With ‘Finding Dory,’ this Pinoy steps out from the background
Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - June 15, 2016 - 12:00am

When you work in the world of animation, anything can happen. Fish can talk. An octopus can drive a truck. And a Fil-Am can swim his way into the magical kingdom of Disney.

That’s how it was for Pixar set artist Paul Abadilla. Born in Manila, his family moved to the US in 1991. (He’s now 32.) He always loved drawing (his dad’s painting and drawing was a big influence) and finished his animation/illustration BFA at San Jose University, California, before applying to Pixar Animation Studios as an art intern. “My first application was rejected,” he recalls now with a sheepish grin, sitting for interviews in a Makati Shangri-La conference room. (Later, he will hold an animation workshop for special invitees.) Luckily, Abadilla snagged an art internship at Walt Disney Animation Studios to while away the time until his second application to Pixar, the following year, was accepted.

His latest project, ready to splash into local cinemas tomorrow, is Finding Dory, the long-awaited sequel to Finding Nemo. It’s not been as millennial a wait as Star Wars fans endured for Episode 7, but Nemo fans have been cooling their fins a looong time: 13 years, in fact.

Finding Dory offers a full-fledged origins story of one of the most peculiarly endearing and exasperating Disney characters ever: Dory (voiced by Ellen Degeneres) suffers from — as she explains at one point — “short-term remembery loss.” Which means she won’t remember what she was about to do at any given moment, and will probably forget your name after being introduced. As she tries to track down her parents a year after the events of Finding Nemo, the sequel develops into a reunion of familiar characters, with memorable new ones and a theme of — naturally — family and home.  

As a set artist, what Abadilla does at Pixar Animation Studios is create environments. Literally: from his sketchpad and digital paintings of backgrounds (based on rough storyboards), Pixar’s Lighting Department will then develop the final look of a film. For Finding Dory, he designed undersea reefs, a marine institute, backgrounds for a highway chase — not everything but, but everything including the kitchen sink for one memorable sequence. Abadilla’s paintings have also guided the look of films like Monsters University, Brave, the short film Lava and Inside Out. (And if you’ve ever seen collector’s editions of Pixar or Disney set paintings, you know they’re works of art on their own.)

And he’s not the only Fil-Am making it big in Pixar and Disney. Recently, Ronnie del Carmen was feted as co-director of Inside Out. Half-Filipino Robert Lopez was the award-winning songwriter for Frozen (not to mention the decidedly un-Disney Broadway show Book of Mormon). Closer to home, there’s Rony Fortich, who composes songs for Hong Kong Disneyland musicals.

So the big question is, why do Filipinos excel at Disney and Pixar?

“In general, Filipinos are really hard workers,” Abadilla says. “They just have that thirst to do well at whatever they do. I know I inherited that attitude from my parents. I think just having that spirit goes a long way toward whatever it is where we want to succeed.”

Growing up a Disney fan must help, too. He recalls as a kid in Manila, being blown away by Little Mermaid and Aladdin. “The stories they would tell, and how sophisticated the animation of the characters was, and the designs of the worlds was really interesting to me.” It was watching one of those “making of” featurettes about Disney that lit up his personal light bulb: “It allowed me to realize, ‘Hey, people go to work every day to make these films possible.’ So I saw a possible career path from that.”

As some may know, a Disney or Pixar production can take many years — averaging about four from initial storyboards to final cut. Abadilla comes in during the second half, after the script is completed but still evolving, the storyboards are roughed out, and the animators need specific pegs to work from. Technically, he can work in whatever medium he likes — maybe start with pen, pencil and paper, though he prefers Photoshop to design his background sets. “I use digital most of the time when painting, because it’s color-calibrated on the monitor, so it translates very well to what it needs to look like when we hand it off to the Lighting Department.”

Abadilla has earned a certain degree of creative freedom as a set artist: “When I’m working with (Finding Dory director) Andrew Stanton on designing environments, for example, he likes to have options. So sometimes I have to give him more information than the storyboards do, because he likes to move the camera around and get interesting shots. The storyboard might just show two sides of a room, but I might have to show him the entire room, so if he moves the camera, he can see it all around.” 

Natural beauty (even if it’s computer generated) is a big part of Finding Dory’s visual appeal. With a dad from Manila and a mom from Surigao, I had to ask if the Philippines’ beaches and marine life had an influence on his work. “Yeah, there’s a scene where Dory goes on a field trip with Nemo’s class, and that involved the reef area, a very shallow part of the ocean. Part of my job was to design the lighting for that sequence, so I did a lot of research — understanding how sunlight behaves through shallow water, and why it looks the way it does. So having my own experiences on reefs as a surfer and snorkeling myself, I’m sort of familiar with that environment.”

In addition to creating environments and surfing, in his spare time Abadilla likes to deejay to chillax. That’s right: people tend to forget that being an animator is a 9-5 job, like most others. You can’t always whistle while you work. I ask if there’s a lot of pressure, working at the happiest place in the world?

“Oh, there’s always pressure,” he says with a slight chuckle. “Making these movies isn’t the easiest thing. It takes a team of people, so communication is key. Part of my job is being able to adapt to changes. I may be working on a set at some point, then later on I might find out, ‘Hey, we’re cutting that scene, that set’s no longer relevant.’ So you have to be able to move forward from that and continue with the push.”

Abadilla was there when Finding Dory premiered at SM Megamall. What was it like watching the movie with his kababayans? 

“In some ways, there was a lot of pressure. You know, ‘I hope this sits well with everybody, I hope they’re along for the ride,’ but I was relieved that they seemed to enjoy it. I was hanging out, I got to meet a lot of cool folks afterwards. It seems to have had a good reaction.”

Wrapping up, I can’t help fishing: I try to slip in the forbidden question. “So, what’s your next Pixar project gonna be? 

“I wish I could tell you. But I don’t want to spoil the party!”

At least he didn’t say he couldn’t remember.

 

 

 

 

 

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