November 10, 2017

SCA Alumni Stories: Arjun Rihan

Arjun Rihan '08 has worked on some of Pixar's biggest animated movies such as Brave, Finding Dory, and its latest film Coco, which celebrates the richness of Mexico's culture and Dia De Los Muertos. Arjun credits his success to SCA's Hench Animation program, which gave him the necessary tools and mentorship to create Topi. This award winning, USC thesis film garnered the attention of Pixar, where he has been working for the past nine years, since graduating from SCA. 

What inspired you to get into animation? A big moment for me was getting a copy of Preston Blair’s animation books from my mother when I was about eight or nine years old. Like all kids, I loved cartoons, but these books were my first glimpse into how they were actually created, and I instantly wanted to make cartoons. Many years later, when I was working in the tech industry, I decided that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened if I had actually pursued my childhood dream. So I applied to USC’s animation school, and was lucky enough to get in.
 

What was your USC experience like? It was awesome! I really loved being part of USC DADA’s MFA animation program. Since I didn’t have any prior art training, I immersed myself in my classes to learn as much as I possibly could, whether it was hand-drawn or stop-motion or computer animation. I was fortunate to have my student films screen at festivals like Annecy, Hiroshima, and the San Francisco International Film Festival, and win a few awards as well. This was great exposure and helped me connect with other filmmakers and industry professionals. In addition, teaching and research as an Annenberg fellow also enriched my USC experience. Through it all, the guidance and mentorship I received from the faculty (particularly Kathy Smith, Sheila Sofian, and Christine Panushka) was invaluable. I wish I could do it all again!

What was your path like post grad? My USC thesis, Topi, caught the eye of some folks in the Layout department at Pixar during a recruiting trip. The film was complex - it involved a lot of characters, choreography, and motion capture, but it turned out that the way I had pre-visualized it (with simplified sets and crowds for example), mirrored the layout process at Pixar. As a result, I was pretty fortunate to start working at Pixar as soon as I finished my MFA, and I’ve been there for almost nine years.

What is your job as a Layout Artist? What is your process? As a Layout Artist, I help “shoot” the film which means that, in a virtual environment on a computer, I help design shots for the film. Specifically, I work on camera placement and movement, as well as character staging and rough blocking. I use storyboards as reference and get to collaborate closely with the Director, Director of Photography (DP), and Editorial in the process, plus several other teams that handle the sets, effects, etc.

Another way to put it is that I use a camera that doesn’t exist to film a set and characters that also don’t
exist in order to get audiences to experience feelings that they didn’t know existed. No wonder my parents don’t understand what I do for a living.

Since our work is done on a computer, we have a lot of flexibility to reshoot or make tiny changes in a
way that’s not usually possible in live-action. Iteration is at the heart of our process - we’ll continually send updated footage to the Editorial department, and work with the Director to refine the scene until it’s as good as we can make it.

Although we don’t have any constraints on our virtual cameras, we still intentionally make choices to
ground our camerawork in the real world. So our choices of focal length, f-stop, and even lens distortion are based on real world setups. The idea behind this is that the more realistic the camera feels, the easier it is for the audience to find the animated world believable. But of course, we’ll break these physical rules when we need to - we’re making movies after all.

What was it like transitioning from more personal films like Arjuna and Abridged, to large scale Pixar stories like Brave and The Good Dinosaur? Compared to my personal films, working on a Pixar film is being part of a massive team effort, and it’s all about collaboration. It’s wonderful to work with so many talented artists that are all so focused on the intricacies of their own craft, whether it is camerawork, or animation, or lighting, and it’s incredible to see all that individual work come together to tell a single story. I still approach each scene that I work on as its own little short film within the movie. In that sense, the process feels very similar to working on my personal films, since I’m just focused on making that scene as good as possible.

