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Episode 121 — Sergio Páez — Director, Lucasfilm
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 121! I’m speaking with Sergio Páez, a director at Lukasfilm. He works on Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I had a blast talking to him! Just like Justin Goby Fields (www.allanmckay.com/118/), Sergio is an instructor. Because of that, he is an amazing communicator. It’s amazing to see these guys who are in the industry and love to share information.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
Happy New Year! I hope you had a chance to reflect on your wins in 2017.
[-1:15:17] The free training is still available for a couple of weeks, until January 12th: www.allanmckay.com/decay/. It’s a Live Action visual effects shot that I’ve taken from start to finish, creating digital effects like:
– Fluid simulations;
– Digital make-up;
– Mist effects.
Check it out at www.allanmckay.com/decay/.
INTERVIEW WITH SERGIO PAEZ
Sergio Páez is a Storyboard Artist and Director who has worked at companies like Lucasfilm, Sony, Pixar. His credits include Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars: Rebels, Jonah Hex. He has recently finished writing and directing a short film in VR.
Sergio is also a founding member of Storyboard Art, an online community of storyboard artists and other storytellers. He has co-authored a book Professional Storyboarding: Rules of Thumb, a go-to reference for story artists.
In this Podcast, Sergio talks about his journey as a storyteller, how to become a director — and the importance of passion, discipline and balance for an artist.
Sergio Páez on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2876339/.
Storyboard Art Website: https://storyboardart.org
Professional Storyboarding: Rules of Thumb by Sergio Páez: https://www.amazon.com/Professional-Storyboarding-Rules-Sergio-Paez/dp/0240817702
Interview with Sergio Páez on Animation Insider: http://www.animationinsider.com/2015/02/sergio-paez/
[-1:14:05] Sergio: I’m Sergio Páez. I’m an animation Drector. I’ve been in story development and story departments at different studios over the years. I’ve focused my career into doing that: I develop stories, I work on stories. At the moment, I’m working at Lukasfilm on developing an undisclosed project. I love what I do! Once you get the bug of storytelling — and developing this stuff — you’ll never go back!
[-1:13:31] Allan: That’s awesome, man! How did you get started? Did you always want to be an artist? Or did you want to be a doctor, a lawyer and then later on it’s like, “Fuck it!” — and break out the pencils?
Sergio: Yeah, I’ve met people like that. When I was a kid, I just loved watching animated films, I loved to draw. I wasn’t that good at it, but once I found out that people could make a living at it — I tried to pursue it. As a kid, you get distracted by other things; but that’s the one [common] thread that I kept. Out of high school, I went to an art school in San Francisco. I studied illustration and animation for 4 years. Some of it was good: I learned how to draw, classical drawing, anatomy. The storytelling part, I felt I didn’t get that much out of the school — until I landed my first gig. That education started to take off. So I kind of went the traditional artist’s route.
[-1:12:15] Allan: We all go to school expecting that it will prepare us for what to expect from the workforce. But as you said, you get into the workforce [by using] everything you’ve learned so far — and only then the real learning begins. For you, was that accurate?
Sergio: Absolutely! When you’re at school, in a small group, you think you’re hot shit. When get a job, you find out, “These guys are really awesome and I kind of suck!” I think there is a lot to learn. I’ve learned some stuff in animation, so I could hold my own. (I started as a 2D animator.) But when I started doing storyboards, that’s when the rude awakening happened. That’s when my eyes opened up big and I saw this juicy knowledge I needed to learn. Fortunately, the supervisors were very generous and guided me along.
[-1:11:05] Allan: Where was the first place you worked? How did you get your first break?
Sergio: I landed a job at WildBrain which is a local studio in San Francisco. It no longer exists in a way that it did. It was a really bustling animation studio and it was really cool to meet all the animation talent working in San Francisco. I got a pseudo internship. I was so happy to be making money, I thought it was the greatest thing ever! I was getting paid pennies, but to be there — to be among all of those creative people — it was a dream come true!
[-1:10:12] Allan: Was that right into storyboarding?
