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Meet Matthew Maldonado of Elements of Imagination

Today we’d like to introduce you to Matthew Maldonado.

Matthew, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
As a young kid, I was fortunate to find my passion for the arts. If I didn’t have a basketball in my hands, I was usually creating, drawing, or watching one of my favorite movies. Whether I was taking something apart to see how it worked or playing with some legos or k’nex, building what I thought was the best thing in the world. I truly was a crazy kid who’s imagination ran wild at times. I was blessed my parents always encouraged me to use that imagination and follow my dreams. The hard work, dedication, and drive they exhibited in everything that did truly laid a strong foundation for the career choice I would eventually choose. Watching movies like “Jurassic Park,” “The Goonies,” “Star Wars,” and “The Dark Crystal” with my brothers quickly fueled my imagination as a child. Eventually, the idea that people did “art” for a living quickly became a passion of mine. Once I realized that artists were responsible for creating some of my favorite films, I set myself on a new path to learn how to succeed in their world.

Fast forward a few years, I found myself attending, “The Art Institute of California – Hollywood,” where I obtained my Bachelor’s Degree in Set and Exhibit Design. Although there are better schools to attend, I was fortunate to find myself learning from some amazing instructors, some who have remained my mentors and best friends to this day. During this time, I truly started to understand the industry I was trying to get into. I was taking any job I could find; working on sets and props in the art department. One week, I would find myself building a show at a local theater, to being a set dresser on a music video the next. Most jobs, I found myself working for free or for little to no money – I was simply trying to learn. All these projects truly helped me build on the foundational skills I had and helped me figure out what I liked to do. During college, I was fortunate enough to land an internship with Universal Studios, Hollywood working in the prop department, creating props and set dressing elements for their seasonal Halloween Horror Nights event. This is where I feel my professional career started to take shape. During this time, I realized the power of live entertainment.

As a kid, I would love our family trips to Universal Studios and The Disneyland Resort. Not understanding at the time the reasons why I loved them so much. Sure it was great family time, but it was also a time for me to step into another world for the day. Being completely immersed in an environment that brought the worlds I loved to watch in films to life was a game-changer for me. During this internship, I quickly realized the themed entertainment industry was a new path I wanted to explore. It was the best of both worlds for me. The ability to entertain people and immerse them in a story, similar to movies but in a tactical way that they can explore freely, quickly became a new passion of mine.

Working as a prop artisan and having the ability to work with my hands creating things was only a small part of the passion I had. I knew I wanted to get into the design end of things and express my creative vision. After putting in a few years with the Prop Department, I was able to build on my foundational skills, which helped me tremendously when transitioning to a Production Designer for the Entertainment Department at Universal Studios, Hollywood. For the first few years, I was able to jump around a bit, working on some amazing projects. One of which was having the awesome opportunity to bring “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” to life. I had the amazing opportunity to be a lead on the installation of all set dressing elements in the “Magic Windows” you see throughout the land. I have some very special memories of this project. The “Cauldron Window” happened to be the place where my partner in crime and I would work together for the first time set dressing and installing all the decor. That window is the place where I would ultimately propose to her four years later. I guess you can say that window worked some magic on us. Creating “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” was an absolute dream come true and lead me to more opportunities and projects that I would have never thought I would get that chance to work on.

During my ten years with Universal, the majority of my work revolved around Halloween Horror Nights, working with some of the greatest minds in the industry. They taught me the way and gave me the platform I needed to succeed in any project I took on. I was fortunate enough to be apart of some amazing projects, including Grinchmas and the opportunity to be the Production Designer for our 2018 Lunar New Year event. This project allowed me to fulfill a lifelong goal to work with a company that has created some of my favorite films, The Jim Henson Company. Sitting in a design meeting with their fantastic creative team surrounded by some of there original props and puppets was like a dream. Together we developed the amazing Mr. Ping puppet that would ultimately give life to the immersive, “Mr. Pings Noodle Shop” I was designing for our event. I was working with one of the companies that sparked my imagination as a kid and created some of my favorite movies that shaped my career. It is a project that I am extremely proud of.

After a successful opening of our Lunar New Year project, I received a call and was asked to join a new team, a team that would bring another favorite film of mine to life, “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.” This was another once in a lifetime opportunity for me. As a kid, Star Wars was not only a fun way for my brothers and me to beat up on each other with homemade lightsabers and it be ok by the parental – it truly was a film that sparked my creativity and love for practical effects and design. I step away from my family at Universal and join the Walt Disney Company to bring Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to life. Luckily I was able to spend almost two years of hard work, early mornings, blood, sweat, and tears with my partner in crime who joined me on this new adventure. It was amazing being apart of the small team that was responsible for the installation of all set-dressing elements that went into the entirely new land. From the cables, panels, droids, and all the decor you see through the land, our team had a hand in it. During our journey, we each had the wonderful opportunity to lead our own teams. Under the guidance of some amazing Imagineers, each team was tasked with bringing to life the small details.

