Episode 74 – Joaquin Baldwin – Disney’s Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, Moana and more!
In this Episode, Allan McKay interviews Joaquin Baldwin, a CG Layout Supervisor for the Walt Disney Animation Studios, as well as a photographer and animator (www.joaquinbaldwin.com/). Joaquin has been working for Disney since 2010 where he’s been a part of films like Zootopia, Moana, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and many more.
Joaquin’s short animated short films Sebastian’s Voodoo and Papiroflexia have earned him over 100 awards in festivals such as Cannes, Student Academy Awards, USA Film Festival, Cinanima. Joaquin holds a Masters in Animation from UCLA.
Episode 74 – Interview with Joaquin Baldwin
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 74. I talking with Joaquin Baldwin who is a Layout Supervisor for Disney. He’s worked on Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, and a dozen other amazing films, as well as his own short films. Lots to talk about. Let’s dive in!
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[-53:24] Welcome to a brand new Episode. I’m really excited to talk to Joaquin Baldwin. Joaquin is a Layout Supervisor for Disney. He’s worked on lots of cool projects: Moana, Zootopia, Frozen, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, you name it. Talking to Joaquin, it was really insightful to get a lot of the lowdown on his background; how he went straight to Disney after going to animation school; but most importantly, about his success with his short films. That was really cool how he was able to carve out such a successful career before he had moved into doing feature film and a lot of production work. It was really insightful and inspiring to talk about his achievements as well as his insight into the industry and what it takes to really succeed.
[-52:19] Joaquin is actually speaking in Paris. It’s this week. I’m about to hop on the plane and go over there. It’s at the IAMAG Master Class event. So hopefully a lot of you are coming to the event (https://www.iamag.co/features/masterclasses17tickets/). But if you don’t attend it this year, make sure to attend next year. I find it really fun just because I get to hang out with all of my FXTD Mentorship students, as well as the Live Action Series students. A lot of us will get together and hang out for the week. We drink, we party, we build friendships. It’s just a lot of fun, to actually hang out in person. I’m really excited to see everyone!
[-51:12] But it’s also, the event itself is really cool. I love all the speakers that are coming: People like Mike Blum (allanmckay.com/72), Ash Thorp (allanmckay.com/56), Dan Roarty (allanmckay.com/30). Who else? Neil Blevins, Nathan Fowkes, Jason Scheier, all of these other cool people. Marc Simonetti with whom I’ve already done a Podcast (allanmckay.com/45), but I might get him back on for Valerian (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2239822/?ref_=nm_flmg_wr_1), Luc Besson’s new movie for which Marc was the Art Director. It’s so cool!
[-[50:27] On top of that, I find that this event is so different than all the others I’ve ever been to, because the speakers and the attendees really hangout. It’s not like you go watch a talk and then go home. We’re all having dinner, we’re all having a great time. I’ve never really seen such access to the speakers before. I think it’s really cool. If I were attending, I’d be inspired by that.
[-[49:52] I’m also excited to get back to the U.S. I’ve got a few cool projects I’m working on, right now. But more importantly, we will be launching the FXTD Mentorship. I imagine it’s going to fill up pretty quickly. I’m really excited about that. VFX Rates I’m excited about that. I might do a talk in Mexico City as well, hangout, eat some grasshoppers.
[-[48:47] Next Episode, I’m going to be talking with Jason Scheier. Jason is another speaker at the IAMAG Master Class. Obviously, I’m taking advantage of the event coming up. I also wanted to get to know everyone and what better way than to do a Podcast? Jason is so cool! I loved doing that Episode. He’s worked with Disney, DreamWorks and a lot of other big places.
Let’s dive in! I’ll be taking to Joaquin.
[-[47:47] Allan: I’ll just say thanks again for doing this, Joaquin! I really appreciate it. If you want to start out with a quick introduction, tell us about yourself.
Joaquin: Yes. My name is Joaquin Baldwin. I’m a Layout Supervisor at Disney right now. I’ve been at Disney for six years now. Right now, I’m working on Wreck-It Ralph 2. I worked on Zootopia, Moana, Frozen, a bunch of other features and shorts. I’m a UCLA graduate. I also went to CCAD for undergrad, and I’ve been in animation since, pretty much, high school. I’ve been learning on my own.
Joaquin: And then yeah, went to Disney after finishing my degrees. I’ve been there ever since. It’s been pretty awesome!
