storyboarding and early designing

  • Soon found himself in an art director roll

  • Creating colour pallets for the scenes


Toy Story - The Story Informs Design

  • Had to learn a new language so to speak - translating visual ideas into CG

  • Hired as an Art Director

  • The story will tell us what it needs to be

  • Was originally going to be Pizza Put - but legal issues arose with Pizza Hut, and then someone drew a design for a claw game that Buzz could hide in - a rocket ship, and so re-visualised the whole setting that would be known as Pizza Planet


Finding Nemo - Clarifying the Reef Through Audience Identification

  • Key crew members took scuba diving lessons and went diving in New South Wales

  • First few tests proved the coral to be too busy, so they looked at gardening architecture and layouts, organised patterns and colours to direct the eye to the source of the action


Walle - Finding Variety in Monotony

  • A world covered by trash - limited colour pallet after Finding Nemo

  • Made the intimate character moments standout, even in a far away shot

  • First use of green as with the plant, and it remained the only source of green throughout until the final shot of the world being turned green again


Inside Out - Finding a Structure for Our Visual Development

  • Contrasts of Real World vs Mind World - colour, texture, contrast - what dose the mind look like?

  • Brainbows - the textures and colours within neurons and parts of the brain

  • A film that required you to not be overly precious with your artwork about finishing it as the visual concepts were in a process of constant change


Incredibles 2 - Early Version and the Parr House

  • The original Parr home that was destroyed had inward, downward pointing sharp angles that portrayed Bob's anger and frustration about being stuck in a mundane life in hero protection

  • They wanted the new house to have a mid-century spin on the traditional arrow-up 'happy home'

  • Considered the suburbs, where they could see their neighbours but there were a few trees in-between, unlike the grid-style neighbourhood they lived in previously

  • Decided on a precipice with a view of the suburbs and Metroville

  • Springwater running through the house connecting it to the landscape

  • The openness of the house contrasted with the closeness of the Parr family, and so showed their unease at the new environment/situation


Visual Development shows not what it will be, but what it could be.
Artwork helps remind us what is and isn't important
Visual consistency to maintain the illusion of a world you are creating
HANG IT UP - even if it is not final, it could inspire others


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