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Phil Johnston, co-director of “Ralph Breaks the Internet.”

Former Omahan Phil Johnston, who got his start as a local TV reporter, is up for an Academy Award Sunday night.

Back in the mid- to late-’90s, Johnston, now 47, was the western Iowa reporter for KETV.

“I loved it because it was something different every day,” he said in a phone interview. “Covering rural America, you had to look a little harder for the stories. This farmer has a soybean stuck in his ear and thinks he’s deaf. Literally, that was a story I did. Or an 80-year-old man who is a stunt pilot. And I go up in the plane while he’s turning off the engine and doing barrel rolls.”

Contrast that with today. Sunday night, Johnston will attend the Oscar ceremony, where “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” the Disney film he co-wrote and co-directed with Rich Moore, is up for best animated feature.

It’s the first feature that Johnston has directed, and it’s made more than $500 million and counting.

Johnston has also co-written the scripts for Disney’s Oscar-winning “Zootopia” and the original “Wreck-It Ralph.”

How does one make it from the back of an Iowa octogenarian’s stunt plane to the director’s chair of a $175 million Disney movie in the span of 20 years?

Johnston doesn’t have some secret recipe for success. He worked hard and things worked out. And Alexander Payne helped a little along the way.

Johnston, originally from Minnesota, worked for a few years at KETV — where he met his wife, Jill Cordes, then the station’s morning anchor.

From Omaha, they went to Minneapolis, where Johnston worked as a reporter for a few more years before deciding to get into moviemaking. They moved to New York, where he got his M.F.A. at Columbia.

After film school, he had a few meetings with Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor.

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“He was always a filmmaker I loved, and we had the Omaha connection,” Johnston said of the Oscar-winning Omahan.

They soon made a movie together. Payne and Taylor produced one of Johnston’s scripts, which became “Cedar Rapids,” the 2011 Iowa-set gem starring Ed Helms.

“For me,” Johnston said, “it’s been a sort of interesting balance between doing these animated, four-quadrant, blockbuster-style movies and staying true to the kinds of films that made me fall in love with film, the independent, smaller stories.”

Johnston hopes to continue this mix of big and small. But first ... the Oscars.

“Ralph Breaks the Internet” has some stiff competition in one of the year’s toughest categories. It’s up against: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “Incredibles 2,” “Isle of Dogs” and “Mirai” — “Spider-Man” is expected to take home the trophy.

“The category is as strong as I think it’s ever been,” Johnston said. “I don’t know that there’s ever been a better batch of five films. I think we would be the longest of long shots because ‘Spider-Man’ has great momentum and is a great film. We’re not expecting to win, but, as they say, it’s an honor just to be nominated.”

For those who have yet to see “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” it follows our two classic video game characters, Ralph and Vanellope (voiced by John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman), as they journey into the Internet, which Ralph breaks, both figuratively and literally.

The film is fast-paced, joke-packed and family-friendly, but it’s also a sharp, thoughtful satire about the World Wide Web and what it’s done to our culture, society and nervous systems. The film’s depiction of the Internet is at least partially dystopic.

“We wanted to walk the line,” Johnston said, “and have this weird balance of the beauty and ugliness (of the Internet) as best we could.”

With more than 500 people working on the film, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” became a way for many, many artists to share their humorous (and sometimes disturbing) ideas about the Internet and where it’s taking us. Heady stuff for a kids movie.

Besides an Oscar nomination, Johnston is walking away from “Ralph Breaks the Internet” with a few dozen clown paintings.

He’s a collector of clown paintings (paintings of clowns, though not necessarily by clowns). While making the film, he learned that his star, Reilly, is also a collector of clown paintings. Small world.

Reilly’s wife told him he needed to whittle down his collection, so he gifted about 30 of them to Johnston, bringing the former Omaha TV reporter’s collection of clown paintings to more than 100.

Whether or not he wins the Oscar Sunday night, 100-plus clown paintings is one heck of a consolation prize.

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