Ronnie del Carmen started off as a storyboard artist and character designer for shows such as Where’s Wally? and Batman: The Animated Series, and directed a couple of episodes of Freakazoid! before joining Pixar via Dreamworks. From there he’s carried on drawing but also garnered writing credits on Finding Nemo, Up and now Inside Out, which he also co-directed. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter editor Kevin Nolting credited del Carmen with being an important figure in the development in some of the most memorable scenes in Up. He might not be a household name, but he’s a key influence on some of Pixar’s most emotionally powerful scenes, and Inside Out certainly has a few contenders in that respect.
You can read our review here, or if you’re busy, just take our (and basically everyone else’s) word for it that it’s really quite something. Meticulously researched, honed, and realised, it’s definitely a return to form for Pixar.
We interviewed del Carmen during the Edinburgh Film Festival, and asked him about research, the Pixar process, and – most important of all – has he ever read The Numskulls?
I really enjoyed the movie.
And I’ve been reading about how long it took to make.
(NB: Inside Out started development in late 2009)
I was impressed with the balance of the movie, the joy/sadness aspect, and think that’s especially deserving of praise, the effort you took to get that right. Are there any messages you tried to avoid sending out with this film?
Most of what we wanted to do was represent these emotions accurately, because we had to consult with experts of the mind, and emotions as well. There were not a lot of things we wanted to avoid, mostly it’s just us wanting to tell a very good story with these characters – which is challenge enough – and when we were telling the story we wanted to make sure that we could understand the values of emotions… in our lives…which is something that we learn along the way. We take our emotions for granted because you’re born with it – can’t do anything about that – but we also don’t have a lot of conversations about our emotions, as human beings you don’t want to talk about your feeling. Most people want to suppress them, want to avoid having to show them. Which is something that we use as part of a story is that’s our native inclination not to feel emotions we don’t like.
That’s definitely a stereotype of British people.
A lot of cultures are like that.
Yeah. I think we’re aware of it here as a stereotype of us, but there’s a lot of universal things in this. I remembered, specifically, things from my childhood while watching it, and I think it’s going to have that angle of… people are going to have very specific subjective reactions to it, because the idea comes from Pete Docter…
…Pete, yes. watching his little boy grow up.
And there’s a huge writing team. If you’ve all got that input into it, is there something of your childhood in there too?
There is a lot, all of us. We all contributed stories about growing up and about watching our own kids. I moved my kids from Burbank to the Bay area when they were in Middle School, so my daughter has experience of not having anyone to sit and have lunch with and nobody wanting to talk to her, and coming home crying because… she has no friends. And it’s heartbreaking.
That happened to me as a kid, and if you’ve had that experience or if you’re a parent who’s seen that…it’s going to have that impact. How have you found it’s gone with the younger children who don’t have these reference points yet?
I’m not sure how they’re thinking about it but we know that when we screened it to some of the (Pixar) employees and their children, they had an amazing reaction to the movie.
Because they saw it when it was only just drawings, just story reels. They responded really well, they told our movie’s story back to us. But what was amazing was they started to grasp… they started to talk about emotions as concepts. One kid was at a swimming pool and on a diving board and started to feel scared, and the way he related this to his parents was ‘At that point, my fear was driving’, which is amazing, because…it’s not knowledge that I had until making this movie, that your emotions are not you. So, ‘my fear is driving’, not you. And the kid overcame that feeling, that fear, and jumped anyway and had a good time. That’s amazing, that means that as a child you understand you are not your emotions, and that you have the choice with what to do with it. It feels like a win!
That partly answers one of my other questions. When you were doing the research for this was there anything you discovered about yourself?
That. Yeah! That was amazing. The other thing that we understand better now is that you recall memories better if they are imbued with emotion… which is kinda like a thought experiment you can do and you can confirm it, but, y’know, when the researchers tell you ‘No, that’s actually correct’. The other thing is that during the day you have short term memory you can access easily because you’re walking around with it, but at night these go into long term memory, and they become more permanent. So, oh! We didn’t know that. So we should design short term memory to be in the headquarters, and we get to show that in the landscape outside there, the hundreds and thousands of shelves.
Yeah, my initial reaction was that this seemed a nice visual representation as metaphor, but the further along the film went I twigged ‘Oh, this might be really accurate as well’. One thing I need to ask, you might have had this question already: in the UK there was a comic strip called The Numskulls, with little people living inside someone’s head only they weren’t so much emotions, more like physical tasks of the head.
Oh my goodness…so they’re like body assistants?
Yeah. I was just wondering if anyone involved had read that or heard of that?
No, I don’t think so.
Ah, okay, it was just the reaction to the trailer in the UK was a bit ‘Oh, this is like The Numskulls, but Pixar’.
But this is more ambitious, it has more emotional depth, The Numskulls was a side strip in this children’s comic.
I’m not familiar with it all.
I don’t know if it’s still in The Beano, but it’ll be online somewhere. You mentioned earlier you were showing the film to people at Pixar. Before it ever got confirmed for production you were showing versions of it, is that right?
When we’re in production, y’know we actually screening our story reels to the studio, so that we can find out how the movie’s doing. And people understand: is this interesting? Is this funny? Is this working? That’s the bigger one. And then we get notes from the studio.
That sounds fun but daunting.
Oh, it’s nerve-wracking, it’s not fun! Well, it’s fun for us so that we can learn what to do next.
Every time you screen your movie you know that you’re going to have to work on a lot of things that are… and you’re going to show parts that aren’t working so well and you feel a little embarrassed but overall it helps you make a better movie, so every time we screen it we get better at telling this story. Every time.
What form do these show reels take?
They’re drawn. Our story reels are all drawn and we add, like, tech voices and eventually our own actors voices underneath it so that the performance is something you can kind of appreciate and you know these are the exact experiences of these stories and these characters in story reel, cos producing them in 3D – in the 3D animated characters that you will watch – is expensive. We try not to produce anything that expensive just to learn from it, we want to make sure we learn everything we can about how our story is playing before we produce these characters in the shape that you will see on the screen.
From your earlier career, are there any character designs you’re especially fond of, from times like doing Batman?
Oh gosh, when I was working on that show I did lots of character designs for various shows, doing a lot of character designs, so I don’t remember very much it was a long time ago. Ummm….I remember drawing, like, costumes…that’s a good question. I wish I could remember. Don’t get older, you forget things.
What is your favourite Jason Statham film?
I don’t know! I think I like all of them.
I mean, that is obviously the correct answer…
I know, because, god, how can you pick?
But if you had to pick one?
Oh god, I don’t know…
Sorry! I didn’t expect these to be the most difficult questions…
Inside Out is released on the 24th of July in the UK.
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