There is a child-like spirit in all of us, perhaps that is what makes the Toy Story franchise so popular, with kids as much as with adults. These Pixar motion pictures remind us about the importance of integrating our youthful spirit into our everyday life.
Someone who knows how to do so exquisitely, through his storytelling is Academy Award Producer Jonas Rivera. He joined Pixar animation studios in 1994 as an intern, working precisely on the very first Toy Story film, and eventually worked in all subsequent Pixar films, becoming Up’s producer in 2009, the Oscar-winning animated feature film. In 2015, Rivera collaborated again with director, Pete Docter, for the film Inside Out, which won an Oscar for Best feature-length animated film and candidate in the Best Original Screenplay category. More recently he played the role of producer in the Disney-Pixar movie Toy Story 4, that allows the character of Woody to find new purpose.
The fourth segment of the Toy Story saga provides new insight to what it means to boldly confront your unique calling. The floppy pull-string cowboy doll has always been confident about his place in the world, and that his priority is taking care of his owner, whether that is Andy or Bonnie. So when Bonnie’s beloved new craft-project-turned-toy, Forky, declares himself as “trash” and not a toy, Woody takes it upon himself to show Forky why he should embrace being a toy. But when Bonnie takes the whole gang on her family’s road trip excursion, Woody ends up on an unexpected detour that includes a reunion with his long-lost girlfriend Bo Peep. After years of being on her own, Bo’s adventurous spirit and life on the road, fail to fulfill her delicate porcelain exterior. As Woody and Bo realize they are worlds apart when it comes to life as a toy, they soon come to find that it is the least of their worries.
After a preview of some clips from Toy Story 4,I sat down with Jonas Rivera to talk about the upcoming Pixar animation:
Question: The content seems very much for an adult audience rather than children, to whom is this film addressed to?
The film is really for us, we never really thought about making films for kids, we want them to love them, but we somehow act like kids at Pixar, we have a world that is very child-like and yet we love movies from around the world. I think a lot of that seeps into the filmmaking at Pixar. But our job is to make it work for everybody. There are some dark moments in the movie, but there is also a lot of comedy and humour. Honestly I use my kids to test the films, I have three children, aged 13, 10 and 7, so it’s a good spread and I can see what sticks out for them and what they understand. Kids always surprise us at Pixar, when we are screening our films. There was the same concern with Inside Out whether it could be too esoteric or philosophical or emotional. I found that kids understood it better than adults, which is always a joy and a reminder that the audience is smart and will go with you. In Toy Story 4, when we meet Gaby Gaby, we play a little record and that is the music from The Shining, that children may not be familiar with. Kids won’t know there are also echoes of Sunset Boulevard in the film, but they’ll get that a certain place is scary and you shouldn’t go in there, and that is all you need. So we just make sure it works on multiple levels.
Question: In these franchise sagas it is always difficult to find a reason to continue, what was the trigger that encouraged to make Toy Story 4?
When we started we realized we didn’t want to make another film unless there was a deeper reason to tell a story. Toy Story 3 had such a nice ending, that we did’t want this to feel like another adventure and we just tagged on. The thing we talked about most is character, so all the adventures that Woody has had, those are just the plot, but thinking about the character we were inspired in continuing Woody’s story beyond Andy. Woody has done everything correctly and has landed in a successful way, but yet feels unfulfilled, that felt interesting to us and worth chasing down and dramatizing.
Question: As regards the restyling of Bo Beep, I read there was some controversy regarding some animal activists who had asked to remove the crook that she uses to grab her sheep, I wanted to know how your reaction at Pixar was?
We have a great group of young women, two directing animators, our head of story, one of our story artists and one of our character modelers and a few others who call themselves “Team Bo.” They basically kicked the guys out of the room — including myself — and they wrote up everything about Bo, how she would hold herself, stand, and dress. They didn’t want her to fall into any stereotype and build a unique strong character. We heard about the animal activists, and we had to make sure she was recognizable from the past and left the crook that she used to move around and traverse the world. We never see her using it as a shepherdess might have, we were aware of it but our version of Bo Beep is harmless, plus she is a toy. In a certain level, even a comment about animal rights just says that people care about these characters, and this world and that it somehow feels real to them. We don’t want to make anything that’s offensive and we never will, but even that is an example that it is meaningful to people, so we just do our best and do what’s right and tell stories with characters that relate to people.
Question: At Pixar you stage emotions in a majestic way, when you hire new people how do you make sure that they have enough heart to work for you?
Ed Cantwell, who is the President and one of the founders, always said that he looks for people over ideas. If someone comes in who has a very great idea, that is less valuable than someone who could have the potential to have multiple ideas. I think Pixar is not a perfect place, but I think it does a pretty good job at seeing potential in people. I’m an example of that, I came in with nothing and worked really hard, and it’s a place that rewards that. Pixar has built a place for people with a common goal, we love movies, we love animations, we grew up loving the Walt Disney animated films.
Question: Toys can have a very strong influence on children’s minds, how do you think you can deal with the future of the Playstation movement, do you think you’ll make a film about traditional toys versus video games?
We played around with that idea, and I think it’s a great theme. When we began to think about the character for Forky, we pondered upon how something that could be very primitive could acquire value, as well as what could distract a kid from the traditional toy like a computer. In my life I’m a very analogue person and try to provide old fashioned toys for my kids, whether that seeps into the Toy Story world I don’t know. There is a short film [Toy Story That Time Forgot] where there is Bonnie who goes to the house of her friend Mason and her toys encounter his new Battlesaurs video game. Bonnie ends up tossing the toys into the room to join Mason in playing with his video game console. So we’ve used it in the universe a little bit, but there is the opportunity to go more, because there is a truth. You walk into a kid’s room and find him on an iPad and you feel bad for the toys.
After working for so many years at Toy Story, how has your relationship with toys changed, do you feel guilty in giving them away, considering you have kids?
Oh my God! Yes! It’s awful, I tell you I feel terrible when we do, I feel like I’m betraying my job in someway. It has given me great cause. I realize how less these films have seeped into my life, it’s so funny, it’s a great question! I think everyone feels that because of these movies, and there’s less toys thrown away because of these, so I feel proud because of that, I guess. Thank you.