How SIGGRAPH Helped These 5 Disney Employees ‘Thrive’ in Their Careers

posted in: Conferences, Students | 0

From left to right: Michelle Wu, Justin Tennant, Martina Rosazza, David Verona, and Laura Kwan

Disney has always been on the forefront of computer graphics and animation, and the people are the main driving force for that innovation. SIGGRAPH has been a great breeding ground for new talent within Disney, especially the conference’s Student Volunteer (SV) program. Here, we interview five ex-SVs, who each work at different Disney entities around the world. Continue reading to learn more about them, their work, and life at Disney.

SIGGRAPH: What is your background and role within Disney?

Michelle Wu (MW): I graduated with a B.S. in computer science from the University of California San Diego. I am an incoming assistant technical director at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Previously, I was a technical assistant with Lucasfilm Ltd., where I worked on [the animated series] “Star Wars Resistance” and the upcoming “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”

David Verona (DV): I’ve been at Pixar [Animation Studios] since 2016. I started as a rendering technical director summer intern, and returned the next year for a year-long rsidency. My contract was extended a couple of times until I was finally offered full-time employment last year. I’ve worked on “Cars 3” and “Toy Story 4” in the rendering department, and “Coco,” “Incredibles 2,” and “Onward” in the lighting department as a lightspeed technical director.

Justin Tennant (JT): I’m originally from northern California in the United States, and graduated from San Jose State University in 2018 with a B.S. in computer science. I now work at Walt Disney Animation Studios as an assistant technical director. My job has, essentially, two parts: (1) I’m the “front line” of technical support for the artists, as well as (2) a maintainer and developer of the pipelines and tools our artists use.

Laura Kwan (LK): I have a B.S. in information technology (interactive multimedia and design) from Carleton University and Algonquin College in Ottawa, Canada. My current position is as a general technical director at Walt Disney Animation Studios. That basically means that I help build, support, and improve the tools and pipeline that the CG artists use to create their movies!

Martina Rosazza (MR): I am a character artist for The Walt Disney Company. I am from Italy and became interested in illustrations and art when working part-time at a small publisher in Milan. As my interest in illustration grew, I decided to get a second degree in animation, and went to school in Tokyo — mainly because the school I attended offered significant scholarships to international students who were fluent in Japanese. Right after graduating, I interned at The Monk Studios in Bangkok for a summer and almost died at the hands of their extreme level of spice in food! Right after that, I secured a character art internship at The Walt Disney Company (Japan), where I interned for six months and worked on character art for “Princess,” “Mickey & Friends,” “Villains,” and “Ufufy.” That got me a freelance contract for nine months during which I had to make all the illustrations for all four princesses. Once the project was over, Disney offered me a training position at The Walt Disney Company Germany, Switzerland & Austria (GSA), as they needed a character artist for a project similar to the one I had made in Japan. Being a European citizen, that visa wasn’t going to be as troublesome as in Japan, so here I am, now in Munich, still drawing Disney princesses!

SIGGRAPH: How did you first get involved with SIGGRAPH?

MW: My computer graphics professor mentioned the SV program in one of his lecture slides, and I decided to apply out of curiosity.

DV: I first heard about SIGGRAPH during my time at Texas A&M from Gracie Arenas Strittmatter, who was chairing the Student Volunteer program at the time. I applied for the program and didn’t get in that year, but got serious about my application the next year and was accepted for the 2014 conference in Vancouver.

JT: I attended SIGGRAPH for the first time in 2016 as a general attendee. At the time, I was a college student and wanted to get more involved in the CG industry. That first visit inspired me to apply for SIGGRAPH 2017’s Student Volunteer program, during which I scored a spot as a student volunteer. The experience of volunteering at that year’s conference not only confirmed that my career choice in CG was the right [one] for me, [but also helped me realize] that I knew I wanted to get more involved with the SIGGRAPH community.

LK: During my third year of university, my friend Taryn (who was a team leader that year) suggested I check out the SV program for SIGGRAPH 2015, in L.A. I’m glad I listened to her.

MR: When I was attending art school in Japan, some student volunteers came to present about the Student Volunteer program for SIGGRAPH Asia [since it was taking place] in Kobe, Japan, that year. I attended their presentation, decided to apply, and [have been] a fan ever since!

SIGGRAPH: How long were you part of the SV program? What roles did you serve as?

