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Interviewing Erica Milsom: The Power of Storytelling

Maryam and Nivaal Rehman | Toronto, Canada

Article first published on our Perspectives Column for Women of Influence | September 16th, 2020

In our third interview for our Perspectives column, we interviewed the amazing Erica Milsom. We first met Erica during training we had when we were filmmakers in Disney’s Dream Big Princess Project, and have loved watching her journey ever since. Continue reading this article for highlights from our interview with her, and listen the whole interview in the latest episode of our Podcast, "The Whole Wide World," by clicking on this link.

Erica is a Film Director and Writer at Pixar, who has worked on films such as Loop (2020), So Much Yellow (2017) and Inside Out (2015). In her role as Pixar’s Director of Behind-The-Scenes Documentary Content, Erica has worked on short films that accompany the release of Pixar Animation Studios Films, such as Ratatouille, Brave, and many more. Her short film Loop was part of Pixar’s SparkShorts series, and features the story of how two kids on a canoe with different ways of communicating (including a girl with autism) attempt to connect.

What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Behind The Scenes of So Much Yellow

When I was eighteen, I took a documentary filmmaking class — and it’s weird because I don’t think any other class in my whole life took as much of my brain space and kind of made my other grades suffer quite as much as that one class.

We worked like crazy on these small documentaries, and I learned quite a lot about storytelling, about the character in front of you, the potential form of telling your story, the technical end of capturing it and making sure that it looks as good as possible, that it sounds as good as possible, that it has an eloquence to its flow. And then, twelve years later, I thought, “Oh, maybe you should do that for a job.” And the funny thing is, I would have never imagined that as my job. I think it was partially a failure of imagination on my part, but maybe it was also that I had never seen anybody like me having that job. I just didn’t know that would be possible.

So I spent the rest of my twenties doing work internationally and in multiple communities in the Bay Area in non-formal education, meeting people, and I’m super happy that I did. Because I feel like the stories that I gathered during that time and the kinds of people I met were so varied, exciting and different from my own. I got a broader sense of what the human experience is from a village in Nepal, to the back streets of Oakland, to mental health facilities in San Fransisco. All of those places are not places that I would have had access to just as a filmmaker necessarily, but as the person that I was and the hopes that I had for helping in non-formal education, I got a lot of new stories.

And then, when I was 29, I started a graduate program in vocational education, and I realized that I don’t like graduate school. Most of the work in disability, felt like it was about the law, which is great, and I definitely believe that we should have laws that support people, but I’m not a lawyer and I’m not a fighter, and I was like, “Wow, that’s not my forte, and I don’t want to do that.” It’s kind of weird when you get to a point in your career where you’re like, the next step isn’t interesting. You have to go back and say, “What have you loved? What do you want to do?” and that thing that I had loved, was that documentary class. So I got an internship and started from the bottom as an assistant editor in this really small educational documentary place, and that feeling I had in college, that there’s so much to learn, has never stopped since then. I started when I was 30 and just turned 50 this year, so I’ve had 20 years of unbelievable learning, and I think that’s the thing I find wonderful about this career.

That’s amazing, what a great answer. That brings us to our next question, which is what was the biggest challenge that you came across when you were starting your career in filmmaking, and how did you overcome it?

My first challenge was seeing myself in it, and saying, you should try, you might be really good at this. At the beginning I wasn’t maybe great at it, but I think the part of me that is curious and engaging, and can connect with a person in front of the camera, is the part of me that has stayed with me the whole time and makes me a really great director, a good writer, and a good editor, because I have a sense of compassion for the person in front of me.

Despite not seeing anyone like myself, despite not knowing a lot about films (it wasn’t like I was obsessed with watching films and deconstructing how they worked), I knew how to connect with a person and bring in an authentic and vulnerable voice to the screen. I think that was important to see.

The second thing was, when you start out, you’re in these roles that are very low on the totem pole. I started out at this very boutique place (boutique meaning the basement of a guy’s house) being an assistant editor, and there were all these technical things that were really hard to solve, and I learned how to solve them. Things would blow up or there’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong in post-production, and you feel so scared that you ruined it. And there are resources, and I think it’s important to learn how to relax and say that nothing is permanent in the world of digital, but, solutions take a methodical approach to solving, and you need to be able to go out, look for resources and not be afraid to ask for help. Even the most confident and educated people in the realm of technology, sometimes have a challenge that they don’t know how to address, and they ask for help. So that was a huge challenge in the beginning, and it taught me this massive lesson about not only thinking that I had to solve everything.

In filmmaking, there’s a huge community of people who are looking for solutions together and that’s part of why it’s such a transforming technical and creative field. People are talking to each other, and building things together, across the platforms and across the nations. It’s really exciting.

That’s definitely a really great point, and a useful point too. Because I think it was in 2015, we went on a trip to Pakistan and we made this whole documentary, but we lost all the footage while editing. It was so devastating, and we were so young at the time. It wasn’t like we wanted to stop filmmaking, but we wanted to go back right then and just do it again. And so I think that point about looking to others for help and asking for support is really important. At the time, none of the people around us really knew much about filmmaking so for us, it was like trying to find YouTube videos or something but that can definitely be challenging, and asking for help can solve those issues for sure.

