Jim Capobianco is a story artist, animator and writer, whose career has extended to an Academy Award-nomination for the family fun movie, Ratatouille. We spoke with Jim about some of his career highlights, to date, and what he has in store for us in the near future.
Can you tell us about the first major animated film you worked on and your involvement on that project?
Well, the first major animated film I worked on was The Lion King. I was a storyboard artist on the film and worked on it for about six months to a year. When I first began working on it, it had already gone through one script, but they were reworking the entire story because they found it wasn’t working well. So we had a lot of freedom as story artists to develop the film.
Can you explain some of your favorite sequences from The Lion King that you were involved in? Were you able to elaborate a little and move away from the script?
At the time, they had two writers on the film, but we were pretty much writing and developing in tandem. The sequence I had the biggest impact on was the Simba and Mufasa sequence where they’re underneath the stars, right before Mufasa is caught in the stampede. I was handed a note to make the scene resemble this old seventies TV show that we all grew up with, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” It always ended with the son asking his father some question like, “Dad, why do people have to die?” And the father would have a nice little saying for his son each time. I knew exactly the moment they were trying to achieve.
They had already developed Mufasa’s ghost scene and I felt like this scene should tie in to that scene. I did some research on African folklore, and some tribes have a tradition of believing their ancestors live in the stars. This was the key to connecting the two together. I wrote all of the dialogue and developed the entire scene around the idea that the kings of the past live up in the stars. At the time, I was just a storyboard trainee so this was huge. I wasn’t even an official storyboard artist yet, not to mention the youngest story artist in the company at the time. Producers, like Don Hahn, were taking notice and wondering who this young upstart kid was!
You co-wrote the spectacular animated film, Ratatouille, my families personal favorite. Can you explain how you came up with that story line and characters? Did you have to go to Paris to get inspired? Where did it all stem from?
When I came onto the film, there was a very rough outline for what the film was. It was developed by the original director and creator, Jan Pinkava. He handed me the outline and it simply had the idea of a rat in Paris who cooks. I looked at that thing and said, “How the heck are we going to make a movie out of this?” It had three things in it that nobody seemed to care too much about at the time: rats, cooking, and France. Nobody likes rats, and cooking wasn’t of interest to many people. Cooking shows and books, like Iron Chef and Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential had just appeared. But interest in cooking wasn’t like it is today. Now there’s this culture of cooking which seems to have grown out of this period, maybe even Ratatouille has had an influence. So, we’d have to figure out how we could make cooking and kitchens exciting in an animated film. I was also worried with American audiences, thinking, “How are they going to care about France? This was the time of George Bush and his freedom fries and all that malarkey. With all three points, I thought this was an absurd project. So I went back to Jan and said that I thought I knew how to approach this. We should amplify the absurdity and push it forward Monty Python style. We both loved that sort of humor and Jan grew up in England, so we sort of bonded over that.
Jan was struggling writing the original script on his own. He had worked with some other writers in the past and was never comfortable with any. I realized he needed to get this out of his system and on his own terms. I suggested that we write the film together and we pushed forward. We wrote the original draft and it basically evolved from there, but the core of it always stayed the same. All of the ideas of how Linguine cooks with Remy on his head, the relationship between Remy and his family, Skinner and all, were developed with the element of how to make cooking interesting, rats appealing and funny and Paris we leaned into the idealized romance that most people have, even I bet George Bush. Researching and learning about kitchens, you discover that many of the cooks resemble a kind of “pirate”. They’re from all over the world, some with very dark backgrounds and troubling lives. We were able to include more of an exciting environment as we learned more and more. Knives, flames, heat and steam and the energy of a top kitchen. We also knew things were really starting to come together when we we could make a rat charming to our test audiences.
In 2008, you were nominated for an Academy Award for Ratatouille for original screenplay. That must have been an incredible feeling. After you had gone through so much with the development of the rats and the whole cooking scenario, can you tell us what it felt like as a young animator?
It was a fantastic experience and a great honor to be nominated. I was nominated with Jan and also Brad Bird, so I feel like that nomination encapsulated the entire experience of that film. Jan started it, it is his idea and vision mostly, I kind of carried it through to Brad, who shaped and honed this unruly film, finalizing and getting it out to the world. The nomination represents the history and tremendous experience of this film. As for the Oscar show itself, I always tell people, when you go to the Academy Awards and you’re there, it’s like you are inside of your television set. I always watched the Academy Awards since I was a little kid and I was fascinated by movies, so to actually be there and see everything in person was extraordinary.
