The words fear and intimidation are not words that you would immediately associate with Orlando Baeza upon meeting him. He is an imposing figure, at 6’3 and weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of 245 pounds, and he has an extremely jovial personality. However, Baeza, one of the lead artists for the Emmy award-winning series ‘The Simpsons’, would be the first to candidly admit that there is indeed a strong connection between himself and these words, particularly with regard to numerous incidents during his rise as an artist. Moreover, he strongly believes that it was fear and intimidation that drove him to take drastic action after a near fatal incident. In this exclusive interview with the 17-year veteran of the show, Baeza discusses his introduction to art as a child; how being afraid of success and the unknown nearly crippled him; and the excruciatingly painful decision he made to risk it all in order to obtain a better life for his family.
G-Man: What is your nationality, and did your parents stress the importance of achievement and ‘Latino pride’ in the home?
OB: I’m originally from Cuba. My family came to the United States in 1965. My parents were very supportive of my talent and pushed me to achieve all my goals. They also made sure I had a strong sense of Cuban culture and tradition, which is something I impart to my kids.
G-Man: Where did you spend your childhood, and was it difficult growing up there?
OB: I grew up in an area called East Elmhurst, New York. It’s in the borough of Queens. I didn’t find it difficult growing up there at all. Actually, it was great. Everybody in my neighborhood, and in others from what I could tell, got along just fine. It wasn’t until after I got married that I left Elmhurst and moved to the Bronx. To tell you the truth, I really loved growing up in New York. It was a great opportunity because the diversity of the city really helped to nurture my artistic talents and imagination. I suspect there are many people in New York pursuing careers in the creative arts who would agree. I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something special about New York City that fuels your creative passion.
G-Man: How, and at what age, did you become interested in drawing and animation?
OB: I remember drawing ever since I was about four or five years old. My mother always brought me drawing pads and pencils to keep me occupied as a kid. I loved drawing. There would be times when hours would go by and I would still be doing sketches in my room. (Laughing) I would get started, get on a roll, and the next thing I knew mom was calling me for dinner!
G-Man: Did you devote a great deal of time to drawing as a youth? If so, what type of drawings did you place the most emphasis on?
OB: Oh, man! I spent lots of time drawing and practicing. My favorite things to draw were pictures of my family and various cartoons from newspapers, magazines and my imagination. As I got older, I dedicated my weekends to something called “life drawing class”, which was an art class that pretty much prepared you for high school.
G-Man: When you started out, did you ever consider venturing into the abstract or classical art forms that have been associated with many of the world’s great artists?
OB: I was accepted to the High School of Art and Design, which is located on 57th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan. I studied there for four years and was introduced to various art forms. My high school years were the most important and fun times of my life, but they were also the most confusing. The school taught me so many new and different ways to apply my talents that I literally didn’t know what area of art to choose from. It was really difficult trying to make that decision. The school was that good, and it provided me with all of the tools necessary to become a successful artist. (Laughing) Honestly speaking, I was a proud graduate, but I was also a confused one.
G-Man: What other schools did you attend to enhance your animation skills?
OB: After high school, I attended the Fashion Institute of Technology. I was pursuing a career in fashion design. Somehow, I ended up working in animation. This is where the skills I acquired in high school proved to be extremely beneficial. I was able to excel in many of my classes, and I really began to find my niche as an artist.
G-Man: What was the most challenging aspect of finding an animation job after you graduated college?
OB: I was on a completely different path when I left college. While in college, I was offered great jobs. Some of them were overseas positions. I turned them down for all kinds of reasons that didn’t make much sense, as I look back on it now. That was a strange period in my life, but I’ve learned that’s just the way life is. It presents us with opportunities that are right in front of us, but we fail to see them for one reason or another. When I graduated high school I could have worked freelance for a couple of art galleries. I chose not to. While attending F.I.T., I was offered a fashion illustration position in Japan. Again, I passed on it. I guess I was waiting for the perfect job. I eventually learned that you’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. You can’t sleep on anything, and you can’t be afraid of change. It took another 14 years for me to get an opportunity to work in the animation field. I was given that chance courtesy of my brother, thank God, who at that time was working as a director in the field.
G-Man: What type of jobs did you have prior to the show?
OB: Wow! Dude, I had all types of jobs. They ranged from construction work to a ticket agent and cashier at New York City’s Off-Track-Betting (Laughing) I spent way too many years of my life working at OTB!
