He is only the sixth Fil-Am to earn a coveted Academy nomination, following Robert “Bobby” Lopez (the “Let It Go” composer who went on to become the first Fil-Am to win an Academy Award), cinematographer Matthew Libatique, actress Hailee Steinfeld, short film-live action producer Pia Clemente and a man cited in a technical category whose name unfortunately escapes my mind.
Ronnie, one of the top Pixnoys (Pinoys who work at Pixar), cinched an Oscar best original screenplay nod for “Inside Out,” which he shares with the film’s director, Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. He is the first Fil-Am to co-direct a Pixar film – “Inside Out” – which is also in the running for the Oscars’ best animated feature prize.
“This does not happen a lot in one’s lifetime of making movies,” said the Cavite City native. “I will have gone twice when the Oscars comes around this February. How lucky can you get?”
The University of Santo Tomas (UST) alum recalled the first time: “I attended the Oscars when ‘Up’ was nominated for best picture. I was there because I was the head of story on that project but attended as someone’s guest. I sat in the back and was so amazed that I was in that room. A show I watched as a kid and now I was in that same room – live!”
“This time around, I am the co-director of this amazing Pete Docter movie,” Ronnie said of “Inside Out,” hailed by many critics as one of 2015’s best films (it won the Golden Globe Awards’ best animated feature honors) and which swept 10 prizes in the Annie Awards, the Oscars of the animation industry. “In a way, I graduated to the next level and will be standing there at the Oscars as a full participant.”
What makes the original screenplay nod of Ronnie, Pete, Meg and Josh is that “Inside Out,” about the inner workings of an 11-year-old girl’s mind, is the only animated film nominated in the category. The other nominees are “Spotlight,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Ex Machina” and “Straight Outta Compton” (coincidentally, the latter was shot by Matthew Libatique).
“I was more nervous about this category than the best animated feature nomination, to tell you the truth,” said the bespectacled artist – a genial, well-spoken man – who has written and illustrated several comic books. “We have an amazing movie and audiences and critics have shown their overwhelming support for it. So I think it would not be bad form to feel the movie was going to be recognized with a best animated feature nomination.
“But the best original screenplay was another thing entirely. It is a category that is not just about animation. It is for the entire field – all the original screenplay marbles. This is huge. If one’s work as a writer and storyteller were to be nominated here, then you are at the grow-ups’ table. That means this industry is recognizing our efforts as movie storytellers – not just animation storytellers – but the big magilla, entire ball of wax, big show storytellers category! Are you kidding me?! I am blown away.
“The nomination, not to ply the oft repeated chorus, is like winning a prize already. I am still trying to take in all what this means. I may never succeed at that but that’s okay. I am truly humbled and honored.”
For Ronnie, his long and challenging journey to the top of the animation industry started in Cavite. “I loved movies,” recalled the second of five children of Rogelio Nicolas del Carmen and Lilia Gonzales del Carmen. “I watched the 25-centavo double features shown at Central Theater in Cavite City. It was a roach-friendly cinema where the sounds of the market next door seeped into the soundtrack of Italian westerns, Japanese monster movies and third-rate foreign movies. I loved all of them.
“I drew as a child as all kids do but I seemed to get lost in drawing all day. I drew on anything. I drew with wax crayolas even on the walls of the house and caught heck for that because those don’t come off easily.
“I was the class illustrator in school. I got requests from classmates to draw TV cartoon characters on their notebooks. My dad told me to focus on my math and handwriting subjects instead of drawing on all my notebooks. ‘Drawing is just a hobby, son,’ he said. He was worried for me.”
Marvel, DC comics, Disney and Filipino movies and “komiks” inspired the talented kid. “I watched a lot of TV – ‘The Heckle and Jeckle Show,’ ‘Casper,’ ‘Baby Huey,’ ‘Popeye,’ ‘Bugs Bunny’ and ‘Daffy Duck.’ But most of all, I was entranced by ‘Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.’ That opening theme and Tinkerbell flying in on Sunday afternoon was like a magic portal. Uncle Walt showed up and walked you through stories and cartoons! I lived for that show.”
As that boy, Ronnie never imagined that someday, he would work for Disney (the studio owns Pixar).
