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Interview: Art Director Karen deJong on the Making of ‘Ron’s Gone Wrong’

October 23, 2021Ben MK

The theme of friendship is one that has been visited time and time again in the family film genre. But in Ron's Gone Wrong, that tried-and-true narrative gets a much-needed update for the 21st century, when a middle schooler named Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer) finds a new best friend in a malfunctioning high-tech toy named Ron (Zach Galifianakis). Together, the pair embark on an animated adventure that will see them setting out to thwart the dastardly plans of Bubble, a social media giant intent on using other toys like Ron to sell advertising to children around the world. And while Grazer and Galifianakis are a huge part of the film's charm, as far as the colorful visuals are concerned, it all came down to the animators at Locksmith Animation and DNEG.

I caught up with Art Director Karen deJong to chat about Ron's Gone Wrong and what it was like making the movie during the pandemic, as well as where she draws her inspiration from.

As Art Director, what did your role entail and what was the collaborative process like with the filmmakers?

deJong: My job is working alongside the Production Designer. And I work with the artists at Locksmith, designing characters, locations, looking at what the materials would be, what the color palette is. And then I work with the artists at DNEG who are creating the models and that are putting the surfacing on the characters, [as well as] working with layout and looking at the set-dressing of different locations. We would have reviews every week [with the directors], we'd put up our designs and they would comment, and then we would go back and do any additional changes. As well, [we would] continue to make adjustments once it got into story and layout, if there were things that weren't quite working. So there's a lot of collaboration, there's a lot of interaction. It was fantastic.

In terms of the look of the film, how did the visual aesthetic play into the storytelling?

deJong: The aspect ratio of the film is slightly different. It's 2:1. They really wanted that wide feel, but also [to have it] fit onto the modern viewing platforms. And having [the main character] Barney up a hill and his school and town down the hill, his position was part of the storytelling — just to relate to how Barney felt and what his family was like compared to the other families that we meet in the movie. So all of those things that support the storytelling were considered when designing the environments for the characters to fit into.

You've also worked on movies like Sherlock Gnomes and Meet the Robinsons, but this one was a bit different in that I imagine at least part of it was made during the pandemic. How did that affect the production?

deJong: It was definitely finished in the pandemic. It was really great that we started pre-pandemic and had a chance to work together, so that when we had to work remotely from home, we were really comfortable with each other and could take advantage of Zoom and Teams. We could have very quick meetings, and we'd had a lot of meetings. But everyone continued to work. So it was very challenging from an artistic side, but I think it was even more challenging from a technical side. But it didn't really feel like it was hard to connect to people.

Was there a scene or a character in the film that was your favorite to work on?

deJong: I loved when Ron and Barney are in the bedroom, and it's their first dialogue. And Ron's mouth just opens up huge and his face goes way down [when he says,] "What is a Barney?" I just think that's so charming and so funny, because Ron is learning. And this is the first time he's heard that word. I love that. I just love the intimacy of that moment. They're just introducing themselves to each other. I thought that was really special.

On a similar note, was there a scene or a character that was especially challenging to work on?

deJong: There are technical problems that really are not visible. The vegetation can be very heavy to render. So when we were trying to populate the mountain with the Bubble antenna, that location was challenging. But the team at DNEG was spectacular, and they figured out how to achieve that, which is great.

In terms of your own personal tastes, where do you draw inspiration from, in general?

deJong: I'm lucky in that I live in London right now, so I spend a lot of time at the National Gallery. I tend to look at a lot of portraits. I'm Dutch, so I tend to be drawn to look at that. But my tastes sort of spreads all over the place. So I love contemporary work but I tend to continue to go back to the old masters, to just marvel at their techniques and the color choices that they make, and the context of time. I love van Gogh, van Dyck, and a lot of contemporary artists as well. Ive looked back and looked at the interesting choices that they've made.

Last but not least, what advice would you give to someone looking to break into the animation industry?

deJong: There are some fantastic schools, so I would suggest going to school, knowing as much as you can, learning as much as you can, and really work on projects where you can take advantage of your teammates. It's a lot of hard work, it's a lot of hours, but don't give up. Cuz it's so gratifying when you get to sit in the audience for your film.

Ron's Gone Wrong is in theaters now.

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