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Nancy Cartwright Chats with Pixar Editorial Manager AJ Riebli

In her column, Nancy Cartwright continues her series of chats with animation pros, talking this month with Pixar Animation's editorial manager, AJ Riebli.

Nancy Cartwright.

Nancy Cartwright.

Dear Fans,

Over the next few articles, I am branching out and asking my industry friends to give me their insider takes. I am going to focus on subjects that professionals need to have some knowledge of and get opinions from a wide range of specialties and hats in the business.

So far I have interviewed good friends Jack Thomas (The Replacements), Mike Scully (The Simpsons), Carolyn Omine (The Simpsons), Ginnie McSwain (voice-over director) and now AJ Riebli, Pixar Animation Editorial Manager.

Born August 27, 1969 to an egg-farming family, AJ received his B.A. in Communication with a Television Production emphasis from Santa Clara University. He then played three years of semi-professional rugby in Canada. While in Canada, he worked as a grip and gaffer for a TV production company making commercials. Later he received his teaching credential from Dominican College in San Rafael, and taught U.S. and World History to tenth- and eleventh-graders. To pay off his student loans, he worked as a bartender.

Following work as a PA for Lucasfilm Commercial Division, he started working in March 1997 at Pixar Animation Studios. His credits include: PA and Production Office Coordinator on Toy Story 2, Crowds Manager on Finding Nemo (his team was responsible for all of the "non-acting" fish), Editorial Manager on Ratatouille, as well as the voice of Edna Mode's guard in The Incredibles and the big RV ("McQueen's Biggest Fan") in Cars. He is currently working as Animation Manager on the upcoming Pixar movie, UP. AJ resides in Sonoma, California with his wife, Anne, and his four-year-old son, A.J. IV.

Nancy Cartwright: When you studied at Santa Clara University with emphasis on television production, did you have any idea that you would one day be working at arguably the best animation studio in the world? What were your goals?

AJ Riebli: When I was at Santa Clara (1987-91), my focus was to get into sports broadcasting. Fox Sports was just starting up in the Bay Area and I wanted to work camera for Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants games. I was not aware of Pixar at the time, but I was aware that I was going to school in the Silicon Valley.

My first interaction with using animation in production was through the use of a Lumena Graphics System. I believe it was the 16. I actually did some frame-buffer animation for a title sequence for one of my student projects, but at the time I wasn't thinking of animation as a career path.

AJ Riebli, Pixar Animation's editorial manager

AJ Riebli, Pixar Animation's editorial manager

I remember making a class trip to SGI (Silicon Graphics) in 1990, and being blown away by their facility and playing "Flight Simulator" and thinking this could be the future, but instead I chose to play the game of rugby abroad, and this is what led me to Pixar.

I was living in Calgary, Alberta with very little means, and would often go to the movies on Tuesday nights for "Cheapskate Tuesdays" (Tuesdays were discount movie night in Calgary). I remember going to see Honeymoon in Las Vegas and at the head of the movie was this great little film called Knick Knack. When the credits rolled for Knick Knack, the final card said "made in Marin County, California." I laughed and told my teammates, "When I go back home to California, I am going to work for Pixar." I still have a hard time today, believing that my statement actually worked out.

NC: Do you think a university degree is important if you know you want to work in animation?

AR: University is not for everyone and a degree does not make the person. There are a lot of artists and industry greats that only did a year or two at school. I think you can draw some parallels between great artists and great athletes. Some people are ready to go pro straight out of high school and others need four or five years to hone their craft. I was one of those people that needed four years. The learning experience, the networking and the lessons of responsibility and self-reliance made the university degree invaluable for me.

NC: Did working in commercials help you with the work you are doing now?

AR: I just wrapped up work as the editorial manager on Ratatouille. My commercial experience was valuable in terms of understanding what the creative wanted, and trying to come up with a way to deliver a great end result in a compact time frame. It was pretty applicable to putting up and taking down the reels of the movie. Editorial has a way of setting the pace in production. Production cycles on features are obviously a lot longer, but you still want to achieve the best results and I think Ratatouille managed to do this in a big way.