MW : I was an SV for SIGGRAPH Asia 2015, SIGGRAPH 2016, and SIGGRAPH Asia 2016. I have also participated as an XSV on the Emerging Technologies subcommittee for SIGGRAPH 2017, and was a Student Volunteer Team Leader for SIGGRAPH Asia 2018 in Tokyo.

DV: I was a SV in Vancouver, mostly working in the Technical Papers session rooms. After seeing the conference structure that year and interacting with a few team leaders (TL), I decided to apply for TL in 2015 and got the gig. I worked in the “Ready Room” that year and [served as a] TL again for SIGGRAPH 2016, where I worked to support the Emerging Technologies, Production Sessions, and Computer Animation Festival programs. During those two years, I began interacting more and more with the Student Volunteer subcommittee, and realized its industry and outreach position would be open after 2016. I applied for the subcommittee that year and was accepted to work under our SIGGRAPH 2017 Student Volunteer Chair Muunuu [Nandigjav] for the Los Angeles conference and [also served] under Emma [Gauthier] for the SIGGRAPH 2018 conference in Vancouver.

JT: I’ve been involved with the SV program for a total of three years — first in 2017 as a student volunteer, the following year as a team leader, and now this year as an XSV [on the Computer Animation Festival subcommittee].

LK: I was a student volunteer my first year at SIGGRAPH 2015. After that, I volunteered as a team leader for SIGGRAPH 2016, SIGGRAPH Asia 2016, and SIGGRAPH 2017.

MR: I attended SIGGRAPH Asia twice — Kobe in 2015 and Macao in 2016 — and SIGGRAPH [North America] twice — Anaheim in 2016 and Los Angeles in 2017 — as a student volunteer.

SIGGRAPH: How did you end up working at Disney? Did the SV program lead the way?

MW : Participating in the S3R3 service that the SV program offers to its volunteers played a part in my journey to Lucasfilm. Ginger Tontaveetong, the S3R3 coordinator, was so kind as to reach out and connected me with a fellow XSV, Victor Leung, who had experience working as a technical director. After speaking with him about my career goals and his experience, he was kind to connect me with his friend at ILM, from whom I was able to learn about their production workflow. This discussion made me consider looking at Lucasfilm and ILM job openings, and I applied online when I saw the technical assistant posting.

DV: During my first SIGGRAPH in 2014, I ran into the head of production at ReelFX Creative Studios. We talked for a while and he gave me his card and said to email when I was wrapping up my studies. I did, and they had a render wrangling job open for run of production on the feature film, “Rock Dog.” I jumped at the chance to work in a real studio and completed five months of service with them in their Dallas studio. This experience led to Pixar taking my resume a bit more seriously, seeing my experience with SIGGRAPH and ReelFX as valuable experience in organization and familiarity with the industry. I owe a big debt of gratitude to SIGGRAPH for my current position. Volunteering with the conference set me up to succeed in this industry.

JT: I applied online during my last year of college with my resume and demo reel, and met with Disney Animation recruiters at CTN later that year to put a face to my name. A few months later I got the call, interviewed, and the rest is history!

LK: One of the cool things about being an SV is that there are “SV exclusive” special sessions organised by the subcommittee. In 2016, Fahad, the industry lead of the subcommittee, had organized a session with Disney Animation. I was able to chat with a recruiter who suggested that I apply for their TD trainee program for new graduates. That’s exactly what I did, and now here we are!

MR: I got my first internship at The Walt Disney Company by applying online through their career website. This was an artistic role, so it was heavily based on my portfolio. My mentor, who is a senior character artist at Disney, mentioned she picked mine among all portfolios for two reasons: (1) she thought the expressions/gestures of my characters were “particular” — she mentioned a lot of expression sheets in portfolios have common expressions (smiling, angry, sad, etc.) while she thought mine showed a particular instance/story — and (2) she thought I made good use of colors. Being part of the SV program gave me a chance to see what other portfolios looked like. I remember attending my first SIGGRAPH as an SV and looking at other students’ portfolios thinking, “I have got to step this up if I want to stand a chance!”

SIGGRAPH: What is the most exciting thing about working at Disney?

MW : Being able to work alongside talented people — some of whom have worked on shows and movies I loved as a child — on exciting projects! I’m very fortunate to have been part of the massive process that it takes to create an animated series, and have directly seen the incredible impact “Star Wars” has on its fans through reaction videos, comments, and cosplays at fan screenings and conventions.