[-[47:05] Allan: How did you get started? How did you discover animation and fall in love with it?
Joaquin: It was actually in high school. I was experimenting with computer graphics. Basically, every time I’d come back from school, I’d sit in front of the computer and try to learn a piece of software, different tools. We’ve challenges with my classmates on who could come up with coolest looking explosions. That’s what taught me about 3D and compositing. But it wasn’t something that serious.
It was when I working as a web designer that I got into flash animation. And I kind of took that knowledge and went to school at that point; but without even thinking about animation, still. I was going to do web design. I kind of hated that and I changed my majors. I liked the teamwork that was going on in the animation department and the film department. At that point, I started falling in love. I saw the power of narrative films. I never considered as storytelling before. I thought of it as a way to show cool graphics. But once I looked at it more seriously, I loved telling stories and building characters, exploring concepts like that. So it was in my second year in undergrad that I decided to become an animator, finally.
[-[45:19] Allan: That’s awesome, man. I was just curious what software were you toying around with when you first started?
Joaquin: Oh, god! I don’t even remember! It’s wasn’t Photoshop, it was PSP.
Allan: Oh, PSP! I loved that!
Joaquin: For 3D stuff, it was 3D Effects. It was one. There were spheres and text and you had to render for a few hours. I was using Bryce, very early versions. That was it. It just looked awesome and cool! I liked using Poser.
Allan: Poser and Bryce were the two programs that people would jump into saying, “Oh, I’m an animator.”
Joaquin: Was it the same company that made Bryce and Poser?
Allan: That would really blow my mind. I never really looked into who developed them.
Joaquin: Cause they have the same type of menu and buttons and stuff.
[-[43:32] Allan: It was always just the same mentality. Even back then, Maya was out, Max was out. I started messing with 3D pretty early on. I remember when I discovered Vista Pro which was the predecessor to Bryce. It wasn’t as popular but it did all these great environments. Bryce came out. It had all these presets. You could paint 256 grayscale, map interactively. You could create environments pretty quickly. There was Raph.com. I checked it out the other day. It’s still there. But the other was 3D Cafe. But those were the sites where people could post to and everything was Bryce. For whatever reason, those were the two. They were cheap but you could get results fast, but you stuff would look identical to everyone else’s.
Joaquin: And also there were always the free software CD’s. That’s how I got my demos and from friends.
[-[42:13] Allan: I don’t know why but always nerd out about those kinds of tools when everyone starts out. I guess, if you want to talk about your short films. You’ve got Sebastian’s Voodoo and Papiroflexia. I’d love to know a bit about these. What are the origins and how did they start?
Joaquin: Those were my two more popular shorts and I did them while I was at UCLA. Papiroflexia was more personal for me, it was my first narrative short. I’ve been doing Origami since I was 5 years old. I was in a poetry class and they had us write a sonnet. I wrote one about paper folding. It was the most horrible thing, I’m really embarrassed of it right now. But it had very good images. It was basically the script for the film, image by image. So I kind of based it on a friend of mine. His name is Fred, his personality. And I tried creating that effect that looks like paper actually folding. It wasn’t a problem.
It was very personal. I wanted to show something that was about environmentalism. My mom is an environmental educator. There is my friendship and the aspect of creating something new, and the whole paper folding aspect. I tried to dump all my personal passions into that one short, which is probably why it was so successful. It’s about passion.
And then Sebastian’s Voodoo was kind of odd. It was my first 3D film. And I knew nothing about voodoo so I had to do my research so I wouldn’t insult the religion too much. To me, it was a concept thing: What would happen if two voodoo dolls were fighting each other? Would they try to pin the other one, or try to pin themselves. I thought, “There is a cool idea here. There is an interesting concept I haven’t seen before.” I decided to rethink it and make it a little more meaningful [where] the theme of self-sacrifice would be at the core of it. It was done with Maya and After Effects. Basically, I was using all the computer at UCLA. Just the six computers overnight, trying to calculate my render times, setting them up to render at night and come back in the morning. There was a lot of compositing later on. It was a very quick project. What was it, ten months?
[-[38:24] Allan: What were some of the big challenges doing that?
Joaquin: Well, mainly my computer power was horrible. I was doing it on my laptop most of the time so it was very slow. Because it was a school project, I was doing all of my lighting, all my rigs, textures. I was learning. I didn’t know what compositing meant at that time, I had to look it up in a dictionary. Figure out what it means. I knew what blending was, but I was blown away. I had no clue if my skill set was enough to finish it on time.
