What do Woody, Lightning McQueen, and Wall-E have in common? Apart from the fact that they belong to the Pixar family, all these characters were brought to life by Sajan Skaria, our own alumnus from the 1996 graduate batch.

On the first edition of Newton Speaks, Sajan Skaria brings us along on his journey to and through Pixar, and takes us on a magical tour in the making of our favourite animated movies.

Raised in Trivandrum, Sajan Skaria grew up like a typical 80s kid. He completed his Bachelors in Computer Science Engineering from 1992-96 at “REC” and went on to work for Siemens. While there, his boss’s encouragement propelled him to take the daunting leap of quitting his job and pursue his passion for illustration. He completed his MS in Visualization Sciences at Texas A&M University, United States, after which he got a job at Pixar Animation Studios via campus placement. Sajan hasn’t looked back since.

While recounting his fondest memories of college, he remembers pulling the quintessential all-nighters, hanging out with seniors, the excitement of Ragam, and playing football in the rain. To our surprise, the all-time favourite bread omelette was popular even in the 1990s! As he reminisced about the mini canteen, Kattangal, and even the breezy Rajpath, we took a trip down the memory lane too. He went on to say that college is a critical part of one’s life, and it is then that one must craft his or her direction for the future.

It all started when Sajan was in the 6th grade- he had fractured his leg and was bedridden for three months. His parents used to leave him sheets of paper, and he’d spend his time filling them with his creative ideas. His interest in coding bloomed when he was in 9th grade, and he had always been passionate about Physics and Math. However, it was hard for him to find career opportunities that blended the artistic and technical interests of a person.

During the current pandemic, while most of us are stuck at home brooding over what to do, Sajan enjoys, and even endorses the boredom. Even an act seemingly as boring as standing in a queue brought him joy, as he was able to observe the people and the world around him. He says, “Every moment is an opportunity, even the ones you think are the worst moments of your life”, for they bring with them a chance to grow. When asked for his advice to artists on staying inspired during the pandemic, he encouraged it as an opportunity to improve ourselves and build on our skills.

(One of the drawings Sajan did during class while at REC; Prof. Neelakantan)

Currently a Character Supervisor at Pixar Animation Studios, he has worked on several remarkable projects including Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Bao, the Cars series, and the Toy Story series. It was while working on these movies that Sajan realized the secret behind the magic of Pixar’s films- intense research and dedication. According to him, art and science should go hand-in-hand. The right blend of creativity and intelligence yields masterpieces.

The first Cars movie was his first breakthrough. For making our favourite Lightning McQueen, the Pixar team didn’t just look at images or watch videos of race cars- they went to a real race track to get a rigorous and thorough idea of how they work. Sajan also stressed a very important point here- it is crucial to be original with your work and do your own research; authenticity is the key to one’s content.

Ratatouille was a movie where Sajan truly stepped out of his comfort zone. The Pixar team had to study the ambient occlusion of fur, the impact of light rays on it, and much more, topped with loads of heavy code just so we could enjoy a holistic experience of a cooking rat. Calling the greyish-blue fur of Remy ‘brilliant’, would be an understatement.

On the other hand, Wall-E posed challenges of a different calling. Pixar was apprehensive about how the audience, especially kids, would react to a movie where the characters remained predominantly silent. However, the movie was a huge success, grossing $500 million in the box office! People loved the quietness of the characters, but only because Sajan and his team were able to balance the silence with unbelievable visuals, giving attention to the tiniest of details. For instance, the team studied the bending of light to perfect the characters’ eyes and make them look more believable.

Through these stories, Sajan showcases not just Pixar’s meticulous attention to detail, but also teaches us that it is the little bit of extra effort which makes the biggest differences. When the animators were not able to make the eyes look realistic, they conducted a heat map test on some people to record and learn where the eyes move. When they wanted to characterize Lotso for Toy Story 3, they manufactured six different replicas of the teddy bear, so they could properly animate him. Sajan Skaria teaches us that hardwork and perseverance go a long way on the road to success.

But Sajan’s favourite movie, and also the one which led to his first major credit on an Academy Award-winning movie, was Inside Out. A blend of intelligence, emotional sensitivity, and creativity, the narrative plays out within the psyche of a girl named Riley and the trials her feelings Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger go through. The story beautifully depicts how our childhood memories slowly fade away to make room for fresh new ones, and how sorrow is a valuable component of happiness. The team worked for four years on figuring out how the characters should look, bringing them to life, and making a meaningful masterpiece. To Sajan, the movie also held personal value, because it helped his daughter get over her fears and learn to swim.

His second Oscar Award was as part of the team working on Toy Story 4. Recounting the origins of the series, he talks about the creation of Woody and the role he played in making the character, who has become as iconic as Mickey Mouse. He also demystified the myth about perfection- “Each movie was hard to make. Things always go wrong. The best way to succeed is to keep failing.”

(It’s clear to see that Sajan was meant to go on and join the world of animation; Prof. Radhakrishnan)

It may seem hard to believe that someone who walked down the same Rajpath as us has gone on to have such an impact on our world. But Sajan Skaria found his passion, grasped it tight, and gave our world beautiful stories, showing us the tangibility of possibilities. He teaches us that passion is the energy which fuels our visions, and brings us focus and joy. He leaves us with the lesson that each of us holds immense power and potential within ourselves, just like each of his beloved characters.

Shaheen Rafiq & Shreya Manoj