G-Man: Everyone has what they consider to be a turning point in their lives. What was yours and describe your most painful moment as an artist, husband and father?
OB: Great question! It was a Monday, and I was going to get my taxes done. I took my son, who was still very young at that time, with me to H&R BLOCK in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. When we got back to the car, the passenger window where my son would have been sitting was shot out. (A pause, eyes tearing) I looked at my son, I grabbed him, and I held him close for several minutes. It was at that very moment that I realized it was time to get my family out of the Bronx. I had to move somewhere safe for my kids to grow up. That was a crucial turning point. I realized I had to raise the level of my game, with regard to being a father, significantly. In so doing, I knew that I would raise the level of my game as an artist as well.
I would not have been able to live with myself if something happened to my family simply because of my work situation. I knew in my heart that a better life awaited us. It was just a matter of me wanting to take a chance to find it. I pleaded with my wife, Wanda, to let me go to California to try and make something happen. She agreed, and I left with about $2,000 in my pocket. It was very, very hard leaving my family, but it proved to be the right move. Six months later, I was hired to work on The Simpsons. Shortly after, I moved the entire family to California, including my wife’s parents.
G-Man: What has proved to be the best thing about working on ‘The Simpsons’?
OB: The best thing about it is I’ve been given the opportunity to work on an Emmy award-winning show. The team I work with is amazing, and it’s a great atmosphere to work in. (Laughing) Living in Southern California isn’t a bad thing either. At first, my wife wasn’t very sure about the whole moving to California thing. Let me tell you man, she’s a New York girl to the bone! However, after fourteen years of success and near perfect weather, I don’t think we’re going anywhere. The kids were young when we relocated. Tanya was 13 and “Orly” (Orlando Baeza, Jr.) was only 7. You could say it’s been a long vacation for them, but now they call California home. Working on an animated show for 14 years is unheard of in this industry, and the opportunity has been a true blessing. (Laughing) I guess this was the right job, huh? I’m a very lucky man.
G-Man: In researching you, it was discovered that you were an accomplished basketball player in your youth. Now, you have a son that many college scouts have touted as ‘the real deal. Would it be fair to say that the same passion and drive you have for animation was instilled in your son regarding basketball?
OB: Whoa! (Smiling) You’re reaching back in the day now. Man! You’re good at finding stuff out, huh?
G-Man: I do a little digging when I have to.
OB: (Laughing) I see that!! (Pause) I played for my high school and had a couple of schools show interest, but at that time I never thought I could make a living playing basketball. In college, I tried out for the team and made all the cuts, but between my classes and working part-time, I couldn’t devote myself to the game. I stepped away, and the team won the state championship that year. (Grinning) Leaving the team was another one of those great decisions I made, considering the starting player at my position played behind me in high school. Later, I would play in the Puerto Rican leagues for a few months, but my best basketball was played at “The Cage” on West 4th Street in Manhattan. I had lots of fun, but I didn’t make any money.
Now, as fate would have it, my son has enjoyed all the opportunities that basketball has to offer. He had multiple scholarship offers from schools all over the country. I have no doubt that his passion for the game will allow him to have an exceptional career as a player, coach or an analyst. The experience he obtains now will pay dividends in the future. Like me, his future will be determined by the decisions he makes today, his drive and tireless preparation. My daughter is the same way. She just graduated from college, and I have no doubt she will become just as successful as her brother. (Smiling) That's my baby girl.
G-Man: Are you an anomaly, or would you say the industry is doing a good job when it comes to hiring Latino animators, particularly on major projects like ‘The Simpsons Movie' or ‘Happy Feet’?
OB: I would say the studios do their best when looking for and hiring talent, but sometimes that’s only limited to local areas. I’d like to see more of them look outside the region. In other words, if a large percentage of the animation jobs are located in California, the studios tend to look for California applicants. Also, parents and teachers need to do a better job of locating opportunities for their children and students. The really good animation schools and jobs may not always be in their area or state. As was the case with me, your dream job could be 3,000 miles away.
G-Man: What are the three essentials that every young person must have if they are considering a career in animation?
OB: Lots of practice, great schooling, like the High School of Art and Design in New York City, and a good support system from parents, teachers or mentors. I would add one more, and that is they need to have the drive and talent to pursue their dream. If all of these things are in place, they can accomplish anything. If I managed to go from Elmhurst and the Bronx to hanging with the Simpsons in Springfield, then no dream or goal is too great for them to achieve.