Episode 363 – Director Carlos Stevens – LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS
Episode 363 – Director Carlos Stevens – LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS
Carlos Stevens is an Animation Director, Writer and Executive Producer. He’s a former Student Academy Awards nominee for his animated short film Toumai. This achievement kick-started Carlos’s career working on a variety of Cannes Gold Lion award-winning commercial campaigns, notably for Sprint and Sony. Additionally, he has directed and designed campaigns for X-Box, Netflix, Marvel, EA, Lexus, SyFy, UFC, Target and many others.
His short film titled The Alchemist’s Letter, narrated by John Hurt, received critical acclaim and festival recognition worldwide. Carlos previously held directorships at Laika Animation Studios, design powerhouse Elastic, and animation studios Logan and Superfad. He recently directed an episode for season 3 of the acclaimed series Love Death + Robots on Netflix. He also has films in development at Warner Animation Group and is currently EP / Showrunner on an animated series at Nickelodeon / Paramount +.
In this Podcast, Animation Director, Writer and Executive Producer Carlos Stevens talks about his experience directing Love Death + Robots, his earlier short films The Alchemist’s Letter and the Student Academy Award nominated Toumai; consequences of rejection, importance of relationships and other lessons he’s learned throughout his filmmaking career.
Carlos Stevens’s Website: https://www.carlosstevens.com/about
Carlos Stevens on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1074389/
TOUMAI on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/11771984
THE ALCHEMIST’S LETTER: https://vimeo.com/125527643
[02:36] Carlos Stevens Introduces Himself and Talks About His Career Path
[08:59] The Art of Pitching Your Ideas
[13:05] The Making of The Alchemist’s Letter
[25:02] Consequences of Rejection and Importance of Relationships
[26:49] Working on Love Death + Robots
[33:43] The Blessing and the Curse of Short Deadlines
[37:36] Carlos Discusses His Slate of Future Projects
EPISODE 363 — DIRECTOR CARLOS STEVENS – LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 363!
I’m speaking with Animation Director, Writer and Executive Producer Carlos Stevens. We talk about his experience directing Love Death + Robots, his earlier short films The Alchemist’s Letter and the Student Academy Award nominated Toumai; consequences of rejection, importance of relationships and other lessons he’s learned throughout his filmmaking career – and so much more!
I’m really excited about this Episode!
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:08] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was that you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[37:52] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH CARLOS STEVENS
[02:25] Allan: Carlos, thank you for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Carlos: My name is Carlos Stevens. I am an Animation Director, Writer. I’ve worked in commercials for a long time. I’ve transitioned to entertainment a while back. I’ve done game cinematics, feature films, television.
[03:05] Allan: You’ve done a lot of amazing stuff! For you, growing up, did you always want to be in a creative role?
Carlos: I took a long, winding path. I reflect on Matt Damon and Ben Aflect winning an Oscar when they were something like 19 years old. At 19, I was pursuing a career in professional skiing. I was an athlete for a long time! As the story goes with athletes, I got hurt way too many times. I had a bad back injury and a whole host of devastating injuries that led me to reflect and realize I needed to develop my brain, not just my body. I was living in Tahoe and Oregon, so I could keep training. That’s when I suffered one of my worst injuries. I’d been shooting ski videos with my friends. That’s where I picked up a camera and started directing. I had a friend who was a tremendous graphic designer and he wanted to get into web design, and he needed someone to design programs. I was working at this little computer store in Oregon, fixing Apple computers. I’d done my certifications.
So I moved to Portland, Oregon and rolled into the Art Institute for web design. I got about a month into the program and I was looking at the other students. The film program students were running around with cameras and having fun. I thought, “That’s where I want to be.” I quit my major after a month or two and switched to the film department. I did my undergrad there for 4 years. I got my Bachelors. But I gravitated toward animation. I was taking modeling classes, design and animation classes. I was the only one at the end of my major who did an animated film for my thesis. I don’t know why. I was doing my internship at the Bent Image Lab. They had stage space and other interns there and art space that I could use. That’s when I realized that I may have a slimmer of talent. I submitted the film to festivals and it got traction, including going to the Student Academy Awards as a finalist. I realized that was my calling in life.
From there, my career went on a winding path. I moved to Seattle and did commercials there, doing design and live action. I was learning how to pitch and how to do my own boards. Then I moved to New York to be a Creative Director at a company called Logan. That’s how I got experience running a company and directing live action. My path took me back to Portland where I got hired for Laika. Then I moved to LA.
[08:09] Allan: What year were you at Logan?
Carlos: You’re familiar with these places! I was there in 2011.
