By Evangeline Cafe
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A dream took flight as a starry-eyed child sat in front of a television set, reveling in the glow of images flashing on-screen.
The opening scene of “One Small Step” exudes the same wonder that drew co-director Bobby Pontillas to his lifelong passion. For Pontillas, an ordinary childhood ritual gave rise to an extraordinary dream.
“I was really attached to watching cartoons when I was young,” said Pontillas. “I just liked drawing on the living room floor in front of the TV, not being disturbed for hours.”
As an only child raised by his mother, Pontillas spent a lot of time keeping himself entertained.
“It was just me and my mom. Drawing is one of the things that I latched onto early on,” he said. “You can sort of get lost in it, like reading a good book.”
Pontillas was born in Guam, but spent much of his childhood in Bremerton, Wash. His mother, Corazon Pontillas, had emigrated from the Philippines to serve in the U.S. Navy.
“As a young boy, he was already into drawing just about anything,” said Corazon Pontillas. She remembers when other people started taking note of her son’s work. When he was in junior high, without his mother’s knowledge, Pontillas entered one of his drawings into a contest.
“When we went to a comic store, a man at the counter said that a fellow Bremertonian had won a drawing contest and that it was featured in the comic book,” she said. “Bobby scanned it, and, to his surprise, it was his drawing.”
Pontillas graduated from Central Kitsap High School in 1997. As his friends were preparing to enter college or the military, Pontillas felt unsure of what to do with his life. All he knew was that he loved to draw.
Recognizing her son’s unrelenting passion, Corazon Pontillas researched art and technical colleges. She nudged her son to enroll at the Art Institute of Seattle, and he was surprised to have his mother’s backing.
“Let’s be honest, it’s really hard to make it in the arts. My mom — I don’t know why — she didn’t have that stigma. She just kind of went with it, like a blind faith.”
Corazon Pontillas didn’t want to discourage her son from following his passion.
“I didn’t want to push him into a course that he didn’t like because I didn’t want him to blame me if he was not happy at what he was doing or learning,” she said. “So, I just supported him by enrolling him in art school, even when I didn’t know nothing about animation.”
Art school gave Pontillas the rigor that he felt he needed. He was grateful for a tough teacher who pushed him as an artist.
“When I was going through it, it was really hard. But those kinds of teachers instill a work ethic in you and call you out on your laziness.”
That teacher was Abbott Smith.
“The first advice to Bobby was that drawing is a language. To be good at something, particularly to be good in the arts, we must take command of our language,” said Smith.
He also taught Pontillas that artists never stop learning.
“A career in art isn’t about two years. It’s about a lifetime.” In 1999, Pontillas caught a showing of Disney’s animated feature film, Tarzan. The artwork of animator Glen Keane blew him away.
“I feel like it was revolutionary in terms of animated films, where you’re moving through the jungle and experiencing your way with Tarzan,” said Pontillas. “It was exciting, that drawings could come to life — they can move, breathe, act, and sing! I decided at that point that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”
When Pontillas graduated from the Art Institute in the winter of 2000, he dedicated himself fully to making his Disney animation dream come true. But his dream didn’t lift off right away.
Living in Seattle, Pontillas found work in the video game industry. He animated for ArenaNet on games such as “Guild Wars 2,” but he couldn’t shake his passion for films. He enrolled in a two-year online course to spruce up his skills. In 2009, he scraped together a demo reel, submitted it to film studios, and crossed his fingers. But his dream was grounded. He endured a painful year of rejections.
“I sent out my animation demo reel out to every major movie studio and was rejected from every single one,” he said.
“It was super disheartening at first. The biggest thing I learned was to persevere; to be prepared for rejection but pick yourself back up and keep going if it’s really what you dream to do.”
Pontillas sought feedback from professionals and improved his reel. By the end of the year, he landed his first animation gig in film. He moved to the East Coast and worked for Blue Sky Studios on “Ice Age: Continental Drift” and “Rio.” After gaining film experience, and missing the West Coast, Pontillas mustered the courage to send his latest demo reel to Disney.
The stars aligned in 2011, when Pontillas was hired by Walt Disney Animation Studios. He moved to California and worked as an animator and character designer on Disney hit films, including “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Frozen,” “Big Hero 6,” “Feast,” “Zootopia,” “Moana,” and the “Tangled” television series.
But after several incredible years at Disney, Pontillas’ dream began to take on a new direction. Shaofu Zhang, who also worked as a Disney animator, told him about an opportunity to start up an independent animation studio to be based in Burbank, Calif. and Wuhan, China. The studio’s aim was to bridge eastern and western cultures through storytelling. The thought of leaving his dream job at Disney was scary, but Pontillas’ experience, and desire to keep learning, gave him the courage to take a leap of faith.
“It was an amazing time! Disney will always be with me, and I’m still close friends with a lot of the animators there,” he said.
In 2017, Pontillas became the art director for TAIKO. The studio’s first project, “One Small Step,” chronicles a Chinese American girl named Luna.
The opening scene shows Luna nestled in front of her TV, captivated by a rocket launch on-screen. Luna sets out on a dream of becoming an astronaut. Luna’s father, who runs a humble shoe repair business, supports her every step of the way. His unconditional love endures as Luna faces tough obstacles in her path.
“One Small Step” is produced by Zhang and co-directed by Andrew Chesworth, also a Disney alum. The CGI 3D-animated short film uses techniques in lighting and color to leverage its storytelling, preserving the feeling of a moving illustration. “One Small Step” is one of five films nominated for a 2019 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
Pontillas said the film is a love letter to unsung heroes who support and inspire people chasing an impossible dream.
“When we get tunnel-visioned into chasing a dream, it’s not a perfect road. It’s an awkward process, and it sometimes isolates friends, it isolates family members,” he said.
Pontillas thanks his mother for supporting his dream, even when she didn’t fully understand it.
“I just want to say, ‘thank you for being there,’” he said. “For every accomplishment that our generation makes, our families made the sacrifice to even make that happen. That’s pretty selfless and humble.”
The film also pays homage to mentors and teachers, like Smith.
“I am very happy for Bobby. The work that TAIKO did on ‘One Small Step’ is amazing,” said Smith. “Well done.”
Corazon Pontillas hopes that her light will continue to guide her son and she can’t wait to see what’s next in his journey.
“As I tell my son often, I am so proud and happy of what he has become in the career he had chosen,” said Corazon. “I also would like to let him know how much I appreciate him by never failing to always mention me in all of his interviews and dedicating this short film to me and to our family.”
To those who wish to launch a career in animation or rekindle a passion for art, Pontillas shares stellar advice.
“I’ve always had setbacks. That’s the more realistic path. It’s not a straight path … it’s a winding path,” said Pontillas. “Hold close to what inspired you in the first place. Remember that starry-eyed newbie that was so passionate and grateful to get to be an artist!”
The 91st Academy Awards ceremony will take place in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 24. It will air live at 5:00 p.m. PT on ABC.
Evangeline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.