Alumni Spotlight: ‘Timely Rejections’ Propel Aylwin Villanueva ’10 to Blockbuster Success

October 12, 2021

Aylwin Villanueva

After graduating from UCI in 2010 with a double major in informatics and studio art, Aylwin Villanueva joined Lucasfilm and eventually became a technical director at its visual effects studio, Industrial Light & Magic. He has since left his mark on blockbuster movies ranging from Star Wars Episode VII: Force Awakens to Avengers: Endgame. At first glance, his road to success seems straightforward, but when asked about his career path, he stresses that “it’s been a path of interesting and timely rejections … every rejection led to where I am today.”

So where is Villanueva today? In April 2021, he joined Pixar Animation Studios. He is now a sets technical artist — a job he’d never heard of in high school, when his love for the Metal Gear Solid game series prompted him to dream of working in game development. At the time, gaming seemed the perfect fit for his passion for art and technology, but he veered off course when “timely rejections” introduced him to new possibilities.

What first put you on the path of combining art and technology?
Ever since high school, I really wanted to get into games. I wasn’t sure how I’d get into the industry, but I loved to draw when I was younger, and I watched a lot of cartoons and animation. I also enjoyed watching video game cutscenes. As I got older, I gravitated more and more toward technology — phones, gadgets and computers — and I played more video games once my family was able to afford it, instead of just watching. At the time, I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be an artist though and I wanted to learn how to code as well.

I figured I could pursue some form of art while getting into tech, and then I’d discover where I fit in that spectrum. Games seemed a great example of where those two disciplines intertwine. The Metal Gear Solid game series, though, was what really inspired me to get into games. I was fascinated by the art, emotional storytelling, and unique gameplay mechanics for many years leading up to applying to colleges. I remember playing for hours on the weekend when I didn’t have enough money to buy a memory card, only to have to start all over the following weekend. But I didn’t mind!

What led you to UCI and the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS)?
I remember seeing a presentation about the different programs in ICS during an open house at UCI. The emphasis [in the Informatics Department] on “humans and computers,” in addition to the usual coding/programming curriculum, really caught my eyes and ears. I remembered the impact games had on me, not only emotionally through storytelling but also socially and economically. It was very intriguing to think about how we drive and shape technology as well as how technology affects our day-to-day lives. Before I started high school, our house of seven had one computer. In high school, homework started becoming more dependent on computers and the web. I even remember spending a lot of time trying to research online what my name meant for an English assignment. By the time I was heading to the UCI dorms, we had four computers — which really says a lot.

Although the Claire Trevor School of the Arts didn’t have a degree for digital media, there were game-related electives and a digital art minor that fit my interest. When I chose UCI, I actually didn’t have a dual major in mind; I figured I would only minor in digital arts. It wasn’t until I started analyzing my course loads and classes to see how I could make the most out of my tuition and academic years that I realized I could finish both in four years. Fitting in all my classes every quarter always felt like Tetris, but I was able to complete the double major.

Can you talk a bit about your career path?
It’s been a path of interesting and timely rejections — really! While it wasn’t a straight path, I like talking about it because I felt like every rejection led to where I am today. I applied to so many game internships for the summer before my senior year … and I got rejected from all of them, including Blizzard and IGN. The one internship I didn’t expect to get was from Disney Animation, since I was so focused on getting into the game industry. That internship was such a great experience though because it planted the seed that led me to this career. I didn’t know what a technical director was or how animated movies were made prior to that. I got to work on a CG [computer-generated] Pinocchio short with interns from other disciplines, and I also shadowed my mentors as they problem solved and brainstormed new tools for Tick Tock Tale and Disney’s Christmas special that year, Prep and Landing. Although it was only a summer internship, it made me so excited to work in animation after graduating — something I hadn’t considered.

I still interviewed with game studios after my senior year, but I also ended up interviewing with Lucasfilm Animation. I was told I didn’t have the experience for the engineering role I applied for, so I was rejected — again. Luckily, I was still referred to Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm’s visual effects studio, as they were having one of their busiest years and needed more people in their graveyard render support team. The move to a new city and working graveyard was really hard on me, but I stuck it out and learned more about visual effects and rendering, which I hadn’t known much about prior. About a year later, I ended up in Lucasfilm Animation anyway to work on a feature animated film by George Lucas, Strange Magic. That is definitely one of my favorite projects because we were a pretty small team and I got to wear so many different hats and help so many departments in making that film. I met my most influential mentors there and my wife as well!

Any other favorite projects?
Working on Force Awakens was also such a memorable project because not only is it Star Wars, but I was also helping introduce entirely new toolsets and workflows for creating digital environments at ILM, which would help other films in the years to come. When I started in Lucasfilm, the idea of working on a Star Wars film didn’t even cross my mind since there was no plan to make more at the time!

Working on both Avengers Infinity War and Endgame as well as on Rise of Skywalker were also great moments in my career, as I contributed more on the artistic side for those films. In addition to being a technical lead for our environments team, I was set dressing Wakanda in Infinity War, helping with lighting and set dressing in Endgame, and working on clouds for the first time for The Battle of Exegol [in Rise of Skywalker]. These films gave me new opportunities to interact with different people on the team and put me in work situations I hadn’t experienced before. I had to show my work in dailies and present it to our visual effects supervisor, in front of my peers and department supervisors, which made me very nervous. It wasn’t as easy to gauge whether I was done with my work since it was no longer about 0s and 1s — about whether a tool or technical solution worked or didn’t. It was back to, “does this look good, how is the composition and lighting, and is it believable?”

