What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Sergio Paez, and I’m a director and Story Supervisor working on film and television projects. I cofounded www.StoryboardArt.org, which is an online community for visual storytellers and storyboard artists. In addition to my professional work, I also do many lectures and workshops to help younger artists get into the business.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
When I was in high school, I used to make fake IDs back when California driver’s licenses didn’t have a hologram. I made a lot of money under the table, and I was such a good student that no one ever suspected that I was making forgeries. One day I was at my friend’s house and we were all watching TV when a commercial for a local art school came on the television. It flashed titles on screen that went something like, “You are the yearbook photographer extraordinaire” or “Drawing caricatures is easy for you”. Finally a title flashed on the screen that said,”You’ve mastered the art of making fake IDs.” All my friends turned me and started calling me out. The commercial was for the Academy of Art University art school, and ironically I ended up going to that school. The fake ID part had nothing to do with it, but it’s a true story nonetheless.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Strangely enough, one of my first animation jobs is the one I remember the fondest. I worked on a Spanish /French co-production called The Three Wise Men in Spain. It was the first time I really sunk my teeth into doing animation and storyboards on a big production. It was a small team but the talent level was really high and I had to hustle to keep up. I loved every minute of it. It was the first time I really felt I achieved my life’s dream of becoming a professional animator. Other than that, StoryboardArt.org and the community around it has become a real inspiration for me. I never knew there were so many people interested in storytelling and filmmaking as a career. I’ve met artists from all over world, and the reception has been fantastic. The community is growing everyday especially since the demand for telling stories seems inexhaustible. In a small gesture it’s my way of giving back to the art community that’s been so generous to me over the years.
How did you become interested in animation?
I remember when I was about nine years old watching the classic Disney movies and laughing hysterically. For some reason, the characters and the moving drawings were so engaging to me. I loved animation early on, and I watched every cartoon I could get a hold of. I spent every chance I had trying to find out how the films were created. As I grew up I idealistically wanted to become a professional baseball player, then a doctor, then an engineer, but the only thing that really stuck with me was wanting to get into the animation business.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I grew up the San Francisco Bay Area in a suburb of the East Bay. For whatever reason, my Colombian parents were very supportive of the arts for my brother and I. Growing up we played music, and neither parent discouraged us from art or drawing. I started drawing because of my older brother, who seemed to have a natural talent for copying photographs and creating cool drawings. After a while though, my brother dropped his ambitions for art to follow a more practical career in business. I on the other hand never stopped drawing. It was the only thing I ever wanted to do. Despite my parent’s suggestions otherwise, to their credit, both my parents were very supportive of me following an art career. They were at first reluctant to go along with my art school plans, but they saw how enthusiastic I was about it and they let me do it anyway. After high school I went to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to study illustration and animation. I spent a rigorous four years learning art skills and how to draw. To my own amazement I found that I really could draw fairly well and keep up with the rest of the bad asses in my art school. That helped give me confidence, and I knew if I could pass the tough test of being at a professional art school, I could make it all the way to becoming a professional artist. After graduating from college I had a solid portfolio of drawings, and even an animated short film. My portfolio landed me my first job at Wild Brain Studios in San Francisco as an animator. From there the real work began, and I started the long hustle into my so-called “postgraduate degree” at the school of hard knocks learning on the job in different animation studios. The longer you travel in an art career you find out how much farther you have to go to make great art. There was so much for me to learn. I would soak up any morsel of information anyone would unlock for me when I was working on a job. I naturally gravitated to those who liked being mentors to the younger guys. I found my real passion in animation was storytelling and film making. When 2D animation work slowed down I fell into to becoming a story artist and learned about the film language. Things got slightly easier for me once I had a few years under my belt and I had an artistic network to call on. Sure, I had student loans to pay and other debts, but I was able to get and maintain steady work. Through a colleague’s recommendation, I got a job at Pixar, working as a story artist. From another contact, I got a job working on The Clone Wars animated series at Lucasfilm. After Lucasfilm I have worked on a number of live-action and animated projects. Learning has always been a big part of my career and this led me and another artist friend, Anthony Rivera, to establish StoryboardArt.org as a resource for visual storytellers. StoryboardArt.org has since grown to become the largest visual storytelling site on the Internet. My journey isn’t over yet and I still have a long way to go before I achieve all of the things I want to do. I find that it actually never gets any easier. The important thing is to enjoy the journey.