Accepting an Academy Award is one of those seemingly intangible pipe dreams that most people only fantasize about. For SF State alumnus Jonas Rivera, the Oscar-winning producer behind Pixar’s 2015 film “Inside Out,” taking the stage with director Pete Docter in February was nothing short of surreal.
“It didn’t hit me until we were done,” Rivera said. “You go back behind everything and it’s just this squirrel-derby of craziness — photographers and publicists and people from the Academy. And they shuffle you down this long hallway where you’re going to go into this press room.”
Phone buzzing, cameras flashing and polished Oscar in hand, Rivera lingered for a moment to gaze at the portraits of past winners hung along the hallway walls — Scorsese, Tatum O’Neal, Robert Duvall. There he stood, a grown-up version of that 6-year-old boy who loved Snow White, who spent his afternoons tracing Disney drawings and reenacting Star Wars scenes with his Super 8 camera.
Twenty years after graduating from SF State and three months after taking home the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film, Rivera will speak at Commencement 2016 at AT&T Park on May 27.
Rivera graduated in 1995, accepting a full-time position at a then unknown Pixar where he interned during school. As an intern, Rivera fetched coffee and salami sandwiches for John Lasseter and the people who redefined the future of animation. He grew up alongside Woody and Buzz Lightyear, there for the launch of the first ever feature-length computer-animated film, “Toy Story,” which premiered the year he joined the team.
Today, Rivera has stepped into one of the studio’s vice presidential roles, and along with his colleagues he is now the one hashing out new ideas for the evolution of Pixar production and operations.
Vice President of University Advancement Robert Nava said the SF State Alumni Association has been looking for a way to honor Rivera’s achievements. When his name was mentioned at a Commencement committee meeting, Rivera was immediately moved to the top of the list.
“We’re living in a world where innovation and creativity are very important,” Nava said. “He really encompasses that in his life.”
Nava called Commencement one of the most important celebrations of the academic year, and said a lot of thought goes into choosing a speaker who will offer dynamic inspiration for graduates and their families in attendance.
“The way we acknowledge our graduates and how we send them out into the world is just as important as how we receive them on that first day of class,” Nava said.
Students are abuzz with excitement, many naming Rivera’s films “Up” and “Inside Out” their favorites. For Yash Patel, a 23-year-old business management major with an interest in the entertainment industry, it’s thrilling to hear from an alumnus who’s made it in a creative field, who didn’t slip into a cookie-cutter career path but instead followed his dreams.
“So many students will be inspired by the things he’s going to be saying,” Patel said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
As Rivera finalizes his words for the ceremony, he said he’s been thinking a lot about the journey that brought him to this stage in life.
“It’s hard not to sound corny because everything I say sounds like, ‘Believe in your dreams!’ But for me, that’s true.” Rivera said. “I wasn’t famous for my grades, but I loved it. … I just learned a lot.”
He said SF State’s School of Cinema fed the lifelong ardor he felt for film theory. In a class with former lecturer Gregg Rickman, he watched his first Pixar short, “Luxo Jr.” directed by Lasseter. It was in that moment Rivera understood the possibility of computer animation. He said those two minutes shaped the course of his life.
“I loved the hand-drawn classic Disney animation of the ’30s and ’40s,” Rivera said. “I came in like, ‘I hate computer animation, it’s lame, I’m old school,’ and then I saw something I hadn’t seen. Literally, as I’m saying it, that led to my whole career.”
Rivera remains unquenchably passionate about the medium and magic of Pixar. He said film school and his years at Pixar have taught him to stay open to new ideas — and that, he said, cultivated success.
“My point is, do not box yourself into one thing that you love,” Rivera said. “If you love film, study all film. Study literature. Study storytelling. Study anything that you think will lead to that — everything’s connected.”