Transcript / SSoP Podcast: Bonus Episode With Tasha Sounart, Creative Director of Theme Parks at Pixar

Transcript / SSoP Podcast: Bonus Episode With Tasha Sounart, Creative Director of Theme Parks at Pixar

Tuesday, 28 July, 2020

This is a transcription of ‘SSoP Podcast: Bonus Episode With Tasha Sounart, Creative Director of Theme Parks at Pixar.’


[cheerful music]

David: Hello and welcome to a special bonus episode of Strong Sense of Place. Today we are talking to a special guest who has insider access to the best theme parks in the world.

Melissa: She does. She’s a friend of the podcast and her name is Tasha Sounart. Yeah, and she has a fantastic job. She’s a creative director in the theme parks group at Pixar. You heard that right: Pixar.

David: I think that might be the second best job title I’ve ever heard after Ravenmaster of the Tower of London.

Melissa: Ravenmaster’s pretty sweet.

David: Yeah, but second, still really good. We talked to Tasha about what a day at Pixar is like and what inspires her creativity.

Melissa: We got her to divulge which Pixar world she’d like to visit.

David: Yeah, it’s a delightful conversation, and we hope you enjoy it. Here’s Tasha. How are you?

Tasha: I’m doing well, thank you.

David: Tell us about your work. Describe your responsibilities.

Melissa: Saying ‘responsibilities’ in the context of theme parks — sounds so fun.

Tasha: Well, yeah. I mean, it is a job, you know? But I would say yeah, I mean, in terms of a job, it is like definitely fun for the most part. You know, it can get stressful at times, but yeah, I guess, you know, I started as an animator at Pixar, so that’s like my background is I was animating on a lot of the old feature films, I guess you would say they are old now. It doesn’t feel old to me. But yeah, I started on A Bug’s Life back in 1997, and so I animated on those. Then I went and worked at a video game company for a while. The video game company is called Double Fine. And then I came back to Pixar and now I’m working in theme parks, which I feel like it’s sort of this combination of all of my previous jobs combined into my ideal job. And so what I do now is I work with Disney and the Imagineers at Disney to create theme park attractions and basically anything at the theme parks that has Pixar characters. So they come to us with an idea like say, ‘Hey, we have a new parade and we have two floats. We want to do a float of this film and this film.’ And so we work with them on making sure the characters look the way we want them to, make sure that the storytelling is all consistent with the films, and just make sure it’s it’s fun and entertaining and looks good. Yeah. And it’s like, could be anything in the parks. So it could be anything from parades and shows to attractions to merchandise to character costumes. So, it’s really got a lot of variety to it, which is, I mean, I just love like having so many different things to work on day to day keeps things really interesting.

David: Is it overwhelming? It seems like it might be. There’s a lot of lot of pieces and a lot of characters you need to keep straight.

Melissa: A lot of details!

Tasha: Yeah. You know, sometimes I the most overwhelming time was we were working on Pixar Pier at California Adventure, so we were doing a bunch of stuff for Pixar Pier. And that same summer we had Pixar Fest, and I think at at Disney World we had something called Incredible Summer. So it was a ton of work all coming in at once. And that was the most like overwhelming time. And then Covid caused a lot of the parks to close. And so then our work slowed way down. So and now we’re ramping up again. I think we’re pretty busy again now. So yeah, it’s kind of up and down, but I feel like I’m pretty good at multitasking. [laughter] So yeah, um, yeah, sometimes it’s hard to kind of switch gears, you know, I’ll be in a meeting for a hotel and then the next meeting is about, I don’t know, a projection show or a fireworks show or something completely different. So sometimes I kind of have to take a minute to just switch gears into the new project. But overall, I think I’m pretty good at that. So I really like it when.

Melissa: When there’s a new movie, hoow many times do you have to watch it? [laughter]

Tasha: Well, I mean, they show the movie to the whole company along the way as it’s being made, so we’ll usually see it, I would say maybe four times, like while it’s in development. So usually during the storyboard phase, really early phases, and then kind of as it’s getting finished, then we’ll see it as it’s progressed. So yeah, I mean it is interesting because the movies change a lot during that time they ask for feedback. From the whole company, so we all write in notes.

David: Wow.

