At five years old, Sergio Pablos declared to his parents that he wanted to become an animator.
“It was cute at the time,” he said. “It became less cute when I was 18 and still saying it.”
Born and raised in Spain, Sergio lived for the moments when one of the two available TV channels would air high-end animation like Wonderful World of Disney or Winnie the Pooh. “There were no VCRs back then, so you had to catch it or miss it. Those were high times for me.”
He was the kid in the corner who was drawing instead of playing soccer.
“When I learned that cartoons were created through drawing, I thought, that has to be the highest form of drawing there is. You can actually bring drawings to life? And that became an obsession for me.”
“Despite their reservations and their absolute certainty I was going to end up under a bridge,” Sergio said his parents supported his dream and sent him to study at CalArts. Between his two years there, Sergio returned home to Madrid and took a summer job at a studio doing work for Disney. “They were working on the Winnie the Pooh Christmas special and I got to animate a couple shots. When I went back to school and it aired, my schoolmates and I got together to watch one of us actually make it on TV.”
And so, Sergio’s career began with a Christmas special. “Foreshadowing, I guess, huh?”
His latest film, Klaus, a Santa origin story, is nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.
More than anything, it was inspired by Batman Begins. “If you think of the lore of Batman, it’s really quirky and ridiculous. So for [Christopher] Nolan to be able to make it something I can actually get behind—that’s what got me going.”
“Back in the day, it was a fairly new thing to see origin stories. I was intrigued by the idea that you could expand on a character that already exists, but may be missing a chapter.”
Sergio started a list of literary figures: Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Dracula … When he landed on Santa Claus, “it seemed like a very sappy story as first glance, so I moved on.”
He kept returning to the idea, however, seeing as there had been few attempts at it before (and none too convincing).
“I spent about a year doing development, and then I got busy with other stuff, so it sat on the shelf for a while. Then the opportunity came from Atresmedia in Spain to start doing some R&D on this new form of traditional animation.”
As a young animator, Sergio was only ever exposed to traditional hand-drawn animation. “When CGI came along, I was ready to embrace it. I thought it would be a split in the road: There’s a new way of doing animation now, the more the merrier, right?”
Not necessarily. “I did not expect that the industry would consider it to be an evolution, and therefore we had to do away with the old ways. So I found myself in a position where I did not completely agree with the reasons for abandoning 2D animation.”
Klaus became Sergio’s argument for the idea that hand-drawn could sell, so long as you “conceived a film that tried to bring something fresh and new, both in story and in tone, and in style.”
The year 2015 turned out to be one that featured a lot of rejection from distributors and investors. “I thought the fact that it was hand-drawn would be the big hurdle, that they were going to say, ‘Oh, these things don't make money and haven't made money for a long time.’”
But the sticking point was the subject matter. “It was a Christmas film and nobody wanted to compete theatrically with a Christmas film around that very busy season. So we were basically told, ‘It's a good project, but too bad it's Christmas.’ I never expected that.”
At Netflix, he heard the opposite. They were looking for a Christmas movie, and were willing to make it their first animated feature.
Sergio makes his movies for family, always. “I never make a film for kids. I strongly believe that you can make an honest film for a family by allowing yourself to put things there that only parents would understand, as long as the kids are following the story.” In his view, Pixar perfected that formula.
“It is an extremely difficult storytelling exercise, to be able to cater to everybody at the same time. But when it works, it’s so beautiful to experience.”
His own kids were involved in the making of Klaus: “They recorded some of the voices.”
One of them hasn’t known a world without it. “My little one is eight years old now, and the film has taken nine years to make.”
“When people used to ask him what Dad did for a living, he said, ‘He does Klaus.’ That's all he knew. When we actually told him the movie’s over, he was like, ‘What are we going to do? What's going to happen now?’ He was completely thrown off.”
With all the hurdles of getting the movie made, the last thing on Sergio’s mind was its Oscar potential. “It would have completely crippled me. Accolades should be a side effect of whatever you do, never the goal.”
It came as a complete shock to him and the team when they heard their names called during the Oscar Nominations Announcement: “Our expectations were really low.”
“They somehow convinced me to place a camera on a tripod to record our reaction at the studio. And I said, ‘Okay, as long as we erase that immediately, because we're about to record disappointment.’ But then, when they called our name, we were completely caught by surprise. It was a bit of an overreaction, you might say. We were not classy in any way.”
Regardless of awards buzz, and the team’s Annie Awards win on January 25 (“It was extremely emotional for all of us. It brought a few tears”), Sergio insists making the movie was the greatest prize there is.
“You have to understand, it's been 15 years. We set up a studio back in Madrid with a goal of making a film. And we had 20 failed attempts at that before Klaus. So Klaus is the one time that somebody allowed us the chance to make a complete film from beginning to end. And not just that, but it was amazing to see artists from around the world flock to work on it because this film was worth supporting.”
Looking back, what would he tell that 18-year-old kid on the way to CalArts with dreams of being a filmmaker? “I'd tell myself to be okay with failure.”
“You spend so much of your life thinking failure is a bad thing. Too late in my life did I realize that it’s okay. You don't have to be anxious about it, as long as you learn something every time.”