Netflix Artist Tomas Pajdlhauser Takes Design from Street to Screen

Netflix Artist Tomas Pajdlhauser Takes Design from Street to Screen

In his office at the Netflix Animation studios in Burbank, Tomas Pajdlhauser has pages of hand-drawn illustrations of graffitied buildings, tangled electrical wires, and intricate facades taped to the walls. While Pajdlhauser is best known for his work on much-loved tv series like Disney’s Mickey Mouse Shorts, Netflix’s A Tale Dark and Grimm, and Dave Cooper’s The Bagel and Becky Show, he also has a significant following among the urban sketching community, a global movement of artists dedicated to drawing urban landscapes on location.

Through his @captain_tom Instagram account, his ink and watercolor sketches of urban environments have garnered over 60k followers. He’s also taught numerous international sketching workshops where he introduces enthusiasts of his loose and expressive style to the cinematic staging techniques he’s honed during his two decades in the animation industry. “By pulling together people, vehicles, architecture, and light to tell the stories of the spaces we sketch,” says Pajdlhauser, 37, “we infuse life and depth into otherwise flat scenes. That’s what animation is all about too.” Perched on a small collapsible stool on a busy Los Angeles sidewalk, he couldn’t seem further from the Burbank office where he works as the Production Designer on an animated theatrical feature. And yet it’s the marriage of street and screen that makes his approach to animation so compelling.

Pajdlhauser first fell in love with urban landscapes during his formative years as a skateboarder in Ottawa, Canada where he is still co-owner of Birling, a local skateshop and café. Skateboarding was also his ticket into the animation industry. While still in animation school, he was hired as an intern at a studio by an older friend he knew through the skateboarding community. After a few years sharpening his skills in background and environment design, he held several leadership roles in the Canadian animation industry. Though many young designers aspire to Hollywood right out of college, Pajdlhauser’s tenure in Canada gives him a rare perspective within Netflix’s leadership ranks where his understanding of the intricate pipeline between the US studios and their international counterparts proves invaluable. “Most animated films created in the US are farmed out to Canada and overseas in some capacity for manufacturing and production,” explains Pajdlhauser, “I’m able to communicate ideas to our Canadian and overseas clients more effectively because of my unique experience and skill set. This saves us time, money and ultimately allows for a better product.” Although he owes much of his practical knowledge to his Canadian roots, Pajdlhauser admits that he feels more at home in Los Angeles where skateboarding and plein-air sketching are year-round activities.

Despite the animation industry’s comprehensive shift from pencil to pixel, Pajdlhauser is adamant that the best designers are those who continue to cultivate traditional sketching and observational skills. He encourages designers on his team to sketch on location as much as possible, advice that he also received as a young designer. Recalling a pivotal moment in his early career, Pajdlhauser remembers having his animation portfolio “ripped apart” by Nelson Lowry, a Senior Production Designer at LAIKA. “Of all the production pulp I had in my portfolio, it was the loose sketches that drew him in and he advised me to focus more on that and less on refined, digital designs,” says Pajdlhauser, “I took his advice, extended my trip and travelled up to San Francisco, sketching along the way. I was absolutely terrible at it at first, but I loved it.” Keep an eye out for Pajdlhauser’s work on an upcoming Netflix feature or, better yet, catch him in the act scribbling in his sketchbook somewhere in your neighborhood.