[-[37:23] Allan: That’s really cool. Were there any pitfalls along the way? Moments of doubt when you were going through the process?
Joaquin: I think mostly when doing the stories. I didn’t know how to solve the story at some points. I had only two main character. I didn’t know what the story was for the longest time. And that part is really scary. You don’t know what your project is going to be. And another one was perhaps when I figured it out what the story was and I had to pitch it at school. And the main critique I was getting from everyone was: Why can’t you make it with a happy ending? No one is going to like watching it. I kept thinking to myself, no one is going to fucking like this. I’m never going to make it to film festivals. Who’s going to like watching a depressing film like this? And I think that ended up being the biggest strength of it. It was unexpected and darker.
[-[36:04] Allan: That’s right. At the same time, if everyone is asking to make it happy, why not go the opposite and make it different? If anything, having something like this, you can convey a lot more emotion. That’s really cool! And how was it received? Both of these [films] got a lot of attention.
Joaquin: Papiroflexia got into a few festivals right away and started getting a few awards; then it got into Cannes the Short Film Corner and they exploded from there. I think it got qualified for an Academy Award. It didn’t [end up getting] nominated, but it got on the list. And the same with Sebastian’s Voodoo. I think it was the USA Film Fest that made it qualify.
For me, it was kind of like a full-time job. I forgot about school for a year. It was just submitting to all the festivals, traveling, all that stuff. To me, it was like a game. How many can I get into? And if I get a financial award, can I reinvest it and get into more? Even yesterday, I was still getting emails about it.
[-[34:30] Allan: That’s great, man. I don’t know why, but I’m always interested in this sort of thing. It’s the origin of how we get started especially since we work for more commercial films. Again, for other people who want to create short films, would you say it’s really beneficial in terms of growing as an artist? Doing everything yourself is the ultimate way to grow, have a full understanding of the industry.
Joaquin: I think it depends on where you’re aiming. For me, going into cinematography and layout, it was absolutely critical to experience that. Layout becomes a slightly generalist career. You can’t just know the camera stuff. It’s not going to take you anywhere, it’s not enough. If what you’re interested is modeling, I don’t think it’s that critical. But anything related to story — production, directing, even animation — I think it’s much more interesting to explore all that.
Aside from the career path, I think it’s good to have that experience. You’re never going to have that chance again to go out with your short film and travel the world and meet all these people. It was absolutely amazing for networking. Plus, the travel. Even if you’re not going to get into directing, it’s worth it.
[-[28:18] Allan: For you, I guess you went straight from UCLA to Disney. That’s a pretty massive turnaround. I guess having all that clout [from the short films] it was no brainer. But what was that experience like, straight out of college?
Joaquin: Well, luckily they have this talent development program. That’s what I did when I started. It’s basically like an internship when you’re straight out of school when you have no industry experience. I had no idea how a pipeline really worked. I just had my own Maya experience. I think most big studios were doing something like that at the time. Also, internships are fantastic. I see guys doing that when in school and then immediately get hired after they graduate. They know them, so it’s easy for HR to bring them back.
I wasn’t a crazy Disney freak. I loved animation in general, but it wasn’t about Disney. I just happened to land there at the right time, it was during Tangled. It was immediately a crazy experience, just thrown right into it. Show them what you can do and do your best. Don’t do any overtime because they won’t pay for that anyway. They don’t want you to work extra. They want to see how much you can get done in a given amount of time.
[-[26:15] Allan: Tangled was a massive reboot for them. I had a lot of friends who were on Toy Story 3, Disney’s version of that. Obviously after that faded away, Tangled was the new team. The new everything. So, I can already guess what the answer would be, but I guess you came from layout to more supervising of layout. What was your attraction for doing that? I’m guessing it was because of having more of creative input. I’ve known a lot of successful directors who come out of layout.
Joaquin: Doing animatics, it’s wasn’t the most exciting part. My goal at that point was to direct a feature. That’s usually what you tell yourself. I aim for this thing. The clear path was storyboarding. I can do storyboards but I hate drawing. I don’t enjoy drawing for hours and hours. I was looking for an alternative. I talked to the director of How to Train Your Dragon and he said, “Layout is the second best, to get into that.” That’s because you’re working closely with directors and you are not working on individual shots, but segments. That means you have a beginning, middle and an end, with multiple shots. You tell the story from beginning to end. You know how to handle that. And that sounded more appealing to me.
