The veteran Pixar producer discusses the dynamic working alongside director Pete Docter on the studio’s long awaited feature.
Warning: May contain spoilers.
There’s much riding on Pixar’s upcoming feature, Inside Out. In September 2013, when the studio bumped The Good Dinosaur from its 2014 release, all eyes suddenly turned to Pete Docter’s new film about the animated world of emotions inside the head of a 12 year old girl. Slated for a June 19, 2015 release, Inside Out again teams Docter with producing partner Jonas Rivera. The two worked together on the Oscar-winning Up. Rivera, who started at the studio as a production office assistant in 1994, has worked on virtually every Pixar film since Toy Story.
I recently had a chance to speak to Rivera at Pixar’s Emeryville, California campus. With a friendly and good-natured style, the producer seemed at ease discussing a film he was clearly jazzed about. Even after putting in a full day of wall-to-wall interviews, Rivera seemed relaxed and genuinely interested in my questioning, his last session of the event. From the careful nature of the press rollout to the extensive access now being granted to reporters, it’s apparent the studio is going all out to make sure this film, an original Docter story with no number after the title, gets the right type of attention. But when you listen to Rivera, you get the sense he and his team are up to the task, humbly confident they have created what could very well be one of Pixar’s funniest and most enjoyable films ever.
Dan Sarto: Is there more pressure than normal on you with this film? It seems this is a really important film for the studio. I know each film is important, but with The Good Dinosaur being pushed, no film last year, suddenly, all eyes are on you. Expectations are high.
Jonas Rivera: Well they are now [laughs]! Both externally and internally inside the studio, after we presented at D23, it seemed the volume did get turned up. We actually welcomed that as we’re really proud of the film. But there was a little more torque than I expected. We come into every film feeling so lucky to have these jobs. We tend to come into work each day thinking, “This could be the last movie we ever make.” That’s how you have to approach it. You hope people like it. You hope it does well enough that they let you make another one.
DS: The role of the producer is often overlooked as we shine a spotlight on the art and technology of animation. We just assume there are people involved who help make sure the work gets done. If you had to highlight the main aspects of your job on this film, what were they? What’s the main mandate?
JR: You’re right in that we need to just get it done. Pete thinks it up and I support the vision. I build the team and try to figure out the manpower and technological engineering we need. But what I’m really most proud of in my partnership with Pete is our balance. Nobody at Pixar, and I mean nobody, ever says, “I’m done! I’m done with this shot!” My job basically is through slight of hand and parenting…
DS: …pull it out of their hands…
JR: …figure out how to get them to say that. If I do that with too much torque, I can break the fragileness of the idea or the art. But if I don’t do it with enough torque, it stalls out and we don’t move forward. We have screenings and deadlines we have to meet. That’s what I’m most proud of. I think I’ve found a way to thread that needle, being respectful of the art, but at the same time, showing an equal amount of respect for the fact that the curtain is going up and we do have to show something.
DS: But it’s more than just wrangling the necessary parts to get things moving and get work done. Certainly, anything visual is possible. I’m sure there isn’t anything you couldn’t create given enough time and resources. But isn’t a huge part of your job to arbitrate the decisions as to what can be done with the time, budget and resources available? Where to say yes, where to say no and where to say maybe?
JR: Yeah, that’s a huge part of it. I’m almost like the canary in a coal mine for the movie. My job is to communicate with Pete. So for example, he wants a “Train of Thought” to go through the movie and have tracks appear underneath it. OK, that’s great. Let’s talk to effects and sets and see how we can do that. I’m going to cost that out. Then I say to Pete, “Pete, that’s in like 12 shots. It’s going to cost X to do that. Is it worth it?” Maybe it is. But his reaction tells me everything I need to know regarding how I’m going to proceed. He’ll say, “It is.” Great. I’m going to figure out how to do it. Or, he’ll go, “Oh…yeah…” Great. If he says it that way, that tells me all I need to know. I can come back with another cut. So I try to use my relationship with him to help get him what he wants on the screen.
Here’s a little example. Disgust. Disgust had long hair. The original design had her with hair down to her waist. Hair is very expensive. If she had to move her hair over her shoulders or her ear…our simulation team bid it out and it was somewhere around 100 labor weeks to do the work. So I looked at it and I talked to our supervising technical director and he said, “You know, if her hair was here [points to shoulder] maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe it does.” So I went to Pete and said, “If Disgust’s hair were here and she didn’t have to do this [moving hair off of face and shoulders] so many times per shot, we could save maybe 80 weeks and that means I could put more into the Train of Thought. He said, “No, that’s a great call. The length of the hair doesn’t matter. It was arbitrary.” So I learned it doesn’t hurt to ask. I’m going to pinpoint what’s expensive, and it’s OK if it’s expensive, but if it’s expensive and it actually doesn’t matter to the vision or the storytelling, then maybe its need is debatable. I’m going to look through the movie and fish those things out.
