Friday, November 27, 2009

Nelson “Rey” Bohol: Pixar's Pinoy Animator

IF you're an artist or art student who is always thinking of pursuing a career in animation, you're in luck.

This coming December 5, there will be a day-long Animation Portfolio Workshop at the Richville Hotel in Mandaluyong City where the guest speaker is no less than celebrated Pinoy animator Nelson Rey Bohol. For those not familiar with Rey, he's an animator who now works for Disney Pixar and whose credits include Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille and WALL-E.

Back in 2006, I was given an opportunity to interview this guy who was in town to promote Cars, which was about to be screened for the first time back then. Who exactly is Nelson Rey Bohol? He's just another Filipino we should all be proud of. His story below, published in the Manila Bulletin that year, is one reason why.

The Pinoy animator of Disney Pixar’s Cars gets his kicks on Route 66

“IT’S not just a song. Route 66 really does exist.”

That’s Disney Pixar Supervising Production Artist Nelson “Rey” Bohol talking about the historic route and the several small towns behind it that serve as the inspiration for Radiator Springs, the sleepy town he helped design for the company’s latest CGI animated blockbuster, Cars.

Rey, a Filipino who originally hails from Samar and is now based in San Francisco with his wife and four kids, was recently in town to promote the film and grace its premiere screening at the SM Mall of Asia. In a one-on-one interview with this writer, he talks about his work with Pixar in general and the movie in particular.
Although his present job is somewhat related to the architecture degree that he completed in college, Rey never thought of having a career in animation. In fact, he admitted that he never looked at animation as anything more than cartoons. That was until an American company gave him his big break and hired him to create short animation films for exhibits and product presentations in 1986. That same year, he also worked on a Hanna-Barbera type of Saturday morning cartoon.

“That was when I fell in love with animation and realized that I can actually have a career in this field,” he recalls. “When I moved to the US, I was hired by Fox Network to work on their animated feature films like Anastasia and Titan A.E.” The box-office disappointment of the latter film prompted Fox to close its animated studios. But you know what they say about closing doors and opening windows? Well, it was no less than Pixar Animated Studios, the makers of Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, that opened that window for Rey.

“My job here in Pixar is not much different from that of an art director of live action films,” says the man who is credited with adding Pinoy touches in the design of that famous aquarium in Finding Nemo complete with bahay kubo and Mayon Volcano-inspired accessories as well as the Palawan-like feel of Nomanisanisland, the tropical hideout of the villainous Syndrome in The Incredibles. “I try to add a Pinoy flavor in the designs that I help work with whenever I can.”

So what’s it like working for his current employer? “Working in Pixar is so much fun,” he beams. “The environment there is like a playground. I have never been with a company where I’m so excited to go to work every single day including and especially Mondays. I come in early and stay late. I just want to stay there all the time.”

“At Pixar, we are encouraged to take breaks in between our work or whenever we’re stumped with ideas so we can clear our heads. There’s a gym, a basketball court, a soccer field and even a videogames area right within our premises to relieve us of stress and pressure. I think it’s an environment that brings out our very most creative ideas.”

Rey adds that top Pixar executives, like Cars director John Lasseter and yes, its enigmatic CEO Steve Jobs (you know, that same guy who heads a certain fruit company that manufactures Mac computers), are so pleasant to be around with. “John is a really cool guy who is also open to our own ideas and suggestions and contrary to what people think about him, Steve Jobs is a very down-to-earth fellow who says hi to everyone at Pixar although we only see him on special occasions since he now spends most of his time at Apple.”

As for Cars, Rey says that while the movie is about giving a human face to the vehicles that become part of our lives by driving us to our daily destinations, the film’s creators wanted to be true to the real-life cars that inspired most of its characters.

“We had car experts help us with the details of the cars that we featured in the movie,” he says referring to such “stars” as the 1951 Hudson Hornet that was the basis for the Paul Newman-voiced Doc Hudson a.k.a. well, The Hudson Hornet, or the 1970 Plymouth Superbird where The King’s character voiced by no less than racing legend Richard Petty was definitely far from loosely based, or even the 2002 Porsche that was more than an inspiration for Bonnie Hunt’s Sally.

For his part, Ray is credited with designing Radiator Springs, although he will only admit to merely helping out in the creation of the town discovered by the film’s race car hero, Lighting McQueen, during an unexpected detour to Route 66. “I’d like to think that everything we do in Pixar is a collective effort on the part of everyone involved.”

Route 66 is the gateway to the Grand Canyon, a breathtaking view which was remarkably recreated in 3D animation for the film. With its striking similarity to the real sleepy towns whose existence have been passed by time and progress, Radiator Springs might as well be Paradise Lost for a young car like Lighting McQueen who eventually learns that “life is a journey, not just a race to the finish line.”

Nelson “Rey” Bohol believes that life is, indeed, a journey not just for himself but for other budding animators out there who also harbor dreams of working at Disney and Pixar. “There is no question that we have the talent,” he says. “We all just have to patiently wait for our opportunities. Just keep your dreams, keep knocking on the door and I can tell you that it is going to open. Dreams do come true.”

Go to Smart Juan to register for the coming Animation Portfolio Workshop. All Pixar films that Nelson “Rey” Bohol has worked on are available on original DVD and Blu-Ray discs.

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