What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Joe Sanabria and I’m an Art Director/Concept Artist. My most recent work was on Fallout:New Vegas and the DLC’s (Downloadable Content) Dead Money, Honest Hearts, Old World Blues and Lonesome Road.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I’ve had a number of jobs before getting into the games industry and most were boring rather than crazy- lab technician at a photo lab, delivery guy at a cabinet shop and back in high school, cashier at a newstand.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Two stand out for sure, Fallout: New Vegas and Skullmunkeys; there’s a huge following and great history to the Fallout franchise and what the team was able to achieve in the time we had was nothing short of amazing. In addition, Bethesda and the studio leads at Obsidian really trusted me and let me put my own spin on the look and feel of the game. The reception of the art by the press and folks was great and made all the hard work worth it. On Skullmonkeys, I was able to do a number of different types of work, lighting design, level design and even some marketing art including the cover for the game. However, most folks will remember me as Joe Head Joe, a wicked level-boss where my head was animated , stop-motion by Ed Schofield. Every once in while a fan of the game will recognize my name, because it‘s a pretty rare name and they get so excited when they realize its me. Not too many folks can say they were a level boss.
How did you become interested in animation?
At an early age I loved cartoons– Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, He-man, Thundercats and of course GI-Joe. As I got older the Disney and Bluth films really inspired me and got me interested in art. Unfortunately it never went farther than that until years later when I was out of college and I moved in with a couple of friends who where animation interns. They where working on Earthworm Jim under some great animators and late one evening I stopped by to say hi. Seeing that environment, and getting a behind the scenes tour of how it was all done got me really exited and that’s when I knew that was what I wanted to do.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born and raised in upstate New York, in a small industrial city named Amsterdam. I was attending SUNY Albany, studying physics. A buddy of mine who was a year ahead of me, was studying art at a nearby college and was always encouraging me to pursue my love of art. Due to his support, I started to take some art classes and eventually dropped out of school so I could focus on building my art skills. That same friend ended up moving out to California, looking to start a career in graphic design. Through a mutual friend, he met a fellow artist from New York who just happened to be working at Virgin Interactive and was an animator. Shortly thereafter that artist, Mike Dietz, left Virgin, and along with Dave Perry and some other guys they started Shiny Entertainment. After a late night visit to the studio, I was so fired up that I got some materials, books, paper, and an animation board and with Mike’s encouraging words started working on some pencil tests. After about a year of working on my tests, out of the blue I got a call at work from Mike; they had started a new studio with Doug TenNapel called the Neverhood and asked me to come down for a 3 week contract doing inbetweening on the cinematics for the game. What was supposed to be a 3 week gig turned into 3 years and 16 years later I’m still making games.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
It varies quite a bit depending on the phase of the project. But I’ll try and break it down. In pre-production there are lots of talks with the project lead to get a good undestanding of their vision for the game as well as talking to the programmers to understand the technical constraints. During that time, on a white board I’ll start mapping out the main visual elements we’ll need to design in order to start creating a plan of attack. This is the funnest time for me personally. I’ll start gathering as much reference as I can get my hands on and start sketching ideas. Eventually all that work is then packaged and presented to the team to kick off the production of the game, hopefully giving them a clear idea of the direction we are heading in artistically. During production, there are a number of meetings I’ll attend throughout the week — team meetings, level reviews etc. On a typical day, I’ll go through my inbox in the morning to answer questions and follow up with folks to get them moving forward. Artists and animators will submit their work and I’ll review it and perhaps do some paint-overs (taking their screenshots and painting on top of it to visually describe the changes I’m looking for). I’ll break up the day doing my rounds with the artist and help them if I can or tell funny stories to keep them happy. Otherwise I’m in my office working on concepts and writing up notes from my play-throughs of the game. Once we enter post-production, I’ll then be focused on level reviews and play-throughs, trying to identify areas that need additional tweaking but for the most part my work is done at that point.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I love working on concept designs, in particular when I’m facing a number of constraints. It’s especially rewarding to see the end result in a game and to get compliments on the work, both with the team and externally with the publisher and the press. At that point it‘s not just a pretty picture that I painted, it ‘s the result of a good solution to a problem that helped highlight the work of a number of people.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
HR issues. As an Art Director, one of my responsibilities is hiring and managing artists. Sometimes, when necessary, this means having to discipline them or worse, let them go. It’s always stressful to have to deal with such matters and unpleasant no matter which side of the desk you are on. I hate saying good-bye.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
I’d say the schedule can be demanding, meaning there is so much to think of and try to do that sometimes you feel overwhelmed by it all. It’s equivalent to creating a large hi-rise in downtown Manhattan, where the concrete is being pored as you’re designing the buildings. There are a lot of details that need to be done and often there isn’t much time. You’re always feeling the pressure of the project schedule. Fortunately, I’ve worked with some great producers who help me keep my head above water.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
The majority is off the shelf tech such as Photoshop, Max, XSI and Maya. Of course there is also the level editor, which in the case of Fallout, is called GECK. In some cases I’ll write and develop tools for the artist to use in Photoshop or one of the 3d packages. Sometimes, I’ll even consult the programing director or tool director on what we need for the game to look a certain way or for the artist to get the tools they need.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I’ve been lucky to work with many great folks but two names stand out, for the lessons passed on to me. Doug TenNapel and Mike Dietz. In my mind they are great and probably the biggest influence on my professional career.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Years ago when I left Rockstar Games, I was asked to join a group of friends to start a new studio. We were picked up by THQ and it was the start of what we thought would be a dream project. Having worked at a number of studios we thought we had a great project and great team to pull it off. For months we worked from home and started to flush out our idea for an epic, open world game using our own technology. It was a great time and we were all super energized on what we where about to do. It seemed like nothing could go wrong. But a few days after moving in to the new studio and getting our new hardware, one of our colleagues, Carlos Hernandez, suffered a massive heart attack and died. He was a good friend and one of the sweetest guys. His passing put everything in perspective and reminded us of how limited our time is here on earth.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I love playing music — mostly guitar and drums and I have been trying to learn how to play piano. Whenever I’m stressed I can always get a release from playing the drums. Someday I’ll release a single and go on tour but till then its all in my head.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I can make an awesome paella but that’s about it.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Yeah, I would say draw as much as you can– all the time and anytime and try to master the fundamentals rather then jump to the flashy stuff. Keep an open mind, take any work you can at the beginning, and by any means possible stay humble and be the best person you can be. The lessons you learn and the people you meet early on in your career will be what opens the doors to other great opportunities down the road. Even if you don’t have success at first keep pushing forward. It may take time but eventually you’ll get there. There are no short cuts , just lots and lots of hard work.