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Stamps Alumni Spotlight: Cesar Velazquez (BFA ‘94)

With film credits that include Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), Zootopia (2016), Moana (2017), and Big Hero 6 (2013), Velazquez got his start in animation by making 3D animated shorts during his time as an undergraduate student at the Stamps School of Art & Design.

Now the Head of Effects in the Animation Department at Walt Disney Studios, Velazquez leads fellow animators in the creation and final delivery of Effects Animation for some of the 21st century’s leading family blockbuster hits. Cesar is also an active member in organizations such as the Visual Effects Society and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In 2019, Velazquez was awarded an an Annie Award in the category of “Outstanding Achievement for Animated Effects in an Animated Feature Production” Ralph Breaks the Internet.

Congrats on your Annie Award! What do you think set Ralph Breaks the Internet apart from the pack? And what does it take, creatively and as a leader, to arrive at such an honor?

Creating a feature length animated film is a very challenging and rewarding process. So being recognized by your peers for your team’s hard work is always an exciting experience and I was proud to represent them that evening. Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet was a great project to work on. At its core, it’s a story about two best friends from a small town arcade, who travel to the world of the internet together on an epic quest. Visually, the world of the internet is an incredible and vast universe! I think that’s what made this film so great. As an audience member, we got to follow along with Ralph and Vanellope as they adventure to these beautiful locations in the internet. Creating that world takes a lot of smart and creative artists. As a leader, it’s really about recognizing areas of expertise each artist offers, and allowing them to excel at them while allowing others to benefit from them. No one has all the answers, but as a group, I try and build a team that is diverse in its interests and problem solving skills to tackle any challenge the film might present us. Trust is also important. Trusting that everyone involved wants to make the best film possible allows us to take more risks and to recover more quickly from our mistakes. Because of this trust, our artists are given a lot of freedom to create visual elements they feel will best support the story.

You left your home state of Michigan for Los Angeles after college in 1995 to pursue animation. What advice do you have for students as they embark on their futures?

One of the most important tasks a student can do when they graduate is to put together a plan for where they see themselves in the next 3-5 years. Coming up with that plan forces you to think carefully about what’s really important for you in the near future. It’s also a metric you can use to measure your progress against. Holding yourself accountable to that plan gives you justification for all the minor and major life changing decisions you will be making.

Who is your animation hero? Whose work do you admire?

Hayao Miyazaki. There has already been so much said about this masterful storyteller. In each film, Miyazaki crafts a unique world that feels alive and ever evolving. He then fills that world with interesting and charismatic characters. Although each film is different from each other, there is a common depth to each story and its characters. There is also this wonderful sense of nature and an appreciation for the world around us.

What gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you motivated?

Motivation has come in different forms over the years. When I was younger, I was full of drive and passion for my craft, and I loved the challenges my work offered me. For one film, I might be tasked with creating something realistic, like a burning inferno. For another film, it could be something completely magical and fantastical, like Tinkerbell’s pixie dust. That is what I love so much about animation. Regardless of the technique used, there is something magical about that challenge of creating a piece of animation that keeps pulling me back in. As I’ve gotten older, I’d like to think I’ve gotten wiser over the years. I’m trying to be more thoughtful and smarter about my decisions instead of rushing into things as I would have done in the past. In addition, having a family adds a level of complexity to my life that I thoroughly enjoy. It motivates me to create something that can be enjoyed by my children and their children for generations to come.

Learn more about Cesar Velazquez at linkedin.com/in/cesarve/.