When he was a student at San Francisco State University, Jonas Rivera saw a screening of “Luxo Jr.” and was so impressed that he cold-called Pixar to ask about a job. An unpaid internship to work on Toy Story led to his lengthy tenure at the company, as he’s moved up from that internship to production assistant to production manager to producer, while also providing the voice of Boost in Cars (both in the movie and the tie-in video game).
Jonas Rivera’s latest credit is as the producer for Inside Out, his second producer credit alongside director Pete Docter (the first being 2009’s Up, which we discussed with Mr. Rivera and Pete Docter at 2009’s New York Comic Con). On the eve of the movie’s release on Blu-ray and DVD, Toonzone News got the chance to talk with Mr. Rivera by phone to talk about the movie and its inspirations.
TOONZONE NEWS: I have an oddly specific first question. It seems that there’s a dominant emotion in everybody’s head in the movie. Why is Riley’s mother’s dominant emotion Sadness?
JONAS RIVERA: That was really intended to showing Joy’s limited tenure. That’s kind of where we landed on that. We wanted to show that Joy’s in charge, and we show Joy firmly in charge, and she’s kind of elbowed her way a little bit to be the boss in Riley’s mind. So when we cut to Mom and Dad, we wanted to show the audience sort of the subtlety that leadership might erode. One emotion might not always be in charge. Our version of the world is that kids are born happy, and then through the course of your life things change. Dad’s head is Anger, not that Dad’s always angry. He’s not running around with anger management problems, but when he’s sitting there watching the game, there’s a little bit more of that. And Mom’s is a little bit of Sadness. They had just moved, and we had talked about, “Well, the parents are probably feeling a little uneasy.” So in that scene and the lines, that’s kind of how it landed. So it was a little bit of thinking about their external world, but more about showing that Joy’s time as leader might expire.
TOONZONE NEWS: That’s one of many things that really struck me in the movie about how it works as a straight story but also as a metaphor for something else. Like the visual for a mixed emotion when you get older, and how different emotions drive.
JONAS RIVERA: Yeah, the complexity of when you’re a kid it’s a little more primary colored and things are a little more one-to-one. Obviously as you gain experience and you get older, our intent was that whatever our characters have learned throughout the story, that it’s better to be a team and so forth. So there’s a little bit more cohesion between emotions there.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know you guys did a monster amount of research into the brain and how emotions actually work and their functions in people’s heads. Was there something that you discovered during that process that was really interesting, but just couldn’t figure out how to get into the movie?
JONAS RIVERA: One of the things that was interesting was that there’s so much scientific debate on a lot of things. Like “Where do memories go?” Even that would be debated on how they work. There were certain things that were really clear, and one that did get into the movie was that short term memory is actually flushed out, almost like a memory stick, when you go into REM. When you go into deep sleep. They get sent down into long-term memory, which we visualized that by high-density shelving and so forth. Realistically, it’s more spread and scattered randomly. Well, not randomly, but not as organized as we portrayed it in the film. But that idea that you fall asleep and your short-term memory, like where you put your keys this morning, you don’t need that to be as accessible, so that probably shuffles to the bottom. We tried to employ the mechanics of that in the storytelling.
But things that weren’t able to get into the movie…we wrestled a lot with…not reason, but more like knowledge. Knowledge and understanding. Abstract Thought is the closest we get to that, but we had this one idea based on some of the research we talked about, where they were going to go into Music Land. It was less about specific music and more about the knowledge of music. So for example, we know about music — this gets even esoteric and almost gassy as I explain it — but we know about music. When you hear notes or you hear a scale or you hear “The Star Spangled Banner,” you can process it and you understand what that is. A dog, who has no knowledge of music, just hears tones. So we thought, “Where in the brain would that be processed? That would be a cool place to go.” We had this idea that they could go into Music Land and they would walk and you’d hear musical instruments or you’d hear tones. It became this Fantasia-esque idea. It ended up being too tricky to make sense, and it also sort of narratively stepped on the Abstract Thought scene that seemed to be working. So it kind of went by the wayside. But we were always after trying to show how knowledge works. How do you actually start to learn things?
The biggest thing that came out of the research was the simple idea that emotions have jobs. That there’s a clinical reason why you have Disgust and so forth. That kind of unlocked the writing of the film, because before that, it was a fun idea. It could be little seven dwarf characters. But getting to that was like, “Well, if they have jobs, then they’re going to try to do a good job, and there’ll be some competition and whatever.”
TOONZONE NEWS: Was there anything specific where you felt it was either very tricky to work that balance between the story and the metaphor, or even something where you’re still not quite sure that that balance worked out for the best in the final product?
JONAS RIVERA: I was always worried that we had one too many ingredients in the film. When you imagine reading it before you see all the visuals — which a lot of my life was just trying to look at the script and talk to Pete about what this is going to be — there was a lot of things that were tied to things by proxy. So memory sort of represents Riley, and it has color that’s associated with a character, and then brightness. We had all these matrices to play with to sort of tell the story. You have the islands, which also represent Riley’s personality, and they’re sort of these barometers of how she’s doing, and there’s these light lines that connect to the things that could break and…and I was always a little worried, “Do we have one too many ingredients to tie Joy to Riley?”