While it may seem stressful to have the additional responsibilities, I really enjoyed having to use my own tools from a non-development and quality-control standpoint. I also used my knowledge of the toolsets and the pipeline to help artists meet their deadlines, and I learned what bugs and issues artists were working around and never bothered reporting. It was much easier to explain to my parents and siblings what I did for work too, since I could finally point to something onscreen and say, “I helped make that.”

You recently moved to Pixar. What are you most excited about in this new position?
I’m really excited to just learn more and meet new people and solve different sets of problems. Pixar is unique in that everything is done in house — from concept development and storyboarding to production and merchandising — and the stories they tell are so unique. With live action, there’s kind of an expectancy as to what something should look like in the real world, but with the worlds, characters and stories that Pixar develops, you just never know!

Aylwin Villanueva at Pixar. If you look closely, you’ll see he’s using his old UC Irvine cycling cap!

It’s also quite special for me personally, as I still remember watching A Bug’s Life on the flight from the Philippines to California when my family and I moved back in 1999. And to be in the studio that pioneered computer-animated films and gave a new life to animation in our generation is truly something. I can also now get over the fact that I was also rejected by Pixar back in 2010.

How has your UCI education helped along the way?
Learning the foundations of programming languages really helped me to adapt. I still have one of the books we used: Programming Languages Pragmatics. In an animation or visual effects pipeline, several 2D and 3D software packages come into play, and each one will have its own scripting languages. Those languages can differ so much (Mel, Vex, Lua — just to name a few) and there’s no way to remember all of them or know everything you need for a job or task. But it’s about being adaptive and knowing the foundations that helped me get up to speed.

The emphasis on human computer interaction throughout my college years helped me get more analytical with the interfaces and tools I’m confronted with. It always makes me curious and think of reasons why an interface was designed a certain way. Whether it’s a tool I’m making or a tool that already exists, I constantly think about how many buttons/steps are required, how I would view this as the artist, and why the tool operates in a certain way versus what I expected.

Can you share any memorable ICS moments or tell us about a favorite or influential professor?
I have quite a few! Some memorable ones would be the really hands-on projects with Professors Don Patterson and André van der Hoek. I remember getting early Android phones with Professor Patterson, and we had to make a simple app or program that would use the phone’s accelerometer. That may have been the first time I had to use an API from the “real world.” I also spent many hours of my junior year working on a Hitachi digital whiteboard, programming it to understand gestures that we all use today in our phones — zooming, rotating, and moving text and photos around.

Alex Thornton was just a really great teacher, and David Kay laid the groundwork in my first year. Having not programmed anything before, both Thornton and Kay were instrumental in making me feel so sure in choosing to pursue a technical track in school. Professor Judy Olson helped me with being more analytical when it comes to interface design and computer interaction. And while it wasn’t in the School of ICS, there was a special elective in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts where Andy Fedak taught Maya (a 3D application), and that was a pivotal moment for me in getting into 3D animation and film.

Any words of advice for ICS students hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Looking back at the rejections in my career, I’ve learned that I don’t do well in interviews — I get too nervous and frazzled. While there’s no escaping interviews, identifying early on where you fall short really helps. My wife helped me prepare for my last interview, even though I’ve been in this industry for more than a decade now. Doing mock interviews can give you time to rethink and refine some of your answers.

Also, find inspiration for your work outside of computers. Some artists go people-watching to sketch or find a scenic spot to paint. Some are really into sculpting or wood making, which helps when it comes time to re-create something in front of you, digitally. One of the reasons why I gravitated toward sets and environments is that I love spending time outdoors. I enjoy chasing majestic views, being above the clouds, and discovering new places. When I started learning Houdini and doing procedural modeling, I would notice patterns or certain objects when out walking my dog that I’d want to try to re-create using software. In Avengers: Infinity War, our VFX supervisor sent me a movie that he recorded when out on a run. He wanted the grass in Wakanda to have a similar motion. In Strange Magic, our supervisors would go near the trails of Skywalker Ranch to get up close to flowers, rocks and mushrooms to see what the world looked like from the perspective of our fairies and goblins in the film.

It also helps to always be curious. A lot of what I use today, from programming languages to software, I had to teach myself in my own free time, or I told a mentor or supervisor that I would like to learn more. Don’t be shy in admitting you don’t know something. Keep an open mind and stay interested in learning. There are so many resources to learn from today, including educational software licenses or trials. A lot of studios provide early opportunities to get to know different career tracks in the industry, whether it’s sound, technical direction, animation, color theory, etc. There are also so many behind-the-scenes documentaries that are easily accessible online or in streaming platforms. 

At the same time, be helpful to others around you. Remember how you struggled to solve a problem or learn a new discipline or software, and take the time to help your friends or colleagues. More than likely, you will cross paths with former colleagues again throughout the years, and your efforts won’t go unnoticed.

Finally, I would emphasize not giving up, as cliché as it sounds. For a long time, I was kind of ashamed of all the rejections I’ve gone through. Even now, there are times where I get imposter syndrome and question myself: am I good enough to be here? Am I meeting everyone’s expectations? But at the same time, I am now very proud of my own achievements and see how far I’ve come. If anything, it’s just made me so much more grateful for the opportunities that did open up, and for the mentors and teachers and colleagues that I learned from and worked with. All you need is that one opportunity or that one person who says yes. And when that door opens, it’s up to you to be ready.

Shani Murray