Yes! Well, I feel you. I’m so sorry that happened. The fact that it did not deter you!

It’s okay! And yeah, no, last year we actually made our documentary about girls’ education in Pakistan and it was like a grown-up version of that one, and it was so much better, so it worked out in the end.

That’s awesome!

Thank you! And that brings us to our next question, which is what has the experience of working at Pixar been like for you, and how would you describe your journey with the company?

I’ve been at Pixar for I think fifteen years, and at the beginning I would be hired for a while and then laid off because they didn’t have a film every year, so I would be hired to accomplish something. I started on Finding Nemo, on a documentary called Making Nemo. It was very funny going from this very small studio where there were like two of us who were full-time employees, to a studio full of people who were collaborating together, and giving each other notes, and making things better. It was a really great eye-opening experience. Before that, I had always been in small places and risen to the top kind of fast, and that was not going to happen at Pixar. There’s a lot of top to get through! And I actually grew to really appreciate that.

The hierarchy of experience and insight and how you could come in and learn your slice of the pie, and be appreciated for it, and it was super essential that you were good at what you were doing.

You also got to sit next to someone who was doing either the thing above you or two things above you, and watch them, and they would critique you and give you feedback. Steve Bloom, who was the editor I worked with initially, I can’t believe how much he taught me about documentary filmmaking, but also editing. He would edit animated shorts and then edit the documentaries and I sat in his room with him. In the olden days, we didn’t have Mac computers or Avid, so I just sat next to him. And if I ever had any question, I could just be like, “Excuse me Steve,” you know. I loved that. It’s just so weird - being a documentary filmmaker at a studio means that any question you have at anypoint over your entire existence there, you can ask anybody. You could be like, “Wow! I’m going to make a film about that!” Or you could just have curiosity. People are really warm, and they’re inviting, and I think everyone in the studio is passionate about the work and curious. And they’re always trying to improve. And each new film is its own new problem, so they’re trying to address those problems, and grow and transform. So I feel like that’s what my experience there has been.

I’ve had this lucky role, where I got to just spin around and ask everybody about every stage of it. So like, wondering how does the rendering equation work? I kind of know that now, which is a very weird thing to know! But it’s also like, how does writing for Toy Story work? What is a challenge that a new director might face when they’re working on a franchise film that has all these rules and all this underpinning, but you have to open up the next story? What is the importance of specularity on a skin? What is the difference between transforming our human representation from the old days when it was like, mostly white characters, to now trying to transform just even the skin tone of our characters, and let’s make sure that that feels right and honest. I feel really grateful for that studio, because I’ve gotten to listen to so many brilliant people talk about the thing that they love, and it’s taught me.

I’ve taken one filmmaking class in my life really, and then, I’ve been at Pixar for 15 years, taking this never-ending, beautiful class with the people there. So I love this studio, I think it’s an amazing place and it feels like a campus to me. It feels like a place where everyone is learning constantly, and in the best way, we’re making something together all the time, and then evaluating that and thinking, “Okay what can we take from that to the next thing?”

That’s so amazing, and that brings us to our questions about your film Loop! It was so awesome to see and we loved watching it. Would you be able to tell us, what was the process of creating the film like, and what inspired you to create the film?

It was definitely inspired by the time I had spent when I was taking this year of part-time work (I’d just been working really hard for a while and I thought, I’m going to try and get my head back together). I immediately found out that working part-time made me miss my friends at work. So I needed to make some new friends, and I went and did this volunteer gig over at a centre for artists with disabilities called NIAD near me. And that year I did this thing on acting for the screen, and eventually taught a class on performance. But in the beginning, I was just volunteering and there were a lot of people in that studio who didn't communicate through speaking. And I didn’t know what to do, so I would just fill up the empty space with Erica chatter and that didn’t get me closer to them. It took a while to kind of figure out how to connect with those folks. And it was really important to me. They were cool artists. They were really interesting people. I wanted to connect. And a lot of it turned out to be just like hanging out and waiting, and opening up the space, and listening with that part of me that’s not listening for language, right? Like watching body movements, and watching the way that they responded, the small moves that they made, that kind of stuff.

Loop Behind-The-Scenes

So that sort of, was formulating in my head, and that experience made me think about this idea of a character like me, who is very chatty and didn’t know what to do, and a character who didn’t speak. And then as I came back to Pixar with that idea, I also wanted to put it on a canoe, because I really wanted it to be a happy story, and weirdly, canoeing makes me happier than almost anything in the world, so I’m like “Oh! Let’s do it in a canoe camp.” And it’s a good trap for two characters, to make a small, fast movie. The SparkShorts are made in six months, and for Pixar time, that’s like lightning fast, right? From the moment you write it, you feel like you’re just on this, “Go! Go! Go!” I just wanted it to be two characters and have them trapped, kind of like that buddy movie thing with these two people in opposition and how they find their way to a connection. So that was the inspiration.

That’s awesome! What is the main message that you would like viewers to take away from the film, and why do you think it’s important for films to feature characters with diverse backgrounds and abilities?