“I read comics left behind by a visiting uncle from the U.S.,” he remembered. “He saw how much I loved them so he left them to me – a stack of about 30 issues. You can’t easily buy U.S. comics then and they were expensive. I was a Marvel fan from the start but I was also devoted to Batman. I copied artists like the great Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Gene Colan, Joe Kubert, Frank Thorne and John Buscema. The human form was such a happy challenge.”
The young Ronnie’s creative imagination was also sparked by local artists. “I borrowed Liwayway and the local comics with illustrations, from the local sari-sari store, by the greatest, Nestor Redondo, Alex Niño, Rudy Nebrez and Tony DeZuñiga. Years later, I would find out about Francisco Coching, one of the grandfathers of Filipino komiks.
“Tagalog films were always on TV so you couldn’t help but be a fan. The old movies were the best. Foremost were the Manuel Conde films. They were big fantasy adventures and gave us ‘Juan Tamad’ to watch. Of course, Dolphy and Panchito, Chiquito, Gloria Romero and Susan Roces movies.
“Years later, as I got older, Lino Brocka movies became very important in setting a new standard in Filipino movies we can watch.”
Ronnie’s idyllic youth was drastically altered by a financial setback that hit the family hard. The del Carmens lost everything, including their house, when one of his father’s business partners ran off with their funds.
Instead of going to college right after he graduated from high school, Ronnie had to work. That was how Ronnie ended up as a painter on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” which was filming then in the Philippines.
“My older sister got me a slot in the painting department because she thought that since I could draw, I was a shoo-in!” he explained. “I had no real world work skills but it worked. I was 16 years old, the youngest in a crew of about six, including a foreman. They didn’t know what to do with me and couldn’t really assign any real jobs my way.
“So I got the grunt work. Stuff no one wanted to do. I learned how to hold a sign-painters brush and made signs. Then I got assigned to do the outbound missions.
“A trek to Baler (Quezon province) to put insignias on Philippine Air Force jets to make them look like U.S. fighter jets. They gave us giant stickers with the insignias painted on them already. The planes were rolled out into the sun. The metal was hot by the time we put them on. I heard the jets flew over the shot but the stickers had peeled off. Of course.
“I was assigned to Pagsanjan Falls (Laguna province) as one of a two-person mission to ‘age’ the plaster and burlap version of the Angkor Wat-like village of Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando’s character).
“Then that typhoon came and the dam at Caliraya was let loose. The picturesque village we were working on was washed away like so much stick flotsam. The weather came down – biblical, really. And deadly. The town was inundated and people evacuated.
“I barely made it out of there with my life. I bolted out of the floods and left any luggage I had. After a very long series of bus and jeep rides in the middle of this huge typhoon, I made it back to Manila where I told my mom and sister that I’m not going back to work on that set.”
The financial hardship – which forced the family to split and live with different relatives – was tough on the teen’s psyche. “The truth was that I was losing hope that we’d get out of poverty in spite of all my father’s efforts. Living with relatives and helping with their households to earn our keep was not edifying. All this while my high school friends were living their college life and dreams.
“I took odd jobs. I was a school bus conductor for my cousin who was trying to help me out. I drew caricatures of members of a local commerce guild for their annual program, did those mall pencil and charcoal portraits if anyone asked (I hated those because I just copied photographs) and even illustrated the cryptic drawings on the programs of Jai Alai fronton leaflets. None of those lasted or paid enough.
“I even did a stint singing at a folk house on Pasay Road (Makati) one or two nights a week. I earned a meal and a soda; I gave the rest of what I earned to my mom. I took on anything to make any money.”
He conceded, “My parents were strong but it wore on them. We were all living in separate households in over three cities.”
A break came when his dad somehow made his way to America and found work. “If not for my father immigrating to the U.S. on a working visa, I think our life would have been very different for us now,” Ronnie shared.
Finally, Ronnie’s family could afford to send him to college. “UST was like an alternate world,” he said. “I had been wanting something so bad in my life that I didn’t know existed. I kept on drawing on my own and taught myself how to draw and paint but never in a class situation. My dad’s admonition that ‘drawing is just a hobby’ stuck with me.”
Earlier, he visited a high school classmate who was already graduating from UST and made a “discovery.” “I found out that there was this course: Fine Arts – Advertising,” he said. “What?! There is such a thing? Art and Commerce together? When I finally enrolled a couple of years later, I was surrounded by all these students who were four or five years younger than me.
