Sitting down with CEA instructor Jon-Jon Atienza
We recently had a wide-reaching conversation with Jon-Jon, where he talked about his journey into the worlds of animation and VFX (visual effects), and his path to teaching at Bow Valley College.
How does it feel to know a film you worked on – The Flying Sailor by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis – is nominated for an Academy Award?
I didn't really expect it. It's been a very surreal feeling to be nominated. Almost every film Wendy and Amanda have made has come close, and finally they got a nomination. Actually, two years before this, another film I worked on with a different team, Skin for Skin, was also just shy of the nomination cutoff.
If the film wins, what will it mean to you?
I'm pretty happy where I am career-wise, but it's kind of neat to just get that recognition. It does make me want to strive even more.
What did you work on for The Flying Sailor?
I was hired to do VFX assets; it was a short contract for one major shot. If you’ve seen the film, it’s the part where the guy is floating and suddenly explodes into tiny little particles and sweeps through space, goes to the earth, and he crash-lands. I did pretty much the majority of that sequence.
Can you give us a bit of your background such as where you studied and how you got started in this field?
I wasn't sure what to do after high school, but originally, I’d wanted to be a comic book artist.
In Canada at that time, you had to move to Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal for the things I was interested in. Then this school popped up in Calgary and they had a 12-month program that ended up being life changing for me. The school was Applied Multimedia Training Centre – if you look them up now, they're gone; they went bankrupt two years after I graduated. They were doing 2D animation at that time. It blew my mind.
They would shoot a drawing overhead, then suddenly your drawing would come to life. And that, to me, was magic. That's how I discovered animation. I was like,” I want to go into this.”
It didn't feel like I was going to school at all. I was having fun. Yes, there were late nights, but I thought, “This is for me. This is what I want to do.”
I graduated in 2001, but I wanted more time because it was only a 12-month program. I decided to go to the Alberta College of Art and Design (now AU Arts) for my Bachelor of Media Arts. And that's where I met a great local instructor, Kevin Kurytnik.
He was teaching the only animation class at that time, and it was funny because I even begged to retake the class because it was so great. By the time I finished his class, Kevin asked me if I would intern with him.
That started my budding relationship with Kevin’s studio Fifteen Pound Pink. I worked there for about 13 years, with him and his partner, Carol Beecher. I became their digital supervisor. We created at least 15 to 20 short films through the BravoFACT (a Canadian fund for creating short films), and a lot of other grants, which led us to making Skin for Skin with the National Film Board.
How did you get into VFX?
Getting into VFX was a bit of an accident. Pretty much my entire career feels like I kind of stumbled upon it.
Kevin Kurytnik had a project that was created in 2D. He wanted a worm thing with a lot of wrinkles for it. And I thought there was no way to animate it frame by frame, by hand. And because of my education with 3D animation, I asked him if we could do it in 3D. My friend, another intern, and I just experimented.
We were thinking, “OK, how are we going to animate this?” Nobody knew exactly. We learned what I needed to. If nobody wanted to do something in the studio, I was the one that raised my hand. I’ve always had that drive. And that's how I stumbled into VFX.
Have you been able to stay in Calgary most of your career?
I've been in a unique situation where I didn’t have to move for the most part, but I had to be inventive in how to get my projects and keep doing what I wanted to do. It was a lot of freelancing work, doing stuff for oil and gas, etcetera.
It’s by word of mouth, too. Kevin might tell me, "Hey, somebody's looking for this,” and I’ll do it. Sometimes companies email me.
This is a big multibillion dollar industry, but it's a very small community. And usually once you work your first gig, it’s like a domino effect to the next one. And I tell that to my students, too: the hardest part is getting your first job.
What led you to wanting to teach?
While Kevin was teaching at the ACAD [now University of the Arts], I was obsessed with digital technologies like After Effects and 2D software. I would tell Kevin all about what I was discovering. I was going up to him while he was teaching me all these foundational things, even when I wasn’t in his class anymore. I hung out with him just to basically talk about animation. And I think he recognized this drive, this hunger.
Kevin has honed his craft for 20 years drawing 2D, and suddenly there were computers doing animation. Kevin would ask me, "Hey, can you do a demo of the possibilities of this software or that software for my classes?” I said yes.
All those many workshops that he asked me to do just for fun led to me validating my skill because when I was teaching, I would consider, "Is this actually the proper way?“
In between all those freelancing gigs, I’d been with Alberta University of The Arts developing continuing education classes. Then, Visual College of Art and Design in Vancouver reached out to me, and I taught for them for three years. This led to Bow Valley College.
What has it been like teaching in the Centre for Entertainment Arts at Bow Valley College?
Bow Valley College has so many resources. I joke around with Jeff [CEA program chair Jeff Clemens] sometimes, suggesting things like, "It would be nice if we have like a [motion capture] suit,” and Jeff will say,” Oh, yeah, we might get one!”
And I can't get through a whole day without being greeted by a student wanting to chat about something. It’s fun because they come up to me,” Hey, Jon, I shot this short film,” or ”I'm working on this. What can I do better? “– even students who are not in my class.
I am teaching, but I’m sharing my passion. It doesn’t feel like work.
What advice do you give your students about getting into a career in VFX, animation, or anything in the entertainment arts?
What should always drive you is the reason you got into this in the first place. Follow your obsessions. Keep creating. Even as a student, post your work. Build a story for yourself. People love stories – stories of progression. Expose your work, people need to see it. Never wait for somebody to teach you something; learn it.
Do you continue to work on projects while teaching?
Right now, I’m a full-time teacher. The Flying Sailor and another project were last ones for now. I have two kids, so right now family is more important to me. I’m not chasing projects, but if Kevin asks, I’ll be there.
Interested in a career in entertainment arts? Learn more about the programs offered at Bow Valley College’s Centre for Entertainment Arts: CEA | Bow Valley College
Join us on March 9, 2023, as we celebrate Bow Valley College Centre for Entertainment Arts students in our Student Showcase. Experience a "day in the life" of a student as our students present their latest projects in 3D animation and 3D modelling, visual effects and virtual production, and game development.
Connect with our award-winning faculty to learn what it takes to kickstart a career in the entertainment arts, including Oscar-nominated Jon-Jon Atienza, with an exclusive screening of the nominated animated short film, "The Flying Sailor".
Get answers to all your questions about the Bow Valley College Centre for Entertainment Arts.
Event date and time: Thursday, March 9, 2023 from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Check-in begins: 4:30 p.m.
Event location: ATB Hall, Second Floor, South Campus, Calgary Campus (345 6 Avenue SE)