We Interviewed Sandro Cleuzo - Character Animator at DreamWorks Animation Studios

Posted at Nov 24th, 2013 by AnimDesk.

We Interviewed Sandro Cleuzo - Character Animator at DreamWorks Animation Studios

Sandro Cleuzo is a golden age animator, he has been involved in a lot of memorable animated films such as 'Thumbelina', 'Fantasia 2000', "Emperor's New Groove", 'Anastasia', 'Enchanted' and many more.

Sandro was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil. There he discovered his passion and talent for art in a young age. Ever since doing comics and animation, Sandro has kept his passion for art and eventually he started working in a comic book studio as an internship at the age of 14. Later on he moved to work at 'Briquet Films' to do In-Between and cleanup work where he eventually became a staff animator. 4 years later, Sandro moved to Ireland, to work for Don Bluth's Animation Studio.

His 6 years career at Don Bluth let him to work and animate memorable characters, and scenes on world level production animated features. After Don Bluth, Sandro moved between many studios such as: Fox Animation Studios and Disney Animation Studios.

Sandro Cleuzo - Character Animator at DreamWorks Animation Studios

Thank you very much Sandro Cleuzo this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself Where are you from?

Thanks for having me here. I was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil and lived there until 1990 when I decided to move to Dublin, Ireland to work for Don Bluth.

What do you love to do when you're not animating? Any hobbies? Extra passions?

I seem to be always working but when I am not I like to watch movies, specially classics and foreigners. If I am back in Brazil I like to spend the weekends in the countryside and enjoy nature and get away from the city. I love to travel too and I visit new places whenever I can.

How do you summaries the growing up part and how does it involves animation?

I was a kid from the 70's and 80's and it was really a more simple time than it is today. I played a lot with toys like GI Joe, Forte Apache, the plastic Indians and cowboys, Playmobil and things like that and I remember I would create stories and adventures with them and situations.

Stories that were kind of structured with the beginning, middle and conclusion, just like it was a film or play. Of course, I did that without realizing. There were the bad guys, the good guys, the heroes, etc.

I was never good in sports because I never cared for them and never learned to play soccer, which is like a religion in Brazil, and was always the last to be chosen to play at school Gym classes. I played in the street sometimes but I was more indoors than outdoors and because of that I was constantly drawing and watching animated shows on TV.

Growing up, did you draw a lot? What style did you like the most? Did you have a favorite film?

I think I always drew but I don't remember when I started. My family tells me that as a little kid I would be drawing everything, furniture, refrigerator, everything and I would ask my aunts and uncles to pose for me so I could draw them.

In the 70's there was a TV channel that used to show cartoons all afternoon every day. I would come from school around lunchtime and spend a whole afternoon watching all kinds of cartoons, Japanese and American and even some from Russia.

Character Design by Sandro Cleuzo

American shows like Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, and 'Hanna Barbera' cartoons were the majority. I would watch and tried to copy the characters from the TV. I remember being able to draw Woody Woodpecker quite well.

The Disney animated shows were only shown on Sundays and of course they would never show a whole feature, only shorts. Remember, It was before the VCRs and the Disney films on tape.

To see a classic Disney feature was rare and was only possible when they came to theaters but I knew I liked that kind of animation the most. I could see the difference in quality and how they moved and the colors and FX, they seemed richer.

Where did you go to learn the art of Animation? Which School was it?

I never went to school for animation or drawing. I am self-taught. There was no animation school in the 80's back there and my parents probably could not afford drawing school for me.

I would say my school was my first job at an animation studio in Sao Paulo where I got an internship when I was 15 years old.

When did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?

It was when I was 13 or so. I started actually drawing comic books because it seemed something you could actually achieve and I knew there were people who did that in Brazil but animation seemed to be something so out of reach, and I did not even imagined that there were studios that produced animation there.

Then I saw a TV series on our public television called "Lanterna Magica" which was dedicated to the history of animation Worldwide and there was an episode where they showed a Brazilian studio that did animation, so that was when I learned that there was such a place in my own city.

Did you have a natural talent or you always had the skill do draw and animate?

I always drew so when I started animation it was a natural thing. I always seemed to understand how to do it. Of course, I could not do it well and I had to learn and get better but I somehow understood the process quite naturally.

