AJ Riebli has worked for legendary animation studio Pixar for 15 years and across 13 productions. Lifehacker caught up with him on his recent visit to Australia to grab his thoughts on creativity, technology and getting ahead in movie-making.
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Riebli was in Melbourne to speak at The Digital Show and to offer the first Australian screening of Pixar’s latest short La Luna. In keeping with Pixar tradition, that short will be shown with its newest full-length release, Brave, which hits Australian cinemas on June 21. He chatted with Lifehacker about some familiar obsessions: organisation, creativity and technology.
What’s your important day to day tech, and how much difference has technology made to the way that the moving-making process works?
What we use, it’s always Apple! I don’t think I’ve ever touched a PC in my life. Steve Jobs had so much to do with who we are.
I have five insane calendars, I have text messaging, I have my phone. I’m working with Pixar Canada now in the franchise group, and we can have three to four directors all active at the same time. I’m air traffic and it’s like I’m trying to land planes all day. Technology has really made that a good thing, but it means you’re never done with work. I used to flip off my desktop and that was it.
I think productions run better because you have more communication tools, but you have to be really clear about your tools. Email has no voice and no emotions. You have to be extremely careful about what goes out. Texting is really valuable because you can get a quick heads-up and alert people. It’s a lot of moving parts. I keep a lot in my head, and I’ve been with the studio a long time, so I can say ‘If I was going to call someone to help with this situation, who would I call?’
But at the core, it’s driven by your story. Story drives everything. The computer’s not going to tell a better story. It’s the individuals — it comes from people. As John Lasseter always says, ‘Art pushes technology, and technology takes it to somewhere new’.
Like Finding Nemo: I think about Nemo and what was great is it’s coming out in stereo (3D), at the end of August I think here in Australia, and it is going to blow people’s minds. I got to see a small chunk of Nemo recently in stereo and it was a crowd scene where the kids go out to the drop-off and I was like ‘Holy smoke! Yeah!’ It blows your mind. From a technical standpoint, we did that in mono and here we are now almost ten years later and it’s something that was awesome in 2003 and here we are in 2012 and we’re going to give the audience a whole new experience. That’s what’s fun.
You just want people to love your stories. Does the computer help to tell the story? Sure, it gives it some nicety. There’s computer-aided aspects to film-making but story is king.
Technology aside, what are the key strategies for making a compelling movie?
Iteration is important — we do things over and over and over. One of the best courses I did at university was revision, and it really set me up nicely for what we do because we do it and do it until it’s great.
It’s never entirely ready to go; your movie is just going to come out at some point. It inevitably has to go out to the world, and if you’ve done your job well, you’ll be the only person that worries about one little detail.
We’re there in production to support the film maker and give them the best movie possibly can make. That’s my job as a support member, to help the people and set the deadlines and make sure you give them what you want.
Pixar movies involve huge crews. How do you ensure that production process goes smoothly?
It doesn’t! We talk about that. You reinvent the box every single time. It’s a big project, it’s a lot of moving parts, it’s a lot of people. You’re just spinning plates and it’s hard to keep them all spinning. You’re worrying about details and schedules but you still have to foster the creative and give those guys room to do their thing.
There’s really no blueprint. It’s OK to screw up. It’s how you react to the screw-up. Error is just part of the process. The mantra is ‘trust the process’, even though the process is always different. And trust is hard. It’s just human nature. But you have to trust that people are going to do their thing. You’ve got to be the calm, and I never thought I was going to be the calmest guy in the room. You need to instil confidence in things even in the chaos.
You’re in a highly competitive industry. How do you succeed and progress in a movie studio?
You work hard and hopefully your work gets noticed. Hopefully you’re working to the best of your ability every day and the director likes you and your team likes you.
PA is a great role to get into because you’re dealing with the underpinnings. You become a hub of information. That was especially true before the Net came. It’s not like you could order online back then! Technology probably made the PA job a little bit easier because you can get answers very quickly and do really great research. It’s extremely empowering.
What are the Pixar tactics for getting past creative blocks?
You get your colleague’s opinion. Get somebody else to come in and advise you. We have a brains trust at work, and that’s why we have screenings. Don’t be afraid. Fear is the greatest inhibitor on the planet. You’re really at a great advantage if you can say ‘Hey, I need some help’.