DV: Pixar is known for its eclectic culture and we have fun events, like a Pixar band music festival and a putt putt golf day with 20+ holes all around campus. The people have diverse hobbies, which are all on display on days like Halloween, and offices can be made to look like space ships or taco trucks — it’s totally up to [their occupants]. We also get to work on some of the most loved IPs in the world. The first time I did a fix on Buzz Lightyear for “Toy Story 4,” I was awed that I got the chance to do this. “Toy Story” was one of the first movies I really remember seeing in theaters as a kid, and it’s incredible to get to keep those legends alive and inspire more people to do the things they love to do.

JT: Every morning, I wake up and remember I’m working on “Frozen 2” with some of the smartest, most hard-working and talented people in the industry, where I’ll be learning new things every day and solving highly complex — but seriously rewarding — technical challenges. So, that always gets me excited for the day, but I do have to include my second most exciting thing about working at Disney, which is “Bagel Friday.” I love a good bagel on Fridays.

LK: I mean, as a kid who grew up on Disney, seeing your name in the credits of a DISNEY ANIMATION MOVIE is pretty freaking cool. But also just knowing that you’re working alongside the best of the best in the industry on a daily basis still blows my mind. (Also, we get to go to Disneyland for free.)

MR: For me the most exciting part about working at Disney is that I get to draw all day. It’s a Photoshop job and having had to work other art-unrelated jobs in the past, such as teaching English, I could not ask for more. Getting artistic roles is notoriously hard and animation was my second degree, not my first like most animation students, so I really wondered if I was ever going to be able to make it into a career. I am grateful every day for the opportunity I have been given.

SIGGRAPH: What is the work culture like at your current company? How does it differ from other companies you’ve worked for?

MW: Lucasfilm is relatively small [compared to] other Disney entities, so I was able to get to know my coworkers in every part of the pipeline. Everyone is very friendly and, as a woman in tech and animation, I felt supported there. I became part of an all-female tech team, and my company hosted WIA (Women in Animation) events as well as Women in Tech @ Disney events.

DV: I [spoke to this a bit in my] previous answer. One thing I neglected to mention, however, is our Cafe Luxo staff. We have an incredible cafe at Pixar and our cafe staff cooks new specials and old standbys daily.

JT: I would describe the culture of Disney Animation as having a strong open-door/email/Slack policy. I love that I can reach out to people across all different departments to talk with and ask questions. People here are very down-to-earth and humble about their work, which makes for a genuinely enjoyable work environment.

LK: Previously, I had worked for a VFX studio and an animation studio, both of which did contract work for clients. While I enjoyed working on those projects, there’s really something special about having complete, end-to-end ownership of the project you’re working on. Disney Animation, in particular, puts a lot of importance on having everyone who works on the movies all under the same roof. So, from story to lighting and even all the way down to software and technology, we’re all in the same building, working and interacting together. I think that creates a really unique culture that I love.

MR: The work culture at The Walt Disney Company is good. I especially agree with the brand’s image, value, and message [it is] trying to send. Looking at my experience at The Monk Studios, I still think animation studios are a better environment for artists as they are surrounded by art and that is the main focus, while in a company there is a lot of “business” involved. Aside from the character art team, most people I speak and work with everyday would not know how to hold a pencil. It breaks my heart when art-related decisions and changes are made based on what “would sell more,” as obviously I strive to make the best art possible, regardless of “business consequences;” however, I do understand that this is a corporation and experts in their respective fields are just trying to do their job.

SIGGRAPH: All of you are from different parts of the world. Was it challenging to move for work, if you had to?

MW: Lucasfilm is located in San Francisco and I already lived in the Bay Area, so I did not have to move. However, I will be moving to southern California for my next job and Disney does offer relocation assistance, which makes the process easier.

DV: I moved from Texas to California and Disney did help with my move. The culture is different here, but not so different that I needed extra support from Disney to get by.

JT: The drive down to L.A. from the Bay Area wasn’t bad, but finding an apartment around the studio was tricky. Since apartment listings were being taken so quickly by others, I couldn’t search too far ahead of time and ended up finding my location by doing an on-a-whim visit. [If you’re planning a move near the studios,] I’d advise asking leasing companies for any additional listings that aren’t online. You may get lucky!

LK: Thankfully, it was pretty easy. Disney has a Global Mobility team and a Legal team that help [employees] deal with things like relocating internationally and visas. The company also provided me with a stipend to cover some of the moving costs, which was very helpful, too.