Sergio: No, that was 2D animation. I had a portfolio from school. I showed it to these guys and they gave me a chance. It wasn’t that pro looking [but] they saw that I could do somethings and they gave me a shot. But I wanted to get into storyboarding. I was asking around how I could that. That first job didn’t last very long. (I think it was for about 6 months.) It was project based. I ended up moving to Spain, just traveling for a little bit. And there, a friend gave me a tip that there was an animation studio looking for artists. [I thought,] “Okay, I’ll just try it out.” I went and visited them and they were doing a feature. It was at Animagic.
[-1:09:08] Allan: Oh, Animagic! So we’re going WAY back!
Sergio: Yeah, way back! It’s a small world!
[-1:08:47] Allan: I knew those guys. They were using 3DS Max. What was that experience like?
Sergio: It was awesome! The reason I signed up was because 2D animation was going away in the United States. Everything was turning to 3D and I just wanted to hold on. So I got that gig and fortunately, I did a test. It was a really bad animation test but they gave me a shot. There were these European Disney animators and people from other places that just came back — and they were really good and talented — and they needed storyboard guys to elaborate the story before animation. They redid the project at some point and I jumped in. It was my first real chance to do storyboarding. And that’s when I got the rude awakening: I had to really step it up. I learned so much from those guys!
[-1:07:39] Allan: What specifically gravitated you toward storyboarding as opposed to other areas in film?
Sergio: I mean, there is a couple components:
– One, there is the technical part because I can still use my drawings and practice my illustration stuff;
– But the other part is — and I’ll admit to this guiltily: There is a lot of control in the conceptualization. You’re really in the driver’s seat. You have a lot more freedom than, say, an animator would. As a whole, a story guy can do a whole sequence, or a couple of sequences, or a whole act. And then if you actually get to direct, you can do the whole thing and the show; and you can edit it. That, to me, is so exciting! When you see something develop like that, it’s so cool! And even if it’s bad, you can fix it and you re-board because you can’t get it [right] the first time. I can actually do this — and make it my own.
[-1:06:21] Allan: There is a few traditional paths to directing but I’ve found that doing previs or doing storyboarding are the two ways where you work close with the director [and] you have a lot of say about the initial concepts.
Sergio: Not many people know that. I guess you would know that development or previs is the start of a project. You get to work with the producer, the director, the writer from the beginning and you get to develop the project with them. You have to make these executive decisions and that’s so much fun! And seeing it through is so much fun!
[-1:05:16] Allan: I guess one of the key things is to learn your product.
Sergio: Yeah, that’s another life lesson! You get so uptight about your work, and then you realize you need to let go sometimes.
[-1:04:52] Allan: Going through a few of your projects, was Darkwatch: Curse of the West your first project? I liked the artwork for that!
Sergio: Yeah. That was my biggest video game project. When I was doing that, I got more into supervising. I was the first guy there so they let me do it for seniority’s sake. So that was what I wetted my appetite with: I can take more control. It was super fun!
[-1:03:54] Allan: For you, what were some of the challenges you’ve ran into on that job?
Sergio: Darkwatch? It was definitely the story development. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a vampire story but [the vampire] is a good guy. The gameplay was awesome. That’s the one thing we kept redoing. We did a bunch of versions. But that was the challenging thing [because] the timeline kept shrinking. I think it came out alright. The pressure sometimes helps reignite creativity. So I think it was another lesson. Working under those conditions can be a positive thing.
[-1:02:36] Allan: I prefer do stressful jobs. I like bouncing around. Superman has been the longest project I’ve been involved with and I got bored with the infinite loop. We had a year and half before the film was going to come out. That meant so many versions! I want the end of the tunnel. I want the compacted deadlines so you can make decisions on the spot.
Sergio: It’s a good habit forming. That comparison made me think of tv deadlines vs feature film deadline. I’m working on a tv show right now and it’s “Go, go, go!” With features, you get all of this time upfront and the rush happens at the end. But that training needs to kick in, in the beginning. I find working with directors with that mindset is more of my style: They know what they want, they have their vision and they’re ready to go.
