What is your name? Alex Almaguer. Or Alejandro Almaguer which is my real name that I used to use when I first started in animation. I think you can still find some early episodes of Johnny Bravo or Pinky and the Brain that I storyboarded that have my real name in the credits. And Big Poo. Don’t ask.
What would you say has been your primary job in animation?
Mainly Storyboards. It’s what I started on when I got into the industry and I’ve just stuck to it.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Storyboarding. It doesn’t get crazier than that.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I’d have to say being a part of “The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy.” It was the first time I REALLY got to write and draw my own boards. Within a few months on that show I was already coming up with my own gags and writing my own dialogue and learning how to tell a story. Back then, the studio was still doing the 7 min. format, so we really had a lot of freedom to get in and do a bunch of silly, dumb jokes and get out while telling a simple story at the same time.
Maxwell Atoms (the creator) gave us a lot of room to really play with the characters and develop who they were, which is EXTREMELY rare nowadays for a creator to give his artists so much trust. I grew by leaps and bounds as a Storyboard artist during the first couple of years of being on that show, plus being surrounded by some of the most amazing artists in the industry didn’t hurt either. Billy and Mandy became the sort of “black sheep” at Cartoon Network. Which was great because while the studio was focused on “Power Puff Girls” and whatever other shows were going on at the time, we were free to really push the boundaries of comedy and storytelling. It was awesome. Also, I’d say “Chowder” was another one my favorite projects that I was very fortunate enough to have been a part of. (Don’t tell Carl I said that.) It was rough the first season, like any show, but by the end of second season we were jammin’. Unfortunately, it was short lived. It came to a crashing halt at the end of the third season, which was a dirty CRIME. A dirty, dirty, CRIME. Oh, and Johnny Bravo. Definitely Johnny Bravo .
How did you become interested in animation?
I was lucky enough to have an actual animation program in my high school. And a pretty darn good one. It was the Rowland Animation Program. I discovered it in 10th grade and it opened my eyes to animation. I already had a love for drawing and cartoons (mainly Transformers) at the time, so of course the animation program was the next logical step. Plus I was a straight D student, and I really didn’t have any interest in anything else.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born and raised in Southern California. The way I got into the business was kind of a fluke. I remember after dropping out of Cal Arts, a friend of mine asked me accompany him to Warner Bros. Animation so he could drop off his portfolio. I refused. I wasn’t in the mood to drive all the way to Sherman Oaks. He kept pressuring me to go until I finally agreed. Luckily I drove because I had my portfolio in the back seat. I ended up submitting my stuff too and got a call from Warner Bros. Animation to do a storyboard test within a week or so that eventually lead to a storyboard position on “Pinky & the Brain.” I think I was 20 at the time and still wet behind the ears.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
As a board guy, a typical day lasts ALL day. Especially if you have to write your own sequences and work out stories. My brain is always going, sometimes well into the night just trying to come up with ways of making a gag or sequence funnier or trying to come up with funny dialogue. I usually don’t pick up a pencil until I’ve thought of something funny I could use, and even after wards I might end up trashing a whole scene after spending hours drawing it, because I’ve thought of something funnier. But when something finally clicks, and I’ve thought of a brilliant, funny bit I know everyone will laugh at, the world becomes a much happier and brighter place. Until it gets for time.
What part of your job do you like best?
Why? With Storyboarding, I think the best part of the job is seeing your work finally come back fully animated and watching the scenes that YOU wrote and drew play out successfully and getting a positive reaction from them. It makes you feel like king of the world for about 11 min. At that moment, all the pain and suffering and long hours you spent on your board all becomes worth it. (kind of) Having a great pitch is also nice. Most board guys I know, even seasoned guys still get deathly nervous right before their storyboard pitch to the crew or network executives. Hearing people laugh hysterically after every line you deliver and after every scene you go through is extremely gratifying, but also extremely nerve racking especially when the opposite happens. Which brings us to…
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Having a terrible pitch. A bad pitch can make you feel like dirt. Every Board artist HAS had a bad pitch at some point in their career. Even epic ones. For example, I remember one of the worst board pitches I’ve ever had happened while I was “Chowder.” So 10 min. before my pitch my dad calls me from Texas and tells me that my mom is very sick and is in the hospital. I ask my dad “How bad is she?” He says nothing. Silent. Then my uncle gets on the phone. I ask him the same question. “How bad is she?” All he tells me is that I should get on a plane as soon as possible and fly out there. Click. I hang up the phone. I walk over to the conference room where everyone is waiting and completely BOMB my pitch. No laughs. I was in no mood to try to be funny. Oh, and a couple of the network executives just happened to stop by because they wanted to see a “funny” Chowder pitch. Like I said, even epic ones. Good news is: I ended up flying out a couple days later to be with my mom and she got better soon after. Other than having a bad pitch, there’s also the fact that board guys are the first to get blamed for a episode not being funny. (not the writers, not the directors, not the show runner, etc.) And definitely taking Storyboard tests. I hate taking Storyboard tests.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