What was your first work you ever worked on? How did you get it at first?

What happened was, like I said before, I did lots of comics for myself and I would create the characters and stories and would make a whole book. One day in school, I had just finished a Geography test early and had time to spare so I started drawing my comics.

My teacher saw it and asked if she could borrow them, and I said sure. What she did was sent them to a famous comic artist in Brazil called Mauricio De Souza who's really famous, like a Walt Disney of brazil. He has tons of famous characters in comics, merchandise, animation and theme parks.

They liked my drawings and offered me an internship at his studio which was a big deal at the time. I was only 14 and had never worked before. I used to go there every day after school and I had to copy and practice how to draw the characters until I got good to actually work full time. However, one day, within a month or so there, something happened that change everything and my life.

I met an artist from their animation department, which was located in another part of the city. She invited me to go there to visit during lunch time and I said yes. It was the first time I saw an animation desk and the animation disc. She took a stack of drawings and flipped to me and I saw the characters move and I was hooked, I said that's what I want to do.

Maybe she saw how amused I was that, before I went back to my desk at the comic book studio, she took me into this guy's office that looked like a lawyer.

He was wearing a suit and a tie and there were law books behind him on the shelf. He Definitely wasn't an artist. She told this guy that I wanted to work in animation and if I could be hired and he said yes, sure, just like that.

Remember, I was 14 and very naive, never worked before and did not know how things worked in a company or it's politics. I went back to my desk and continued copying the comics as usual.

That same day, the lady in charge of the comics department, which was also, at that time, the current wife of the owner called me into her room and gave me hell. She screamed at me, called me irresponsible kid, said if I was not happy there that I had to leave and fired me. I could not believe it, I did not know what to do and I went home but did not tell my parents because I was afraid, I blew it.

I went back the following day to beg for my internship back and she told me to leave. I also did not have the animation job that was promised as well so that was that.

But it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. Everybody there heard the lady screaming at me and firing me and one girl, who I do not know who she was to this day and do not remember her face, came to me and gave me a phone number and told me to call it because it was a good studio for me to try.

I did call and made an appointment and took my drawings and some crude animation I did, not filmed because I had no way of shooting it so it had to be flipped.

The studio was called Briquet Films and the owner of the studio, Luiz Briquet, saw potential in my work and gave me a one-month trial.

On the first day they gave me an in-between to do just to start and it was from a commercial they were working on. I did it and they took a look and thought it was great and used for the commercial and gave me more, so I actually started producing on the very first day.

After one month I was hired full time and it became my school and I had no idea that it was one of the most important and influential studio in the country. It turned out to be a studio that had a much higher level of production than the comic studio I was fired from and the best animators in the country did provide work for it.

I start assisting some of the best animators of that time and I learned by in-betweening and cleaning up theirs shots. They never taught me or sat down to show me something or go over a drawing, I had to learn on my own by studying their work, looking at books and watching Disney films frame by frame.

I eventually did learn and was promoted to animator. I spent 4 years there and then I left to Ireland.

You worked a long time at Walt Disney Animation Studios, what were you working on? Which characters at which movies?

Well, before Disney, I spent almost 6 years working for 'Don Bluth'. He gave me my first job in feature animation and I will be forever grateful for that. I was 19 years old and had saved money for one year and flew to Ireland to apply for a job at his studio.

They did not know I was coming over and I guess they were impressed that a 19 year old from South America would do that. Don looked at my portfolio and hired me on the spot as an animator, not even assistant, it was amazing, he really believed in me. I wanted to work for him since I saw The Secret of NIMH, which impressed me so much.

I started on A Troll in Central Park, we animated whatever came our way, I did Stanley, the boy and the little girl. Then on Thumbelina I did mostly her and the Prince. I animated a lot of Let me Be Your Wings sequence. On Pebble and the Penguin I did lots of the 2 main characters and a bit of the villain.

In 1994 they moved to Arizona and started Fox Animation Studios and we did Anastasia there, I animated mostly her. After 2 years at Fox I decided that I need to leave to try something different and I still wanted to work at Disney, so I applied there and was hired and start at Disney in 1997 as an animator on 'Fantasia 2000' on the Firebird segment, where I animated the Sprite in most of the sequence where she tries to run away from the Firebird that attacks her...

