When Mike Venturini attended Paso Robles High School back in the early 90s, he was considered the “art kid” and was asked to paint the Bearcats logo on the gym floor. Now he’s heading hundreds of animators at one of the most prestigious animation studios in the world.
His career began when Venturini resolved to become a professional animator and moved from the little country town of Paso Robles and up to Canada to attend the Vancouver School of Animation. He started work at Pixar in 2000, helping to animate the well-known computer-animated film “Monsters, Inc.”
Venturini’s Pixar films have some the most worn cases in American children’s DVD libraries. These are the biggies, the favorites, the movies taken on long road trips. They are the movies parents don’t mind watching over and over until every line and soundtrack song is memorized.
Among his latest blockbusters is “Coco,” the movie that’s creating much Oscar buzz these days. “Coco” is a movie about a young Mexican boy’s journey to the spirit world and back on the “Day of the Dead.”
Venturini took the role as supervising animator for “Coco.” He’s been an animator for about 20 years, and for the past few films he’s been in charge of much more than that: overseeing and clarifying every scene for style consistency as well as casting work and managing about 100 animators. For “Coco,” he did this job alongside one other supervising animator.
The film, released last November, was a hit by all standards. Not only did it make everyone with two eyes and a nose cry during the heartwrenching “Remember me” scene, but it also set a new precedence for animation. Never before have audiences seen complex characters so realistically animated, with colors and details so life-like. Venturini said Coco was one of the most beautiful films he has ever worked on. He attributes the beauty to a combination of things: high-quality animation, intricate, meticulously-researched character styles and its deep message to the world.
Coco, the protagonist Miguel’s very, very old grandmother, with saggy, wrinkled skin under her eyes, chin and cheeks, looked so real, many viewers had to remind themselves they were watching an animated film.
“That type of a character is something we’ve never done before,” Venturini said. “There’s something so tangible about her when you see her on the screen.”
While doing his research for Coco’s character, he watched a documentary on Alzheimer’s that talked about how music can connect people with Alzheimer’s to memories, helping them come back to the present in the process.
When he sat in the studio with the animators and director while working on of the heartwarming “Remember Me” scene, he remembered reworking the scene and deciding on just the precise moment for Coco to look at Miguel, after the emotions of memories had already washed over her. The documentary on Alzheimer’s really helped.
“It just connected the dots so much more clearly on what was going on in her mind and the power of that memory,” he said.
He uses all the resources he can when researching the characters.
“It’s fun to really play with those details and slide them around in time to see what’s going to have the biggest emotional impact for our audience when they see it on the screen,” he said.
Before spending his recent years on “Coco,” Venturini has contributed almost two decades as a Pixar animator on such Academy Award winning features, as “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo.” He continued on as a directing animator for more Academy Award winners, such as “Up” and “Ratatouille,” moving on up as supervising animator on more Academy Award winners: “Toy Story 3” and “The Good Dinosaur.”
“Working on ‘The Incredibles’ was the most fun I’ve ever had working on a movie,” Venturini said, adding that as an animator for the movie, he completely immersed himself in the type of animation they were doing at the time, and it evoked some good childhood memories. The “He-Man”-influenced artist said he was drawing what he used to love to draw – only this time on a big screen.
“With ‘Ratatouille’ I spent all my time on the Remy character,” he said, noting that the animation he did on that film as animation director was the best work he’s done as a professional. He can recognize his influence on the characters, which he said came from researching anything and everything about rats, including actual rat observation in his studio and visits from biologists who would come in and lecture on the skeletal structure of rats – pure fascination for Venturini.
For “Toy Story 3” he worked as supervising animator, and remembers the technical mentorship he provided to other animators on fun characters like Buzz Lightyear and Woody, referring to his satisfaction for the film as a “big picture,” teamwork kind of feeling, not to mention it’s the film that received over-the-top accolades and earned more than $1 billion at the international box office.
Prior to Pixar, when he was a mere 21-year-old, Venturini worked as a 2D animator at Warner Bros. where he used his talents on films including “Space Jam,” “The Iron Giant” and “Osmosis Jones.” He also spent some of his early career at DreamWorks, working on “Road to El Dorado.”
“Long before Pixar I got to work on a film called ‘The Iron Giant.’ That was my first time really animating. That was hand-drawn, which I don’t do animation like that anymore, so I look back on that as kind of the eye-opening opportunity,” he said, adding it made him feel both excited and overwhelmed.
