I was about to get off a local bus in Emeryville to arrive at a very special destination, when all of a sudden, five giant letters stopped all my thoughts. As soon as I saw them, I became giddy with childish excitement, my face covered with the biggest grin in the world. I tried to compose myself in preparation for entering the insanely fun and remarkably productive world of Pixar Animation.

I made my way to a large building surrounded by clusters of trees, noticing a neat little “Cars” logo by the staff parking lot. Oh, and a giant desk lamp in front of the building entrance. “Ohmygodohmygod,” I thought as I walked past Luxo the lamp and through a colossal atrium.

I told the receptionist that I had arrived to meet lead crowd animator – and Gaucho alumni – Arik Ehle. As she called to inform him of my arrival, I glanced over at her desk, which is littered with memorabilia from past Pixar films, from the toy soldiers of “Toy Story” to all those cute sea creatures from “Finding Nemo.” Far above my head, life-sized “Incredibles” characters hovered, poised for action.

Ehle arrived and promptly took me on a tour of the sacred second floor to take a peek at various digital paintings, storyboards and 3D models. After I was finally able to push aside my complete feeling of awe, we settled down with a civilized glass of water to talk about Ehle’s transition from humble UCSB film major to lead crowd animator in what is probably the greatest animation studio of the last decade.

And what exactly is a lead crowd animator? Well, Ehle describes his role as a “mix of animation and technical direction.”

“There may be a couple of hundred or thousand characters that need work, and we jump in there… some of the shots can get pretty scary, like with ‘Ratatouille,’ having a thousand rats in the kitchen run and jump over each other, but I think it’s awesome.”

When I ask him how his studies at UCSB prepared him for his career, Ehle says UCSB’s Film & Media Dept.’s unique emphasis on theory – compared to a more production-oriented program like that of UCLA – made he and his fellow film majors more industrious and self-motivated when working on their own projects.

“A lot of the stuff that was frustrating or hard to me back then actually helped me a lot,” he says.
“That underlying knowledge [is essential] to getting a really well-rounded fort, but at the same time those limitations meant you just had to figure it out and just do it. I actually miss working on the 108 shorts, working ’round the clock; animating all night and then turning up to class… stuff like that was really cool.”

All of that hard work and self-motivation has paid off: After starting out in the industry eight years ago as a production assistant (whose duties included “getting the coffee and doing errands and all those stereotypical things for about a year or so”) at Pixar on films like “Monster’s Inc.,” Ehle now has two credits as lead crowd animator under his belt, in addition to having his own animation office in a quaint Northern Californian district.

So what’s it like working at the home of Woody and Buzz?

“It’s been awesome! Though sometimes, after years of working all day every day, you kinda take it for granted. Y’know Brad Bird one time told us ‘if you’re young and this is one of your first jobs, you’re so lucky you don’t even know it’. There’s so much creativity … and though it can be hard on your social life, it’s great to be able to be so into animating a shot and then realizing it’s almost midnight!”

And during his time at Pixar, there have certainly been a few standout moments for Ehle. “The first time I got to animate was with Brad Bird on ‘The Incredibles,” and to work with him and actually learn was better than going to any grad school, I grew exponentially from that … and then working on “Cars” with John Lasseter; animating a shot and then have him laugh at it; get all excited. Y’know, seeing his reaction – that was a huge moment. I mean, I’m getting paid to play with characters on a computer screen!”

As a couple of guys play ping pong and some others shoot some pool in the background, it seems that these guys do nothing but have fun here (maybe more so because they have their own communal bar in the animators’ office).

And with so many projects in the pipeline – such as “Up!” and “Toy Story 3” – he admits that he feels like he has a fair amount of job security until at least 2012.

“When films continue to be unique and risky like ‘Wall-E,’ it’s really rewarding overall. It’ll be interesting to see where my position goes over time. I hope to stay here for a really long while. As long as I can hopefully.”

Great news, but as a Nor Cal resident and ex-So Cal student, I have to ask him where his allegiance stands. The politician in Ehle emerges in front of me, as he provides a very diplomatic answer; “I love it up here, with the different mindset, I mean you can live up in the calm wine country or get the city life in San Francisco… nothing against Southern California. I mean, a lot of my friends are down there, so it’s good to keep in touch and see what’s going on at Dreamworks and Disney… and if I wasn’t up here I’d definitely be down there.” Damn right.