Tasha: Yeah, I think it’s just if there’s a note that you’re getting a lot from a lot of the people in the company, then they know like, ‘Oh, that’s something that needs to be addressed.’ So the films kind of change a lot as we all watch them and give feedback.

David: Now, expect that every day is different for you, but is there — what’s a sort of a standard workday? Is it just a lot of meetings? Do you get time to sit at a drawing board? What’s that like?

Tasha: We do have a lot of meetings because we work with a lot of different teams at WDI, which is Imagineering. So usually I’ll have meetings and in between the meetings is usually I’m doing draw-overs like I use my tablet to draw over a character if it looks a little bit off model, you know, get the the eyes looking right or the face looking right. So usually I’ll do draw-overs and also because I have an animation background, occasionally I will still do animation. Like if we have something small for a projection show — a lot of times, our film clips that they like to use in the projection shows are really short because in the films there are all these short cuts, but in the projection shows, you want something that lasts longer. So a lot of times I’ll have to extend the scene or combine, you know, stitch two scenes together. So sometimes if it’s a small enough animation thing, I’ll do the animation myself. Other times, if it’s a larger project, like, I worked on the new Coco sequence for Philharmagic. So in that case it was a larger sequence with a ton of characters, so I couldn’t animate it all myself. So I was directing a group of around 6 or 8 animators. So yeah, it’s kind of a mixture of lots of different things, which keeps it interesting and fun.

Melissa: What is your background? What did you study? If somebody was, like, This sounds amazing, how do I make this happen? What was your path to getting here? Because I know you did video games and animation, but what did you study?

Tasha: Well, I went to a school called Cal Arts in Los Angeles for character animation. And this was actually before before computer animation really took off. So I was studying 2D animation. Like I remember people from Pixar coming to Cal Arts while I was going there and showing us the original Toy Story. So that was cool when computer animation was really first starting. But I had always really liked video games and computers, so Pixar had offered me an internship from seeing my portfolio from Cal Arts, and so I was like, ‘Oh, this seems like a combination of two things I like. I like drawing, I like computers, so why not try this?’ It’s interesting because when you talk to Imagineers, they come from all different backgrounds, so I don’t think you can really pinpoint and say if you study animation, you can go into this like there isn’t just one path. And honestly, I didn’t ever think I would be designing theme park stuff — that wasn’t my goal. Like when I was a kid, I wanted to go. I wanted to do comics. Like that was kind of how I got originally into animation. I love drawing, I loved, and I think it’s, you know, it’s storytelling. Like I love creating worlds for characters to live in. And now, especially with video games, my work in video games and theme park stuff, it’s really fascinating to me to have worlds that people can actually go into, like guests can go into and be immersed in and feel like you you’re part of and you can interact with and stuff like that. So that’s, that’s really interesting to me. But there’s definitely a lot of different kind of pathways that people take to get there.

David: Your work involves delighting a lot of people. How do you approach that? How do you approach the idea that you need to delight a number of people who have different backgrounds and different tastes and different ideas? Is there a way that you measure it? Is there a way that you approach it? Is there some kind of testing around that?

Tasha: Sometimes we do play testing on things, just like a video game might do play test. I’d say a lot of it is just my own taste, you know? And I think that as I get older and more experienced, I trust my own taste more and, you know, get more confident in kind of backing my own taste and my own opinions. I tend to like really cute things [;laugher] you know, like little Chibi characters or, you know, Japanese animation. Like I really love like Ghibli movies. I love video games that have like, really that stylized character design. That’s sort of like my taste. So I think a lot of times my the things that I kind of push my designs to go towards are in that style. Like if someone had a really gritty, I don’t know, violent theme park attraction that they wanted to design. I’m probably not the right person to do that.

Melissa: Right. Right.

Tasha: But, you know, luckily Disney doesn’t have a lot of stuff like that anyway, So I don’t really I don’t really get those assigned to me anyway. Luckily, the stuff that I’m working on is kind of like in my wheelhouse of cute things. Funny things. I also like really weird, quirky sense of humor type things. And I think that sometimes we do have to do playtests, especially if it’s something where you have jokes and you want the audience to react in a certain way, and maybe you’re even playing it in another country.