NC: I notice that you also received your teaching credential and you taught tenth- and eleventh-graders U.S. and world history. Do you miss that challenge, and how has that influenced your life?

AR: I really enjoyed teaching, but it was the other hats that came with teaching that were tough. You had to be a parent, a friend, a nutritionist, a loan shark, a warden and, at times, an inmate. We don't pay educators enough in California. I became apathetic, mostly due to the heavy bureaucracy. The students were great, but you had to be prepared to entertain every day. This was tough. You had to have a good story every day, while trying to impart knowledge. I approached teaching history from a cycles-and-trends perspective, and tried to show students that history happens every day. I love history because it is filled with so many great stories.

AJ started at Pixar as a PA on Toy Story 2. © Disney/Pixar.

AJ started at Pixar as a PA on Toy Story 2. © Disney/Pixar.

NC: You went from working as a bartender to working at Pixar. How does someone go from whiskey and beer to animation (all kidding aside)?

AR: You could say I went from pouring shots to managing shots. I met a friend through my bar days who worked at Pixar. She called me one morning after night shift at the bar and said, "Pixar is looking for a PA for Toy Story 2, get down here." It was laundry day for me and I was about to spend the next four hours at a laundromat. Instead, I pulled some clothes out of the hamper and headed for Point Richmond. I got to Pixar around noon and didn't leave until after 6 p.m. I had a six-hour interview and felt like I met everyone in the studio during that six hours. I met the A Bug's Life production office, Toy Story 2, Office of the President, Shorts and CD-ROM division. It was a big day. I got a call from the production office of Toy Story 2 the very next day and, as they say, the rest was history. (I always wondered who the "they" was.)

NC: When you were hired as a PA for Lucasfilm in the commercial division, what were your duties?

The non-acting fish were under AJ's control in Finding Nemo. © Disney/Pixar.

The non-acting fish were under AJ's control in Finding Nemo. © Disney/Pixar.

AR: My work at Lucasfilm was all freelance. I worked about four or five commercial shoots for them. I was never an employee. What I loved about Lucusfilm was that it was local and they were on the cutting edge of technology. Being a Star Wars geek, it was also cool just to tell your friends you had just done a commercial for George Lucas's company. I rarely told them that I spent my day parking cars, making sure the M&M bowl was filled, or showing the hand model the Honey Wagon. I have some great memories from those gigs.

NC: On Finding Nemo, your job was "Crowds Manager." Tell me more about that.

AR: Finding Nemo was my first managerial job at Pixar Animation Studios. As the Crowds Manager, I led the team that was responsible for putting in all the non-acting fish. I worked with a small group of amazing animators and technical directors, and we populated the seas of Finding Nemo. We had this great "schooling" tool that allowed us to pick miscellaneous fish and put them in a schooling pattern and path, and turn them loose. Our team also ended up doing all the sim/cloth work, background boat animation in Sydney Harbor and, in the end, the net simulation for the fishing-net climax. I was basically the coach and cheerleader that scheduled the art and director reviews and made sure we got the shots done and released to lighting. I also organized the team wrap party, which was a great Cajun crab feed paired with Gewurztraminer and Riesling.

NC: Please describe your work as editorial manager on Ratatouille.

AR: I worked on Ratatouille for over four years. I was basically the yin to my film editor Darren Holmes's yang. We had a creative partnership that worked very hard to get the director Brad Bird's vision of Ratatouille to the big screen. Editorial is one of the true hubs of production. We deal with every department on the production, working toward achieving the final cut of the film. It's a giant team effort. My basic concern is that everyone is happy and healthy, especially the director. I spent most of my days directing information and running interference for my edit team so that they could get their work done.

NC: You did the voice of Edna Mode's guard in The Incredibles and the voice of the big RV in Cars. How does casting work at Pixar?

