Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the British Columbia school Michael Venturini attended. He went to the Vancouver School of Animation.
Even after a decade with Pixar Animation Studios, Paso Robles native Michael Venturini still gets excited about going to work.
“This whole world of computer animation that’s so commonplace these days was born here,” said Venturini, who joined Pixar’s animation staff in the summer of 2000. “It blows my mind every day that I’m sitting in a studio with the best animators in the world making the best movies in the world.”
Founded in 1979, Pixar has become one of the most prestigious and profitable animation houses on the planet.
The winner of six Academy Awards for best animated feature, the Emeryville-based studio has produced a dozen feature films starting with 1995’s “Toy Story.” Collectively, they rank among the top grossing animated films of all time; 2010’s “Toy Story 3” alone earned more than $1 billion in international box office receipts.
With a sequel to 2006’s “Cars” opening Friday in theaters nationwide, it’s clear that Pixar has irrevocably changed the face of animation.
“It’s the equivalent of the electric guitar and how that changed music,” Venturini, 38, said. “You can never go back. You can’t imagine a world without electric guitar and you can’t imagine a world without computer animation.”
Born and raised in Paso Robles, Venturini developed an interest in animation in junior high school.
“The show that influenced me the most, that I would get up early for, was ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,’ ” recalled Venturini, who dreamed of working on the Saturday morning staple.
Disney’s “The Jungle Book” also had a powerful effect on the budding animator.
“I just look back on that film as something that influenced me on many levels,” he said. “I reference it a lot. I respect it deeply.”
After graduating from Paso Robles High School in 1991, Venturini studied art at Cuesta College before moving out of the area at age 21. (His father, Dean Venturini, still lives in Paso Robles.) He eventually enrolled at Vancouver School of Animation in British Columbia.
At age 23, Venturini snagged his first animation job at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles.
He spent five years working on such projects as “Space Jam,” “The Iron Giant” and “Osmosis Jones,” before being hired by Pixar.
At the time, Pixar had produced just three computer- animated feature films: “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2.” Still, Venturini said, the small studio represented a “hot new trend” in entertainment.
“The history of animation was born on pen and paper and there was a lot of reverence for that,” Venturini said. “I loved sitting at a desk and drawing all day and creating characters and motion. Part of me was a little sad to leave all of that behind.”
Whereas traditional cell animation had challenged him as a draftsman, Venturini said, computer animation required him to become a performer.
“I felt like I was in a foreign country and I didn’t understand the language,” Venturini said of his first Pixar project, “Monsters, Inc.” “(This was) a new frontier for animation, full of new possibilities.”
After working on “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3” (all of which won Oscars for best animated feature) Venturini has found his stride.
He currently serves as a supervising animator, a job that requires him “to oversee the entire film getting animated on a certain level of quality in a certain time frame,” he said.
Venturini works with a team of 60 to 70 people, assigning certain scenes to certain animators based on their abilities.
“It’s kind of like casting actors to act a role,” he explained, equating his co-workers with a championship sports team. “You’re constantly lookingto satisfy yourself and impress your peers with your work.”
Sweating the small stuff
According to Venturini, one aspect that sets Pixar apart from the rest is its painstaking attention to detail.
“They really try to get us animators to experience what we create,” Venturini said, bringing in biologists to discuss fish anatomy for “Finding Nemo” or dog behavior experts to talk about the alpha system in “Up.”
While working on “Ratatouille,” animators took cooking classes and consulted with professional chefs to get the look of the gourmet dishes exactly right. They drove laps at Sonoma’s Infineon Raceway to prepare for “Cars” and toured a garbage dump for “Toy Story 3.”
“What I truly love about this job is I get a chance to learn and experience things that no other profession would afford me,” Venturini said. “I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Who else is going to understand this level of detail about fish other than marine biologists?’ It always amazes me.”
Although audience members may notice the way a clownfish cuts through the water or a monster’s fur ruffles in the breeze, Venturini said they’ll never know how much time and energy the animators put into designing, say, the dirt on a little girl’s feet.
“You add all those colors and movements and sounds and it creates something that pulls an emotional response out of the audience,” he said, noting that the goal for animators is “first and foremost to satisfy ourselves as artists.”
Venturini also praised Pixar’s emphasis on all-ages entertainment.
“That’s what we pride ourselves on the most, is making something entertaining for the whole family,” said Venturini, who has three young children. “We make these movies for us.”