Then I moved to what it was called Kingdom in the Sun and I animated 100 feet until it was scrapped and changed to 'The Emperor's New Groove' where I was a Lead Animator on the small characters like the Theme Song Guy, The Old Man, The waitress and the nervous official who is charge of choosing a bride for the Emperor.

After that I moved to 'Home on the Range', which was called "Sweating Bullets" until another story change took place. I was a supervising animator on the Sheriff and Jeb the goat.

After that I worked a bit on 'My Peoples' in Florida until they cancelled it and closed down the studio. I was laid off with everybody else and went back to Brazil. I went back to Disney briefly in 2006 as a designer for a couple of months and then left to work on Disney's Enchanted for James Baxter Studio. I went back to Disney as an animator on 'The Princess and the Frog' in 2008.

Why did you decide to leave Walt Disney Animation Studios and move to DreamWorks instead?

As I said before, I was actually laid off from the studio in 2004 when they closed the Florida studio where I had relocated from Burbank. It was a very interesting time. One day you are up there as an upcoming supervising animator and respected and then you are laid off with no explanation.

It made me realize this is business and that's how they treat you, so my love for Disney as a company and how they conducted business was shattered. I still love the time I had there and think I did some of my best work while there and I still love the old classics but I woke up and started to treat it more like business than the "family" thing.

In 2008 I went back for 'Princess and the Frog' because I was told that they had a new commitment to hand drawn animated films and things were great with Lasseter in charge and all but it only lasted for 2 movies. I decided not to stay for 'Winnie The Pooh' and left on my own accord when Frog was done to pursue other projects. I worked for DreamWorks on the 'Kung Fu Panda' 2D shorts, commercials, designs and other projects.

Tell us a little bit about DreamWorks, how did you end up animating for them? What steps did you take to get there?

They already knew me and my work and when they started 'Me and My Shadow' and were assembling the team for the hand drawn animation part of it they offered me a position and I accepted because I thought it was an amazing and fresh project. I was living in Brazil and agreed to relocate once again here to LA to work on it.

What is a typical day looks like for you at DreamWorks compared to Disney?

It was very much the same except there were many more meetings at DreamWorks to attend to than Disney's. Also, breakfast and lunch are free for the employees at DreamWorks, which is nice. Not even Disney do that.

When do you wake up and what do you on average everyday at the studio?

I get there around 9:00 AM and check e-mails and look at the schedule of meetings I have to attend. Then I start working on my current shot until lunch time when I take a break and back to the drawing board or in the case of DreamWorks, the Cintiq.

I finish around 6:00 or 6:30 PM or sometimes later. I might have a coffee break around 4:00 PM, usually with a friend to talk a bit.

What part of your job do you like best and why? What makes it so awesome in your eyes?

To me is the drawing part of it. That's why I chose not to get into CG animation. Not because I cannot do it, because I know I can. I took classes at Disney and DreamWorks and I know I can do it, but I love the drawing too much.

Of course, the performance, acting is great to get it right and is the most important thing but I like the combination of the two. That's why I am more and more trying to get into design work, because I still want to keep drawing.

Do animators collaborate with each other at the studio? Do you guys also hangout after work?

We do, but it's something you have to ask for. We are not great in coming over to suggest something or give advice unless the other animator ask.

Animation is collaborative and it's part of the big studios. You also have to be prepared for criticism. Your work is criticized all the time and you have to let your ego outside.

In my case, I very seldom hangout with peers after work. Sometimes I meet with a friend for lunch or dinner but not that much.

What are some of your favorite projects you're proud to have been a part of?

I loved working on the 'Firebird' segment of 'Fantasia 2000'. "The Emperor's New Groove" and "Home on the Range". I also loved working with James Baxter on 'Enchanted' and I was really enjoying 'Me and My Shadow'.

I am also very fond of the first feature film I was involved with at Bluth's studio. I was 19 when I started there as an animator on 'A Troll in Central Park'.

It was a great and exciting time, the first time I was animating (or trying to) emotions which is very different from the commercials I animated before. It was great working there even if the film does not make anybody's list of favorites.

The studio was beautiful and the people very nice. Also Dublin is such a beautiful city it was so great to live there.

What's your animation workflow looks like while animating?