[-1:00:40] Allan: That’s why I like working on set. Every minute counts! If you go over, everything is going to bleed your budget dry. You have to make those decisions right then and there. Do you find that having condensed timelines can be applied to everything you’re doing?
Sergio: Yeah, I find that self-discipline is the hardest thing to muster. Setting your goals and deadlines, and milestones is so important because it puts you back into that mindset: “I have to get this done no matter what!” It turns that fire on and you have to make these creative decisions NOW! When you’re on set, you see all of these guys running around — but things get done and some of it turns out to be magical. That’s exciting!
[-59:05] Allan: When you put yourself into that situation, a lot of the stuff comes out because you have to be laser focused. With anything, I’m giving myself ridiculously tight deadlines and every decision I make has to correlate to the finish line. For me, it’s a big mindset change! Do you have any other life lessons?
Sergio: Do as I say, not as I do? (Laughing.) I just shot a live action short, in VR. And that was actually trickling along for years. We were dabbling along. Then finally, all the pieces came together and we finally shot it. But for me, the discipline and the passion — you have to find a way to keep it burning. Otherwise, for me, I would lose interest. What keeps me going is, maybe, fear. Looking at other people’s stuff [gives me] inspiration. That’s it! Don’t let that go away!
[-56:56] Allan: You’ve mentioned earlier that your first job was an opportunity to learn [and to be a sponge]; to grow, to have access to the stuff you haven’t had access to before. Do you find that in our industry, everyone is going to see people who are better than them [and be inspired]? Or do you think there will be different personalities reacting differently?
Sergio: Totally different personalities! There are some that love the teaching and the learning aspect. I think I fall into that category and the reason I do that is because people were super generous with their time when I was starting out. I would not be in a position I am in today if it weren’t for other people giving freely of their knowledge — and my being receptive with it. There are also other personalities and they’re super gun-ho about what they do, but they have a singular focus and they don’t really care about anything else that’s going on. They aren’t pushing anyone else along. And then, there is everyone in between. That’s why the website we started gives access to professionals you normally wouldn’t have access to if you were on the outside. I only find that when you’re on the inside, that there is only a few people who have the knowledge that you want and that are willing to give it. You make lifelong friendships in this thing. I’ve heard someone say, “This is a lifestyle choice. This is not a job!”
[-55:01] Allan: It’s a very masochistic choice.
Sergio: Very true! But then within that, you have to find balance so that it doesn’t overtake your life. Because you’re doing it out of a passion, you know when you don’t want to be taken advantage of because some people will make you work 24 hours a day. But then also, you don’t want to burn yourself out which also can be a reality.
[-54:17] Allan: I had an epiphany recently. We went to dinner and my buddies and I had to agree to not have any shoptalk. What other industry can that be true about? We do need to be obsessed in this industry. It becomes your life. It’s not a job — it’s a career. You have to surround yourself with it.
Sergio: Yeah, man! That’s the great thing about what we do. You’re showing people that it’s possible. People don’t even realize that you can make it. Everybody starts out this way. I tell young guys that even the best artists sucked at one point. You can make it and it can be a positive thing! If anyone is listening to this and doubting if they should be doing this — because they think they would make more money at a bank job — Why sacrifice your happiness for something because you have this fear?
[-51:55] Allan: I hear about art not being a real job. Or I hear all the fluff about visual effects going down the toilet. The truth it: The industry is booming! Everyone has excuses as to why they can’t succeed. They give themselves that reason as to why they shouldn’t try it in the first place. It’s a linear thing: Yes, there are more people doing visual effects and film these days. But the amount of jobs coming out has also increased. When there are five times the people trying to do this job — there are five times the number of jobs.
Sergio: That’s a great way to put it! I always tell people: We have a hard time hiring storyboard artists; or finding good visual effects people in every single discipline. In particular, I can speak about story: The guys who have the right training, who can draw well, conceptualize things, do previs. It’s hard to find good people! We need more of them! We need good storytellers. People may say the market is saturated. Not from where I’m sitting! We need more people!