“But I had a blast because I had a different focus and could breeze through most of the subjects. I got involved in everything – theater, the CAFA (College of Architecture and Fine Arts) Vision magazine where I was one of the editors and the student council. I also had a part-time job as an illustrator for this man who self-published his versions of fairy tales.
“In UST, I learned about the ad industry and wanted to do commercials because they were mini-films. My mother had to keep my fine arts course a secret from my dad because I didn’t want to disappoint him. Years later, he found out and wrote, in his amazing handwriting, a long, nice letter telling me that I should follow where my heart leads.
“UST gave me a social and professional context that manifested as confidence. I had pedigree. I was no longer a mongrel. After graduating, I applied to my first ad agency job and got it right away. Those four years paid off. And then some.”
It was also at the historic Manila campus where he met Theresa “Tess” del Carmen, who would become his wife and the mother of his son Angelo Luis (“Geo”), 28, and daughter Francesca Erin (“Gerin”), 26. Ronnie’s brothers, Louie and Rick, also studied at the UST and are accomplished animation artists in the U.S. Ronnie’s other siblings are Maria Luisa and Maria Nancy.
When he immigrated to the States in 1989, Ronnie had to start all over again. “None of my credentials were relevant in the ad business in L.A.,” he recounted. “I visited the local ad bureaus and got advice to work for Hispanic agencies. I had to break it to them that in spite of my last name, I spoke very little Spanish – and bad Spanish at that. I answered an ad in the paper looking for part-time illustrator for storyboards and comps. I can do that.
“From there, I got advice from a friend to work in animation. I said no. I knew nothing about animation and I will likely disappoint. But someone took a chance on me and hired me on my first animation gig at DiC (Entertainment). That lasted for two and a half months. I learned as much as I can.
“From there, I took a leap to Warner Bros. and got hired in the most coveted gig in the land – ‘Batman: The Animated Series.’ I did not have the right resume but Bruce Timm hired me anyway. I learned on the job and worked really hard because I wanted to prove him right.”
The valuable work experience eventually led him to Pixar. He had to uproot his family from the LA area to Northern California where the animation powerhouse is headquartered. The Thomasian’s creative skills and hardworking ethics landed him credits in various positions, from story artist to story supervisor, in such Pixar gems as “Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E,” “Ratatouille,” “Up,” “Brave” and “Monsters University.”
Ronnie, who has given lectures in campuses in the Philippines, offered these five practical, specific tips to people aspiring to make it in animation:
“I learn a lot from my mistakes. So, advice one: Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Once you are on the spot, having no clue or face plant, just look at it as an opportunity to understand something better. It works and builds you.
“But before that, advice two: One should head toward what you believe is your passion to do. I hope it is about telling stories. Whether you are in the art department, layout, technical director or what have you: be a storyteller.
“Next, you have to collaborate. No lone wolves. You will never get anywhere thinking you are the only one who knows what to do or the only one anointed to bark orders on how to do it right. You’ll need people to succeed. So be a good partner and soldier. In turn, you’ll learn to be a good leader. But always seek partnerships and collaborations. That’s an order!
“And then there’s this: Tell stories. It’s one thing to be focused on good storytelling in all its myriad manifestations. But it is another to actually tell your story. Write it on bond paper, blog it, Tweet it, self-publish it, podcast it, smoke signal it – tell your story! You’ll get better each time you do. And you don’t die with your stories still inside you.
“Then finally, make sure you get feedback. You are not here to be God-like and not get notes on what you do or make. You are fallible and flawed just like the rest of us. You could use a good smacking now and then. You’ll survive it and be the better for it. That takes courage, I know.
“But it is also less stress because you don’t have to put up this God-like façade all the time. You don’t want to be full time maintaining that stance instead of using those energies to create wonderful stories. Trust me. It’s easier on your arteries. And people will like you. And you should like people. They are likely what you’re writing about.”
Looking back, Ronnie is grateful for his parents’ perseverance amid the daunting hardship. “My parents’ will to keep trying is truly inspirational,” he said. “I can only hope I have their mettle when faced with such insurmountable odds.”
Ruben V. Nepales is the first Filipino member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the first Filipino elected chairman of the board (he served in 2012) of the organization which votes on and presents the Golden Globe Awards. The author of the book, "My Filipino Connection: The Philippines in Hollywood," writes the column, "Only In Hollywood," in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
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