One, in particular, was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. My partner in crime was tasked with leading the charge of bringing the best hunk of junk in the galaxy to life. We had the unique opportunity to help put the Millennium Falcon together and do something that most people in this world would never get the chance to do. The time spent working on the Falcon is one that we will never forget. Once that journey had ended and we successfully opened the gates to an amazing immersive new land, I returned home to Universal where I am currently working with my amazing team in creating the next project that will be sure to scare you in a great way.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
To say it has been a smooth road would be lying. In the beginning, it was extremely tough. The long days and nights in college as a struggling artist is the hardest part. It’s so easy to quit and move onto the next thing once you run into any type of roadblock. If you are truly passionate about what you’re doing, those roadblocks will only teach you a lesson and make you a stronger artist or designer along your journey. Each project always has its ups and downs; sometimes you can be working on a project or an element of a project for weeks or months, spending countless hours exhausting all your creative energy trying to problem solve and design something to only have it be cut or reduced to a shell of what it could have been. Those struggles are often the hardest. At the end of the day, you always have to think positively about each situation. The hard work you put into everything you do whether or not guests ever get to see it only makes you stronger. It only builds upon that creativity and ultimately helps you push the envelope the next time around. In this industry, if you can problem-solve, think creatively, accept, and appreciate constructive criticism, you can get past any roadblock that may come your way.

We’d love to hear more about your work.
Being a Production Designer, in the entertainment industry, has been a big part of my career. If I’m not working for some amazing companies like Universal or Disney, I’m often using my creativity to create things for myself and friends. As a Production Designer, I’m often tasked with creating the overall feel and look of a project. One project I might be in charge of the full overall design, and the next, I might be working with a talented team of designers where I take on a portion of the project. Each job is often very unique but usually has the same end goal; create a unique experience that immerses the guest in a story or place that they have never been before. With the use of sets, graphics, lighting, sound, and sometimes smells, immersing an audience in an environment is what we do for a living. I have always taken the same approach when developing my own projects. Whether I’m creating a miniature model, working on an acrylic painting, or developing my next YouTube creation, I always want to tell an engaging story that most people can relate to.

Most of the work I create, whether it is for a theme park or film, enables me to put my unique take on it. For example, combining my architecture and set design background and mixing it with my miniature model making and painting skill sets – makes for some really fun and creative art pieces. Aside from some of the amazing projects I got to be apart of through my career, there is one personal project that I’m extremely proud of. I was honored to win the grand prize in the 2017 D23 Expo Design Challenge. This was one of my favorite projects to date. For this amazing Disney competition, I created an art piece celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Pirates of the Caribbean Attraction (One of my favorite attraction designs of all time). I chose to design a custom “Retired Pirate Mickey Ear Hat.” I took the classic Mickey Ear hat and geared it toward the iconic scene in the attraction, where the retired pirate is sitting atop his pile of gold. It is equipped with miniature boats that sailed around the hat to a music box rendition of “Yo Ho a Pirates Life for Me”. With this project, I was able to take all the disciplines and skill sets I’ve learned throughout my career and create a one of a kind piece that I feel showcases the unique way my mind works.

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
Although success can be measured in many ways and often varies from person to person, there are a few boxes I like to check for me to feel as though I’ve succeeded. The main one being, at the end of a project, big or small, can I look myself in the mirror and know I did the best I could do? Did I learn anything new? With each project’s ups and downs, a lesson is always there to be learned. Taking what you learned from a project, or in life in general, ultimately makes you a better person or artist. The final box I like to check at the end of a project is, am I happy with the work that I put my name on? In this industry, you have to know at the end of the day, YOU WILL NEVER PLEASE EVERYONE. It’s easy to look at guest satisfaction reports on a specific project or the number of likes on a social media post but the truth is none of that matters. The true feeling of success can come in the form of a smile on a guest’s face walking into a new land for the first time, or the happy tears from a gift you made with your own two hands. It’s often the small things at the end of the day. The ability to be happy with something you work so hard on is often hard for artists. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others, you always feel one step behind. If you can channel that into the passion to get better at what you do, you will be successful.

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