[-49:51] Allan: I’ve been on projects where we’ve struggled to find even mid-level VFX people.
Sergio: That means that people are working! That’s good!
[-49:31] Allan: That’s true. I figure we’d talk about Jonah Hex. What was it like to work on that project?
Sergio: That was awesome. It was another put-out-the-fires kind of a project. I got the call from some guys in LA who were working on that movie and they had to rework a scene. I did these really colorful storyboard panels. They were pitching some execs and really wanted to sell the idea. The director of that film [Jimmy Hayward] was an animation teacher I had in college. I remember that guy [being] really inspiring. It was his first live action feature. When I met him, he was teaching animation. He’d made this leap into directing big budget films.
[-48:06] Allan: So what was your scene? I’ve only seen the movie once.
Sergio: It was the scene toward the end where Johan Hex gets captured with the femme fatale. He’s inside a ship. And they have this big moment there.
[-47:36] Allan: We’ve got to talk about Star Wars: The Clone Wars as well. What was your experience like with that? How did that happen?
Sergio: That’s awesome and I continue to work with those guys over the years. I ended [a contract job] at Pixar and I got a call from friends of mine. That’s another life lesson: Make good contacts and keep your friends tight. A guy who was working on The Clone Wars ended asking for my portfolio. He showed that to the director at Lucasfilm and I got an interview. They were looking for story guys everywhere. I got the job and it was super fun because I’d worked with some of those guys before. And we became this tight group.
The guy who was running it was Dave Filoni who is a great storyteller. He worked directly with George Lucas. That was an interesting project. George was the Executive Producer, so he was always in the driver’s seat. He would make last minute changes to make it better. It was his little playground. I still get fan mail from people who watch the show. We worked at the Skywalker Ranch. That’s really unique because tv shows usually don’t have the budget that we had. We had a great time!
[-44:55] Allan: What were some of the challenges working on that project? You also directed some episodes, right?
Sergio: Yeah, toward the end I directed a couple of episodes, for the Rebels project. It kind of segued toward another show. To me, the challenges are to always figure out the story part. And then when I got there I asked the tech guys and VFX sups if there were any limitations to getting this created. [And the answer was,] “No, we can do anything you, guys, want.” We had all these tools available to us and we could really go to town. But then the real challenge became: The material that we were given. We were given the script and we had to stick to it. The way that George works is that the script is the first pass. So we take that material and create the artwork and everybody takes a look at that. And then there is a second pass. I didn’t realize that and I had to change my mindset.
[-43:11] Allan: You had to give yourself permission to have a creative say in it.
Sergio: Yeah! I would get frustrated. When they would change my work, they were trying to make it better. There would be scenes that would be completely tossed out. We were trying to make the whole thing better.
[-42:45] Allan: I think that’s cool that you get to have creative input, especially on such a big IP. And a lot of the work was also being done in Singapore, right?
Sergio: Yes, they were also outsourcing to their own studio in Singapore. The guys were good. We were trying to build another team. It was a little rough in the beginning, but the quality improved toward the later seasons. Now, the stuff they’re doing on the Rebels is really tight. They’ve got the pipeline down. The tech part, the color, the ship battles — we’ve done it so much!
[-41:34] Allan: Can you talk about what you’re currently working on?
Sergio: Yes, we’re finishing season 4 of the Rebels animated series. That’s been a cool project with the same crew. Some of the guys have been there for 10 years. We’ve become this family. The Clone Wars never really finished out. But the Rebels has a pretty tight thread with this group of rebels. We’re going into season 4, which will be the last season.
[-38:50] Allan: You mentioned Pixar earlier. What were you working on there?
Sergio: I was there when they were transitioning. I was there doing Ratatouille and they just did a big story transition. They had me working in the tools group that was developing a new pipeline. That was the first time they put a Cintiq in front of me. For the longest time, I was drawing on paper. Then I started doing all my stuff digitally. The guy that hired me at Pixar was another animation teacher I had at college and he remembered me. I don’t know if that’s the reason I got the job. It was nice to keep that connection. The Pixar experience was awesome! That place was magical.