Venturini currently lives in Lafayette with his wife, Shannon (Gilstrap) Venturini, a schoolteacher and PRHS graduate of ‘92, and three children, ages 6, 11 and 12 (just the target age group for many of the Pixar movies). Paso Robles High School contacted him a couple years ago to repaint the Bearcat logo back on the gym after the floor had been resurfaced. He thought about where he is now, and recalling how much certain opportunities like being chosen to paint the floor added to his feeling of confidence and self-worth, he decided to pass the baton to the next “art kid.”
“I love meeting kids who are at that age — junior high, high school, junior college – those who are trying to find their path… Anything — whether it’s art, being an animator, or whatever passion it is you have in life, finding something that you’re willing to put 110 percent of yourself into, is important,” he said after being asked how young people can aspire to have a cool job, such as his.
“Growing up, wanting to be an animator and having the opportunity to come to a place like Pixar Animation Studios, you have to constantly be reinvesting in yourself because you’re never done learning to get to a place like this, so it’s being willing to put as much of yourself into something you love as you can,” Venturini added.
In describing his work on “Coco–” so much of it, he said, was working on fine-tuning the model sheets (instruction manuals on how to animate each character), but a sizable chunk of his work consists of research.
“On a movie like Coco, when we’re dealing with abstract characters like living skeletons, then there’s a whole other style that goes into research, which is kind of theoretical research about locomotion and mechanics. A skeleton is basically a human body but with different physical principles,” he said, noting that his team studied the weight and limitations of bones. “So we’ll do a lot of tests to explore what that might look like,” he said, and the final product would be finishing the scenes with the director on the final style of motion that fits the film.
Studying locomotion mechanics are pretty normal explorations of the process, Venturini said, adding in films like “Finding Dory” they would learn how fish move.
“Now what if a fish had a specific personality, now how would that affect the way they move, think or act?”
That’s the part that may stretch the imagination, that creatives like him work on every day.
“Or if it’s a film like ‘Up’ with dogs, what if you could hear what the dogs were thinking? How would you animate a dog thinking and moving and acting?” he asked.
In order to get to the root of main character Miguel’s personality for “Coco,” and to maintain a high level of authenticity, Venturini and the animators spent a good amount of time researching multi-generational households, including family hierarchy, as in who establishes the rules of the house.
“In Miguel’s situation,” he said, “That would be his abuela – his grandmother,” who derived her rules from her mother, Nana Coco. Venturini’s team had to figure out things like when Miguel would get in trouble and had his “back against the wall” would he be looking at his parents or his grandmother when being scolded, and would he expect his parents to protect him from that, or would they side with the grandmother?
Venturini said he doesn’t try to influence his children’s reactions after they first watch the movies he works on. He patiently waits to hear what they think.
“I’m always curious about what they’re going to grab onto,” he said.
After viewing “Inside Out,” a film he worked on, and 11-year-old daughter saw when she was 9, he said she commented, “It was sad but in a good way.”
“That was a new concept for her. I could see her trying to explain that to me and struggling with that concept herself. That was a really powerful way for a kid to connect to that message, especially at that point in her life. It made me really appreciate what messages our films can put out into the world and the positive impacts they can have on everyone, especially kids. Helping them see the world, and how they see and relate to the world,” Venturini added.
After seeing “Coco,” Venturini’s children told him about what a roller coaster ride of emotions it took them on — from surprise to relief, and plain old sadness too.
“There are some quite complex things going on in that film… you worry some of those things might be a little heavy for young kids, but it really engaged them… and that was kind of fun to see,” he said.
Venturini is supporting his own children’s pursuits, just as his Italian-American Paso family supported his artistic aspirations early on. He had always been drawing, making little objects out of paper, and being creative, he said due to a lack of many toys while growing up in the country.
His father Dean, a retired printer who grew up in Templeton (whose mother also grew up in Templeton), used to draw and paint all the time and loved art. His grandmother and uncle were artistic as well, and so, he said, there was an appreciation for art on both sides of his family.
But his biggest champion, the person who seemed to believe in him the most, was his mother Donna, who started a preschool and became special needs teacher.
Venturini said she was always hands-on and supportive of the arts in his education. He said he honestly couldn’t say he loved art more than most kids do, just that it was perfectly acceptable to sit and draw and paint as long as he liked. His family always valued art, and that, he said, made all the difference in encouraging him to embrace himself as an artist and to pursue a career in animation. He said it just had to be: “I’ve always accepted art as part of my personality and who I was.”
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Photo courtesy of Pixar
Mike Venturini, Paso Robles native and Supervising Animator for Pixar’s “Coco,” stands in front of images from “The Good Dinosaur,” another film he worked on.