Animator Alex Orrelle in his office, with this favorite news website open on his screen. Animator Alex Orrelle in his office, with this favorite news website open on his screen. Animator Alex Orrelle in his office, with this favorite news website open on his screen. (Photo: Courtesy Alex Orrelle)

How a former Pixar animator went from drawing 'The Incredibles' to Netflix's first animated film

Alex Orrelle's latest film, 'Klaus,' has been nominated for an Academy Award. And up next? The sequel to 'Space Jam.'

During the making of the hit Pixar movie "The Incredibles," the animators were having difficulty with some of the action sequences. There was a particular scene where the mom is flying her kids around in a Gulfstream jet and the illustrators couldn't quite nail the plane's movement. So they popped their head into the office cubicle of Alex Orrelle, a junior animator.

"Alex, weren't you in pilot school for six months? Could you give us a hand?"

Orrelle recalled that story from two decades ago with a laugh. "Sure enough, the next day, all the flying shots in the film are on my desk," he told From The Grapevine during a recent interview. "I did a lot of the action stuff. It was a fabulous film to work on."

The 46-year-old Orrelle, who grew up in Israel, has worked as an animator on several films – "Finding Nemo" and on special effects in "The Matrix Reloaded" just to name two – but it's his latest work that's gaining him some well-deserved attention. "Klaus," Netflix's first animated film, was just nominated for an Academy Award this month.

Sergio Pablos, a Spanish animator best known for co-creating the "Despicable Me" franchise, directed the new film. “Creatively, it has been amazing,” he said. “Netflix gave us total freedom — ‘Let us know if you need help’ — which is really unheard of.” Pablos partnered with Orrelle on the project and the two got to work. In total, hundreds of animators joined on to the project which took about four years to complete. The result is a witty and whimsical story about the origin of Santa Claus.

Inspired by films such as "Batman Begins," Pablos wanted to explore a seminal character’s origins for a modern audience. He scribbled down literary and historical names, everyone from Dracula to Napoleon, and even the world’s most jolly gifter. “I said, ‘Nah, move on,’ because the story that popped into my head for him was very sappy,” Pablos said. “But it just kept nagging at me that there could be something there.”

That "something" morphed into an instant holiday classic, which features the voices of Jason Schwartzman and Rashida Jones. And it's not just Oscar voters who think the film is one of the year's best. "Klaus" has a remarkably high audience score of 98% on the movie aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.

Actress Rashida Jones from the sitcom 'Parks and Recreation' voices the character of Alva in 'Klaus.' Actress Rashida Jones from the sitcom 'Parks and Recreation' voices the character of Alva in 'Klaus.' (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)

Orrelle always knew he wanted to be an animator since he was in elementary school near Tel Aviv. "I would spend all my time drawing during class, during recess," he said. He remembered that when he was growing up in the 1970s, in the era before cable television, he was only able to watch cartoons once a week. "I was really deprived which I feel helped me. Because of the deprivation and occasional exposure to something that is so jaw-dropping and spectacular, I kept asking, 'How the hell did they do that?' I think it really drove my curiosity and my attempts to do it myself."

He attended art school in San Francisco where he focused his studies on animation and film. That led him to gigs in Hollywood, and Orrelle hasn't stopped since. Together with his wife, he launched Crew972, a nod to the Israeli international area code. It's a production studio featuring the work of fellow artists and animators in the Mediterranean country.

Alex Orrelle has numerous films on his resume – including 'Finding Nemo,' 'The Matrix Reloaded' and 'The Incredibles.' Alex Orrelle has numerous films on his resume – including 'Finding Nemo,' 'The Matrix Reloaded' and 'The Incredibles.' (Photo: Wikimedia)

The father of three boys now splits his time between Los Angeles and Tel Aviv. On the day we caught up with him, he was shuffling off to meetings on the Warner Bros. lot. He's currently the Head of Story on "Space Jam 2," the sequel to the popular 1996 film starring Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan. The new version, set to be released in the summer of 2021, features LeBron James in the starring role. Posted to the wall behind his desk are an array of note cards that indicate different scenes and locations for the film. Off to the side is another piece of wall art: a picture of fellow Israeli Gal Gadot dressed as Wonder Woman. "We're all excited for '1984,'" he said, referring to the upcoming superhero sequel.

Besides working on "Space Jam 2," Orrelle is also marinating on two passion projects. "One of them is an animated adventure comedy about the hidden world of counting sheep," he said matter-of-factly. The other is a science fiction action family project which he compares in tone to that of his favorite film: "Back to the Future."

In the meantime, Orrelle is looking forward to reconnecting with Pablos, when he comes to town for the Academy Awards in February. The director will be arriving from Madrid by airplane. Orrelle can close his eyes, picture the aircraft and draw its movements with perfect precision.

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How a former Pixar animator went from drawing 'The Incredibles' to Netflix's first animated film
Alex Orrelle's latest film, 'Klaus,' has been nominated for an Academy Award. And up next? The sequel to 'Space Jam.'