There’s a rat in  my ratatouille
- Bert Sulat Jr. () - July 15, 2007 - 12:00am

What do these three animated movie characters have in common: Dory of Finding Nemo, Jessie of Toy Story 2 and Collette of Ratatouille? They are all female. They are all found in Disney-Pixar movies. And, moreover, they all involved the creativity and artistry of a Filipina.

To be exact, those characters were brought to animated reality by Virginia “Gini” Cruz Santos, who has been with Pixar Animated Studios for 11 years. The 41-year-old artist was born in Pasay City, the second of three children of parents Ben (born in Pampanga) and Celi Santos (who was Pasay-based). The Santoses migrated to the US when Gini was just three, originally headed for Texas but settling instead at their stopover, Guam.

Gini came back to her homeland for her undergraduate education. “My late father wanted me to study here because he said the education was good,” Gini recalls, adding that while she was”“dragged home kicking and screaming,” she ended up enjoying her stay here. She went to St. Scholastica’s College Manila for high school and majored in advertising at the University of Santo Tomas’s College of Architecture and Fine Arts.’“There’s another UST CAFA graduate at Pixar: story guy Ronnie del Carmen,” she reveals.

After earning her diploma in 1988, she returned to Guam and landed an advertising job, later moving to New York for a Master’s in Computer Arts at NY’s School of Visual Art. She had made a digitally illustrated short film as her masteral thesis. “It was called Eclipse,” relates Gini, who was in the Philippines last May to attend a wedding and bask in Boracay. “It showed the sun being eclipsed by the moon but at close inspection we see two horses. It was a metaphor for how a lot of people come and go in our lives, and that most don’t stay.”

She sent copies of the film to different studios in the hopes of securing employment, including to Pixar. She thought getting hired by Pixar was impossible but sent her reel anyway ––“just for the heck of it. I did not even include my rÈsumÈ.” Thus, when Pixar got interested in Eclipse and managed to find its maker, Santos was surprised. “I did not expect it,” she remembers when Pixar called her in 1996. “I really, really wanted to work with them.”

And so began her computer animation and, one could say, Hollywood career – though Pixar is based in San Francisco, which has also been her place of residence ever since. Aside from co-animating Jessie the cowgirl in 1999’s Toy Story 2, she also got to work in various capacities on 1998’s A Bug’s Life and 2001’s Monsters Inc. She went on to bigger work with 2003’s Finding Nemo, animating many scenes of Dory the forgetful bluefish voiced by Ellen DeGeneres – basically working with character design, making sure Dory appears and acts true to character in her every scene. Gini has since been a major contributor to every single Pixar movie, including 2004’s The Incredibles and last year’s Cars.

This year finds Gini accomplishing bigger work than ever with the new Disney-Pixar film Ratatouille – the underdog, or should we say under-rat, Remy the rodent and his impossible dream of becoming a chef in Paris.

“This was technically the most difficult thing we’ve done,” she says, “what with the rat fur and human hair, the complexities of the characters’ movements, as well as the visual textures of the food.”

For the record, she and her colleagues once again used MEnv (pronounced “men-v”), which is modeling-environment software exclusive to Pixar, in producing the thousands of frames (“24 frames per second,” Santos underscores) that make up Ratatouille’s nearly two-hour entirety. Just as well, she and most of the other Pixar artists’“still do 2D work for our assigned scenes, as in hand-drawing during the planning stage as well as referencing 2D animated films, so that we can keep our 3D work visually organic and graphically pleasing, too.”

The work may be taxing, but Pixar, as Gini describes it, is a fun place to work in. A typical workday goes like this: checking of “dailies” in the morning, which is moviemaking jargon for the shots finished so far, and “walkthroughs” in the afternoon, wherein the director – in this case Brad Bird, who also wrote and helmed The Incredibles – “would check on our work,” Santos says. Perhaps it also helps that, unlike years ago when the Pixar staff had low-walled cubicles, Gini and her fellow longtime peers have an office each, replete with a couch, shelves, a desk, a drawing board and a PC.

“There’s also a swimming pool, a gym, and classrooms for us to learn stuff,” she adds. “Some of the employees even have bands and they get to play at the bar in the premises called Lucky 7 Lounge. We’ve alternated as bartenders there, me included.” (As if to prove the multiracial crew’s camaraderie, Ratatouille is chockfull of insider references to its various workers, from the made-up wine brand names to the imagined street names that allude to this artist or that producer.)

For good measure, there were two (clean) rats that were observed and kept for reference while Ratatouille went into production. “Some of the animators even held those rats. I couldn’t bring myself to do so,” Gini shares with a laugh. And while”Ratatouille’s animators worked on various scenes of the movie, some got to focus on a specific character – in her case it was Collette, the sole lady chef in the fine-dining restaurant that is the movie’s primary setting. “Collette was a parallel for me, since computer-animation is still a male-dominated industry,” Gini points out, opining as well that “bringing the characters to life and fleshing out who they are is the best part of the process.”

There’s more. As with every Pixar flick, Ratatouille is preceded by a short film, a richly hilarious piece called Lifted, about a bungling alien abductor in training. Gini was the supervising animator on the entire five-minute gem, handling computer animation tasks and overseeing the work of five other animators. Such was the joy in making Lifted that she longs “to write my own short.”

However, while she professes to loving animation (“I could still be in advertising if 3D animation did not exist yet”), Gini admits to having kind of burned out lately and, at the time of this interview, is contemplating a long vacation and spending all of her remaining leave credits from Pixar. “I’m thinking of teaching online,” she reveals, in addition to cultivating a home garden.

Two things are certain, though: Gini will still keep making Pixar magic and will be a Pinoy at heart forever. “In fact, if I had my way, I’d like to inject more Pinoy traits or qualities in Pixar movies,” she says. “At one point, I also thought of going to a premiere in a Philippine dress.”

Ratatouille opens in theaters on July 25.

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