A Filipino ‘Finding Dory’ artist finds his way back home

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Paul Abadilla, one of the Pixnoys — Pinoy artists at Pixar — who worked on the long-awaited sequel to “Finding Nemo,” talks about his path to success at arguably the world’s foremost animation studio and his journey back to the place of his birth and childhood. Photo courtesy of DISNEY-PIXAR

Manila (CNN Philippines) — In one of the aquarium scenes in Pixar’s 2003 animated feature film, “Finding Nemo,” the title character, a young clownfish, is seen sleeping in a nipa hut. Placed there by a Filipino Pixar animator, this uniquely Filipino icon makes for a nice cosmetic addition, but it turns out to hold a lot more meaning. It, too, stands for the spirit of bayanihan among Nemo and his fellow tank dwellers that would enable them to go back to the ocean, which to them is that thing the bahay kubo symbolizes first and foremost: home.

There’s no bahay kubo in sight in “Finding Dory,” the long-overdue yet worth-the-wait sequel to “Finding Nemo” that’s bound to trigger its viewers’ pleasure receptors as well as tug on their heartstrings following its release this week. But there’s still the yearning for home, this time on the part of Dory, the forgetful blue tang who’s unforgettable as companion and foil to Nemo’s father, Marlin, during their eponymous quest in the original film. The title of the new movie actually has a double meaning: On one level, it’s the literal search for Dory carried out by Nemo and Marlin following her capture by workers at a marine life institute, and on another, it’s Dory’s experience of finding her true self in the process of finding her family, whereupon she can be truly home.

marlin and nemo Marlin and Nemo, in their search for Dory, seek direction from a couple of sea lions, Rudder and Fluke. Photo courtesy of DISNEY-PIXAR

In a somewhat similar fashion, one of the artists who worked on “Finding Dory” is finding himself, so to speak, by finding his way back home — to the Philippines.

Born in Manila, Paul Abadilla moved at the age of 7 to California, where he went on to graduate from San Jose State University summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Animation and Illustration. “I always loved animation growing up,” he says. “I always loved to draw.” One of his earliest drawings, from when he was a third-grader at the Jose Abad Santos Memorial School in Manila, was an illustration of a serene natural setting that, in its delightful depiction of aquatic creatures, seemed to anticipate his involvement in a project like “Finding Dory.”

paul abadilla drawing One of Abadilla's earliest drawings, from when he was a third-grader at the Jose Abad Santos Memorial School in Manila, was an illustration of a serene natural setting that, in its delightful depiction of aquatic creatures, seemed to anticipate his involvement in a project like “Finding Dory.” Photo courtesy of DISNEY-PIXAR

For the film, Abadilla worked in the departments responsible for the coloring, shading, and lighting, and had a hand in the set design. “I helped out in designing some of the aquarium interiors,” he shares, “and some of the environments in the ocean.” Unfortunately, unlike Nelson Bohol, the animator who put the nipa hut in “Finding Nemo,” Abadilla wasn’t able to add a certain Filipino touch to “Finding Dory.” “I tried to,” he admits, but explains that it depends on the environment. “If I’m working on the reef, for example, there’s not much opportunity to inject some Filipino elements in there. But we always try to.”

And by we, Abadilla means himself and the other Pinoy artists at Pixar, collectively known by their portmanteau name, Pixnoys. “We are a closely knit community,” he says, adding that they gather at least once a year to have a potluck and often congregate in the studio, located in Emeryville, California. Arguably the most accomplished of their number is Ronnie del Carmen, the Cavite-born co-director of Pixar’s Oscar-winning 2015 feature film, “Inside Out,” to which Abadilla made some uncredited contributions. “I call him Tito Ronnie,” he says. “We’ve always been friends since I’ve been in the studio.”

destiny bailey and dory At the marine life institute where she ends up following her capture in the ocean, Dory gets reunited with her childhood friend Destiny, a whale shark, and meets Bailey, a beluga whale. Photo courtesy of DISNEY-PIXAR

Abadilla joined Pixar as an intern in June 2008, following a career path that he says he had been intent on pursuing since he realized in high school that it took a team of artists to create the animated films he loved. “After seeing movies like ‘Toy Story,’” he says, referring to the studio’s groundbreaking debut feature film, “I knew I’d like to work for Pixar one day.” At the esteemed Disney subsidiary, he has worked as a sketch artist on the feature films “Brave” and “Monsters University” and the shorts “The Blue Umbrella,” “Toy Story of Terror,” “Lava,” and, most recently, the Oscar-nominated “Sanjay’s Super Team.” “Working on shorts gives us an opportunity to develop new talent, try out new technology, and ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ was a good example of that,” he notes. “It’s one of my favorite projects to be part of.”

That short film, which centers on a young Indian boy’s daydream involving superheroes and Hindu gods, was inspired by its director’s childhood. Of his own youth here in the Philippines, Abadilla shares: “I know a lot of it had to do with commuting to school with my grandma. So, a lot of riding the tricycle, the jeep, the bus, and eating a lot of the local foods.” He adds that it’s “the simple things” that he missed so much, an affirmation that’s in keeping with the “live in the moment” attitude of the titular protagonist of “Finding Dory.” It’s fostered for the most part by her short-term memory loss, but “I think that’s a positive thing,” he says, “being able to appreciate what’s around you.”

dory and hank Spirited away from Marlin and Nemo, Dory finds a new quest companion in Hank, a cantankerous octopus. Photo courtesy of DISNEY-PIXAR

Of course, Abadilla finds much to relate to in Dory’s quest. “My journey back home here has been a similar experience rediscovering where I came from,” he says. “And reminding myself that no matter where I go, being Filipino and holding on to those roots is very important.”

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“Finding Dory” opens in Philippine cinemas on June 16.