[-36:34] Allan: You’re right, that’s such a critical point. The more you network, the more you put in the effort to stay in touch and build those relationship — there is nothing more reassuring. Most of us don’t have job interviews. We go in to have a chat. At places like Pixar, it’s more hierarchical. For the most part, it means that you’ve got the job — they’re just making sure you’re not insane. You’ve got a continuous family of people you’ve worked on before. Building relationships is difficult but it’s worth it.
Sergio: We’re all nerds and geeks at hearts. You’re going to find there are a lot more like-minded people at these places than not.
[-34:39] Allan: So which studio is cooler to walk around: ILM or Pixar?
Sergio: Wow! It’s like The Great Gatsby: old money and new money. Pixar has new colors and big toys. When we’re at the Ranch, it felt like we were in a museum. George has really great taste! So they have different vibes. At Pixar, the animation guys have taken over the animation department. If you go to ILM, you see these cool robotics. They both have cool things about them.
[-32:56] Allan: Anytime I’m in town, I’m always catching up with the guys at ILM. I don’t think there was ever a day I wasn’t like, “Fuck, yeah!”
Sergio: Did you ever go to the archives at the Ranch?
[-32:34] Allan: Whenever I would go to the Ranch, it was go-go-go. It was either for a screening or for a lunch [meeting]. What was that like?
Sergio: I was just going to have a geek-out moment: When you go there, you see the original Death Star. And they have all the Ralph McQuarrie drawings, the original Indiana Jones notebook. All these props that are there in climate control rooms. I was super impressed! It’s the matte painting they had were spectacular. They used to paint on glass and they’re expertly painted. Just beautiful!
[-31:28] Allan: That’s so cool, man! To loop back, you mentioned tools. Are there any tools you really like? I interviewed Nikolai Lockertsen and he does all of this work on an iPad Pro (www.allanmckay.com/93/). Matt Conway does that as well (www.allanmckay.com/59/). What are some of your tools you’ve found to be naturally great to work with?
Sergio: Yeah, I like to geek out on tools.
– We do a hybrid of Maya. They have a proprietary software at Lucasfilm for doing previs. But we can incorporate drawings with that. So we can actually do Photoshop or 2D drawings.
– When I do my storyboards, I go back to the traditional 2D style way of working. I like using TV paint — a French animation software.
– On the most basic level, I like Sketchbook Pro from Autodesk. It’s a really simple program and its drawing tools are really nice.
– The other one I really like is Toon Boom. They have an animation software called Harmony. The cool thing about that is that you can create your storyboard and animatics. It’s not just doing individual panels anymore.
– I do use a Cintiq. I also carry around a Cintiq laptop. I think my next computer will be a Surface Pro table. It’s super portable. I love Apple, too.
[-27:58] Allan: I like the Mac tools, but I feel more illiterate on a Mac. It’s meant to be the easier one to use. Do you want to talk quickly about your short film?
Sergio: Oh, yeah! Recently, I shot this short VR narrative film. I was experimenting a lot with VR. I had this project I’ve been tossing this project for a while. It’s about this street performer who brings his imagination to life. He ends up helping this frustrated artist. We got together with a great cinematographer. All the pieces came together: the actors, the visual effects. We actually created a project from scratch! It’s a whimsical piece. There is a little bit of a love story.
We had to composite it in VR. We shot it in stereoscopic. We had a couple of rigs we were shooting in. We were able to create a rig by having two stereoscopic cameras on it. We also had two Black Magic cameras with traditional lenses on. Now we have a couple of choices. If we can get it to be engaging — but we have this added piece in VR — that’ll be really cool. We’re now in post-production. I should also mention the sound design: We used VR microphones. It’s an experiment. We’re kind of breaking new ground with this thing. I think it will be a fun project and we’ll let the community know when it comes out.