MR: My problem with moving around the world started way before Disney, as I was born and raised in Tanzania, Africa, [and lived there] for seven years before moving to Italy. Aside from Tanzania and Italy, I have experienced living in England, the United States, Japan, Thailand, and Germany. Moving seems exciting, and it is, but it is always very hard as it involves things people don’t even consider when they romantically dream of traveling the world. Things such as health insurance, memorizing emergency numbers, taxes, what country to pay to save money for retirement, etc. In my personal experience, the most challenging move I have ever faced was Japan, mainly do to the language being so difficult to learn and the culture being completely different from my own Italian culture; however, I would say Disney made it easier for me as it is, after all, an American company and, despite some differences within different countries, it does have a common “way of doing things.”

SIGGRAPH: How much of a role does SIGGRAPH continue to play within your work or company?

MW: Aside from panels given by ILM, some employees from Lucasfilm and ILM attend SIGGRAPH each year, after which they come back and highlight interesting talks they attended. I [have] not [been] directly involved in this [yet], since I was still eligible as a Student Volunteer and participated via the SV program.

DV: I am participating in SIGGRAPH this year as an attendee (for the first time!) and plan to volunteer again with the conference in the near future. Pixar encourages employees to attend and gives good support to those who choose to do so.

JT: Our studio regularly sends speakers and recruiters to the conference, and co-workers also regularly attend the SIGGRAPH conference to keep up to date with the industry.

LK: Every year at SIGGRAPH, a bunch of people from the studio attend the conference to share the nifty new technology and techniques that we developed, and [they] bring back all the knowledge of the nifty new technology and techniques that they learn about. Discussing topics with industry professionals that have different perspectives can really help generate fresh new ideas and open new doors. Thankfully, SIGGRAPH is a great platform to do just that.

MR: I [was not] able to attend SIGGRAPH last year mainly because I work full-time so it’s hard to take time off and [the conference] is so far away from me (I live in Germany now). However, I am in contact with my SIGGRAPH friends all the time and absolutely love it! Just recently, I had to go to Los Angeles for a business trip and, while there, I had a chance to hang out with some SIGGRAPH friends, including Laura [Kwan] who taught me how to make dumplings and I taught her how to make my grandma’s lasagna!

SIGGRAPH: Any suggestions for future SVs interested in working at Disney?

MW: Take advantage of the resources offered to you by the SV program and by SIGGRAPH! During my SV experience, Disney has hosted production panels, special sessions, lunches, and portfolio reviews where you can talk to current employees. I also recommend participating in the S3R3 service to get feedback on your resume/reel as well as advice specific to your career goals.

DV: Disney is a huge company looking for people who communicate well, are capable of strategic problem solving, and who learn from their mistakes. Beyond that, big companies tend to favor specialists, so if you want to work for Disney, choosing a discipline and focusing on that is a good strategy. Finally, a lot of getting picked up for project-based work (which most of Disney is doing) is timing. Recruiters and hiring managers may really want someone, but if the timing for the project doesn’t work out, or changes, it may not happen. Try not to get discouraged and keep applying if you’ve been turned down, especially if related to a timing issue.

JT: There are many, many avenues to work under The Walt Disney Company as a corporation. Find the career you want to do, work hard, connect, and follow your passion(s)!

LK: Work hard and be nice to people! And, definitely look into internships and new graduate trainee programs. Yes, at Disney, but also at any studio within the industry. Industry experience, regardless of the studio, is incredibly valuable, and can put you ahead of the rest when you do apply to Disney. Also, go to those special SV sessions. Make sure you pay attention to the advice the [speakers] give, and do your best to talk to recruiters. Those sessions are just for you, SVs, so take advantage of them.

MR: I would love to give suggestions to future SVs interested in becoming character artists for The Walt Disney Company. First of all, enjoy SIGGRAPH and make friends. These friendships will last a lifetime! Aside from that, if anyone offers, take a look at their work and show them yours. Artistic internships with Disney are very popular and, chances are, most students interested in character art will apply. Looking at their work gives you an idea of what the recruiters will be seeing. Does your portfolio stand out? Do most portfolios look similar? If so, what can you do to make yours different and to make it stand out?

Learn more about the SIGGRAPH Student Volunteer program and, if you’re attending SIGGRAPH 2019, look out for SVs in brightly colored t-shirts throughout the Los Angeles Convention Center, 28 July–1 August.

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