Ronnie del Carmen’s rise to fame is a success story every young Filipino creative could look up to. A feat of making it to Pixar Animation Studios and lending his art to animated hits like Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, WALL·E, Up, Brave, Monsters University, and finally, co-directing Inside Out, surely does not come every day. It took del Carmen almost 30 years to get to where he is today.
The secret to his success, one might be surprised, is thanks in part to sadness.
Among the five emotions that charmed the audience in the new hit Inside Out, del Carmen believes that if he was a character in the movie, Sadness would be the key emotion to drive his creative mind.
“Sadness is actually one of those things that matures up to be empathy,” del Carmen explained his homecoming press conference alongside director Pete Docter at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel.
“It’s a very useful emotion. You don’t want to be melancholy because it disables you, but empathy is something that I capitalize on. It’s part of my job to make sure I can relate to other people’s emotions, to find out what the character is going through so I can put it on the storyboard and earn the paycheck. That helps me a lot,” del Carmen playfully furthered.
To see his storyboards come alive in animated films actually came as a surprise in del Carmen’s career.
The 55-year-old Fine Arts graduate of the University of Santo Tomas had majored in Advertising. He was, however, steered toward another direction when he migrated to the United States in 1989. He became an animator as he landed a job in Warner Bros as a storyboard artist for Batman: The Animated Series. He later became a story supervisor for DreamWorks and eventually joined Pixar Animation Studios in 2000.
Del Carmen and Docter fondly looked back at the former’s beginnings and how their partnership came to be in an effortless banter of longtime friends.
“For a long time I wanted to join Pixar because I loved Toy Story,” del Carmen began. “I was interviewed at Pixar and everybody met me in this room with drawings of monsters and I was like, ‘They’re making a movie about monsters, I would love to be part of this’.”
“Meanwhile we had a couple of story artists that I loved and I said, ‘How did you learn this?’ They said, ‘I learned everything from this guy Ronnie del Carmen’ I was like, ‘Great! Get him in’.” Docter added.
“After a couple of months, I was an employee! I walked in and they bring me to a room and I was like, ‘What happened? This room is full of drawings of fishes.’ So I suspected that Pete Docter didn’t want to hire me,” del Carmen continued animatedly.
“Which is not true,” Docter was quick to interject.
Their relationship further strengthened in Up as Docter served as story supervisor to del Carmen.
“You know that beginning part of the movie where we see Carl and Ellie fall in love and live together and all of that? That’s four and a half minutes that Ronnie boarded and it was a lot of great stuff,” Docter recalled.
Following Up, Docter invited del Carmen to go on a journey to the “dark unknown together,” the five-year process of bringing Inside Out to life.
“It’s a very messy process, and kinda scary, and so that’s why it’s great to have a creative partner so that we can explore and discover this together,” Docter said.
While most of the story was written by Docter and inspired by his daughter Ellie, the input of the rest of the team was crucial to the film’s authenticity as well.
“We used moving as a metaphor for growing up,” Docter revealed.
He shared how the team would talk about their own childhood experiences that might be useful in fleshing out the emotions in the movie.
“The story sessions are almost like therapy. We hear all these great stories, we would mine them from all the people who were working on the movie,” the director recounted.
One such experience is del Carmen’s memories of growing up in Cavite.
“When you draw, you’re kind of alone. It’s kind of strange because [I was] not out there playing basketball. A Filipino young male who does not play basketball, that makes you a little off from everyone else,” he said.
Like Docter, del Carmen’s parental concern for his two kids was also reflected in the movie.
“When I joined Pixar, I uprooted my kids who were just going to middle school,” the latter shared. “That’s not fun for them. They miss their friends. I thought maybe I made a mistake, ‘what kind of a father am I?’ Stuff like that happen.”
As another outlet for his childhood memories, del Carmen created a storyboard animation on growing up in his hometown. This was revealed by Docter after the duo was asked what movie they would make about the Philippines if given the chance.
“There are lots of stories in the Philippines that I’ve been telling people about growing up, all the lore that we have, also the weather, stuff like that. That would be fantastic to do,” del Carmen said.
“Ronnie has already boarded a beautiful piece about growing up and I’ve never been to [his]hometown, but it really captures this amazing feeling of what that is like. [It is a] very personal story, which is what we try to do in all of our films. Even though they’re about cars or bugs or whatever, we try to put ourselves into them so that they appeal to us and hope that they will appeal to you,” Docter concluded.
Filipinos in Pixar actually get together from time to time and they call themselves the ‘Pixnoys.’
“We would have salo-salos; we would do potluck; we also hold charity events; we hold auctions so we can donate to charities and typhoon relief here and other charities as well,” del Carmen shared.
As for young Filipino animators would like to become a Pixnoy someday, or for those who simply want to reach their dreams, del Carmen has quite the advice.
“The one advice I do have actually goes with anything that you do. It helps if you’re actually doing the thing that you love doing. Because the one thing I do know is that if you are a creative person, or whatever it is that you do, you want to keep doing that thing if you’re passionate about it. So if somebody tries to tell you maybe you shouldn’t be doing it, you can’t help it. You have to do it. You’d do it anyway,” del Carmen began.
“Even though nobody hires you to do it, make something. You finish it, complete the task, and then show it to people,” he continued. “Because if you don’t get feedback, you don’t know what to fix. You don’t know how to improve. So it may sting a little bit, that you feel like, ‘Well it could’ve been better.’ If you’re like, ‘I want to be the best whatever and I don’t want to make any mistakes,’ that means you don’t finish it because you’re afraid that whatever you do, it’s not good enough so you don’t do anything.
“And if you don’t do anything, years go by, and you still believe that ‘I could be a great whatever,’ you still haven’t done anything. So do something, finish it, show it to people, get feedback, and you will get to all of your dreams eventually,” he ended.