I was into photography already but not that much yet. I was just starting in that. It sounded like an interesting challenge. And there are still cameras and lenses, and composition. It ended up a lot more interesting than I expected. If I had to pick any job now, from any department, I’d still pick layout. It’s the most fun! I like compiling the shot and it’s dirty and sending it down the line.
[-[23:08] Allan: You have a phobia of too many key frames. “It’s too much to tweak. I’m starting from scratch.”
Joaquin: Yeah. Either leave it dirty and I don’t care. Or, I’ll start over and do it again. I don’t want to sit there for hours and hours.
[-[21:51] Allan: Cool. What’s your favorite project to date? You’ve worked on some very iconic, very awesome projects.
Joaquin: For now, it’s still Zootopia. It is my favorite Disney film at the moment. It is my favorite one I’ve worked on. It was my first time being a supervisor. And so it became this thing where I had control over many sequences. Just a lot of creative input. And the message of the film, of course: Today is still the strongest day we can have out there. So, I love that a year later, people are still talking about it.
Allan: That’s awesome! What were some of the big challenges working on that?
Joaquin: Sets. A lot of heavy stuff. A lot of characters were heavy too. It was a lot of fighting slowness, how to work in real time. You never work in real time. You do what you can. That was pretty tough.
Allan: My background is doing effects and simulations. I know all about waiting.
Joaquin: Yeah. It’s not as bad, but it was tricky. Hours were not that crazy, but there were so many characters and different types of environments.
Allan: What were your challenges on Wreck-It Ralph?
Joaquin: The first one? That was six years ago.
[-[21:03] Allan: Well, now you’re doing a sequel. You’ve come a full circle.
Joaquin: Back then, I was still learning. I was still in the learning program. Everything was a challenge. I was just trying to learn the tools.
Allan: Again, you’re right. It was a long time ago. What has evolved this time around? How have things changed and the experiences with the technology that’s evolved or the team?
Joaquin: Even though I can’t tell you anything specific, it’s a huge challenge. Your processors are 10 times faster and your files are a 100 times heavier. It’s a completely different film.
[-[19:31] Allan: What about Frozen? It’s one of the big films, anywhere you go, you’re going to see t-shirts and have the songs stuck in your head.
Joaquin: For me, I know it’s the biggest thing I’ve worked on but it’s not a film that’s as personal. It’s not the type of film I enjoy for my own sake, even though I really like it. It was more straightforward. It’s not as crazy. It’s more elegant. You don’t have car races. It was simpler.
[-[18:31] Allan: How big are the teams for that sort of scale of an animated feature? The whole team?
Joaquin: More like 400-500.
Allan: That’s pretty impressive.
Joaquin: It changes from one to the next. There are people who are not a part of the team.
Allan: I always think it’s important to specialize. To do that one thing that makes you stand out. What’s your opinion on that? If someone wanted to be an animator, should they still learn lighting a little bit too, so that they at least have that knowledge? Or, do this and get really good at that one craft?
Joaquin: I’m kind of in between that. For myself, if I’m in layout, I’m going to learn things that help with that. That’s why I love photography. I love writing and reading which helps me with storytelling. But it doesn’t mean that I have to do just the layout. If I had to make a film today, I wouldn’t have a clue how to light, for instance. I don’t think it’s necessary to learn everything in there, but at least, don’t just stay in that one thing you know. If it’s animation, go learn about psychology or other things. Anatomy, biology. That’s going to help you.
[-[16:21] Allan: I think exactly the same. Whatever you’re interested in, find the three closest things to it. That was you’re going to grow. With animation, learning about comedy, anatomy. It doesn’t have to be VFX related.
Joaquin: You don’t have to feel this huge weight about learning everything. I don’t have to learn everything about music, but I would never be a musician. Do what you can. Focus on one aspect. If you need help, know whom to ask for help.
[-[14:46] Allan: I might loop back to Sebastian’s Voodoo. How involved were you with its music composition.
Joaquin: The composition itself? It was composed by Nick Fevola. He based it off of storyboards I gave him and guidelines. I specifically gave him some tracks of voodoo drums I found online. There are different rhythms. I wanted it to be based on strings and percussion. He just went crazy and did this insane percussion thing. From there, I ended up contacting Greg Ellis who is a really awesome percussionist here in LA. He did tracks for 300, Matrix, Iron Man. He loved the film and said he would do it for however much I was paying the other musicians. And it was like, “Holy crap!” At that point, we had this nice score. You bring it over to Greg and did these things I’ve never heard of before. All these exotic instruments!