Do you happen to remember who else was up for the writing awards?
Yes, the Coen Brothers, heroes of mine, who wrote No Country for Old Men that year. P.T. Anderson, Diablo Cody, she won for Juno. But what was most awesome, Harrison Ford was the presenter announcing the nominees. He said my name and I thought, Han Solo’s up there saying my name! My wife took the clip of him saying my name and created a recording so when my phone rings it is Harrison Ford saying, “Jim Capobianco.”
Can you tell us about your current involvement in the highly anticipated Mary Poppins Returns? We are all very excited to see the sequel to this much loved film.
My official title is Animation Sequence Supervisor and I’ve been overseeing the 2D animated piece in the film. It is going to be a great film. I am very proud of it.
We are excited to learn about your latest project, The Inventor, which you are writing, directing and, of course, producing. Can you tell us about The Inventor?
I’d made a short film a while back about Leonardo Da Vinci as he’s always been fascinating to me as a personality. Being an artist, you learn about Leonardo Da Vinci and how he was this genius that we put up on a pedestal. I found it interesting to develop a story around him and bring him down to earth in a really relatable way. The more I researched, the more I related and saw that he was just a person. He was an artist who procrastinated, struggled, had to deal with his bosses, and act in a certain manner to earn a living. I really wanted to personify him as a human being. I had never really seen that with Leonardo Da Vinci. If he’s ever in any kind of films, he’s always the old, dottering inventor, the wise sage or the sort of genius you can’t quite touch. The short film touches on that, the humanity of him, and it was quite well received. People were really excited about it and told me their children loved it. They wanted to know if there were other films out there like this or why there weren’t more films that are historical, semi-educational and all around entertaining for their children?
I began researching further to expand, I found that after leaving Italy, he spent the last three years of his life in France. He goes to teach and be part of the French court with this very young king. I felt that this was the perfect focal point. You’re not telling Leonardo Da Vinci’s life story but rather a nice little microcosm of his life.
You have a great team involved in this project. Can you expand a little bit more about the team working with you on The Inventor?
I do have a great team and it’s very exciting. I’ve worked with Robert Rippberger, as my producer, who’s been right there with me for many years. We’ve been working hand-in-hand producing and getting this out into the world in an independent way. I’m also going back to The Lion King and Don Hahn has joined with us to executive produce. He has a great history and pedigree with animated and even stop motion animation films, such as with Frankenweenie. The great Peter Sorg is our cinematographer and has a long history with stop motion animation. A good friend of mine, Alex Mandel, who I worked with at Pixar for a long time, is also on board as our composer. It’s exciting to have Alex on the team as he is extremely versatile and is talented in Renaissance and modern music. Then there is Kat Alioshin our PM and knowledge keeper of all things stop-motion. She’s worked on Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, Coraline. Just an amazing group.
Can you tell us how far along you are in the process for The Inventor?
The script is complete and I’m now actively in pre-production and story boarding. I’m personally working with a very small team to storyboard it. I have a philosophy of continuing the writing through the story boarding process. It is a combination of 2D hand drawn animation and stop-motion, so different then most stop-mo films out there. We are really trying to keep this film very unique in that it is an independent film. So we’ve been looking for financing from all over the globe while still retaining the creative control. It’s been a long road to do so, but we feel like we’re very close and are pushing hard to get over the finish line.
You must sleep pretty rarely, because you’re in the middle of doing the different sequences for Mary Poppins Returns and then of course The Inventor is hot on its heels. Are you quite far along with the story boarding?
I’ve story boarded out the first act and we’ve cut it together into what we call a “story reel”. That way, we can see the movie as it evolves. So now we’re working on the second act. I have one other story artist helping me out, Sarah Leuver, and she’s been able to keep the ball rolling. The other thing I do is I carry around these little sketch pads that are about four by six. I just do my storyboards on that and then I photograph them on my phone. I have trained myself to kind of utilize whatever time I have to keep these projects moving.
How many acts are going to be in The Inventor?
The traditional three-act structure.
Thank you Jim for taking the time to chat with us at Filmoria. We’re very excited to see The Inventor on the big screen, and more of your work in the near future.