Jonas Rivera, who’s been at Pixar since 1994, beginning as a production office assistant on Toy Story, has found a real kindred spirit in Pete Docter. He’s just as sweet and soft spoken, too. They first collaborated on Up in 2009 and now they await the release of the even more ambitious Inside Out, which drew raves in Cannes. During my recent Pixar visit, we discussed the tough journey and what it’s like protecting Docter’s vision.
Bill Desowitz: What was it like working with Pete the second time around?
Jonas Rivera: We were up at Skywalker Ranch having our first sound meeting, and I pulled out my satchel and took out my laptop to take notes, and Pete pulls out this one-pound bag of Brach’s jelly beans. It’s like a Chris Farley movie, right? He said, “You want some?” Who is this guy? That’s him. And that’s pretty cool and pretty rare.
BD: Like Jimmy Stewart. And he hasn’t changed a bit over the years. So what was it like early on?
JR: When he pitched it to me, it did feel like it had a little bit of Toy Story in that it’s an ensemble cast and that it could be the same kind of no brainer if we personified these emotions right: Of course, that’s what Anger looks like and how memories work!
BD: It’s another challenging story but they always seem to come at the right time when you can handle it technologically. In this case, with RenderMan coming up with geometric lighting for Joy.
JR: I know: the workforce and the technological force and the creative force since the time that I’ve been here have always managed to deliver what the directors want. They’ve been limited but it’s pretty remarkable. One of the interesting things about this movie is the way Pete directed even early on. He’d say, “I want them to feel like this” or “I want the tone like this, I hope it has this texture.” So it was challenging to get art and technical to harmonize to figure out what he was after. It does look otherworldly to me but hopefully believable.
BD: And the five emotions are certainly more cartoony-looking.
JR: Pete drove that with Shawn Krause and Victor Navone, our supervising animators. They wanted someone in dailies on the Cintiq to draw over. There’s not a shot that doesn’t have some sort of drawn on top of it to pull ourselves away from the anatomy-based, model behavior to more graphic caricature. Our medium doesn’t lean that way but I have to credit Disney with what they did with Tangled.
BD: Talk about the impact for you as the producer when Pete took a sharp storytelling turn in the middle of production to change the antagonist from Fear to Sadness.
JR: Well, it was one of those good news/bad news. Good news in that it’s part of my job to find that very narrow space between applying pressure and blocking pressure so Pete has enough runway to make the decisions you need. At a certain point, the dam breaks and I can’t do it. We were very close to that point when that happened. I think we were weeks away from a screening. And so you could imagine, as cool and supportive as Pixar’s been, I’ve gotta go to John Lasseter, who’s got three other films stacked up and things at Disney, and my boss, Jim Morris, and go, “Not only do we not have a screening, we’re not gonna be ready for another six weeks and we’re changing it…But don’t worry.” It was a hard conversation but it was a worthy conversation.
And Pete he had this long walk — I think it was Father’s Day — and he grabbed [co-director] Ronnie del Carmen and me that Sunday night for drinks and he pitched it in a way that was so honest and truthful. It wasn’t even a debate — we’re in, that’s the right call.
BD: He thought about sadness in his life and if he had to walk away from this movie, how devastating that would be.
JR: He’s such an emotional guy and that led him to this decision. True, Fear is funny and entertaining and there’s a lot of stuff in there, and he still preserved the structure but that was a stronger thematic thread that would lead us to a richer movie experience, I think. So we came armed and pitched it to John, and John was on board. We had to go and turn it around quick and we did. My thing is the crew… the executives are one thing… and the only thing worse for the crew than having no inventory is finding out that they’ve had the wrong inventory.
BD: And what is the mix now between veterans and newcomers?
JR: That’s a great question. I can’t pull a number out of my head but it’s definitely more than half new people now. In our animation department, we had upwards of 70 people at the height, including supervisors and fix guys. I bet that was 60% new people that didn’t work on Up. That’s a lot of people from ’09 and they’re young and there are a lot of women in there: young girls whose first movie they liked was Toy Story. And I feel like grandpa. And nobody barked about it on the crew. Some of the shots got thrown away. But I told them to hang on, it’s gonna take us a couple of weeks to feather this back through, but it was really cool and one of the things I’m most proud of this place. And I’ve been on the other end of this conversation as well over the years on Toy Story 2. I think people just want honesty and to know that it’s coming from the right place.
BD: What are you proudest of with the movie?
JR: I’m proud that the very first time that Pete pitched it to me, with no visuals, no context, no Amy Poehler obviously, in this very esoteric, shuffling the deck kind of way, that I sat forward and said, “Oh, my God — that’s great!” And we rehearsed it and pitched it to John, and I saw John do the same thing. And this was five years ago. And my biggest fear was that through the rigor of our pipeline — the literal this frame to that frame and cut here and this effect and simulation — that somehow it would come out the other end and it wouldn’t have that charm. But as we watched it with our crew for the last time and a few people that I’ve gotten to watch it with, I’ve heard that similar, audible…joy. But to preserve the charm of Pete’s tone onto the screen — I get a little bit of that credit– and I’m proud of that.