Tasha: Like when I worked on Turtle Talk, which is where you talk, you can the audience can talk to Crush. Spoiler: There’s a live actor who’s playing Crush. They can respond to what the audience is saying. So we actually did play tests when we were adding new scenes to it for Finding Dory. We did some play tests in the US and then we did play tests in Japan. In Tokyo, it’s really different how the jokes play in in a different country. We have a translator from WDI who helps translate the script and translate the jokes to make sure like, ‘Okay, this doesn’t really make sense in Japanese, so we need to change it’. Or sometimes you need to change the timing. The way that they view Crush is more serious. He’s like a wise elder, so the questions they will ask sometimes are more serious, like life questions like ‘What do I name my child?’ Or something like that. And you’re like, Wow, they really take it seriously here. Um, so yeah, so the playtests like we do really like learn a lot and have to sometimes make adjustments on the timing or writing or things like that.

Melissa: So I know that you get to see your work in real life and you actually got to go on a very cool cruise ship experience. Do you want to tell us about that and what that was like?

Tasha: Yeah, sure. That was really fun. Um, last February on some of the Disney cruises out of Florida, there was something called Pixar Day at Sea, which was, you know, one of the days that you’re on the cruise ship, they had a lot of Pixar theming like character meet-and-greets and activities and decorations and music, deck parties and things like that, all based around Pixar. So that was a project that I had helped on for almost a year before that, just helping with figuring out what all the different activities would be and figuring out which characters we wanted to use. I review even like scripts, like writing all the way from the beginning phases of creating the project. Then part of Pixar Day at Sea was they wanted a guest speaker from Pixar to come and talk about their work on the cruise. And I was like, ‘Yes, me please. Free cruise.’ Yes, want want that. So, so, yeah, got to go. And I took my mom and I took my son. And so we got to go on the cruise and I gave a talk about my work in theme parks on the cruise. And I would say, you know, it was a really just a great audience because everyone was so into it that it made me less nervous to talk because I really don’t like talking in front of a huge crowd, you know, when you can see everyone. But everyone was just really interested. So it made me more relaxed about it. But it was, yeah, that was really fun. It was also just really cool to see how into it all of the guests were. Like, people dressed up as their favorite Pixar characters. It was just it was really cute.

Melissa: It’s really cute.

Yeah, some fun. We’re gonna we’ll edit this out, but I just want to tell you that there is this woman named Lauren Parcell who does podcast marketing. She does a really good newsletter that recommends podcasts every week, and she is obsessed with Disney cruises. And she like went on — she was supposed to go on one with her mom and then her mom got Covid so they couldn’t go. So they rescheduled it. And at the top of her newsletter every week it would say how many days it was until she was leaving on her Disney cruise.

Tasha: Oh, that’s awesome.

Melissa: So excited. Yeah, It’s really, really cute.

Tasha: That’s awesome. Yeah, We’re going. We’re going on another one in. Next summer. Well, I’m hoping I can do Pixar Day at sea again. I’m going to, you know. ‘Hey, remember how everyone liked my talk last time,’ you know? Yeah, but our family is going on one to Alaska next summer. We actually already went on one before Covid to Alaska. And we liked it so much that we’re going again.

Melissa: That’s awesome.

David: That’s great.

Tasha: And that’s not for work. That’s just like, on my own. The cruises are really good because, well, first of all, I like them because I don’t have to think about anything. Like once it’s all planned, like I’m typically the planner in the family. So like, but once it’s all planned, it’s just all done for you. You don’t have to think about like where you’re going to eat or like how to please all of these picky eaters in your family or like, you know, what activities are we going to do? It’s just all done for you. Yeah, love that. And then — you know, also like I think it’s something that entertains multiple generations like something my son can enjoy and my mom can enjoy. I can enjoy. So it’s like something for all of us, which is just like nice, wholesome family fun.

Melissa: Yeah, well, it’s also immersive, too, right? Like, every — you are kind of transported into this whole other world, which I think is something that we’re all looking for when we’re reading, too, right? Like, you want this storytelling experience to be totally immersive. I haven’t been on a Disney cruise, but I have been to Disney World and Disneyland and there is such a strong sense of place and storytelling. Yeah. Every single aspect.