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I have a production company now where we are developing independent projects and doing pre-production services work for feature films. If I’m not supervising other artists in our services group, I am developing story pitches and new ideas for film and media projects. I’ve learned a lot about the business end of film making, and hopefully our artistic and logistic sides of the art form will merge to create awesome and appealing projects. I like to keep my hours as regular as possible, from 9 AM to about 7 PM Monday through Friday. Lately there’s been a lot more traveling involved, but that is also exciting since I get to meet a lot of new artists.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I love the conceptualization part of any project. Coming up with the ideas and working them over until they feel right is a true thrill. Over the years I’ve become pretty proficient in execution so that part is less exciting for me than racking my brain coming up with new story ideas. It’s never easy, but I enjoy the challenge.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
I truly hate the business side of film making. Dealing with invoices, taxes, contracts, and lawyers is about as fun as having a root canal. Unfortunately this is part of running a production company and even though it’s tough medicine I suppose it’s good for me to learn. I would much rather be drawing.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
I work with the standard fare of 2D and 3D software, and all the hardware necessary. At Lucasfilm, I learned how to do previz and use Maya as a tool. Most of the time though, I stick to 2D software such as Photoshop and TV Paint to create storyboards drawn on a cintiq monitor. One of the reasons why I love conceptualizing ideas is I can throw the technology away and go back to my drafting board drawing on pencil and paper. For me, nothing beats the feel of drawing on traditional media.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
I suppose hustling to get jobs is tough enough, but I still have a difficult time coming up with good ideas. That’s the real challenge for me. Of course, everyone has to pay the bills, but once that’s taken care of it can be excruciating to come up with a winning idea. I painfully work things until they feel right, and once an idea clicks it feels glorious.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I’m very lucky in that I consider some of the closest relationships I have as also being those of artistic greatness. I suppose I had breakfast with Mobius once. I worked directly for George Lucas. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson critiqued a shot I animated. KatsuyaTerada, and Tadahiro Uesugi have been to my house. Robert Valley drew a ridiculously amazing illustration on my kitchen counter top. These are all bad asses but the real inspirations come from my friends and contemporaries who make great achievements before my eyes. People like Sho Murase, Jerome Opena, Dice Tsutsumi, San Jun Lee, Jamie Baker, Derek Thompson, Stewart Lee these are all friends and colleagues who never stopped working hard and in my opinion are pure greatness. I get more inspiration from being around them than visiting any museum.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I’ve had my heart broken a few times. I’ve won and lost a lot of money. I’ve been in a few car accidents. I ripped off my toe nail while painting on a beach in Hawaii. In a tongue-in-cheek way this all seems pretty insignificant, and probably is. I don’t like to dwell on the bad parts of life. I think you can argue that there are no bad parts of life. It’s just life. We have to learn from what doesn’t kill you and move forward. One real and present danger is that of your own inner voice. It’s that voice of doubt that comes on when I’m trying something new, and putting myself at risk. It whispers in my ear, “you’re not good enough”, “you’ll never make it”, “what the fuck are you thinking?” I’ve learned over the years to compete only with myself, and to dance like nobody’s watching. These artistic ruts are real and very dangerous. This is another good reason to surround yourself with great inspirational people. Not only have my friends helped me get out of my funk when I’m down, they supported me on the climb back up life’s mountain. If you fall in love with your own art you can learn to have a blast even during the toughest situations in your life.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I love to paint, and lately I’ve been diving into some social commentary loaded with political overtones. Music, and oddly enough Austrian Economics are my latest pastimes as well. Other than that my real hobby is my passion for film making and creating stories. Currently I’m working on a short film of a street performer that can bring his imagination to life.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I have an unusual talent for forgetting people’s names after I first meet them.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Remember the old adage that nothing worth achieving in life is ever easy. Don’t get into this business because you think you look cool with a paintbrush in your hand, or it’s an easy way to get out of doing manual labor. Becoming an artist is the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life. You do this because there is nothing else in this world that will fill you more than the art you aspire to create. Develop that passion and find out what really makes you tick. When you’re broke, your girlfriend leaves you, your dog pees on your shoes, and your only friend is the coffee barista paid to be nice to you, you will still have that burning passion in your belly that gives you the all-important Hope. It’s a hope that you will succeed, and a hope that keeps you moving towards your art despite all possible obstacles. If the world really needs anything to survive, it needs more creative and original thinkers. Do yourself and the world a favor and never lose sight of your dreams to become an artist. And when you achieve your goals, pass on your knowledge to the next generation of creators who will push human expression that much further. When you do all this, give me a call. I can’t wait to see what you create.