Pixar is known for having a very unique process of developing its projects, where crew at all levels are more involved in the creative process than in other companies. Can you offer any examples of how this affected you? Why do you think this process has been so effective? The creative culture is definitely one of the best parts of working at Pixar. At every stage of the process, crew members are encouraged to voice their own opinions, instead of just following instructions. For example, on each scene, I’ll work with the DP to identify places where the camera can enhance the storytelling or try to pitch alternate staging or blocking ideas that I feel make the film stronger. Often, almost like improv, the DP or Director builds on your idea to come up with an even better version. So we’re all working together to make the idea stronger.

In addition, scenes often need to be adjusted once they’ve entered production. In these cases, the Layout team often helps refine story ideas or gags since the story team may be working on different scenes or have wrapped altogether. The reason that Pixar’s process is so effective is simple: everyone at Pixar is united by the fact that they want to work on a great film, and are often the harshest critics of the film while it is being made. Listening to the ideas of the crew only helps the movie get better faster.

What has been your favorite project? Your most challenging project? I’ve enjoyed all the different projects that I’ve worked on and learned tremendously from each of them. But serving as the Director of Photography (Camera) for Sanjay’s Super Team was a truly special experience. Since I grew up in India, I was thrilled to be a part of the first South Asian project to come out of Pixar. This was also my first DP credit at Pixar and I’m proud of the Layout team’s contribution, especially in the battle scene which features some of the wildest and most stylized cameras that we’ve done at Pixar. Sanjay’s Super Team was challenging to shoot because it was such a unique, experimental project and we had to do it on the more compressed schedule of a short film. But the constraints also meant that our team had the opportunity to collaborate much more closely with director Sanjay Patel, and influence both the story and the look of the final film, which was an amazing experience.

What would you like people to know about your latest project, Coco? Coco is really special because it is the first Pixar feature film that’s set in a different culture. It’s a gorgeous film that celebrates the rich traditions and culture of Mexico and Dia de los Muertos. Most importantly, at the core of Coco is a terrific, emotional story about family that will resonate with all audiences.

What was it like working with SCA alum Lee Unkrich on Coco? Were there other SCA alums who worked on the project? I really enjoyed working with Lee on Coco. In fact, I actually requested to be on the film in order to work with him. Lee’s keen eye as an editor and filmmaker has really shaped the look and feel of all of Pixar’s films since Toy Story, and working on Coco was like taking a film masterclass with him. It’s fun working with him since his live-action experience means that camera and staging come very naturally to him. He was always pushing and inspiring our team to create beautiful compositions and cinematic camera movement. I was joined on the camera team by SCA DADA alums Jan Pfenninger and Shaun Kim, and it felt almost like being back on campus.

What advice do you have for current students aspiring to work in animation? Tell the kind of stories that you want to see, not what you’ve already seen. Less is more. Choose a simpler project but execute it as well as you possibly can. Seek out mentors. Show your work to professionals or independents depending on your interests. And most importantly, finish your films!

What does the future of animation look like? The future of animation is not going to be confined to the screen. As a child, I always hated that the television separated me from Donald Duck, He-Man, and my other favorite characters, and I’m particularly excited about Virtual and Augmented Reality because these technologies will blur the lines between real and animated worlds. But besides new technologies, animation is also part of the conversation around inclusion, diversity, and representation in film. The future is going to be about new types of stories and fresh storytellers from all backgrounds, which makes it a really exciting time to be a student.

What upcoming projects are on the horizon? I’m hard at work on Brad Bird’s The Incredibles 2, which comes out in summer 2018. The original film holds a special place in my heart: when I watched it, the combination of emotion, action, and pure fun inspired me to quit my tech job and seek out a career in animation, so I’m super (pun intended) excited to work on this project with Brad. He’s a fantastic writer and has a really strong sense of composition, and I’ve already learned a tremendous amount about visual storytelling from him.

Do you have a hidden talent? If so, what is it? I’m always working on my own creative projects, and recently finished writing and illustrating my first children’s picture book. It comes out this November and is called The Wrong Stripes. It’s about a zebra whose stripes go the wrong way, and how he comes to terms with being different. There’s more about the book at arjunrihan.com/thewrongstripes.