From toxic gas leaks to the triumph of 'Finding Dory,' Lindsey Collins has loved every minute of her time at Pixar Animation Studios
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From toxic gas leaks to the triumph of 'Finding Dory,' Lindsey Collins has loved every minute of her time at Pixar Animation Studios

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From toxic gas leaks to the triumph of 'Finding Dory,' Lindsey Collins has loved every minute of her time at Pixar Animation Studios

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When it comes to "Finding Dory" producer Lindsey Collins, she takes "going-with-your-gut" to a whole new level.

To explain: This Occidental College graduate joined Walt Disney Animation Studios straight out of school in 1994. And after working as a PA on "Pocahontas" & "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," Lindsey had just been made assistant production manager on "Hercules" when she began hearing people talk about Pixar.

"I was working at Disney with Ron & John (Author's note: That's Ron Clements & John Musker, the acclaimed animation directing team behind not only "Hercules" but also "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and WDAS' soon-to-be-released "Moana") and was really enjoying that experience. But just before 'Toy Story' came out, there was a brief blurb in the company newsletter about Pixar. And I was like 'Well, who are these guys?' And then I got to meet John Lasseter and was just totally blown away by what he and his team were doing," Collins recalled during a recent phone interview.


Lindsey Collins. Copyright Disney Pixar

"Anyway, Disney liked what I was doing at Feature Animation and really wanted me to stay on there. So they offered me a contract. And I was like 'I'm fine. I can stay here.' So I signed that contract. And then I went home and threw up all night," Lindsey laughed.  "The very next day, I went back into Disney and said 'I'm sorry. I can't do this. I really have to go.' Then I went up to the Bay area and basically pounded on Pixar's door & said 'please, please, please hire me.' "

Luckily for Ms. Collins, Pixar Animation Studios was just in the process of gearing up to do "A Bug's Life." More to the point, Sharon Calahan - the director of photography on that production - saw lots of potential in this recent Mouse House escapee.

"Sharon was hugely involved with Pixar's decision to hire me. And part of that was because I had worked with background painters while I was at Disney Feature Animation. So even though I had no clue how CG worked at that time, I could talk with Sharon in the terms of painting. And she was like 'That's exactly how I want people around here to start thinking when it comes to how we light our scenes,' " Collins continued.


Sharon Calahan. Copyright Disney Pixar

"Mind you, I was the one who kept telling Sharon 'I don't know how helpful I can be to you guys. Because I really don't understand a lot of what you're saying when it comes to CG.' But she wouldn't give up on me. Sharon kept insisting that - because I had already worked with artists and knew how to communicate a vision for a painting - I was also going to be able to communicate with software engineers. It was just a matter of learning a new language. Sharon was instrumental in convincing me that I had any right to be at Pixar," Lindsey stated.

Which isn't to say that life was initially easy for Collins at Pixar. First there was that steep learning curve which came with her new job ("When I first got here, I had no idea what a render farm was. I was like 'There's a farm? Like a petting zoo?' "). Then there was the fact that the Port Richmond office park which housed this animation studio at that time was downwind of a Chevron plant ("Sometimes - because there'd be explosions or gas leaks at that plant -- we'd then be told to shelter in place or to not come into work at all that day. We used to call those toxic snow days").

But even under these somewhat stressful & occasionally toxic conditions, Lindsey thrived. Largely because she really loved her new co-workers at Pixar ("They were people who could really make me laugh. In a way I didn't know that real adults / professionals could make me laugh. And I feel like I haven't stopped since I got here").


Copyright Disney Pixar

But it hasn't all been big laughs. Take - for example - what happened when Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar Animation Studios, approached Collins (who was producing "Finding Dory" at that time) about a change that he wanted to make to that Andrew Stanton film.

"Pixar had this new renderer that it wanted to try out. And Ed felt 'Dory' would be the perfect project to try this new technology on. The only problem was that - when Ed approached me - we were already well into production on this 'Finding Nemo' sequel. Which meant - if we were going to take full advantage of what Ed was offering us - we'd then have go back and redo a bunch of stuff we'd already done on this movie," Lindsey said.

"But the good news was - because "Dory" was a sequel to "Nemo" - we weren't discovering a look for this movie. We were just trying to improve on it," Collins continued. "And that was the handshake deal that Ed was offering. That - if we agreed to use this new renderer plus some new lighting & shading tools. Basically reinventing the entire back end of the Pixar production line - we'd then end up with a far better looking film that was still set in the same world as 'Nemo.' As long as the studio delivered on that promise, Andrew was willing to go for it. Mind you, it would be another full year before Andrew would then actually get to see any footage that this new renderer produced. So it was a huge leap-of-faith on his part. But Andrew was incredibly excited when the redone 'Dory' footage began coming in and it all looked so great."


