Interviewing Carlos Zaragoza (Art Director)

Having worked closely with directors such as Carlos Saura and Guillermo del Toro, amongst many others, designing and assisting in the art direction of Oscar and GOYA-winning (also Bafta nominated) films such as ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, we can say that CARLOS ZARAGOZA has, without a doubt, plenty of talent, knowledge and experience to inspire the new generations aiming to work in the fields of Art Direction and Visual Development for the film industry. His most popular credits include, in chronological order, from oldest to newest:

Buñuel and King Solomon´s Table (2001, directed by Carlos Saura), No Somos Nadie (2002, directed by Jordi Mollà), Mortadelo & Filemón: the Big Adventure (2003, directed by Javier Fesser), Pan´s Labyrinth (2006, directed by Guillermo del Toro), Asterix at the Olympic Games (2008, directed by F.Forestier & T.Langmann), The Tale of Despereaux (2008, directed by Sam Fell, Gary Ross & Robert Stevenhagen), Gnomeo & Juliet (2011, directed by Kelly Asbury), Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012, directed by Eric Darnell), Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014, Directed by Rob Minkoff), and Madagascar 3 (2014, directed by Eric Darnell).

He’s also worked extensively as Visual Development artist for the upcoming Puss in Boots 2: Nine Lives & 40 Thieves, to be released in 2018.  Carlos is currently Production Designer at Sony Animation.

In theatre he was the set designer for The Sound of Music and in commercial art direction he has worked with high profile brands such as Coca-Cola and governmental institutions such as the Ministry of Culture of Spain.

Awarded in Excellence by the ADG (Art Directors Guild) this outstanding professional, who started his career in Spain and has lived and worked in London and Toronto, is now based in Los Angeles, California, from where he responded to this interview.

SRM: Carlos, tell us a bit about your background, where you are from and whether your environment supported you in your pursuit of a career in the arts, please.

CARLOS ZARAGOZA: I am originally from Madrid, Spain. My family was very supportive when I decided to start my career in arts and began my studies in Fine arts at the University in Madrid. My wife works as a designer too, and that‘s great whenever we need mutual support.

SRM: Support is a key factor in the development of an artist’s career, indeed. At what moment did you decide on your art specialisation and how did you start in the film industry?

CARLOS ZARAGOZA: After I graduated from Fine Arts, I worked on my own projects in painting and photography. I had always been passionate about movies and scenography, and I was looking for a way of conveying my artistic ideas through audio-visual media, but I needed specific training. I studied Art Direction for Film & TV, at ECAM (Madrid Film School) during 3 years. That gave me a great background in filmmaking. Even though I didn’t attend architecture school, studying at ECAM gave me a great base in History of Architecture and a solid training in architectural design and set construction of physical scenery.

When I finished at the Film school, I started arranging interviews with Production designers in Spain, and in a few weeks I was working as assistant art director in the fantasy film ‘Buñuel and King Solomon´s Table’. After that, I have been developing my career in different roles within the art department, like assistant art director, set designer, art director and visual development artist.

I moved from Spain to London to start working in animation movies. I like the set design work; it allows me to be part of interesting animation and live-action projects while combining my traditional and digital design skills, and where my wide background is a great asset.

SRM: It will be very interesting for those readers who do not know much about this field if you could explain what the set designer and art director roles involve…

CARLOS ZARAGOZA: Both are specific roles within the art department.

The Head of the art department is the Production Designer, who creates and develops the overall look of a movie, working closely with the director, cinematographer and visual effects supervisor.

The Art Director coordinates all aspects in the design of a movie. That person has to keep the balance between artistic and creative issues and production facts. This role demands that you have to be very flexible, creative and hardworking, and have social skills.

Sometimes, in small projects, the Production Designer assumes the Art direction work (I did it in several movies, like ‘Listening to Gabriel’, ‘Otros días vendrán’…).

The Set Designer works closely with the Production designer and AD, and is responsible for defining in detail and precisely the elements of the scenery, using traditional or digital tools, and for providing all the departments involved in the filmmaking with the information needed to make that scenery work.

You have to render beautiful drawings and models, but keeping in mind that those can change at any time, while the projects are being developed.

This role demands to be a very practical designer and have a wide knowledge of the different construction processes and techniques to build scenery.

SRM: Since you have worked in Animation and in Live-action movies, what are the challenges in each of these types of projects and how do you approach each?


CARLOS ZARAGOZA: Both share the same premise: telling a story. The differences are mostly in the techniques used to tell that story and the characteristics and limitations of each one. Actually, the pre-production and design processes are becoming more and more similar in animation and live-action movies.

In animation, compared with most live-action movies, the greatest challenge is to create entire worlds from scratch, even the characters. And that’s really cool! The characters never complain about the decoration of their houses or costumes.

In live-action, sometimes I had to work in real locations (not in a studio stage) and try to make them work for the film. It means that you could have elements that you cannot control entirely, like the weather conditions, the changing sun light, nasty neighbours who complain while shooting…

SRM: Comes to mind ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. It would be great if you could share about your experience working for this beautiful film, also, what other projects have been the ones you have enjoyed working on the most and why?

CARLOS ZARAGOZA: I am glad you like it. It was a great experience working in that project. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative minds in the film industry now, and he was totally involved with the art department – In pre-production, he had his office in the art department space-, so he was aware of our progress at any time, and we had very fresh information from him. I like how Eugenio Caballero, the production designer, developed the look and atmosphere of the film, and how Pilar Revuelta, the set decorator cared for the detail. Compared with most Hollywood productions, it was a small budget project ($19M).

