Up, Pixar, the Road to Success!

Jonas Rivera is a producer. He began his career as an intern with Pixar in 1994 before a little movie called Toy Story came out.

He has worked on basically everything Pixar since that time! His truly is a story of ‘do what you love and success will follow!’

This interview was conducted by Publisher Brian Barsuglia in conjunction with the SoCal Film Festival.

Barsuglia: First, wow and congratulations. Your story really exemplifies the hard work and dedication that it takes to be successful in any industry, not just entertainment.  So, you started at Pixar working on Toy Story as a production assistant.  Do you remember what the atmosphere was like?  Did you guys know that you were making something special?

Jonas Rivera: Yeah, I’m really proud of that.  I actually started off as the unpaid intern!  It was November 29, 1994 — so there was about a year left on the production of Toy Story.  Pixar was really small in those days, just over 100 people (now it’s like 1,200!)  I was blown away. The place was really small and homespun.  Not very polished at all.  The screening room was full of couches as opposed to theatre seating and people brought their dogs to work.  Felt like a college dorm room.  Everyone was super young and there was excitement in the air.  I remember on my second day getting to see a film test of the Army Man sequence in Toy Story.  It was the first finished footage in the movie, and it blew my mind.  I remember thinking that people aren’t going to know what they are looking at.  It was just the coolest thing and it made me realize that I wanted to work for Pixar forever.

BB: You have gone from production assistant to art department coordinator to marketing and creative resources coordinator to producer and you have worked on nearly every Pixar film. Was your progression simply a reward for the quality of your work, or did you have to make it known that you wanted to move up and be involved in different aspects of the company?

JR: I’ve had a theory for a long time that the best way to get a promotion is to not have to ask for one.  Once I got in, I told myself that I’d work so hard that they’d have to keep me there.  I guess that has paid off.  I’ve been very lucky to have gotten in at such an early time.  I always knew that I wanted to be a producer though.  Even in film school  — when everyone else wanted to direct.  I wanted to produce.  There’s something cool about being the one behind the scenes to me.

BB: Is there anything in particular about yourself you can attribute to your success?

JR: Passion.  I have a lot of passion for what we do at Pixar.  I absolutely love animation.  I’ve loved it and studied for as long as I can remember.  Pixar happens to be a place that rewards passion so that has really worked in my favor.

BB: Was there a particular point where you realized you had “arrived” and said, “This is it.  I am fulfilling my lifelong dream with a successful career in the entertainment industry.”?

JR: I’ve been lucky enough to have lots of those moments.  Seeing Toy Story at the premiere was one of them.  Meeting some of the old timers at Disney was something I never dreamed of getting to do. But nothing comes close to opening Up at the Cannes film festival this Spring.  Up was the first animated film in history to open the festival and it made us so proud.  It was if the world cinema was accepting animation into its club.

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BB: Was there ever a point where you questioned the path you had chosen, wondering if it was the right one? If yes, share what you can.  If no, why do you think that is?

JR: I never had a chance to question it.  I was lucky I guess.  Jumping right into production and then the success of Toy Story opened up a lot of opportunities.  I’ve loved film and animation and would have been happy doing anything in the field.  Being around the medium and the artwork makes me happy.  At times I feel guilty calling what we do “work.”  I love my job.

BB: You went to SFSU, got a degree in filmmaking, and then what? Were you immediately hired at Pixar or did you have any trials and tribulations in your search for a career?

JR: I got my Pixar internship through the film program at SFSU.  It was so busy at Pixar that my last day of school was my first day full time at the studio.  I didn’t even have a chance to go to the graduation because it was so hectic on the movie.

BB: In the world of independent filmmaking, a producer can wear many hats and mean many things. On one project, a producer might be someone who helped the filmmakers financially.  On another, it might be someone who did a little bit of everything to make the movie happen  On a movie like UP, what do you do as a producer?

JR: My job as producer, was to primarily protect the creative vision of the film.  Our Director, Pete Docter, came up with the original story and developed it along with a great writer and Story Supervisor.  An animated movie takes a long time, Up took 5 years from concept to completion, so I came on to analyze what we’d need to create the visuals to the original concept.  I had to work within our studio budget and balance the creative with the technical hurdles.  I had to cast, help find and hire a composer, set the priority for the 300+ person crew and interface with Disney on the marketing and positioning of the film.  Being a producer at Pixar is like being a combination of an air traffic controller with an NFL head coach.  It’s fun.

BB: Our society has become one of “instant gratification” which detracts many from working their way up the job ladder.  Do you have any advice for industry newcomers starting as a production assistant?

JR: Absolutely.  Being the Production Assistant and working my way up taught me everything about the company.  I like to say that I’ve had a front row seat to the birth of the medium, and I certainly had to navigate my way through all levels of the company.  I can’t imagine coming in to a studio like Pixar without the benefit of working at every level.

BB: What’s next?  Do you really want to direct?

JR: No — I want to produce more movies.  Pete Docter and I are thinking about the next one.  He has some more cool ideas up his sleeve and I’m helping him get them off the ground.  I love producing and I love the idea of supporting the Director in their vision.  Over the course of these films, those creative visions change, shift and evolve into the films that we’ve made, and I’m very proud of my contribution.

BB: And, finally (two part question), do you ever attend film festivals to see what independent animators are doing? Is there anyone who you know of at Pixar who can attribute (or at least partially attribute) their “discovery” due to a film festival screening?

JR: I go to as much as I can.  While we were in production, I didn’t have much time to see too many films.  Now that we’ve wrapped, I’m catching up.  We are always out as a studio searching for new talent.  The Cal Arts Producer show in Valencia is a big one.  Lots of people have come up through that program.  I’ve seen many student and independent films that have turned into careers at Pixar.

Interview by Brian Barsuglia

First published July 12, 2013