Building the worlds of Pixar’s animated blockbusters

Ricky Nierva can make an entire room laugh. But he second guesses his own punchlines and always has to make himself clear—“these are the jokes, people,” he says.

The Pixar animator has been with the film studio for two decades, and has the prized Woody statue to show for it. This certified PixNoy, which stands for Pinoys working at Pixar, came home to inspire young aspiring animators at the first Comic Con Asia last March.

“If you have any dreams of being in animation, I’m here to tell you one important thing: It’s possible,” Ricky shares to an audience of art students and Pixar fans of all ages. 

“I want you to know that the things that you do will be shared to the world,” he adds.

Getting the whole world entertained is clearly a herculean task. But it is one quest Pixar takes on one blockbuster hit after another, even it requires at least four whole years to come up with a single but great story to tell. One that is built on research, visual story and even inclusivity.

And Ricky helps paint that story on the big screen.

When he first started in the company, Pixar only had two titles under their name—“Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life.” He realizes now that the advantage of joining the film studio in its early years is having the chance to experience different roles in art, animation and production.

Ricky’s first project was to lead the character team on “Monsters, Inc.” and said it took hundreds of sketches, and a hundred more crumpled drawings thrown in the trash can before characters were finally fleshed out in the movie.

Except for Roz, that is. It only took one sketch to bring the administrator-slash-secret agent in “Monsters, Inc.” to life. Ricky shares she’s the only character he’s drawn whose design was approved after a single outline, and that kind of luck is hard to replicate.

“During the development of a movie, we are working on the story at the same time and there’s just so much potential on how the design could end up being. All the time I was just drawing, and drawing, and drawing different things. But as the story develops and changes, then the design should reflect that. It’s important that you make designs appropriate for the story you are trying to tell,” Ricky says.

After working as the character art director for “Finding Nemo,” and production designer for “Up” and “Monsters University,” Ricky feels that it’s important to think of the environment and details as individual characters of their own.

And that’s what Pixar does. It thinks of every element it puts in its movies, and it is in the visual story that they are able to lay out emotion. Ricky loaded the films he’s worked on with a lot of symbology, where things mimic the personality of the characters they represent. He shared it is the details that compose the emotional beats of the film.

This requires the artists to do a lot of research. “Finding Nemo” took them to an ichthyology research center while “Up” had them hike the Tepui of Venezuela.

Not everyone will go through the same kind of research or fly to the same places they do to make a movie, he says. But he knows it’s their job as artists to capture the experiences and emotions of every moment to make everyone else feel the same thing in the cinema.

Ricky goes on to tell young artists that it’s less about how you draw, and more on how you see.

“You draw and draw, and your work will evolve. But what’s important is your ability to see differently and ability to have ideas in the artwork. It’s not just painting a pretty picture nor beautiful rendering,” the animator says.

“I’ve seen so many beautiful pieces of art that do nothing. But there are those that contain magic in it and have this amazing sensibility of observation—that they’re able to look at the world and distill that into a wonderful drawing,” Ricky adds.

After 24 years in the industry, Ricky knows there are more than a hundred things left to learn. But that’s something that keeps him focused on the horizon—the excitement, the passion, and the long hours he has to work his butt off to keep both those things in check.

“In Hollywood they say ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ But I think it’s about what you know, who you know and what you do with it,” Ricky says.

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