The problem was that we have this movie which is really on two levels. It’s about Joy and Sadness, but it’s all in service of Riley. You’ve got Joy who loves Riley, but Riley isn’t even aware that Joy exists. So we have this impossible love story. They’re only on the screen together in one scene, which is a memory. To kind of compensate for that, we had to engineer all this geography and these elements, and in the back of my mind, I was always concerned that it was going to be too much. We just had to work in layers.
I can’t tell you how many times we said, “You know what, let’s take out the islands. Let’s try this without those islands of personality.” And that would work for a minute, and then it would just fall apart. There was no visual for Riley. So the cutting pattern changed or whatever, so we’d put those back in. Then we’d try with different geography, or we’d add another island. It just felt like there were so many ingredients.
I have no punch line here other than it’s part of our process to kind of trudge through this mud until we put it back up as a motion picture. Sometimes it’s on story reel or sometimes it’s on rough animation until it starts to feel right. At one point, we actually brought in all of our kids and neighbors and friends and kids from the soccer team and whatever, and we got up and we had their parents, and we just kind of ran it in its ugly storyboard form. Then I did a little Q&A with just the kids and would ask them, “So who can tell me what those spheres were?” I had four-year olds to, like, eight-year-olds explain it back. One of the things that was really great was this one little kid, I asked her what was her favorite part, and she explained the movie back. Even the islands and how it worked. I told Pete, “She pitched it better than you did.” The kid really deeply got it. They didn’t understand all the depth we were going for and some of the things we were saying, but they got the plot and they understood the mechanics of it. So that was a relief for us that we had the ingredients right. But you know, you look at it, and if you take out the storytelling, you just think of trying to figure that all out, as a producer, I was like, “Oh, no…it’s a great idea, but is it going to be a good, tellable story?” That’s what kept me up at night.
TOONZONE NEWS: I heard one story that you had to change broccoli to bell peppers for Japan, because kids there like broccoli but think bell peppers are disgusting.
JONAS RIVERA: Yeah.
TOONZONE NEWS: I can believe views of the mind and emotion are very region-specific. Are there any other interesting changes that you had to make for the international audience?
JONAS RIVERA: That was the best one. There’s a couple of little minor things. We go through all the international versions, and we’ll tweak the basic things, like signage. Anything that’s a plot point, like the Dream Production sign. There’s one we didn’t have to do, but we just thought it would be fun. They come from Minnesota and they play hockey, and that’s Riley’s favorite sport. So when Dad is not paying attention at the family dinner, he’s thinking of watching sports on TV and of course he’s watching hockey. For the rest of the world, pretty much, we did a shot of soccer. We had the soccer field from Monsters University, and we populated it and made a little soccer game. So in Latin America and Europe and so forth, Dad is watching soccer. And even though that’s not Riley’s sport, it still worked. It got a big laugh, so kind of make it feel like it’s a little bit home grown for everybody.
The bell pepper was funny because obviously Disgust is an important character, and Disgust turns out is an important emotion. It protects you from being poisoned, as she says, and it protects an 11-year-old girl socially. So setting that up was important. The folks at the Disney office in Japan said, “Oh, we love the movie and all this is great. But we have to say, Japanese kids love broccoli. They don’t think it’s disgusting.” And we said, “Then that joke won’t work at all!” And not only will the joke not work, that’s kind of Disgust’s setup. So Michael Fong, who’s our supervising technical director, was also the supervising technical director on Ratatouille, and therefore became a pretty good expert on how to build good looking pieces of food quickly (laughs). “What if I build a little bell pepper, we can put it on there and we can shade it.” So we did that for Japan.
TOONZONE NEWS: I assume you’re working on something new already and I assume you can’t talk about it. Can I ask what it is about what you’re working on next that either really excites you or makes you really nervous?
JONAS RIVERA: Well, I guess I can say there are so many talented filmmakers and directors here. I’ve kind of grown up with the studio just being friends with Pete. We have similar taste in movies and specifically in animated movies, and our thought is, “We have this chance to work with this medium, and what wakes us up in the morning is taking the audience somewhere completely new.” When we finished the movie Up, I remember we LOVED that movie. We were so proud of it. We loved Ed Asner and we loved the characters and we loved our crew, but the thing we were saying was, “We were in this movie for five years, so as much as we love it, I cannot wait to come up with something new.” And that conversation evolved and led to Inside Out.
I’ll tell you that we’re having the same conversation now. Like, “What is the opposite of this? Let’s go somewhere completely new.” My job for Pete is I’m kind of the movie’s or the idea’s first audience. So when he’s coming up with ideas and I’m riffing back and forth with him, I literally will say, “Pete, that one made me sit up.” At the end of the day, that’s what we want the audience to do. “That’s cool. That I’ve never heard. So let’s auger into that.” Usually if you can find something that makes you do that, John Lasseter will be inspired by that. He’s inspired by his filmmakers being inspired. So anyway, what excites me about the thing that we’re planning on now is it made me have the feeling of the first time Pete pitched Inside Out. It kind of tickled that in me a little bit.
Toonzone News would like to thank Jonas Rivera for talking with us, and to the terrific Disney/Pixar PR team and Click Communications for making this interview possible. Inside Out is available now on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as on digital download services.