AS: Brad Bird, future director of the Incredibles movies, Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol, The Iron Giant . . .
RE: Yes. Brad Bird was at CalArts the first year they opened the character animation program. They had an animation program before that but it was more experimental animation. CalArts is a very liberal school and when they started the character animation program it was kind of poo-poo’ed and seen as a Disney training program. Which others at CalArts looked down upon. Lo and behold, because of the structure provided in the character animation department, with its focus on basics, and story, and design, and life drawing, and visualizing, and making a film every year, the character animation program is now one of the diamonds in the CalArts school curriculum. Right after CalArts I moved to Hollywood.
AS: Were you at CalArts at the same time as Tim Burton or Rick Heinrichs?
RE: They were just before me. My class included the great animators Tony Fucile, Doug Frankel, and Sue Nichols. Right after me were Andrew Stanton and Brenda Chapman and after that was Pete Docter, in the early to mid 80s.
After CalArts I ended up working on a film at AFI because they needed a set designer for a project that actually never happened. So I was just working at AFI as a set designer when I got a call from Brad Bird to work on an episode for the second season of Amazing Stories. It was an animated episode called Family Dog which he wrote and directed. My CalArts classmate Tony Fucile was hired by Brad to animate on Family Dog and they were looking for one more person to work freelance so he hired me. Originally I was working at home in Hollywood, freelance, but I was hungry and I had to pay rent and so I would drive back and forth to this place in downtown LA. They had a desk there that was for assistant animators to do cleanup drawings and I kind of appropriated that desk. If someone needed the desk I would get up from animating and go eat or walk around the block or explore the neighborhood. That was my first real job and it was great. Family Dog was later turned into a series that was horrible but Brad was no longer involved. He was busy helping on The Simpsons.
AS: How did you first start working at Pixar?
RE: I was working with Joel Silver on a couple projects and then my friend, the writer/director Andrew Stanton, called me up and asked if I was available to talk about working on a film they were doing at Pixar. I went and showed them my portfolio, and was hired on the spot.
I had been working on a film that had fourteen producers and they would pontificate about every little thing for hours. I’d be thinking, Oh my God, can somebody make a decision? So I started doing these little pastel drawings and they would say, Yeah, kinda like that! So having a visual to look at really helped them a lot. And suddenly I was art director. So I had a ton of that artwork in my portfolio and John Lasseter had an affinity for pastel drawings because he also works in pastel. John saw them and looked at me and said, You’re hired. Can you drive us to the airport?