AR: As we develop our stories and try to build our story reels, we create storyboarded versions of our film that are filled out with scratch dialog and sound work. All of the scratch voices at this stage are done by Pixar employees. Before we cast our talent, we are trying to make sure we have a story or character worth casting, so we fill out the voices with talent from the studio. Sometimes what happens is that lesser character scratch is left in for the final movie. This was the case for me with Edna's security guard. I have a pretty deep voice and it worked with the character, so the director left me in The Incredibles.

For Cars, it may have been a little different. Not only do I have a deep voice, but I am 6' 4" and 300 pounds, so casting me as McQueen's Biggest Fan and the largest RV in the race stadium wasn't a giant leap for John Lasseter, the director. They had designed this RV and I did the scratch and then Travis Hathaway, who is an animator at the studio, animated my voice with this character and it got a lot of laughs at animation dailies. And so I got the part and even got a few more shots in the film. The funny thing is that Travis also did my security guard animation in The Incredibles. Thanks, Travis.

NC: The animation industry has the reputation of being a very tight-knit group, from writers to animators to voices. What does it take to be successful in this part of the business?

AR: Pixar believes in education. We have our own university at work called PU and all employees are provided with an opportunity to explore their talents -- everything from beginning painting and drawing, to beginner UNIX and Brazilian Samba. One of my favorite classes in PU is Improvisation and one of the most important rules of improv is to always accept the offer. I really believe that being open to offers is critical to success. We bounce ideas and offers off of each other every day. It's really fun to make an offer, have it accepted, and see where it takes you.

Reibli voiced Edna's bodyguard in The Incredibles and the RV in Cars. © Disney/Pixar. 

Reibli voiced Edna's bodyguard in The Incredibles and the RV in Cars. © Disney/Pixar. 

NC: If I were an animation artist, how would I get a job at Pixar?

AR: Art School doesn't hurt -- Cal Arts, RISD, Academy of Art in San Francisco, Sheridan, just to name a few. If you are just starting out, reading The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson is a good start. I would say learning to make a proper bourbon old-fashioned would help, but I would be lying.

NC: It used to be that voice-overs merely supplemented an artist's desire to act on camera. Nowadays, you can't watch an animated film without seeing the name of a celebrity. What are your thoughts about this trend? Should there be a special acknowledgement for "non-celebrity" talent?

AR: Star power never hurts, but I think the character should come first, before the name. The voice needs to work with the character, otherwise it fails the character. What if Bart Simpson was voiced by Ving Rhames? Would it work? Ving has a great voice, but it is not a good fit. Funny, but not a fit. There are quite a few movies out there where the star power is large and the performance is forgettable. I don't think that non-celebrity talent needs special acknowledgement. They should just know that their voice was the best voice for the job and made the character come to life in a way that was believable for the audience.

Lou Romano and Pete Sohn are two very talented artists that work at Pixar. They also happen to play two of the main characters in Ratatouille. Lou played Linguini, the lead human character, and Pete played Emile the rat, Remy's brother. Both of these gentlemen gave great performances, their non-celebrity status notwithstanding. The characters worked because they were well served by great animation, and voices that were true to their characters.

NC: And, finally, what is your proudest artistic achievement?

AR: Without a doubt, my proudest artistic moment is sharing a film credit with my son on Finding Nemo. Starting back on Toy Story, Pixar began giving children born during a production cycle a "production baby" credit during the end-credit screen crawl in our films. This tradition has continued through all our films and, luckily for me, my son, Arnold Joseph IV (credited as A.J. IV), was born on February 21, 2003, just making the Finding Nemo credit deadline by seven days. Not bad for a rugby-playing, shot-pouring, history-teaching, editorial-managing recreational vehicle. It puts a smile on my face to know that Finding Nemo will be in the Library of Congress someday, and my son and I will be an historical footnote.

Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in a career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently, she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disney's Kim Possible and Todd Daring in Disney's The Replacements. To learn more about Nancy's career, listen to her audio book My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy or visit her website.