[08:59] Allan: What were the lessons of learning how to pitch your ideas?
Carlos: I got so lucky! When I moved to Seattle, there was a Creative Director [who] was brilliant at pitching. He could create 8 panels of concept art of what the spot would look like. It was photocomping with 3D. And it would look fantastic! I learned a lot of technique from him, in terms of the bar I needed to hit in terms of quality. I learned the craft from him. And the Owner of the company had this ability to look for new angles, in terms of the conceptual component. Now, as I move into my entertainment career, I’m standing on the shoulders of those who’ve done stuff before me. The first tendency is to think about what you know. Things are “same as”. The trick is to get beyond the cliches and find the new mashup of them. That’s the conceptual part of it. I remember being on the phone call one time. I was just shaking the first time I got to speak. I realized later no one was judging other people. Everyone is too concerned with how they sound themselves. That’s where I learned to push the boundaries. Sometimes, I have to remember to not overthink it. If I feel the first instinct, to got with it.
[13:05] Allan: You made a short film called The Alchemist’s Letter which was narrated by John Hurt. Can you talk about what inspired the story and the process of creating it?
Carlos: Absolutely! I’d done my short film in college in Portland. I wanted to do another one but I hadn’t started writing it. I was talking to that Creative Director. And he said, “You know what’s fascinating? Alchemy!” And then he walked away. I was left with that nugget of information. Moving forward, it resonated with me because my family is involved in an alchemy of sorts. My father has a Ph.D. in psychotherapy and he’s practiced shamanism for many years. I’ve been around that idea. Shamanism is rooted in history and many native cultures. The story is not reflective of my relationships with my father. Actually, my father has been a phenomenally committed and available parent and guide. I didn’t have kids when I wrote it. I was so committed to my work and craft, in the back of my mind I always questioned if I’d be as good of a dad as my father was. I wondered if I’d pay more attention to my work, so I channeled my fear into the story. It deals with the currency of life being memory and time. That’s where it came from. Plus, magic was such a rich landscape to play in! I’m a huge Disney fan.
[16:16] Allan: What was the process of it like? What were the hurdles through which you went?
Carlos: For anyone trying to make a short film without finance – it’s a long, uphill battle. Unless you possess all the craft and ability yourself! With Redshift, there are definitely ways to do it. I started writing it and my first few drafts were very rough. It took shape over time. I was in New York when I started it. Logan was not an animation house. They were more live action. It wasn’t a place where I could do production. It was just me. I had some friends who’d help me when they had free time, with modeling or character design. I compiled this pitch package: my script, some design and previs, and some music. I remember this moment distinctly: I was visiting home for Christmas and I said, “I’d been working on it for 2 years and I have nothing to show for it.” Being in commercials, I knew how much this shit cost. My mom said, “You’ve got to stop worrying about how you’re going to make it. You’ll drive yourself crazy! Just believe you’re going to make it.” I started doing that. Whether that’s the reason why, but I got a call from Laika and they were looking to bring a Director into their house. It was their short form division. They wanted me to come out. I showed them my material. They wanted me so much, they wrote it into my contract that they’d help me get this done. It was just serendipity. They had some grants from the state, to showcase the talent of their artists. They did another short film and it was brilliant.
The story doesn’t end there. When I got to Portland, I was working at Laica. I had access to all these stages. I learned stop motion. We started working on my film. We’d done most of it. Travis Knight, who’s the CEO of Laika, wanted to focus on entertainment. The EP at Laika house ended up buying from Laika and turning it into House Special. In the middle of all that, I was caught in the crosshairs. I had a contract with Laika. The production facility didn’t belong to Laika anymore. I went to Travis and we worked out a deal where I could keep the film and I got the rights for it back. Ultimately, I got to finish it on my own. I didn’t have any voice actors, any music, any sound design. There were still a variety of shots I had to finish myself.
Then I did a Kickstarter to pay for the voice talent. We raised $15K. This is a fun part of the story: I have agents now. At the time, I didn’t have any agents, I didn’t know any actors. I’d taken a trip to Puerto Villarta, Mexico. I brought the finished picture to my parents’ friend. He said, “This is fantastic!” and he connected me with an agent in London, with one of the biggest agencies. I sent a link and I got a link from the agent of John Hurt. They showed it to John. I flew out to London to record him. A lot of serendipity had to happen to make this film!
[25:02] Allan: Do you feel like a lot of the time that is the case? Is it timing and relationships?
