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Harvard Innovation Labs: Leading and Navigating

September 29, 2022

Mario Pochat, Founder & CEO, VANAS/FAME

Mario Pochat

Mario Pochat (Harvard Business School and Harvard Extension School) fell in love with arts and animation growing up in Mexico City in the ’80s. At 17, he took a job as a demo artist at a Mexican subsidiary of a large, Canadian-owned company. As part of his training, he was sent to Montreal and to trade shows across the United States. After years working in animation studios in Mexico City, he enrolled in a Canadian institution to study Classical Animation, where he would eventually become the head of the Animation department. In 2009, he went to work building his own school: Vancouver Animation School (VANAS), the first cloud school in Canada.

Today, you’ll find his name in the credits of big blockbusters like Twilight, Tropic Thunder, and Blades of Glory — and you might catch him hanging around the i-Lab, where he’s hard at work accelerating his ventures. We spoke with Pochat about his Latinx heritage, the future of animation, and what he loves most about being part of the i-Lab.

What ventures are you working on at i-lab this year?

I enrolled with i-Lab last semester with my venture called FAME (film, animation, media, and entertainment). It’s all about teaching the art and technology behind movies and games. There are lots of excellent animation artists who go into more commercial [jobs] than [making] movies and games. In FAME, we teach all the arts and science behind what they do at studios like Pixar and Sony.

VANAS is my main company: It’s the first Canadian online school for animation. When we opened in 2009, people had no idea what “online” was. I was getting questions like “What’s a webcam?” After two years of R&D, we opened exclusively online. We had people from all over the world attending remotely. The goal was to create a studio school, something that would resemble the workplace environment. When we were working in studios and hiring employees who were just out of school, the knowledge gap was huge — we were like, “What are they teaching?” So that’s why we started VANAS. Instead of having a traditional hierarchy at the school, we use the same model the studios use; we have supervisors not teachers, and we treat the students like a crew.

In 2019, we found ourselves in a similar situation, where we were recruiting students for VANAS and the portfolios from high schoolers were not strong enough — not aimed at the industry — more painting, fine art, not as commercial as we needed. So we created FAME. Some high schools were asking us to give them some curriculum from VANAS, so we thought, Let’s develop something more than just a paper curriculum. Let’s release an MVP; a little platform. And we asked schools, “What do you need? What are the pain points?” We thought it would be quick, but it took nine months developing this MVP. But when we released the first FAME platform with high schools in 2018, we had a full-on interactive platform.

What do you hope to gain from your time at i-Lab?

The i-Lab has so much to offer that it’s so difficult to grab just one thing and run with it. It’s like a dream: You have all these people who you know because of YouTube videos or websites like TechCrunch — and they’re there for you to book meetings with them. I can’t believe I can just click “schedule now” and talk to these experts who have so many unique experiences. For me, it’s like, how do I take and absorb all of it? How do I use this new info to expand my brain, my paradigm? If I get it right, I want to keep learning from all of it.

Tell us about your heritage and what you celebrate about it.

I’m very Mexican. I was born in Mexico City. Mexican culture is so amazing; it’s so full of life. Its people are so talented and so creative with very little tools. Up here [in North America] we have all this tech, money, and resources. Down there, they’re so limited. It’s simply astonishing how, with so little, they can build so much. With my ventures, I wonder how we can provide more opportunities for Mexican and Latin people as a whole? They need opportunities to shine because they have the talent. At every studio or movie I work on, there’s always someone Latin who I’m looking at thinking, This is great. I celebrate the creativity of my culture. It’s how we were born.

Facing challenges every single day fuels creativity and problem-solving. Latin people are always smiling, always warm — no matter what they’re facing. It’s amazing. They have a rich artistic culture of drawing, of painting… Now we’re transitioning that gift into the digital aspects of art.

How has representation in film and animation changed since you first started out?

It’s definitely the minority. When I got started in 1998, there was none — at least in Vancouver or major films. It was very rare to even hear someone speaking Spanish. If you did, it was so weird that it would actually make your head turn. Slowly over the past 20 years, [diversity] has been growing; you see a lot more people in the studios in the animation industry making the transition from Mexico or South American countries to North America. These industries are not as developed in my country, so often, people have to move to a different country to do this work. It’s a bold step, and we’re taking it.

In North America, you’re going to see a bigger number of Latin people in the industry. Right now, it’s maybe 1 or 2 percent, tops. But we’re going to see more countries participating: They want to have their own voice. If you go to animation festivals now, you’re going to see Mexico, you’re going to see Chile, and many other Latin countries. People have so much to say. The movies that come out of these places are so rich in content; they have meaningful messages. It’s not about superheroes. It’s about life and resilience and the things people go through.

FAME animation

How can readers help support Latinx participation in the arts?

Ultimately, I think budget is a big issue. People have to be supported more. But also, you start with families. If you have a son or daughter who has a knack for the arts, recognize that it is a profession. They can do it to make a living if it’s what makes them happy. Arts can heal generations, for sure. Try to encourage people on their art path. Everyone is an artist; I think we forget this because we grow up and are told we have to make a living, and we put art aside. But you see people coming back to it because it makes them happy, healed, and whole.

What’s the most exciting thing about the future of film and animation right now?

Seeing these new generations and how they’re going to take our industries to the next level. It’s so exciting to see all the young people coming in and using these new platforms. Back in the day, we had physical film, and then we moved to DVDs, and then came the internet and iPhones. Now there’s new platforms coming out like VR and AR. Combine that with the youngest generations who have all these wild ideas… they’re so creative. If we give them the tools they need and pass the torch of what we’ve learned, it’s going to be a game changer for us in the industry.

Twenty years ago, a studio would be very expensive, but now, if you have a phone, you basically have a studio. So it comes down to how creative you can be. It’s up to you and your imagination, and that’s it. Do you have something to say to the world? Go and say it.

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