Well, first I need to know my sequence and what is happening in it. I would talk with the director about my shot and what is happening in it and what the character is feeling and how he should act.

After that information and after seeing the animatic I listen to the sound track and the voice over and over until I can see the animation and performance in my head.

I then do a quick thumbnail, very loose just to get the poses I see in my head on paper, that's how I plan a shot.

After that I start on the actual drawing size. I will have a layout already prepared for me to work with so I know where the character is and his size.

I would start very rough, very loose. Drawing for me is not that important at this stage, I just want to get the performance and movement as quick as I can.

Then I would make a pencil test and add the sound to see if plays well. I would then show this first pass to the director and if he approves it I then go back and go over the drawings and put it on model, draw it more carefully and make sure the spacing works, the secondary animation, etc.

We call it to tie down. Then I would shoot a new and final pencil test for the director to approve.

Of course, sometimes I would have to do some research if I am animating an animal or some kind of acting or motion, etc. We animators have to research and look for ideas for our shots.

Which cool methods and tricks of the trade do you use the most when animating?

I don't know how to answer that, but I can tell you that using the proprietary program that DreamWorks developed for hand drawn animation we were able to do a lot of tricks like paste and copy, cut and move parts of the drawings, rotate, etc. It was amazing what you could do.

In retrospect, do you look for imperfections in your work?

All the time. I really do not like to see what I did before and I do not watch the movies I worked on. It's painful because I now can see where the mistakes are and I wished I could fix but it's too late, so I prefer not to watch them.

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using, what are your preferences? Plugins? Methods?

Right now I am using my pencil a lot because I am doing design work. I also use a bit of Photoshop. I prefer to draw with pencil on paper. For design, I like pencil, markers and pen.

What are you thoughts of the general work instability that a lot of animators talks about?

It's hard, specially for people still doing hand drawn animation but it's now happening a lot to CG animators too so I think is something you have to accept.

You have to accept that this is how is going to be for a while and that's why you really have to love doing animation so you can stay strong because there might be lots of ups and downs.

What is your favorite 2D or 3D animated film(s) and game, of all time and why?

I have too many to mention here but I can give you a few:

What are your thoughts about Japanese Animation? Are you a fan or prefer good old American Animation and style?

I like some of the Japanese films. There's one in particular that I love for it's design called 'The little Prince' and the 'Seven Headed Dragon', a beautiful designed film from the 60's.

I also like The Magic Boy by Toei, and some of the Hayao Miyazaki films too. I also like a few TV series that the Japanese produced in the 60's and 70's like Princess Sapphire and Future Boy Conan.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business?

Right now, because there are not much going on in hand drawn animation, to get a more stable job and to actually animate. There are no projects to animate right now, hand drawn I mean.

Have you ever had a character/scene that was too difficult for you to animate and which film(s) was that on? And how did you tackle that problem?

A few. The Sprite from "Fantasia 2000" - 'Firebird' segment was a little difficult to do. I had to work hard on it and draw over quite a lot to get it right.

My first shot did not impress the directors because no one knew how the Sprite should be done in the first place, so with the help of my supervising animator at the time, Tony DeRosa, I was able to re-do it and when I showed again they liked it. It was just a matter of focus on it and working harder.

Who influenced you the most in the animation industry? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor during your early stages?

I had no mentors, which was unfortunate but I was influenced by many. First, the Disney animators from the classics like the "9 Old Men", specially Milt Kahl.

Milt was a genius and the best draughtsman they ever had at Disney, no one could touch him, he was amazing. He was the one who helped all the other animators with their drawing problems and helped keep the quality in almost all features from 'Pinocchio' through 'The Rescuers'. He also did basically most of the model sheets for the movies.

Also, I was hugely influenced by the art of Don Bluth and his early films and in particular by one of his best animators, John Pomeroy who did the best animation in 'The Secret of NIHM', like the Great Owl and the villain Jenner, which I love.

Also from the new generation I was also influenced a lot by the work of James Baxter who is one of the best today.

I have lots of influences, too many to mention here. I study and collect the work of many artists and animators that I like, I tried to absorb everything that is good from all areas, animation, fine art, illustration, etc.

What are your thoughts about animated films nowadays? Do they become harder to produce or animate due to higher competition between the companies?

To me, there are many films being made, more than ever, which is great but lots of them are looking very similar, like formulas.