Sometimes I’m wrong. Pete will say, “No no no. I need that.” Sometimes I’ll say, “Really Pete? Do you really need the fifth reflection on the memory…” “Yes, I do.” OK, then I’ll make it happen. I’m constantly looking under every stone to find efficiencies there.
I love this. No one ever asks about producing stuff [laughs].
DS: Well to me, this is some of the most interesting stuff about the film.
DS: It gets to the heart of filmmaking. Sometimes there’s not enough emphasis on understanding the holistic aspect of, “We’re making a film.” The focus is on various aspects of the process and technology. So, you’re involved on this film from the very beginning, correct?
JR: Yeah. I’ve been involved from Day 1. Obviously Pete at home was coming up with some of these ideas but even before we pitched to John [Lasseter], it was Pete and I.
DS: Over the course of a film that literally takes years to make, how do you manage to make sure everyone can look to you and get what it is that they need? Even more than Pete in some ways, all paths lead to you.
JR: Yeah, that’s fair and actually true. How do I manage it? That’s a really good question. My wife might tell you that I don’t [laughs]. It’s like a war of attrition. There’s a long list of things to do and you can’t try to do them all at once. You can’t try to solve every problem. One of the things I’ve come up with, which sounds short-sighted, and is by design, is asking, “What are today’s problems? What are tomorrow’s problems?” I’m always saying that to the team. What do we need right now?
I don’t want to paint ourselves into a corner. Making movies is hard, no matter what medium you’re in. Often what we do, since we have such a detailed and rich pipeline, is try to come up with the perfect pipeline to make something. And the team will struggle with that. I’m often saying, “Forget the perfect pipeline. Making movies is messy and it’s hard. We’re going to disagree. We’re going to make mistakes.” We should argue less about the pipeline. We should start checking things off the list that we know we need to get done so that tomorrow, our list is a little shorter.
You’ll probably get a different answer from every producer you talk to. They might laugh me out of the room. But that was my mechanism to cope with this film. If you wrote out everything you had to do, you’d say to yourself, “We need a hundred years!” You need a different metric to attack the workload. And I just try to be as accessible as I can be to the crew. If anyone sends a note after a screening, I read it and try to get back to them as quickly as possible. I want everyone to feel this is hand-made, not made by a machine.
DS: You can argue that when discussing these big animated films, we often over-emphasize production technology. Do you ever feel that the technology gets in the way of the creative process? What do you bring to the table as a producer to make sure that you’ve got the technology you need, but it doesn’t get in the way?
JR: That’s a great question. And shockingly, I’ve never felt that. Because I’ve grown up here at Pixar, I’ve seen that everything we’ve ever wanted to do, we’ve been able to do. From the most abstract things, literally, like “Abstract Thought” [from the film] to creating emotions, to making houses fly, to whatever it is. The sky’s always the limit. Now, there are times we have to go slower and times things aren’t as good as we’d like them to be. But I’ve never felt like, “If we only had this tool, we could make this movie. So we have to make something else.”
For example, it was literally a mistake render that they [out TDs] weren’t going to show Pete, that I saw and said, “No, show him,” that led to Joy’s roiling [the glowing effect]. It was something half-baked and they weren’t happy. It was broken. I said, “No, that looks cool!” In a weird way, sometimes the technology and its limitations inspire and ignite the director.
In Toy Story 2, on Buzz’s planet in the very beginning of the movie, that planet was Ant Island from A Bug’s Life. We reused the model. And when it rendered, the rocks didn’t attach to the ground. They were floating. It came out wrong. And John said, “No! It’s Buzz’s planet. The rocks should be floating.” We’ll use any table scrap to try and make something work on a film. We’re pretty resourceful.
It’s an interesting myth that with all this computer technology, it’s somehow easier to make these films. Even my family, they’ll say, “Isn’t it faster with all those computers?” Going back to Snow White, they were probably animating about the same rate we were, maybe five feet a week since the 1930s. It’s been pretty consistent.
A director would probably answer differently. They might say, “If I only had XXX, I could do YYY.” But, from my role, I feel the studio’s technical side has done a pretty good job of keeping up. On Up, Pete talked a lot about, “I want cloth to be caricatured. I want it to feel like a Hank Ketchum drawing.” The guys would say, “What? We finally figured out on Ratatouille how to make cloth behave exactly to the laws of physics. Now you don’t want that?” They should quit! But instead, they said, “OK, we’ll figure it out.” Then they go away and then come back and they’ve done it.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.