__Tasha:__We really put a lot of work into that stuff. Like even things that the guests would not even be aware of a back story like we will write like a backstory just for our own — like, when we were doing Lamplight Lounge, which is a restaurant in California adventure for Pixar Pier. It’s like a Pixar-themed restaurant. But we wrote like a whole backstory on like, okay, the proprietor used to work at Pixar, but now he’s opened this bar and now the Pixar employees come and hang out there. We wrote this whole thing that nobody knows when they go into the space, but it allowed us to have a framework for when we were designing it of like how to design it or what to what kind of props to put in here, what would make sense. So yeah, we definitely put a lot of effort into that. So I’m glad that you noticed. I’m glad you appreciate it. It’s nice.

David: So do you have a favorite book that’s set in an amusement park, or do you have like a nonfiction book you recommend for sort of exploring that or getting to know a little bit more about how one might build an amusement park?

Tasha: Well, to be honest, I’m still looking, so I’m hoping that I can learn some from your podcast.

David: Yeah.

Tasha: So actually this book has an amusement park on the cover and in the back and it’s part — yeah, Elly Griffiths is one of my favorite writers right now. And she writes really good mysteries. I just love the way that she writes. She creates really good characters and this is part of her Ruth Galloway series, which is about — the I know you’ve talked about it on your podcast — but it’s about a woman archaeologist who helps out in solving mysteries. And of course, it’s in England, right? I think it’s in England. So many I read are either in Scotland or England —

Melissa: Yeah, yeah, same.

Tasha: But this one, it’s called a Dying Fall. And it had a amusement park, not through the whole book, but it did have it like during the climax of the book. So it really made for like a cool finale. But I just, I really love that series. So that’s one that I can recommend.

Melissa: Okay, good. If you could live in the world of any Pixar movie. Which one would you choose?

Tasha: Wow. I’m going to say Luca. Because that movie also the director, was really inspired by Studio Ghibli. And I just love the visuals and I love that kind of seaside village type of environment. I love the water. I love — maybe I don’t know if they don’t like eating — No, they eat seafood. They eat —the guy is a fishmonger. Yeah. So I love seafood. I love, you know, boats. So. Yeah.

David: Mediterranean coast.

Melissa: I mean, when I went back to look at all the Pixar titles, like they have a very strong sense of place. There’s Ratatouille in Paris. Incredibles and that amazing like, you know mid-century modern kind of Incredibles vibe — super spies and such a strong sense of place.

Tasha: Yeah it makes it really fun. Like when we’re working on theme parks, attractions based on the films is just to go back and look at all these details that are in the films and trying to like a lot of what I do is almost like it’s almost like curation, like museum curation, where I’m like searching through these archives of things and pulling things out to figure out how to, you know, curate them in a new way, which is just really fun.

David: That’s awesome.

Tasha: I probably said that it’s really fun. Like a million times during this.

Melissa: I mean, it is really fun.

David: I would hope so.

Melissa: I hope a conversation about amusement parks in Pixar characters is fun. Yeah.

David: It’d be funny if you were really dour about it.

Tasha: Oh, yeah, it would, wouldn’t it,

David: Like Batman or something?

Tasha: Yeah. Then it would seem like, Oh, it’s time to quit.

Melissa: What I really like is spreadsheets. [laughter]

Tasha: Okay, I actually do really like spreadsheets.

Melissa: I was going to ask you if there’s a lot of spreadsheet action because it does seem like you have a lot of detail — [fades out]

David: Thank you so much to Tasha Sonate for being our guest. We hope you enjoyed our chat with her as much as we did. We will be back next Friday with an episode of The Library of Lost Time.

Melissa: If you haven’t listened to our recent episode about amusement parks, you should probably get on that. Yeah, and if you need an easy, delicious recipe for caramel popcorn.

David: Oh, let me stop you right there. Mel made caramel popcorn for me once when we lived in Texas, so this is like 15 years ago, and I still think about that. It is really good. You should definitely go make some caramel popcorn right now.

Melissa: And it’s surprisingly easy to make. So visit strong sense of for the caramel corn recipe and my never fail technique for making popcorn.

David: Thank you for listening and we’ll talk to you soon.

Top image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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