By John Sammon
Emeryville — Bryn Imagire has the rare opportunity and artistic ability to transform what begins simply as an idea, a conception, into an animation art form bringing characters to life that delight millions of children worldwide.
“When you finally get to see all that work put together into the finished product (animated film) with music and voices put in, it’s like you’re getting a Christmas present,” Imagire said.
Imagire works at Pixar, a computer animation film studio that is a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios.
Based in Emeryville on San Francisco Bay just north of Oakland, Pixar started as a small somewhat experimental type of animation film studio when it was founded in 1986, funded from Apple Inc. and co-founder Steve Jobs. The company was later purchased by Disney. It has since grown into a major entertainment company with a number of children’s fantasy films that have become iconic classics, including Toy Story in 1995 and A Bug’s Life (1998).
Imagire’s most recent films for Pixar are Coco (2017) and Incredibles 2 (2018).
“When I started with Pixar the company was located in Point Richmond and had 150 employees,” Imagire said. “Now the company has 1,350.”
Imagire is a shading art director meaning that she works on computer generated animated films designing everything from scratch—the characters in the film and how they look, the props they use and the backgrounds in which the characters appear.
“I use my traditional art skills to do this work including painting and drawing,” Imagire said. “We also design models to be used in producing animated films. For the movie “Up” (2009) we made a balsa wood practical model of the home of characters in the film, the adult Carl and Ellie. The model helped tell us how it would look in the computer, and helped us turn the home into a 3-D filmed image.”
Imagire’s skills in animation and that of her co-workers led to an exhibition tour of her artwork around the world started in 2005 by MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art based in New York. The international tour has been so successful that it continues today.
As children’s films have gotten more sophisticated they are rarely referred to anymore as “cartoons.” They aren’t just for children either, but appeal to millions of adults as well.
“Someone will come up to me and say, ‘I was five years old when The Incredibles (2004) came out and now I’m 14. When is Incredibles 2 coming out?’” Imagire said.
Incredibles 2 was released in June of this year.
For the film The Incredibles Imagire used strong colors of red and black for the super hero uniforms of the characters. One of the characters Bob the dad, is a stay-at-home parent when he isn’t a super hero and has a hard time taking care of his kids. Imagire designed everyday clothing for him colored beige and light brown to portray his weaker side when he’s not a super hero. In this guise he seems almost to disappear into the shots, but when he has on his red and black super hero uniform — he’s strong.
Imagire said colors send a message to the viewer, even subliminal. Colors have to make sense, to impart the right feeling in a filmed scene, just like you would make sure the clothing you wear doesn’t clash.
She said her career in animation was a passion that began early in life. Born in Sacramento, her grandparents on her mother’s side had operated a soda fountain in Sacramento and her grandfather on her dad’s side a laundry.
A grandmother on her father’s side had been a seamstress making dresses for show girls in Reno, Nevada.
“I think that’s where I got my interest in art,” Imagire said. “I remember going to her (grandmother’s) studio in Reno and walking along the aisles marveling at the dresses she made. Some had ostrich feathers and scarfs. I got interested.”
During World War II when the U.S. Government decided to imprison Americans of Japanese descent for no reason other than ethnicity suspecting them as traitors, Imagire’s family on her mother’s side were sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona.
However her father Art was able to avoid imprisonment along with other Japanese Americans who agreed to leave California, if they had someone out of state who would host them. Art Imagire moved to Reno, Nevada.
After the war he pursued a career as an engineer at Aerojet, an aircraft manufacturer. Imagire’s mother Gloria became a nurse.
Imagire said by the time she enrolled at American River College in Sacramento, she knew she wanted to be an artist.
“From the time I was 16 I felt I could do this for a living,” she said. “I majored in art at American River College and had a teacher there who inspired me, John Kaneko, a painter, an amazing teacher and also a Japanese American.”
Honing her skills Imagire attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1979 and the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena where she studied illustration, painting, drawing and composition.
“I was learning all the basics,” she said.
After graduation from college Imagire stayed in the Los Angeles area for a time freelancing as an artist, then moved to Sacramento doing work for a graphic design studio.
“I wanted to move back to the Bay Area and I wound up opening a freelance artist studio in Berkeley,” she said. “I did this for seven years. I created advertisements, corporate ID logos and editorial illustrations.”
She also did artworks for The Nature Co. in Berkeley, drawings of bugs, designs for puzzles and decorations for tee shirts.
“I heard Pixar was doing a bug movie (A Bug’s Life) and my sister’s boyfriend was taking a telescope class with a guy who knew the production designer at Pixar,” Imagire said. “I called and asked him if I could show some of my work.
This was in 1996,” she added. “I had no experience in animation. Computer animation was so new I wasn’t sure if this would be a long-term job. But I felt I could do this.”
A Bug’s Life was Imagire’s first film for Pixar and became a huge hit. The film was turned into a video game and became an attraction titled “A Bug’s Land” at the Disney California Adventure theme park.
To complete an animated film involves work performed in stages in a team effort. The pipeline goes through the original story boards, the writing of the script, modeling, shading and animation.
After Imagire does her work (designing, shading); the work is passed on to the next group of artists.
“The voices are recorded before the animation,” Imagire said. “That way the animators can make the animation fit what they’re hearing with the voices.”
Sets and props are modeled on a computer to be viewed for accuracy and desirability, for proper textures, moving a model around and viewing it from all sides before turning it into a 3-D depiction.
Imagire said viewing a competed film is a thrilling experience as the work of others joins her own.
“The animation happens after we design it,” she said. “When you view the finished film, it looks like so much more than you imagined.”
The hardest part of the job Imagire said is to know when something isn’t working to be flexible enough to throw it out and start again if need be.
“I work with the production designer and director of each movie. We review the work as it progresses and have meetings to talk about what is needed,” Imagire said.
The job has perks including trips to promote Pixar movies that have taken Imagire to destinations like Manila in the Philippines, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Singapore for the movie “Incredibles 2” in 2018, (Venezuela in 2004 to do research for Incredibles 2), and Japan in 2009 for the opening of the film “Up.”
Currently Imagire is working on a new film the title and plot yet to be announced, directed by Pete Docter, director of the Pixar films “Up” and “Inside Out.”
Imagire said doing work that is artistically satisfying and that gives joy to so many is what she loves about her job.
“If a film becomes a gem, that’s one of the best feelings in the world,” she said.
Caption: Bryn Imagire and the Pixar characters.