Although he started his career in the art departments of live-action films, Spanish designer Carlos Zaragoza has developed a newfound fondness for animated projects over the last few years.
Zaragoza, who worked as an assistant art director on the Oscar-winning foreign film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” got his first taste of animation when he moved from Spain to London in 2007 to work on the film “The Tale of Despereaux.”
Last year, he journeyed to San Francisco when he was hired by DreamWorks Animation Studios to create the background elements, sets, and environments for the film “Gnomeo & Juliet,” an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic tale “Romeo and Juliet.” In this animated version, lawn gnomes fill in as the star-crossed lovers.
During an interview with me, Zaragoza discussed the types of things he had to study to design the pint-sized world of garden gnomes and what he really thinks of the popular lawn ornaments in terms of decorative taste.
I’m guessing you had to look at a lot of front lawns as an artist and designer on “Gnomeo & Juliet.”
Yes, it was crazy. In Spain, I didn’t really know about garden gnomes. I had to do a lot of research in garden and gnome culture. It was really fun. We looked at a lot of photographs. I also visited several gardens. It was good to go to real-life locations for inspiration.
Besides lawns, did you have to become familiar with things like water fountains, flowers and other objects you’d find in a garden?
Yes, we had to design everything. We did research on a lot of garden elements. Apart from the architectural elements of the houses and the environments, we did a lot of research on plants and flowers and all kinds of other tacky decorations as well.
Do you think garden gnomes are tacky decorations for front lawns?
That’s what I thought at the beginning. At the end, I ended up liking the gnomes. They’re still tacky, but they make good characters for this story.
What do people in Spain put in their front lawns if not garden gnomes?
(Laughs) It depends. We have some tacky stuff, but not gnomes. It’s very different.
You worked as an assistant art director on one of my favorite films of 2006, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” What can you tell me about that experience?
It was a very interesting project. It was a small art department. I was designing the sets that would be built. It was very intense. I think it’s the best movie I’ve made in terms of the final product.
The movie went on to win an Academy Award for art direction. Even though you didn’t get your own trophy, do you feel like you were part of its success?
Yes, I think so. The main creativity came from the art director and the production designer, but there were a lot of people who contributed. We really felt like we were part of all of that.
Next you’re working on the animated film “Madagascar 3.” How do you go into a film like that not having worked on the previous two? Do you have to familiarize yourself with parts 1 and 2 or do you focus on making this one completely different?
In my role as a designer, you have to change your style and adapt to the project. First, you have to review all the designs and the technical issues of the previous two. But this movie is going to be different from the others. You have to start from scratch and add a new point of view.
Now that you have worked on both live-action and animated projects, which do you prefer?
Animation is changing and improving a lot. I’m happy with both and would still like to do both. It all depends on the project. I just hope to work with very creative people and tell interesting stories.