Carlos: One hundred percent! I think it’s a healthy mixture of extremely hard work, dedication, commitment, and never giving up. If you do those things, then the relationships is what delivers the pay-off. Most of the high-profile work I’ve done have been through relationships of the back-end of working really hard on something that didn’t pan out. But because of that work we did and that effort, down the road this new thing came around. In some cases, there’ve been big projects I’d gotten where I didn’t even have to pitch. Because I had done something else in the past. For example, I’ve worked really hard on the pitch but they went with someone else. Down the road, they’d say, “He’s the perfect guy for this!” Those failures tend to hurt. It’s like relationships and breakups. Breakups hurt really badly but you don’t realize they’ve opened you up for the next great thing.
[26:49] Allan: I’d love to talk about Love Death + Robots. You directed Mason’s Rats for Season 3. How did that project come about?
Carlos: That was an example where a relationship paid a huge dividend. To track it back, when I was working at Laika, we had a CG Supervisor. I loved the guy to death! When I moved to LA, he put me in contact with my current Manager Tarik Heitmann. I formed a relationship with Tarik and he put me in touch with Axis Animation in Scotland. While I was reworking my career in LA, I started working with Axis on game cinematics. They called last August. They’d done two Episodes on the show. They’ve become a vendor for Tim Miller and Blur. It was a short timeline. I had very little time. I slapped together a pitch in a day and a half. In the past, I would’ve hired some artists. But I didn’t have the time. I used references as much as I could. I had an opinion about it. I was inspired by my grandpa, too. I had a through tone. I shipped the pitch off and I got a call in Mammoth (where I was on vacation with my family). I could tell on the first call they liked my pitch. Tim was excited. The crazy thing was that Tim said, “I just want you to know: You’re fucked. Because you only have 6 months.” Holy shit! I’ve been fucked before.
[31:22] Allan: What was the experience like working with Axis and Blur?
Carlos: Every project is its own puzzle to solve. There are various relationships and different hierarchies of studios. It’s always a matter of managing all sides. I wouldn’t say it was unique but what I found interesting about it was that the show lives and breathes on the variety it offers. Different directors, different voices, different styles. What’s really fascinating is that although there are all these styles, they’re connected by a specific tone. You have to make sure you’re doing your own thing but that it lives in the tone of the series. That’s where Tim makes sure each piece fits. It was a balancing act of my own tendencies and understanding Tim’s tendencies, and Axis team’s tendencies. It was a fun challenge to deal with.
[33:43] Allan: That’s cool! The fun part is being able to collaborate with so many different teams. That’s what makes the show such a great show!
Carlos: Working in entertainment, things can take forever. I remember in the past when I worked in commercials, I envied the entertainment world. I like to make sure things are of the highest quality bar. I’m relentless in that pursuit. But then having worked in entertainment, you spend so long working on development, you start to envy the commercial world. You miss doing those things. The 6-month timeline – although it was really short – I remember taking my first meeting at Blur. We were reviewing our first reel. Director Emily Dean was there and she’d just wrapped her Episode. I remember thinking at the time, “Oh, crap! These Directors are already finishing!” Although it was a short timeline, the benefit of it is that you just have to go! There is no time to sit around and try different things. It eliminates so much of the hustle of second guessing. It’s a blessing and curse at the same time! People definitely lost sleep on that project but they’re proud of what it is. And I’m sure it’ll do great things for their confidence and careers.
[37:36] Allan: It’s a passion! We all signed up for this! What’s next for you?
Carlos: I do have a feature film that’s been in development for several years at Warner Brothers called Zero. I can’t talk about the concept. It’s a spectacular script and story. I’m doing that with Animal Logic. I can’t say enough wonderful things about them. I’m also starting work on a mini-series at Paramount + and Nickelodeon. I’m the EP and Showrunner on that. I can’t mention what it is but it’s a huge, beloved franchise. I’m excited for that one! I’m pitching a feature with my writing partner Marc Haims. He wrote Kubo and the Two Strings. We’ve been talking to Director Ruben Fleischer (who directed Venom). That’ll be his foray into animation. Those are the big things. And there are 50 other smaller things boiling under the surface.
[40:01] Allan: Where can people go to find out more about you and all the amazing projects you’re doing?
Carlos: The most updated source would be my website: https://www.carlosstevens.com/. I do have IG but it probably has 200 posts on it.
[43:27] Allan: This has been great, Carlos! I really appreciate your time!
Carlos: Thank you, Allan!
Okay, what did you think? Thanks for listening!
I want to thank Carlos for coming on the Podcast.
Next week, I’m sitting down with Aaron Sims, Film Art Director at Aaron Sims Creative. Until then –
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