We were three assistant art directors, and with no art directors we assumed many of art direction responsibilities. First I was involved in the location scouting, travelling to different places within Spain. At the same time we were set designing everything: those sets need to be built in a studio and those to need to be shoot on location, adapting the initial designs to the requirements of every specific location. We also overviewed the construction of the physical scenery. I was in charge of the sets located in San Rafael (a mountainous area north of Madrid): the main house, the Mill, the exterior of the Labyrinth, Ofelia’s tree, the train and the forest scenes. Everything was fake, but it looks very real, even to the people from San Rafael, who were shocked when they discovered the sets in the forest.

Pan’s Labyrinth Asterix at the Olympic Games Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

I enjoyed working in ‘Asterix at the Olympic Games’, a French comedy where we recreated Uderzo & Goscinny’s funny world. The plot was located in classic Rome and Greece, and we designed and built huge sets like the Olympic Stadium or the Caesar’s palace in Rome. The production designer was Aline Bonetto (‘Amelie’, ‘Delicatessen’…).

Also the 3D Animated comedy ‘Gnomeo & Juliet’, directed by Kelly Asbury and produced by Disney and Sir Elton John. We developed the project in London, and then moved to Toronto, Canada, for the actual production of the movie.

My trip continued, I moved to California, and joined DreamWorks Animation Studios. I did ‘Madagascar 3’, ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’, ‘Puss in Boots 2’, and collaborated in other projects like ‘Penguins of Madagascar’, and an earlier version of the upcoming ‘Trolls’.

It was an incredible experience to be part of that artistic community, share ideas and learn a lot about the production process. Dreamworks in one of the few Hollywood animation studios that still do the whole production process in-house. After Dreamworks, I partnered with Aurora Jimenez to create Tale Twins Studio, the platform to develop our own ideas and stories, and collaborate with another studios and independent producers to develop the visual aspect of their projects.

I have worked with another studios, like Paramount Animation and, currently, at Sony Animation, where I am production designer in one of their upcoming features.

SRM: Carlos, how has the design process changed, within the film industry, since you started, and where do you see it heading towards?

CARLOS ZARAGOZA: Basically, it’s heading towards being faster and cheaper (!). The designer’s work as storyteller (in all kind of media) remains the same from the baroque – I recommend you to watch ‘Vatel’ a very interesting movie about a “production designer” in the XVII century in France-. They pre-visualise the scenery, building scale models for every opera performance.  

What is changing every day are the tools we use to conceptualize and develop any project, not the essence of the job. Digital tools have opened the limits to how and what can be the elements in the scene. Since I started, Visual Effects have become more involved in pre-production, not only in post-production, and designers have to understand and use the language and technique of VFX because they are visual elements that affect the look of a film.

SRM: Handcraft/hand drawing vs. CG tools: Do you see the latter taking completely over the former at some point or the traditional ways will always be desirable and necessary to count on?

CARLOS ZARAGOZA: Both types of tools are necessary. Our work is about communicating ideas through images, from sketches to concept art, scale models or CGI imagery. It depends of the nature of any specific project.

The greatest ideas begin with a pencil and a paper. A strong foundation in traditional arts is key for a good designer. More important than which tool you use is to express your ideas. Computers cannot substitute your imagination and creativity.

Digital tools offer new possibilities to visualize and conceptualize the look of a film. Pre-visualization (previz) allows you to have a very accurate idea of how any scenery will look through the camera with a specific lens and movement, building it with a 3D software before doing it physically.

New technologies give you more versatility in designing, and to make changes easier. Digital data can be accessible to the all the departments within a production.

SRM: You know this question was coming… Your three favourite movies of all time?

CARLOS ZARAGOZA: That is a tough decision, but those could be the films by Terry Gilliam, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Fellini, Pasolini, Willy Wilder or Miyazaki.

SRM: Your array of different artistic skills is impressive. As you have mentioned, you worked as a photographer in the past and as a visual artist your artwork has been exhibited in both collective and solo exhibits. You have designed for theatre and have been art director for events and commercials too.

Theatre and Film are two very different beasts but where would you say their main differences lay from your unique perspective?

CARLOS ZARAGOZA: There are many differences in terms of production, narrative and stylization.

When you are designing for Film you are designing for the camera, which guides the audience through the story. Everything in the scene has to work only for any specific shot, while the camera is on, within the camera frame.

When you are designing for theatre, you have to be aware of the audience because they are the camera. Every performance is unique, and a direct connection with the audience. Is a real-time experience, so the scenography has to work perfectly for the performance.

SRM: What piece of advice would you give to those readers who are just starting in the industry?

CARLOS ZARAGOZA: I recommend a very strong foundation in visual arts, and training in traditional and digital tools.

Be sure you are passionate about your work, it is very demanding and you need a lot of energy to develop your career. Do not be lazy and update your skills constantly, but don’t forget to nurture your imagination and creativity with real life experiences, not only from visual media.

And let your Ego at home. Listen.

SRM: About ‘Puss in Boots 2: Nine Lives & 40 Thieves’, set to be released in 2018. What was your main job in this movie and what can you tell us about it?

CARLOS ZARAGOZA: I did plenty of visual development artwork for that project, and it looks amazing. The film is still in development. I would love to, but cannot give any other detail yet.

SRM: No worries, I get it. Thank you very much again for sharing your expertise and your wonderful art with us, Carlos, I can’t wait to see more of it!

Carlos Zaragoza * Official Website >