Copyright Disney Pixar

Another technology challenge that Lindsey had to deal with while producing this "Finding Nemo" sequel was Hank the septopus. But in this case, as soon as Collins saw this character described in an early draft of  Stanton's 'Dory' script, she immediately got Pixar's character department involved.

"When you're working as a producer, you get to see pages a lot earlier than the rest of the crew. And as soon as I read that first scene with Hank, I turned to Andrew and said 'Just how big a character are we talking here?' And he said 'I think it's a pretty big role.' And I was like 'Okay.' And I then went down to the character department and told them that Andrew wanted to add an octopus to the cast. And they all went kind of pale," Lindsey said. "I think what they knew right-off-the-bat that - if we were going to do an octopus in the 'Nemo' / 'Dory' world with all of the realism & beauty that entails and then have that character fit in - it was going to be incredibly difficult if not kind of impossible to pull that off. Largely because the character of Hank couldn't be super-cartoony."

"I mean, on 'Finding Nemo,' we had had Pearl, the little octopus who was in Mr. Ray's class. But clearly the whole point of a character like Hank was that he needed to be a jack-of-all-trades. That this character was going to have to be able to get in & out of everything. So the character department knew - right off the bat - that this was going to be something that would kind of break the bank, if you will," Collins continued.


Copyright Disney Pixar

"Now what you have to understand about Pixar is that we play 'Chicken' a lot here. By that I mean, we see how long we can let something sit on the page before we then have to finally move it into production. But when it came to Hank, that just wasn't an option," Lindsey stated. "Based on this character's needs, Hank was going to take every minute we had, all the time between when he first appeared in Andrew's script and when we'd be in full production on 'Dory' to build this. So we needed to commit very early on this character. But the good news is that I think we bet right on Hank. He actually wound up being a far bigger character in this film. And I think that was partially because the technology which drove this character was so cool."

So how did it feel - after five years of hard work - to have "Finding Dory" become this hugely popular motion picture? The fifth animated film in all of Hollywood history to earn over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office? Collins - the mother of three - put a somewhat maternal spin on her reply.

"You have to understand that - when you work on projects like 'Dory' or 'John Carter' for as long as Andrew and I did - these movies are kind of like your kids. In that they then go off & have their own successes & failures which are kind of beyond your control as a parent," Lindsey said. "But as you're finishing up working on a film, emotions do sometimes well up at the weirdest time."


Thomas Newman (L) and Andrew Stanton in the booth during the recording sessions
for "Finding Dory" 's score. Copyright Disney Pixar 

Take - for example - what happened while Collins & Stanton were sitting in the recording booth as Thomas Newman rode herd on "Finding Dory" 's scoring sessions.

"We'd had this huge orchestra for four days. And then - on the last day - Tom cleared the stage and recorded the scene where Nemo, Marlin & Dory reunite in the pipes under the Marine Life Center. Now you have to understand that this is one of the only times in his score for 'Finding Dory' that Tom reprises a cue from "Finding Nemo.' And he has this single clarinet - or was it an oboe? - play that cue," Lindsey recalled. "And as this was happening, Andrew got really quiet. He was just sitting there, watching."

"So I went up to him and said 'What's going on? How are you feeling about all this?' Because we were finishing this film up at that time. And Andrew looked at me and he was really emotional. And then he said "I remember the first time I wrote Dory's name on a piece of paper. I can't believe how far she's come.' And that's when I started getting emotional too, " Collins said.


Andrew Stanton & Lindsey Collins. Copyright Disney Pixar

And speaking of " ... how far she's come," one might say the same thing about Lindsey. Who - it should be noted here - when she was studying at Occidental College 25 years ago, didn't major in business or film studies. But - rather - diplomacy and world affairs.

"Those diplomacy skills do actually come in handy when you're working on a movie. But you want to honestly know the very best thing you can do at college if you eventually hope to become a producer? Work as an RA," Collins concluded. "Katherine Sarafian - who's also a producer here at Pixar -- also ran a dorm while she was in college. And the two of us agree that that job was great training for becoming a producer. When you're constantly dealing with people and have to get answers to ridiculous questions like 'Okay, who pooped in the closet?' "

The Blu-ray & DVD version of Pixar's "Finding Dory" hits store shelves today.

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, November 15, 2016

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