You kind of see the same thing over and over, no risks are taken which is too bad. Walt Disney always took risks and tried different things. I think there's room for all kinds of stories and genres that you can do in animation besides the traditional family Princess or underdog kind of picture.

Do you think animating a 3D film is more fun than a 2D film or the other way around? What are your thoughts?

Well, to me I have to answer hand drawn film, of course.

What are your thoughts about online animation schools like Animation Mentor, iAnimate? Would you teach there if you had a chance?

I don't know, I never did, so I have no idea how it is. I know for sure that many animators these days from these on-line schools are getting jobs at big studios so it seems to work. Of course, it also depends on the student and how dedicate he or she is.

Do you think such schools mass produce animators to the already low demand from the studios themselves?

I guess so, there are lots of animation schools out there and lots of students graduating but not many jobs.

Again, only the best ones will survive and competition is fierce but there will always be room for really talented artists.

Have you ever thought about going solo? Becoming an animation entrepreneur and create your own stamp in animation history?

Yes, I want to do that and that's my next step and I have plans for it.

2D Animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?

It's ridiculous, it should never be a battle or competition. It should be both, there should be room for both, that's all. There's no reason to let hand drawn animated films disappear, it's a great and beautiful art form and you can tell any kind of story with it.

If you can create something fresh and interesting with great story and characters I have no doubt that people will go see it.

Tell us about the time you were nominated for the the 2008 Annie Awards, what was the award about?

I was only nominated, I did not win it. It was for best animation for a 'Kung Fu Panda' short.

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2013-2014?

Well, this year 2013 was and still has been a very interesting year for me and I felt very creative and did a lot. I animated on 'Me and My Shadow' for DreamWorks for at least 9 months.

Animated on a new 'Kung Fu Panda' 2D short also for DreamWorks which also made me work on a Cintiq for the first time and now I am comfortable with it.

I went to Florence, Italy for a workshop there and they also published a book with my design work, which was great and I just finished my new book and poster that I will be selling at the CTN expo this year.

I am now a freelancer doing design work and on the side I am trying to finish a 2 minutes hand drawn short film.

Do you think it is harder for animators who aren't located in the USA (Where big companies resides) to get into the business?

No, animation is done everywhere these days and you might be able to work in your country. Also, with some dedication and study you can get to learn and be as good as animators here in the US. I believe that with all the information you have in the internet it's totally possible to learn and be as good as they are here.

Of course, in some countries you might not have the opportunity to work in a high level quality film like they produce here in the USA and in that case I totally understand why one might want to move here but I know of animators working from their countries for studios here in LA, like Sony. If your dream is to work at Disney, DreamWorks or Pixar then it's a different story, you have to move over here.

If you could choose to work with any artist (past, present) from the animation business, who would it be and why?

Naturally I would say Mit Kahl, but I would have loved to have worked with any of the "9 Old Men".

If you could back in time, what would you do different in regarding to the word of animation?

If I could go back in time I would make sure and do short films. One of my mistakes was not making my personal films, and I regret that and now I am trying to catch up.

I tell students and artists trying to break into the industry today to do a short film if they can. It's the best portfolio one could have these days and it can lead to many opportunities.

I have a young friend who I convinced to do a short film because he could not find work in any studio in Brazil. He did it and put it on line and he got a contract to do a weekly web series for a famous comedian troupe there.

He is so happy and he thanked me for convincing him in making that short. Sometimes you have to make it happen, I really do believe that.

Do you find yourself checking out other animator'a works? Comparing them to your own? Maybe learning new things from them?

Always. I study others all the time, old animators, current ones and even new ones. You can learn something from everyone.

Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation or gaming business?

As I said above, if you can, try to make your own personal short film because it can really make an impact. A personal film will show studios your sensibility not only as an animator but in many other areas.

They can show your story side, cinematography, sense of color, how you edit together, music, etc. It's a very complete thing and will lead to great opportunities within the industry. Of course, it's not easy but it is definitely more doable today than when I started.

Also, it might sound cliched but you really have to love animation because you will have to give a lot to it. Animation is nothing but hard work and long hours and constant studying but it is the most amazing and fulfilling art form and when you see you film playing or your character alive on the screen and people responding to it is the best feeling ever.