Visit the news site where you can like, comment, or download the publication?
August 22, 2012
Mario Pochat outside his Vancouver Animation School offices on picturesque Granville Island. Photo by Sandra Minarik
As a teenager, Mario Pochat spent hours in his bedroom “playing around with graphics and animation” on his computer. He never imagined his hobby would lead to a career that would take him around the world — not to mention earn him accolades for opening the first “cloud school” in Canada.
In order to explain what a cloud school is, Pochat returns to where it all began: at a computer graphics expo held near his home in Mexico City. “I showed my work to some exhibitors, not expecting anything, and they asked if I wanted a job,” says the founder of Vancouver Animation School (vanas.ca) from his Granville Island office. “I was 17 years old.” Pochat took the offer and went to work as a demo artist at the Mexican subsidiary of a large, Canadian-owned firm. The graphics computers he was responsible for demonstrating to new clients — mostly national TV stations that could afford such technology — were a wonder. “They were these crazy machines that cost half-a-million dollars each,” he says. “They were top of the line.”
Despite his youth, Pochat’s employer stacked on the responsibility, sending him to Montreal for training, as well as to trade shows throughout the United States. He calls the experience “critical,” as he’d never travelled beyond the borders of his own country before. “It opened my eyes to the world,” he says. After two years, he grew restless. In addition to generating graphics on a screen, he longed to draw with pen and paper. He decided to leave the company that had given him his start and spent the next six years working in animation studios in Mexico City. Eventually, he applied to the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts (VanArts) to receive formal training. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” he says, adding that computer animation schools were few and far between at the time. “The owner of my
studio agreed to pay the tuition. The plan was for me to return in a year.” In September of 1999, Pochat touched down and set about making Canada his new — albeit temporary — home. “I arrived at the end of summer, and it rained,” he remembers. “For about three weeks there was no sun; that was the first time I didn’t see the sun for so long. Everyone was watching the weather channel before leaving the house. In Mexico, we didn’t do that; it was always hot.” Pochat also struggled to overcome the language barrier; the little English he knew turned out to be inadequate when it came to navigating daily life. Luckily, his ability to “communicate through drawing” made the classroom experience easier. Warming up to his peers, however, was a different story.
“It wasn’t easy, integrating into the culture with people at school,” he says. “In Mexico, we give a handshake every day; at the end of the day you say goodbye. Here, people just leave without a word. No one tells you anything. When you open your eyes, it’s just empty desks.” Despite these obstacles, Pochat persevered, excelling in his studies and often outsmarting his own instructors. “With six years of professional experience in the field, I kind of knew more than the teachers,” he says. “They joked that I was going backward, but I needed to know how to animate by hand, no computers.”
Finding a mentor, he says, went a long way in boosting his confidence. Charles Phillips, an instructor at VanArts, took Pochat under his wing, assuring him his English would improve with practice and encouraging him to tackle difficult situations with interest and enthusiasm, rather than struggling against them. “Charles was a very important piece of the puzzle,” says Pochat. “I thought I’d come here to learn animation, but he taught me how to work. It was an inspiration.”
Pochat also grew to appreciate the city, often taking time to walk along Vancouver’s beautiful beaches and consider his future. “I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, but I thought this would be an amazing place to raise a family,” he says. At the end of the year, the new graduate returned to Mexico, but something wasn’t right. “When I came back from Vancouver I was going at 100 kilometres per hour; in Mexico we were travelling at 30. I didn’t like that; I had a lot of ideas and plans, but I just felt it was a waste of time for me professionally.” When his employer went under, Pochat decided to turn a bad situation into an opportunity. He searched for work internationally, landing a gig as director of animation for a film being made in Israel. But he’d barely settled in Jerusalem when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. As the twin towers crumbled, Pochat saw his dreams disintegrate with them. With the threat of war looming, he returned to Mexico with a heavy heart.
That’s when Phillips swooped in. “Charles called to ask if I wanted to come and teach computer animation at VanArts,” recounts Pochat. “I couldn’t believe it. We’d kept in touch and he knew I wanted to come to Canada to live. Keeping this link alive turned out to be critical.” Pochat had already put in his application for permanent residency — but the immigration process turned out to be bumpy. When he discovered his offer had expired, Phillips wrote him a letter, confirming Pochat’s offer of employment. After another year of waiting, thanks in large part to an unreliable Mexican postal service, his application was accepted. “I was very persistent when dealing with the embassy,” he reveals. “Not rude, but aggressive. Eventually they gave me an interview.”
In 2003, he moved back to Vancouver, just in time to participate in orientation week at VanArts. Over the next two years, he was promoted to head of animation within his department. But his desire to obtain more experience lingered. “In Canada, you have the chance to keep learning new things and become better at what you do,” says Pochat. “Immigrants have an especially hard task. They have to continue to grow, professionally, while learning a new culture at the same time.”
Refusing to let his newcomer status stop him, Pochat took online business courses with a vision of some day running his own animation studio. Though his first e-learning experience fell short of his expectations, it sparked an idea to develop a web- or cloud-based school for animation instead of a studio.
In developing his idea, Pochat consulted the provincial government to discover what steps needed to be fulfilled; he incorporated those requirements along with his own experiences as a student and teacher into software developed specifically for his school. During the process, he discovered his idea was unique — other online educational programs at the time were attached to bricks-and-mortar institutions. His school would exist solely on the web, giving students around the world equal access to learning.
When Pochat needed additional funding, he reconnected with Patrick Suberville, his very first employer in Mexico. Suberville signed on as an angel investor and provided the money Pochat needed to launch Vancouver Animation School.
“It was a full circle,” says Pochat. “The first person who hired me in Mexico came in and saved the day. We officially opened last September with four students, with a framework that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. Today, we have 15 students, from Spain to Saudi Arabia to Saskatchewan.”
A tough decision Pochat had to face before launch was how “Canadian” his school would be. “Should we go for a dot-com or dot-ca domain? Should we charge tuition in U.S. or Canadian dollars? I thought, ‘I’m in Canada now, it’s a Canadian company, so the domain has to be Canadian, the currency has to be Canadian.’ I didn’t see for one second why we had to have it any other way. Those decisions came from me, from my gut. It has to be like that.”
Recently, Pochat received an award for e-Learning from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority. Now, his sights are set on becoming a full-fledged university for the arts in animation — something he says will require “a lot more paperwork.”
His secret to success, he says, is keeping a positive attitude — a quality he developed thanks to his past employers and mentors and, more recently, his wife.
“I used to be very insecure about me, about how far I can go,” admits Pochet. “I didn’t trust me, but that has changed. Even if things look difficult, I still go for them. A lot of that came with learning more about Canada — the country and the culture — as I was becoming Canadian. My wife, Sonia, always told me that in Canada the system is horizontal, meaning people are equal. This took me a few years to really see and feel, because it is much different in Mexico. Now I know that it is true.”
Maybe it's not a good idea to shut my website down without a hardware reset button. Proceed?
Just kidding. Nothing was actually shutdown. It wouldn't have been a good idea. Do it again?
Permission denied. Please reconsider your actions.