Using digits in the digital world

A scene from Pixar's animated short La Luna.
A scene from Pixar's animated short La Luna.

When A.J. Riebli went to Sydney for the first time, he had a special interest in checking out a particular part of the city. He was, he says, very relieved by what he saw - as an animation executive who worked on the Pixar movie Finding Nemo, set on Sydney Harbour, he was happy to be able to say to himself, ''We got that right.''

Riebli has been with Pixar since 1997, in a range of roles. But his career path is not an obvious one. It goes from growing up on a chicken farm to studying journalism to playing semi-professional rugby to teaching history, before he landed a job as a production assistant working on Toy Story 2.

A friend, who was already at Pixar, suggested he apply for an entry-level position there. He had what turned into a six-hour interview and was hired.

The late Steve Jobs - who was chief executive of Pixar at the time - was there on his first day. ''He stood up there and said welcome and I want you guys to know that our vision is to make the next great animation studio, and I was in. I've been there long enough to be part of 12 of the 13 features we've made. It was right place, right time and it has been pretty magical.''

At Pixar, he says, ''we make films that we want to see''. His own influences are broad, he adds. His mother ran a video store and he worked there as a kid. This meant that he was a 17-year-old who already appreciated Kurosawa, Fellini and Jacques Tati.

When it comes to Pixar, he says, people sometimes overestimate the role of technology in what they do.

One of his favourite lines about the field is: ''In the digital world, you have to remember to use your digits.''

''It starts with an idea, it goes to paper, we sculpt, we use different mediums,'' he says. Talking about, for example, La Luna, a new short that will be released with the new Disney feature Brave, he recalls that the original idea from Enrico Casarosa was pitched to Pixar chief John Lasseter, ''with these beautiful watercolours''. They convey the tone of the work, which is based on Casarosa's experience of growing up with his father and grandfather.

Shorts are an important part of what Pixar does, Riebli says. ''Our history is steeped in them. And we spent a long time doing shorts before Toy Story. We originally did them for R&D purposes, to see what we could do.''

In Geri's Game (1997), about an elderly man who plays chess with himself, they explored ''how to do cloth, and an old man walking in a big suit, and hair''. There's not really a financial reason to make the shorts, he says. ''It's art for art's sake, it gives people an opportunity to tell a story.''

But it also allows people to explore what they can do, ''and you can foster talent not just at the director level, but across the board''.

''We have so many artists, and with someone like Ralph Eggleston [a production designer and art director, who directed the funny For The Birds in 2000] you want to give those guys an opportunity to do something great.''

La Luna screens before Brave, which opens today.

- The Age