Please tell us about yourself
Disney Pixar’s Inside Out has opened to unanimous critical acclaim in the US, in the process of becoming the second highest opener for an original movie with a weekend collection of $91 million. In a period, when sequels, reboots, remakes and superhero flicks have dominated the Hollywood box office, the success of an ingenious story about how five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust – function inside the head of an 11-year-old girl is a reassuring sign.
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Like some of Pixar’s finest movies, Pete Docter (director of Monsters, Inc. and Up) has made a film which will give you as many reasons to smile as to shed tears. With the summer having already seen two Indians in successful films – Irrfan (Jurassic World) and Nargis Fakhri (Spy) – Inside Out also features Indians, albeit those behind the screens: Sajan Skaria, Vandana Sahrawat (Hyderabad) and Amit Baadkar (Mumbai).
In an exclusive interview with India Today, Sajan Skaria shared his experience of being a Disney Pixar character supervisor for 14 years now, and working on Inside Out.
What is your background?
The Thiruvananthapuram-born Skaria did his undergraduate studies in computer science from Regional Engineering College (REC, now the National Institute of Technology), Calicut and then went onto pursue his master’s in visualization sciences from Texas A&M University. The education enabled Skaria to get familiarized with ‘both the artistic and technical aspects of animated movie-making’, and he makes it a point to take a break from his duties at the headquarters in Emeryville, California once a year to visit his parents back home in Kerala.
What do you do?
As a character supervisor with Pixar since 2001, Skaria is responsible for all the characters in Inside Out. “I have a team of modellers, riggers, shading artistes, tailors and groomers working with me,” he writes. “We take the artwork that the artistes and the director come up with, and create them on the computer. One of the biggest pleasures of our part of the job is to be the first to see Pixar’s amazing characters come to life. I work with all the other departments and the production team to make sure our characters turn out looking great,” added Skaria.
How did you start off in Animation?
Skaria started off by working on Finding Nemo. Apart from Cars, which he says was the longest he worked on a film – ‘close to five years!’ – he is also behind bringing alive one of the most memorable characters of all time in Woody, which he worked on for the popular Toy Story 3. “It was a thrill to get to work on Woody,” says Skaria, “It was like getting a chance to recreate Mickey Mouse.”
When did your love for animation begin? How did you end up in a cool, offbeat and interesting career such as this?
My love for animation started with the cartoons, that would play on the only TV channel we had in India at the time – Doordarshan. But the real moment when I knew that I wanted to work in animation was when I read The illusion of Life by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. I got a really expensive but dusty copy of it from a bookstore in Bangalore. I remember saving up money to buy it at that time, because it was so expensive.
What kind of movies/TV shows did you grow up watching?
I would watch anything that played on Doordarshan in the 1980s. Tom and Jerry and Star Trek were favourites. Among the Indian shows, I enjoyed watching RK Laxman’s Malgudi Days. My earliest memory of watching a cartoon was an episode of Barbapapa. I couldn’t believe that creatures like this could exist!
What’s a day in the Pixar office like?
I love coming to work. I come in early if I don’t have to drop my daughter off at school. As a character supervisor, I’m mostly making sure that the character department runs smoothly for the show. This requires meeting with heads of the other departments like art, animation and lighting. I check in with the supervising technical director, the director and the producer every week to make sure we are on track to deliver high quality characters without breaking the budget. I have less time at my desk these days, but whenever I get a chance, I try to help the team out with rigging a character.
Tell us about your work on Inside Out.
As a character supervisor for the film, I had about 30 amazing character technical directors working with me. My job was to make sure that we could take care of anything that Pete and the story artistes threw at us. I was also answerable to Jonas Rivera (producer) and the production team to make sure that we did this with a reasonable amount of money and time. Between my responsibilities as character supervisor, I did steal a little bit of time to help rig the character Fear for the movie.
What was it like working with Pete Docter? Have you worked on his films before?
It was a thrill to work with Pete Docter. I never got a chance to work on Monsters, Inc. or Up, so I jumped at the chance to be the character supervisor for Inside Out. It’s easy to trust Pete because his ideas come from a very genuine place. He is constantly exploring and trying to make things better, and the whole team would go with it because we trusted that the end result would be something amazing. He is also one of the nicest directors I’ve ever worked with.
The film looks at the different emotions that help guide 11-year-old Riley as she grows up. What was the most challenging part of showing the inner workings of her mind?
With other movies like Toy Story or Cars, we had physical objects we could look at and study. For example, we know that Buzz Lightyear (a fictional character in Toy Story) is made of plastic, and so could go and research how that behaved. With Inside Out, we didn’t have the luxury of seeing, touching or interacting with any real-life examples of what these characters needed to look like. We had to go along with Pete and the art team and try to discover what Joy and the rest of the emotions were made out of. In the end, she turned out to be a volume with particles like champagne bubbles and a blue glow. Figuring out Joy was the most challenging part for us.
Which emotion do you most experience at work – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust or Sadness?
It’s Joy without a doubt! Fear is a close second. I rarely feel sadness, disgust or anger at work.
Your favourite animated film?
My all-time favorite animated movie is Bambi. I can watch it any number of times. I love the slow pacing and the innocence of it. I’m not sure when I saw it first, but I make it a point to watch it with my kids whenever I get a chance.
What are you working on next?
I am character supervisor for Toy Story 4. It comes out in 2017 and my team is super excited to get to work with John Lasseter again.