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Ronnie Del Carmen : The Pinoy Pixar Story Artist Speaks!

Ronnie Del Carmen hasn’t been in the Philippines for 17 years. He’s been in the US working in the animation industry for that long. Ronnie was been awarded for his contribution to American cultural legacy for “Finding Nemo” wherein he was story supervisor. He also received awards for storyboarding “Spirit Stallion of the Cimarron”, “Freakazoid”, and even an Eisner Award for Best Single Issue Batman Adventures Holiday Special!

Ronnie (orange shirt) and Artfarm

Ronnie is the gentleman in the orange shirt. Animation circles here know him now as our guy in Pixar. (Of course there are a good number of Pinoys there besides Ronnie.) And the reason why there’s a bahay kubo in the aquarium in Finding Nemo.

August 17, 2006. Ronnie gave his talk on story and the Pixar “secret” at De La Salle Greenhills. I was in invited courtesy of Artfarm Asia. The entire video on his talk will be available from Artfarm Asia’s website.

Key points I remember and derived from Ronnie’s talk:

1. Having been influenced by foreign culture in movies & tv (most especially American & Japanese) we have become part American, European, Japanese, Korean, etc. in our sensibilities. Of course the danger is that Filipino culture ends up overrun.

2. Selling the story as well as telling the story to the artists are two very similar skills. Pixar story people get training on this. I’m guessing everyone in production gets training on it.

3. Based on scientific evidence we are biologically wired to “see” our ourselves doing the things we see others do. Ronnie’s presentation discussed an experiment on monkeys to study it. The part in a monkey’s brain responsible for empathy would “light up” in both cases when a monkey would pick up an object and also when a monkey SAW the object picked up by a man. Another example showed a man carrying a meter-high stack of boxes and the bystanders on the street empathizing with that person.

4. Pixar’s intention is to have a authentic human stories told well. Story, story, story. Nothing gets done without it, no one gets excited about anything until the story work gets done. Authentic meaning it is genuine with no presumptions and human meaning it connects to people even across different cultures.

5. The story therefore is perceived to have value if the beholder can relate to it. Pixar stories came from the experiences of Pixar people. But that sounds rather simple… how does it make money?

The ensuing forum after Ronnie’s talk gave very little insight to the industry that I didn’t already know.
In the First animation conference in the Philippines, the problem was there was no single group of animation companies that the government could recognize. Now we have ACPI and the government responded. But the lack of funds, lack of drive, the long return on investment, and the many risks still keep big businesses away from investing in local film & animation projects. I got the impression that whether or not a story can be used by big business depends on marketing & distribution. Since there’s not enough Pinoy animation content to go on television, we are content with festivals and the internet.

The dilemma of what makes a Pinoy “anything” was apparent. The way the academe (c/o Benjie Marasigan’s input from the College of Saint Benilde Animation department) and the government (National Center for Culture & the Arts NCCA) would like to begin addressing it would be to produce projects on Philippine folklore and national heritage & pride. Hmmm. I have my reservations on the latter.

A friend of mine pointed out though that people’d rather watch Batman & Pokemon over an animated Jose Rizal (perhaps even Sultan Kudarat) on any day. I’m sure there’ll be kids who’d love to watch our Pre-colonial & Colonial era heroes and how the banana came to be – and such an investment into these projects will benefit the psyche of Pinoy children in the long run. Nonetheless, my opinion is that many such stories will have a large risk of alienating the global audience. You could say they can be creatively made to be “human” as defined by Ronnie, but the content alone elicits doubts that the world will see themselves in those stories.

We have to face the fact that today’s audiences want to be entertained in a level more sophisticated than those of us who used to watch Popeye. If you think about it, Popeye was an effort to encourage children to eat their vegetables. Now our government is ready to financially support animation features that encourage an appreciation of our national identity and treasures. This is a very BIG sounding theme, and BIG themes often yield a lot of cynicism and skepticism. (Case in point: God on earth, dying for our sins, raised to life.) Kids can readily appreciate the value of eating vegetables, and believe it or not there are kids witnessing for Christ. They see spinach and salvation as practical things. But National identity… that’s difficult.

National identity, how human is it? Yes, it’s part of who one is. But if the Pixar (and Studio Ghibli) success has told us anything it’s that animated features don’t have to go shoving nationalism in our faces to get the country’s culture into our head. Isn’t that why we like so many independent films?

After the forum, I believe there were a few hopes in the air. Ronnie Del Carmen’s talk had inspired us all. But seeds have to be sown on ground, and not in air. What will be the result is anyone’s guess.

7 comments to Ronnie Del Carmen : The Pinoy Pixar Story Artist Speaks!

  • Hi. I was there too for the talk; I managed to transcribe the speech he made, you can check it out on my blog.

    I was a little disappointed by some of the other panelists – I couldn’t help but feel that the more outspoken among them were more focused on animation for “values” and “culture” without addressing the story. Without any good human stories to tell – and the talent to tell it – all the government subsidies in the world won’t help Filipino animation fly. Ronnie was a blast, though.

  • Ronnie’s talk was a pleasure indeed, and I hope others will read it at your site:

  • […] Rusty Banana Forge » Blog Archive » Ronnie Del Carmen : The Pinoy … […]

  • […] local artist Joel Chua  shares in detail the things he learned after attending a presentation by Del Carmen, which could give a peek into Pixar’s formula for making successful animated […]

  • NonoyMarcelo

    “Story, story, story. Nothing gets done without it, no one gets excited about anything until the story work gets done.”

    no offense but i wonder if the creators of Dayo attended ronnie’s talk…in my opinion what the movie was REALLY aiming for were just two things..advertising and a show-off of technology (2d and 3d)…it had a very flimsy storyline..without any real story behind it..the story was okay but if we really want to have a “pixar” kind of stories then i think we should delve deep into the story..for example UP was just composed of several characters and an old man for a main character..but what made it top notch was the impact of the story..pixar never in the first place boasted on its technology…a pixar movie is always story driven and not art nor technology driven..and what i saw in Dayo was just another 1 hour plus animated commercial…ronnie was right..story story story.

  • NonoyMarcelo

    there were many such great artists in our country..and in my opinion Dayo and Urduja would’ve been our “genesis” in modern Philippine animation..i rooted and was proud of Dayo and Urduja..i was expecting it to be mentioned at http://www.cartoonbrew.com a leading animation blog on the net. On a positive note, these two animated films are to be commended but for us to be able get enough funding or enormous help from anyone..Philippine animation has yet to prove itself and not just a creative force that thrives on rehashed stories..even if we could afford or surpass Pixar or any topnotch animation studio in the world in terms of technology..and be nominated..but in the end what matters is the depth of the story..how real it is how people can relate to it..so unless we quit recycling stories then i guess Filipinos like Ronnie Del Carmen or Alex Niño will still be working for other animation studios.

  • NonoyMarcelo

    “As a source of animation, the Philippines is one of the animated world’s mainstays. We have to take advantage of the opportunity presented to us now. We’re good at making things for other people, but we’re also making stories for ourselves, and about ourselves.”

    -Ronnie Del Carmen


    i hope he’s right..

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