On the Record with Pixar’s Nicole Grindle

Bri DiMonda

Nicole Grindle has worked as a production manager at Pixar for the past 25 years and collaborated on films like A Bug’s Life, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Toy Story 3 and Monster’s University. She came to the Apollo Theatre on Friday as part of Oberlin’s “Creativity and Leadership Speakers Series.” The Review spoke with her about her experiences breaking into the film industry and Pixar’s culture of creativity.

You studied documentary production at Stanford University — what sparked your interest in film and, more specifically, documentaries?

I was an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, and I did not major in film as an undergrad. My freshman year I was in bioengineering, and then I moved over to comparative literature, but while I was an undergrad I was doing a lot of theater. I was in an all-women’s theater group at Penn called Bloomers my junior and senior year; I developed a real affection for putting on a show. Between my junior and senior year I did a summer program at [New York University] in film and really enjoyed it, but I think I was still hesitant to commit to the idea of myself in the entertainment industry. I think that, growing up in Washington D.C., [the entertainment industry] seemed very far away and kind of intimidating. Instead, I worked for a couple years, and then I went to this graduate program at Stanford in documentary [film].

When was it you realized you wanted to work with movies?

It was a gradual process. It’s hard to pinpoint any moment. Even when I was in high school, I was really intrigued by it, but I went to college and studied bioengineering my freshman year, so I didn’t really think it would be a real thing. I kept finding myself coming back to entertainment — working in theater, taking the film program. Then when I was working for those two years after graduation, I worked at Penn, and I ended up making a couple of videos that were used for the health center. One was on date rape and the other on alcohol abuse, and I just volunteered to do them. They had some equipment, and I took that initiative to shoot film and edit them, and everyone really liked them. Based on that experience, I thought documentary-making was something I should do, so I applied to NYU and Stanford for graduate school. Stanford had a very small program — there were only eight students in the class, and they were all women. I really enjoyed it, but when I got out I still didn’t know what to do next, and it wasn’t like there was this documentary job waiting for me. … So a friend of mine told me there was a job opening at Industrial Light and Magic, and I leapt at the opportunity to get a paying job. I worked on Who Framed Roger Rabbit there, and I just loved it. I think at point I knew that I really liked working in this industry.

What did you do specifically for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

I was a production assistant. It was an entry-level role, which was great. It gave me an opportunity to see what was out there. I took notes, I brought coffee to people. We worked seven days a week. I still remember vividly this big tray of café lattes I’d bring in every morning. We were doing all the compositing of the animation with the live action, so I just helped communicate all the work that needed to be done to all the artists there. That was in what we call the production management line of work, and that’s what I’ve done my whole career actually — going from being a production assistant to a manager.

How do working as an assistant, producer and manager all compare to each other while working on a movie for you?

Well, it corresponds to how much you know about what work needs to be done. When I was starting out, I didn’t really know anything about how any of this worked, so I did small jobs that people asked me to do, and as time went on I learned more about the process and I became somebody who could organize and drive that process more. Certainly that’s where I am now in my career; I understand the whole pipeline, the whole path, so I can initiate more or provide guidance to people who are working on the project. So that’s really the difference. When you’re starting out you don’t really understand the entire system you’re plugging into, but over time that understanding grows.

What brought you to Pixar?

I was at ILM for six months, and then I went to a company called Colossal for seven years. I started at Pixar in 1995, and it was before Toy Story was released. When I was working at Colossal we had collaborated with the very early group here at Pixar. They were doing commercials, and we also did some creative development with them before they committed to doing Toy Story with Disney. So I worked for them in those early years, and then some friends of mine came over from Colossal to work with Pixar. And then there was a job open for a producer for Interactive. So I came over to do that, and I did that for my first year here. We decided it wasn’t the right line of business for Pixar to be in, so I moved over to work with features, and I started on A Bug’s Life for my first feature.

So why specifically Pixar?

I had this feeling that what Pixar was doing was new and different. Computer animation was still very new, though I couldn’t have imagined it would be as successful as it’s been. I could see that it was the future, and I really wanted to be a part of that. My way in was to take this Interactive producer job, but really I wanted to work at Pixar. Again, I had no idea it would be as great as it’s been. I remember my first day on the job they showed me the Toy Story reels. They weren’t quite done, and they put in this, I think [it was] this 3/4-inch tape; it was really old technology. And they put this tape in the machine and played it for me, and I just knew it was going to be awesome. It was so good. You can feel your life changing sometimes in a moment, and I think in that moment I had that flash. I thought, “This is going to be amazing, and I’m so lucky to be part of this.”

Do you think Pixar is unique in terms of how it makes its films?

It’s hard for me to say now because I’ve only really worked here and been here quite some time. I understand that there are things that make us unusual. Certainly all the success is fundamental for that. All that success has allowed us a lot more freedom than perhaps a studio that has not had as much success. We’ve been able to take more creative risks. I think the studio has been very good to everyone who works here. It’s a wonderful environment for creativity, and of course all of that has been reinforced by our success. The more you know that you’re doing well, the more you continue to allow people to do what they’re doing. I can’t attest to other companies, but I assume the production pipeline is probably similar. I do know that now our way of doing work has been applied at Disney, and they’ve had a lot of success recently. The leaders of our studio have been leading that studio as well, so you can see how we’ve been able to export a certain amount of what we do here to there.

What’s your favorite Pixar movie?

Oh, boy. I can’t answer that. They were all great in different ways. Sometimes you almost love the ones you didn’t work on even more because you can appreciate them just as a movie. The ones I worked on I have memories of them not just as a movie, but as a work experience and the team I worked with. But they’re all different. I can’t say that any one of them rises above the others, really.

Are you working on any movies right now?

I’m working on a short film that is unannounced. I can’t say much about it, but it’s been a lot of fun.

Do you have any advice for college students wanting to work in the film industry?

Yeah, I would say my advice is to be open-minded about what kind of experiences you get and not commit yourself too early to what role you think you’re going to play in the film industry. I think it’s really good to have a lot of different experiences. I think there are a lot of great opportunities to do internships right now, as I understand it. I think it’s great to jump around and do a lot of different things. I also think it’s great to do what you can to make your own films while you’re in school and have an opportunity to do all parts of that pipeline and play different roles. You don’t jump into the film industry and become a director right away, so while you’re in school, take advantage of that.