That’s a great question! Well, the main message is just that you might not quite understand how to connect with someone, you might be afraid and judge someone because they feel different than you, and some element of their behaviour frightens you because it’s different. But if you relax, and let yourself be unguarded, you will find connection.

Every human being has something that connects them to another human being. I just believe that if we spend enough time together, we’ll find a way to see value in each other’s experience. Because we’re story-driven people.

We’re curious. At our core, we humans are curious and interested in the story of life, right? And the different stories of life are powerful. They’re ways we connect, and ways that we’re different. That’s the power of being alive, with the mind, right? Maybe a duck has a different power. For humans, that’s what we have. For me, the message was that there is a way to connect even if you think there’s not. You just have to look for it. You just have to let yourself find it. And that’s for people with autism too, right? It’s for both sides of that canoe.

And I’m unbelievably excited about more voices coming to the screen, about more authentic representations of people’s identity, of their experience, of their point of view. It’s fun storytelling. We’re not going to listen where there will be some elements of the same story over and over again, because there are some elements of life that are pretty profound, and themes that are resonant across any identity, but the nuance and the power of our difference, and the excitement of that, to me is just really rich and I’m super stoked to see that on-screen.

Definitely. What are the ways in which female filmmakers can contribute to the film industry, and how can companies create spaces to celebrate their voices and their work?

I am only a female filmmaker, right? So sometimes it’s hard to see what is the thing that we bring that’s specific. I try and think about what my crews have sent to me, and what I’ve seen as women take the role more and more at Pixar, seeing how crews respond to that. Number one it’s just that those of us who haven’t gotten to sit in the director’s seat before, bring this certain joy and excitement that is palpable. I think every time you get a new opportunity, and you’re like, “I hope I do good!” there’s this certain joy to that. There’s a new vibrancy and power to the crews that are in that place. It’s not like we speak a different language as women, but we have maybe a different way of expressing ourselves, and maybe have a different set of values. I say values, but what I really mean is just aesthetics and style that we want to bring to the screen. Things that have been important to us in our childhood or our lives. If we’re portraying kids, it’s like, “I remember this girl being like my very best friend.” For Pixar, it excites people to have that new, powerful, excited voice. It really does. You listen to crews around, and they all love that.

The crew of Loop

I think for me, I always felt weird about how much I would talk as a director in the room. And we had women on our crew, but it was a lot of men on Loop, which at first was like, “Oh my gosh,” you know? Like, “This is a little girl’s story.” It’s a boy and a girl, but still. And then, those guys, they were amazing. I would talk about both characters and everything I knew and the nuance of everything that was happening, and then I would kind of be like, “Am I talking too much?” and they’re like, “No. Keep talking.” And you realize that people who are excited to create together want to get on the same boat. And to have something that they can learn and grow and that is actually new. One of our amazing animators who’s very accomplished said to me, “I opened up the shots in Loop and I do not know what to do initially. I don’t know how to start it yet,” and he said “I haven’t felt like that in twenty years. I have to then dive into this place inside myself that’s like I can’t just do something that is like what I’ve done before. I have to think. I have to research. I have to listen. I have to bring her into my life and put her forward.” That makes me really happy.

I hope that having more women in film means that we’re all looking a little deeper into our experiences and saying, “Oh! I’m going to look at another side of what I’ve always done and see what I haven’t said there or what I haven’t tried there.”

And I hope that women, who are all walking into this role feel that sort of confidence. I think it’s hard to feel confident in a new place, like, a lot of times you come in with a sense of uncertainty and worry, right? You want to do a great job, and I think it’s good to have that drive in any career. But you should have confidence that what you have has value and it’s going to be exciting for the people around you, and that relationship of finding something new together is going to push everyone forward. You should know that in yourself when you walk into that role, and feel like you’re here to give something new to our community. I feel like that is something that I’m going to always take with me.

Absolutely, that’s amazing! That brings us to the end of our interview. Is there anything else you want to add or any message that you would like to send to our readers?

I guess the thing for me that I keep telling myself is, don’t limit the imagination of who you could be and the stories you could tell. I think for so long, it was just not how I was raised to raise my hand and say, “Oh I think I should do that. I think I’ll be good at that.” I was always raised to work hard and do your best, and that someone will see it. But I didn’t know how to raise my hand and say, “I’d like that opportunity. Maybe you haven’t seen what I can do, could I show it to you?” And I think that, that sense of your imagination of yourself and what you hope to be, you should employ it. And let people know what your dreams are, and examine your dreams and say, “Am I dreaming big enough?” I just feel like that’s what I’m trying to do with myself. I’m saying, “Am I dreaming big enough?” And maybe you are, maybe you’re fine and you’re like, “I’m good. I’ve got plenty to do, and I have plenty to learn right now.” There are different stages to life.

But if you are feeling stuck or resentful, or you have something to say, or you wish you had something to say, then start dreaming at that stage. Start dreaming up that reality, and ask other people to be on your side. Ask other people to see it with you. Because it’s not going to happen if you don’t bring other people in.

That’s such a good way to end off! Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. We had so much fun and we can’t wait to share it with everyone!



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