[-[12:33] Allan: Did you ever do anything like participating in the 11 Second Club or any of those animation challenges?
Joaquin: I didn’t. I was always antisocial until this point in my life. I was a lurker around those place. Always looked at other people’s work but never participated. I kind of regret that. I could’ve learned a lot by exposing my work to other people, that early on.
Allan: I kind of grew up with a lot of animators. I would be watching them all the time. For you, what about referencing? Where do you source some of the stuff that you do? I’m assuming you do.
Joaquin: At on point, I had a collection of movies on my hard drive. I would pause them and take screen shots all the time. I did that for so long, just collecting screenshots. I never look at that folder. I think it’s just watching the films. I do watch a lot of stuff online. I think it’s Richard Evans who has a blog with stills from different films. There is that, and I look at a lot of YouTubers. They just do film analysis. That’s been very instructive and very condensed: 5-8 minutes. Other than that, taking pictures.
[-[09:39] Allan: There are a couple of DP’s I follow from time to time. You get a lot of insight from someone who’s sat there for hours, analyzing someone else’s work.
Joaquin: There are so many approaches that are different from the animation approach. Getting into the experimental stuff.
Allan: Do you have any references or resources you could recommend to people who want to learn animation and layout?
Joaquin: That’s a tough one. For layout, I can’t find anything. There are a couple of YouTube videos out there that are so basic, they don’t really tell you anything. For layout you need to learn photography, and that takes years to learn. You can tell someone about a wide lens, but until you go out and shoot, you’re not going to understand the difference. Photography classes are more approachable than layout classes. Animation stuff, I learned a lot of the stuff online. Learning software is just a tool. The more important part is how to tell the story. It’s hard to find good resources on cinematography.
[-[07:11] Allan: I completely agree. If you want to learn something, go out and do it. It’s not until you’re in the middle of it all, is when you start having aha moments. For you, how important is personal work?
Joaquin: I keep doing my own personal work all the time, too. I think it’s not just for keeping me satisfied, but it’s also about learning from it. For example, for the last few years, when I take a picture and I post it, I write down all the information: what f-stop, what shutter speed, what lens I used, how many millimeters. Once I write it down, I can see why I made those choices and what choice couldn’t been better. If I just posted the picture without studying it, it would have been just an instant in time. The amount of likes or clicks that doesn’t matter anyway. Your best work is going to be the one no one notices. It’s more about staying fulfilled and happy. That’s why I just like going out and shooting stuff. My regular work does teach me, but it’s not as exciting as the other stuff I could be doing; road trips or travel.
[-[05:06] Allan: Obviously as a DP, you’re always going to be documenting every shot. But purely, from your personal experience, I’ve never heard anyone actually writing down all the technical specifications. You can see the recipe for a successful shot. “I really liked that shot, what were the specs?”
Joaquin: You also find patterns. You realize what you’re doing repeatedly. From my last trip, I realize I’ve shot everything at f-11. That was absolutely stupid. I picked it as my default. I could’ve done much better, made creative choices.
Allan: I like that. As an artist, that’s the one thing you learn pretty quickly — are the habits of your supervisor or director. You learn what they like. I can always tell which shots are mine. I end up grading everything more contrast-y. You start to be able to tell people’s habits, before they know them themselves. I love the idea!
[-[02:19] We’re both going to be in Paris in a couple of days. What’s your talk is going to be on, in Paris?
Joaquin: Mine is going to be on cinematography and layout. It’s going to be called a Cinematography and Layout Cognitive Toolkit. I’m not going to teach the stuff that everyone teaches. I’m going to find concepts you learn working for a studio, giving them names and understand them better.
Allan: I’ll definitely be sitting in that class. For anyone who wants to find out more about you, what links should they check out?
Joaquin: My website is www.JoaquinBaldwin.com. On every social media, I’m @joabaldwin.
Allan: Thank you for this! It’s been awesome.
Joaquin: Thank you! It’ll be awesome seeing you in Paris.
That was really cool to hear all about his achievements. It was very inspiring. The next Episode will be with Jason Scheier. It reminds me of the discussions I’ve had with Ash Thorpe.
That all being said, have a great week! Rock on!
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