As far as animation movies are concerned, Pixar’s releases soar above the rest—with brilliant storylines mixing smart humor and touching drama, like in 2003’s “Finding Nemo,” 2007’s “Ratatouille,” 2008’s “WALL.E” and 2009’s “Up.” These four films each won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
They also have something else in common: Filipino-American animator Ronnie del Carmen. The talented, self-taught Del Carmen has a life story that could easily be the subject of a feature film.
The 55-year-old had to overcome poverty and displacement, starting from scratch and personal loss to make a living in an industry he never imagined working in. “I’m an accidental animator,” he says. “I’ve been very lucky. People want to promote me to jobs that they think I can do.”
Now he achieves a career milestone as co-director (along with Pete Docter) of the much-anticipated Disney-Pixar film “Inside Out,” which opens in the United States in June and in the Philippines in August.
The very idea thrills him still. “It felt strange and out-of-body,” he recalls. “For one thing, I didn’t understand what that meant… But I automatically said ‘yes.’”
“Inside Out” is about what goes on in the mind of a girl named Riley, with the emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader) and Sadness (Phyllis Black) interacting and coming into conflict as Riley adjusts to life in a different city.
Del Carmen knows a thing or two about that. Born Ronaldo del Carmen in Cavite City in 1959, he recalls being artistically inclined, though he had no idea where the inclination came from. “It’s a mystery since I was little. I would draw all the time on the walls and the backs of notebooks,” he says. “My dad got upset with me.”
It became a habit. “I cannot not draw,” Del Carmen says, adding that he brings a sketchbook with him everywhere.
Change in fortune
His family experienced a change in fortune when he was 11. His father Rogelio and some friends pooled their money into a business venture; when the first transaction turned out successful, someone ran away with all the cash.
“We were a middle-class family… and the next week we were poor,” he recounts. “I barely finished high school. All my friends went to college, I had to work.”
His father left the Philippines to work in the United States when Del Carmenwas 17; he would not see his dad again until he was 29.
Five years later, he enrolled in the University of Santo Tomas (UST). “My friends from high school were all graduating,” he remembers. “I kind of shuffled into UST, the oldest student in every class.”
But his time spent drawing paid off as he often finished ahead of his classmates, talking to the professors because he had more in common with his teachers than his classmates. He half-heartedly took the required class in animation, knowing he had absolutely no interest in becoming an animator.
“It seemed like too much work for very little gain,” he says. He graduated from UST with a degree in Fine Arts, majoring in Advertising; he also married his college sweetheart Tess.
Del Carmen then flung himself head first into the advertising industry, becoming art director at one agency.
Going to America
Then, the proverbial flash of lightning: The petition his father, now a US citizen, had filed came through, and the Del Carmens had a chance to immigrate to America. “When the petition came, I was almost ambivalent about it,” he says, noting he had a good career in advertising in the Philippines. Ultimately he took the leap, moving his family with him to the United States.
It was rough because he had to start over again. He couldn’t get a job in advertising. For months he was unemployed, and he thought he would have to wash dishes at a hotel.
Learning on the job
Then, another flash of lightning; his phases in life overlapping like animated slides. He got a job—in animation. “It was drawing,” he admits. “Drawing kind of saved my life and made this career for me.”
He knew nothing about animation, but that’s never stopped him. He learned on the job and worked on TV shows such as “Where’s Waldo?” and the critically acclaimed “Batman: The Animated Series.” From there, he made the jump to feature-film animation for DreamWorks, working on 1998’s “The Prince of Egypt” and 2000’s “The Road to El Dorado.”
That’s when he lucked out yet again and joined Pixar in 2000.
His works for the studio include “Ratatouille” (storyboard artist), “Finding Nemo” (story supervisor), “Brave” (story artist), “Monster University” (story artist) and the breakthrough “Up.”
He collaborated with codirectors Docter and Bob Peterson in the story for “Up.” He directed the short “Doug’s Special Mission,” which was included in the “Up” DVD.
All these paved the way for his codirecting stint with Docter on “Inside Out,” which elates and challenges him.
Del Carmen is a storyteller of many talents—and mediums.
Aside from TV and film animation, he did books and had a particularly impressive stint doing comic books. This is why he received an Annie Award (the industry’s animation awards) for the 2002 film “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” a Daytime Emmy Award for the animated TV series “Freakazoid!” and a 1995 Eisner Award for the comic book “Batman Adventures Holiday Special.”
But from all types of storytelling, his favorite is feature-film animation. “I have story-boarded sequences that, on pitches, people cry, and I kind of have to step back and say, ‘What did I just do?’
You don’t get to do that with either comic books or just making books. That’s when I’m most involved in creating the characters. There’s a certain life to it that I’ve created, along with everyone else making it with me. I don’t get that hit with anything else.”
And for someone who’s worked with Batman, Superman, Waldo and the Xenomorphs from “Alien,” Del Carmen has an unusual but meaningful choice for favorite character: grumpy with a golden heart Carl Fredricksen from “Up.” It so happened that his father Rogelio had fallen ill while Del Carmen was working on the film; Rogelio had lost the ability to speak, and Del Carmen would visit him at the hospital, showing the sequences he had drawn up.
“I’d say, ‘Dad, you look exactly like Carl,’” he recalls. His father didn’t live to see the finished film. “My dad kind of lives in the film,” he says. “I see it as a memorial to my dad. Batman was my first love as a kid to do comics, and I still love the character. I loved the horror aspect of ‘Alien.’ But the most emotional thing I’ve ever done in my career has been to show an old man go through these emotions, realizing what his life amounted to. I don’t think I’ll ever get that shot again. It’s been rewarding I got to do it.”
It should come then as no surprise that Del Carmen’s children share a passion for storytelling.
Daughter Gerin, 25, is starting her own career in film. His eldest son Geo, 27, wants to be a lawyer, which Del Carmen points out is another kind of storytelling.
So now that he has codirected a feature film, does that mean doing a feature film by himself is next? There’s no sign of that yet, but he is hopeful.
“I would love to be able to helm a production, but I also like to tell the story I [myself] want to tell,” he says.
There is one story he’s likely to tell. His childhood in Cavite has left him with a different feeling whenever typhoons come. Instead of getting scared, he remembers being excited about the prospect of classes being suspended the next day, and he and his friends wading into the floodwaters to catch fish and frogs.
He’s story-boarded a short film titled “Ulan.” “It’s like a childhood memory of being out in the rain,”he says. “I’ve been planning to produce it, and I’ve pitched it around. At storytelling workshops, I tell them that some of the most compelling stories of our lives come from our childhood.”
At the cusp of his greatest career achievement—so far—Del Carmen gets poetic when talking about animation: “I have only one lesson because this is the life I lead: I would love for everybody to tell their stories…
“That kind of bond and trust and facility to build a common dream,whether in industry or animated features, it’s about trying to create something that doesn’t exist. But if I can tell you this dream, this story, you will join me and make it.”
Talk about making it. For Ronnie del Carmen, everything is animated. He’s lived a life that refuses to fit in frames and faces a future bigger than any big screen.