How to make it in L.A. working out of Cádiz

Javier León was studying to be a naval engineer, but he steered off course when he discovered videogames. He is now a major player in the world of 3D, with an Emmy nomination for The Crown, and all from the comfort of his home in San Fernando de Cádiz, in southern Spain

León, 44, creates 3D work for ads, movies and TV series.
León, 44, creates 3D work for ads, movies and TV series.Marcelo del Pozo

Javier León generally dedicates no more than two and a half years to a company or a project. After that it’s back to Cádiz, if he can, for a change of pace.

Considered one of the world’s greatest digital artists, this 3D animation expert is well aware that the industry’s big guns are in the US, but he can’t cut himself adrift from the salty waters of the Bay of Cádiz, or from the tranquility of southern Spain, at least not for long.

From the ground floor of an old house in the center of San Fernando de Cádiz, the 44-year-old runs Leon Studio, an animation company that makes 3D images for big-brand advertising, special effects for films such as Ágora by Alejandro Amenábar, and graphics for video games.

Javier León works out of Cádiz, where he has three clocks on the wall telling him the time in Madrid, New York and LA, where most of his clients are based.
Javier León works out of Cádiz, where he has three clocks on the wall telling him the time in Madrid, New York and LA, where most of his clients are based.Marcelo del Pozo

His latest triumph has been the images that go with the opening credits of The Crown, the Netflix drama series about Queen Elizabeth II. They show a piece of gold melting into the shape of a crown to represent the British monarchy, work that has earned him his first Emmy nomination..

“It came about through some work I put up on my webpage,” says León. He calls up the image of a dark-skinned woman whose head is encased within a golden helmet and whose naked torso is crawling with cockroaches. “She doesn’t exist,” he explains. “She’s made on the computer, as are the insects. And the bugs usually trigger either repulsion or fascination.” The effect on The Crown director Patrick Clair was fascination, and he called León to see if they could develop the concept.

A naval engineer

Before becoming a master of digital illusion, León was studying to become a naval engineer at his father’s behest. But during his third year at university, he wandered off course. “The fact is, I never liked it,” he confesses. That year he discovered a multimedia department at Cadiz University that developed computer programs for businesses, and he decided to explore the concept. “When I told him [his father] I wanted to get into videogames, he took it really badly, but I was adamant,” he says.

Javier León uses photogrammetry to make 3D images.
Javier León uses photogrammetry to make 3D images.Marcelo del Pozo

During his military service he claimed conscientious objection and taught computing to youngsters from San Fernando. Once he had done his stint, his father said he would help him with his final engineering project, but León wasn’t about to capitulate. His response was to find work with a programming company in Pontevedra, around 1,000 km from home.

Shortly afterwards, he got a call from Pyro Studios – the company behind Commandos, which became the biggest-selling Spanish videogame in history – and moved to Madrid. “I was involved in the second part; we created the scenes and that’s where I learned about all the 3D animation tools,” he says.

Subsequently, he received an offer from Toby Gard, who made Tomb Raider and Lara Croft, and León set off for Bristol in the UK. “In this line of work, it’s more about the work itself than your academic diplomas, and my work was getting better all the time,” he says. Two years later, he was working with another company on Worms, another famous videogame involving military strategy.

Movie memorabilia at the office.
Movie memorabilia at the office.Marcelo del Pozo

And then he discovered the world of advertising. “And I didn’t want to do anything else,” he says. “I’m very obsessive.” He moved to Barcelona and made ads for ONCE and Cruzcampo. Eventually, he ended up back in San Fernando.

Family-work balance

His longest-running project has been his marriage to high school sweetheart María Jesús García. “She’s the first person to see my designs and she is in charge of administrative work at Leon Studio,” he says.

The couple’s two daughters are now at the same school they themselves went to, which is just across from the studio. Judging by the peal of church bells, it is 2 pm. “They’ll be coming out of class now and Maria will pick them up and take them home for lunch,” says León.

The image that inspired the backdrop to The Crown credits which earned León an Emmy nomination.
The image that inspired the backdrop to The Crown credits which earned León an Emmy nomination.Marcelo del Pozo

The bustle on the street is evident from the windows of an open-plan and somewhat chaotic office that brings to mind Silicon Valley. You might find yourself standing on a Pikachu stuffed toy, for example, or leaning on a Yoda cushion, or finding an enormous Playmobil figure sitting on your desk.

Despite the time, Javier presses on with his team. Some of them will go home for lunch shortly. Others will warm up their food in in the microwave and eat at the studio. They have to send a project to a US client by 7 pm. Three clocks on the wall show the time in Spain, New York and L.A. “How do we manage to work successfully with the big 3D animation producers from Cádiz?” he says. “Because we do our own projects and I have good contacts.”

But why not cross to the other side of the Atlantic? “I’ve already lived in New York,” he says. “It’s good for a while, but I want to be my own boss and have my own company. And San Fernando offers a much better standard of living.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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