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Ratatouille Food, Glorious digital food

To bring to life Remy’s culinary world in an accurate and exciting way, they immersed themselves in the world of fine cooking. “This story is about much more than cooking, but I felt that by creating a real kitchen atmosphere and real-looking food, you could give the fantasy a believability that you otherwise wouldn’t have,” says director Brad Bird. And sure enough, we can almost taste the ... Ratatouille.

The process started in Paris, where the filmmakers’ “research” consisted of eating their way from one famous restaurant to the next, sampling the mouth-watering delights and peeking behind-the-scenes at the most creative kitchens in the world. “There was some concern that we might die of eating too much good food in too short a time,” laughs Bird. “But we really learned a lot that adds to the fun of the film.”

Back home, the entire team got into the act with a series of cooking classes, in which computer artists more used to clicking and tapping learned to slice and dice like the pros -- gaining essential insight into tiny but vital details about how chefs hold a knife, chop an onion, stir a soup and interact with others in a wild, busy kitchen. The cooking classes provided lots of creative fodder – and even had some interesting side effects. “It kind of ruined me,” laughs supervising animator Mark Walsh. “I used to be a Top Ramen, tuna-out-of-the-can man and suddenly I realised how much more fun it is to make something really good!”

Meanwhile, Brad Lewis was shipped off to Napa Valley, where he spent two days doing a “total immersion” internship at one of America’s finest (and hardest to get into) restaurants: the French Laundry, where superstar chef Thomas Keller, lauded as one of today’s most creative innovators, turns out new riffs on beloved classics from the kitchen every night.

When Keller heard about the story of Remy, he was instantly taken, and immediately began rooting for him. “I’m not as shocked by the idea of a rat in the kitchen as some people might think,” he laughs. “I think instead Remy is someone that anyone can really relate to, an underdog who triumphs, which gives you such a wonderful feeling to see.”

Eventually, Keller would also voice the role of a restaurant patron in the film, but first he served as a dynamic guide into the world of culinary adventure for Lewis. “Brad wanted to see what a real kitchen looks like and feels like, the energy, the dynamic, how people work together and move around the kitchen – “the dance” as we call it in our restaurant” explains Keller. “Brad and his team also took a lot of video at the French Laundry so they could study it and turn reality into animation.”

"to translate the distinctive yumminess"

Lewis, who worked until 1:30 a.m. the first night and was back in the kitchen at 5:30 the next morning, notes that it was all worth it, as he learned more about what motivates a character like Remy to be so passionate about food. “There’s just tons of details and secret knowledge involved in a kitchen like the French Laundry,” Lewis observes, “but the important thing I realized is that Thomas has the same kind of emotional connection to his food and his customers as we do with our movie-going audiences at Pixar. We found ourselves relating to each other on a much broader level of how much our teams care about what they do. I also discovered that I love to cook for the same reason most chefs do: because it brings people together.”

Yet, even with everything the filmmakers had seen and tasted in Paris, in cooking classes and at the French Laundry, they knew it wouldn’t be easy to translate the distinctive yumminess of a fresh plate of food into computer imagery. “Our mission was to create the most beautiful food you’ve ever seen. We wanted the audience to be thinking, ‘Mmmm, I’d like to jump into the screen and actually eat that!’ But it’s hard enough to create such meals in real life, let alone in the CG milieu,” says Michael Fong. “So the filmmakers had to cook up a series of unique creative and technical processes.

To start with, the technical team realized that they would need real-life models of the food to study. “The only way to recreate what the dishes look like when the sauces are bubbling and the steam is rising off them was to actually cook the dishes on a real stove and then photograph them,” says Fong. Enter the film’s in-house culinary consultant, Michael Warch, who was a professional chef before he entered the film business, and also worked as a manager for Ratatouille’s sets and layout departments. “Basically, I was always at the ready. The effects people would call me up and say we need to recreate the soup that Remy fixes and I would go down and make the soup,” explains Warch.

Warch worked throughout the film to assure the kind of authenticity that even the snobbiest gourmand would appreciate. This was especially true in Gusteau’s kitchen. “The idea was always to create something that was stylized and fun but also true to a real French kitchen,” he says. “We needed to have the right French copper pots, the right French knives, the correct sense of the workflow with the chefs always in perpetual motion – right down to the way the food is plated with the different types of sauces and the architectural presentation. We wanted anybody who has been behind the scenes of a great kitchen to say ‘wow, they really got it’!”

When it came to the actual CG representations of the food, there were a lot of technical challenges for the team to tackle. “One thing we discovered is that the simulation group needed to soften a lot of the food so it would meld into each other on the plate,” says Fong. “That made it look more delicious. The lighting group and shading group also added more translucency which makes the food really appetizing. And finally the effects group created steam and waves of heat coming off the food. It all adds up to a yummy looking image!”

"Certain foods presented surprising challenges"

Certain foods presented surprising challenges – for example, bread, which sounds simple to create but if you want it to have a so-good-you-can-taste-it look, all kinds of difficulties arise. “Bread is challenging because it has to have a feeling of volume to it,” explains Fong. “You can’t just have a flat surface painted to look like bread. It has to have the air bubbles that are formed as it bakes so it looks soft and steamy. The crust has to somehow look flaky and at the same time crispy. So we had to get some really smart people together to attack these problems.”

Another problem the food team had to tackle was that of the restaurant’s many liquids, from thick specialty sauces to flowing red wine. “Simulating things like mandarin oranges in a sauce is very complex and can be a very arduous process,” Fong notes.

“Simulating water is hard. Simulating a viscous, slow-moving fluid like gravy or a delicious sauce borders on impossible because very few simulators can robustly handle the physics. Suspending things in this liquid just multiplies the difficulty.” He continues: “We also needed special fluid simulations for how liquid would move inside a spoon, for example, in the scene when Remy saves the all-important soup.”

The proof of the food team’s work literally lay in the pudding and no less an authority than Thomas Keller found that his appetite was whetted. “Some of the dishes they created truly made me want to taste them,” says Keller. “They way they’re plated, presented and sauced – they really captured that wonderful appeal of great food in an animation process.”

Andrew Urban


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