Animation student finds inspiration from alum turned Pixar producer

From a monster-filled factory to talking cars, alumnus Jonas Rivera continues to expand our imaginations and inspire up-and-coming animators.

Since his last class at SF State, Rivera has been a part of the Pixar family, living out his childhood dreams. With no regrets, he missed his college graduation to start working at his dream job as a producer at Pixar Animation Studios. 

“I told myself ‘I’m gonna work so damn hard they’re never gonna get rid of me,’” Rivera said. His motivation turned an internship into a full-time job the day after his last college course.

Approaching his senior year, Rivera called Pixar searching for an internship. The day following that phone call became the first step in Rivera’s journey to becoming a producer.

“‘Can you come down tomorrow?’ they asked me,” Rivera said. “It wasn’t glamorous, but it was incredible.”

Rivera became the first production intern at Pixar during the making of “Toy Story” in 1994.

Nearly 20 years after graduating with a degree in film production, Rivera has worked on almost every Pixar film made including “Up,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Cars” and “A Bug’s Life.”

Landing a job at Pixar, however, wasn’t the end of Rivera’s success. In 2009, Rivera received a nomination for Academy Award for Best Picture as the producer of “Up and was awarded at the Producers Guild Awards for Producer of the Year Award in Animated Theatrical Motion Pictures in 2010.

Growing up, Rivera wanted to be an animator but decided he wasn’t very skilled at drawing. So instead, he learned everything he could about animation and discovered he wanted to lean to the production side of films.

SF State animation student Ben Diaz has a similar outlook on films to Rivera’s.

“I’d love to produce animated films,” Diaz said. “As an animator, I am not the best drawer but I know what I want to see and I try to make it happen.”

Diaz was first inspired to study animation and pursue a career in film production after seeing “How to Train Your Dragon.” 

“It had that magic quality that Pixar had, but from a different company,” he said.

Today, cinema students are constantly competing for internships and jobs. Rivera said he feels lucky to have gotten an internship with Pixar, but that it was a tough balance with school.

“I’d go to school in the morning, then go to Pixar,” he said.

If the opportunity rose for Diaz, he said he would do whatever it takes to make it work.

Although Diaz’s original inspiration came from a DreamWorks film, he said that he has always wanted to work at Pixar. Though he applied for a summer internship at the company and didn’t get it, Diaz believes that the day may come when the time is right.

Rivera proves that with passion and dedication comes the ultimate success: being proud of your own work.

“’Up  is the one I’m most proud of,” Rivera said. From the first idea to the big screen, the film took about five years to complete. “Animation is glacial and slow.”

Diaz, on the other hand, said his favorite Pixar movie is “Monsters, Inc.

“It is just so imaginative and the ending is perfect,” he said.

The University’s cinema department prepared Rivera to work at Pixar, and continues to transform students into professionals. Associate Professor and Animation Coordinator Martha Gorzycki believes all animation students in the program can achieve professional success.

“They have to be willing to work hard and keep improving their skills,” Gorzycki said.

Rivera said the biggest lesson he learned during college was to not hesitate.

“Go after what wakes you up in the morning,” Rivera said. “Don’t just go to school and learn it, find a place, intern and experience what supplements your education.”

As Rivera expands his dream at Pixar with his newest film “Inside Out” set to release in June 2015, SF State cinema students continue to find success and pursue their passions.

Alumni Brett Pulliam, 1996 graduate, and Michelle Ohana, 2002 graduate, both found their way to Pixar to work on animation for “Monsters University.”

With graduation coming up in May of next year, Diaz feels confident in the education that SF State has left him with, especially after seeing Rivera’s success.

“It’s reassuring to know that there’s opportunities everywhere,” Diaz said. “I’ve learned to take initiative and don’t lose interest in what drives you.”

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