I’d have to say the instability. You never know when the bottom’s going to fall out on the show you’re on. (Except for The Simpsons) It’s hard to plan for life when you never know weather or not you’re going to be employed the following year. Or the following month. Or the following week. I learned that the hard way on “Chowder.” Just when everything was going great, BAM! The network cancels the show and boots everyone out. I guess that’s how it goes in this biz. It seems to me, when you’re on an awesome show that you love, it’s short lived, but when you get on a show that you absolutely detest with a passion, it seems to last forever and ever and ever.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis? It seems like most board guys nowadays all work on Cintiqs. The past couple of shows I worked on, Cintiqs were pretty much the requirement. I don’t mind using them. Toon Boom(Storyboard Pro) and Photoshop are the industry standard now. But man, do I miss boarding with a sharpie or brush pen and a gang of post-its.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
The one thing that automatically springs to mind, is the time I was on Chowder and I was invited to come and watch the voice actors read for one my shows that I had written and boarded down in the recording studio at Cartoon Network. It was for an episode called “The Arborians” and I was told that they had gotten Ron Pearlman come in and read for one of the main characters. Now, this was just a little after Hellboy 2 had come out, so I was eagerly excited about seeing Hellboy in person. So, the recording gets started and Ron Pearlman doesn’t show, and I start to get a little disappointed. We go through the lines, and one by one the other voice actors(who are all brilliant by the way) finish up their lines and filter out till there’s no one left. As I’m about to throw the towel in and make my way up back to my desk, in comes Ron Pearlman. I’m in awe. The first thing that pops in my mind is: “He looks way bigger in the movies.” So everyone piles back into the recording studio as Ron takes a seat in the booth and starts looking over the script. I’m sweating bullets right about now. What if he hates the lines that I wrote for him, what if he doesn’t think it’s funny? Thee recording gets started as he stumbles over the first couple of lines and he tries to feel out the character. We explain a little bit about who the character is that he’s reading for and then it clicks. He chuckles a bit, then hits every line out of the park! The whole booth erupts in laughter as Ron Pearlman slam dunks every line. At one point, and I’ll never forget this, he starts chuckling over the dialogue that he can barely get through the lines. And all I kept thinking was: “Yup. That’s right. I wrote those lines.” Ron finishes up soon after, and everyone applauds the amazing job he did. As he walks out of the booth he turns and says “Man! Who wrote that episode?!” Carl points to me and says “He did.” Ron looks over and says “Good Job.” And all I did stare back at him and give a goofy wave. I was way too stunned at what had just happened to say anything back. I went back to my desk and sat there thinking to myself, “Whoa…I just made Hellboy laugh.”
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I’ll talk roughly about one tough situation I had. It wasn’t in life, but working in the biz. I’ll try to be as discreet as possible just because it all happened not too long ago and I really don’t want to offend anyone or stir up any trouble. The hardest situation I had to deal with personally was when I had to make up my mind to leave a show I was working on and leave the people that I worked with for many years. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to face but I felt that everything had changed once we all moved onto a “certain” new show at a “certain” new studio. On paper it should of been the greatest show ever. It had a dream team of artists put together. The problem was: We had an awesome train of talent but no one was conducting. And so, with no real guidance, I was tossed onto the tracks along with another artist as a huge train barreled down on us. There was no one there to back us up, and I really didn’t see the situation getting any better anytime soon, so I left. And I’ve barely even spoken to any of them since then. Oh well, I guess that’s just the way it goes sometimes. That’s all I’m gonna say about that. I’ve probably already said too much.
Any side projects you’re working on you’d like to share details of
As far as side projects: The only thing I’ve been working on is my blog, which I’m trying to keep updated regularly. I’ve posted a lot of my own artwork on it as well as production artwork from the various show I’ve worked on. Check it out. It’s at http://alexalmaguer.blogspot.com/
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Draw your ass off. For real. This is crucial, especially for a board artist. And especially if you want to be known as a Writer and Storyboard artist. It’s stressful enough having to come up with original gags and funny dialogue and not to mention learning story. The last thing you need is having to struggle over drawing hurdles on top of all that. So, draw. Draw everything and everyone. You want to get to the point where whatever funny sequence or scenario you think up you’ll be able to execute with ease. Learning fundamentals is also vital. This includes perspective, cinematography, acting, quick sketch, construction, all that good stuff. Again, the more you know that less you have to struggle with down the line. Stay humble about your artwork and generally as a person. A bad rep in animation can be disastrous to your career. Being humble lets you build strong connections and friendships with people in the industry, which is probably THE most important thing. Sometimes even more so than an amazing portfolio. Connections lead you to jobs and to people saying good things about you which then leads to longevity in the biz. You want people sticking up for you when a job or opportunity presents itself. This is something that a lot students coming straight out of art school fail to do. A lot of them think that they DESERVE a show right off the bat, or DESERVE to be hired onto a show just because they got to go to an expensive art school. But don’t get me wrong though, some of those kids are truly talented and do deserve a shot, just don’t come into the business expecting to be given a shot.