[-23:28] Allan: We should have you back when the short is out. I honestly think that if you aren’t breaking new ground — it’s not fun. When you’re doing something that requires tests, that’s where the real fun it. I didn’t realize you’d put out a book. When did you get the idea to work on a book?
Sergio: It was really random. I’d been doing courses and lectures locally. Out of that came the website: https://storyboardart.org. Then another artist who is a friend of mine, Anson Jew, was already talking to a publisher. He wanted to highlight some storyboard artists working in LA and he asked me to help him finish the book. I took over the project and we collaborated. What was really cool to get feedback on was [talking] about things that weren’t commonly talked about: rates, how to get jobs, how to build your portfolio together. Then we highlighted professional stories. We’ve gotten some positive feedback. That experience made us build up the website more.
[-20:17] Allan: What was your experience of putting the book together. Over the years, I had so many conversations with publishers about royalties. It didn’t ever make sense to do one. I think that doing a book is a lot of hard work. What was it like for you? What was the turnaround?
Sergio: That was what Anson was struggling with: He had so much on his plate! The publisher had these 6-month milestones of drafts. But because it was so visual I had to create images for it. The writing part was hard too. I had to be disciplined to do 2 pages a night. I had to schedule my output as it were a storyboard job. It took over a year. It wasn’t consistent. My advice would be to have a really tight outline. Then you can elaborate from there.
[-16:10] Allan: Do you want to talk about Storyboard Art? When did you set up the website?
Sergio: Storyboard Art (https://storyboardart.org) is an online community of visual storytellers. We help people and we train them to be professional story artists. You can go the traditional route. What we found was that it could go into any discipline: There are lighters who need to know how to tell a story because it will affect the emotional point of the shot. Everyone in the filmmaking industry should know about storytelling.
One of the reasons we started was because information wasn’t easy to get. We found there was a need for this and we built this community. We began in 2008. Now we have a lot more resources. A lot of it is pulling from the community. Our goal is to help people to improve people’s storytelling: You can either take classes or use this for reference.
[-12:50] Allan: I like that you have that spectrum for people who are further along and also people who are starting out. People who are senior are looking for people who are more at their level so they can get feedback. It’s so far-and-in-between to find that stuff online.
Sergio: We’re definitely trying to follow your lead with what you’re doing. The more people can find resources out there, the better the industry is going to be. The information is out there.
[-11:35] Allan: What are some of the success stories from your students?
Sergio: The ones that I remember: Guys get their first jobs.
– One of the guys was from Canada trying to get a job in the U.S. His portfolio needed to be a bit more organized — and he got a job at Nickelodeon. He was good, he just needed more focus.
– There was one guy who was studying economics. It was completely unrelated to storytelling. He wanted to get into animation and art. I helped him focus his portfolio.
We get other people who appreciate the information and apply it to their discipline. I didn’t realize people needed this.
[-08:56] Allan: Are there any life lesson that you could share? Any advice you could give to people?
Sergio: I always say: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you think of this as a career, you have to pace yourself. The burnout factor is real. I could work non-stop in my 20s, but now I need the balance in my life, to keep that passion going. You get burnt out. When I was a kid, this was the only thing I wanted to do. I don’t want to lose it. I want to create a balance in my lifestyle.
[-07:21] Allan: I’ve seen the flip side of this. You have some people who are too passionate. Balance is by far very important.
Sergio: I couldn’t agree more! That balance will keep you going longer.
[-04:28] Allan: That’s so cool! This has been awesome.
Sergio: Yeah, let’s catch up soon!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Episode. Thank you to Sergio for sharing what he’s been doing. Next Episode will be with Brandon Lee Jarratt who is a Technical Director at Disney. He went from school directly to Disney. He’s been able to build a niche for himself.
– I’m working on getting another Bootcamp out soon. Enjoy the first one: www.allanmckay.com/bestyearyet/. It’s about equipping you with skills throughout the year.
- The Productive Artist is out: www.allanmckay.com/productiveartist/.
Please review this Episode on iTunes.
Have an amazing 2018 — and rock on!