Burnaby animator puts expertise into Vancouver Animation School

Long before he became the founder and CEO of Vancouver Animation School, Burnaby’s Mario Pochat was just a kid in Mexico City who liked to draw, like many an aspiring animator before him.

But his professional career took off earlier than most.

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He got his first job – a three-year internship with Montreal-based Softimage – at the tender age of 15 after bringing a VHS tape of computer animations to a convention in the 1980s.

Back then, he says, the “pencil guys” and the “computer guys” were still at war.

The pencil guys, in the tradition of Walt Disney, were the traditional character animators using frame-by-frame animation of two-dimensional drawings.

The computer guys, meanwhile, used software mostly to create things like moving, three-dimensional TV-news and advertising logos – and not much in the way of characters.

“It’s just the arts versus technology, right?” Pochat says.

As the two sides converged in an explosion of computer-animated movies and video games in the ensuing decades, however, Pochat says he maintained a handle on both.

Vancouver Animation School
An office at Vancouver Animation School's new headquarters in Burnaby. - Beth Gonzalez

“I had a pretty unique position,” he says. “I’m someone who understands the art and someone who understands the technical side. See, I’m not the best at these things, but I’m in the middle.”

He’s also in the middle when it comes to teaching and doing – having both taught computer animation in a classroom and worked in some of the biggest studios in the industry, including Rainmaker Visual Effects, CIS Vancouver and Method Studios.

In 2011, the 10-year Metrotown resident put all that knowhow into founding the Vancouver Animation School, which pulled up stakes on Vancouver’s Granville Island and moved to Burnaby’s Big Bend this summer.

(The school celebrated with an open house on Sept. 22.)

But don’t go there expecting to find a sprawling campus.

The school is 100 per cent online, and its students and instructors live all over the world.

The software used to connect them – a platform designed in-house called Edutisse – is one of the things that makes the school so unique.

Its online interactivity simulates a studio setting more closely than a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, according to Pochat, making it easier for grads to transition to careers in the real world.

Courses at the school are also more specialized.

“Typically, in schools, they’re very general even if you go for a certain applied degree,” Pochat says.

At Vancouver Animation School, students are focused on their choice of four areas (animation, concept art, visual effects or video games) from day one, making grads more industry ready right off the hop.

The online school now has about 200 students and full B.C. Education Quality Assurance and Private Training Institutions Branch accreditation, but getting it off the ground was a test of faith early on.

Vancouver Animation School
Vancouver Animation School moved its headquarters from Granville Island to Burnaby this summer. - Beth Gonzalez

When he started working on the idea in 2009, Pochat says accrediting bodies weren’t sure what to make of a 100 per cent online school.

And once he had cleared those hurdles, it was tough to get parents of prospective students on board with the idea of a school with no physical classrooms to send their kids to.

The tipping point came in 2013, Pochat says, when younger millennials, so-called digital natives, started their post-secondary education.   “For us, the younger generation pushed us forward,” he says. “We’ve seen and experienced firsthand millennials, what they want, the younger generation, how they go to school. How things are really changing and shifting in education is huge.”

The school now enrolls students from 20 different countries, including eight from Burnaby.

With the school now in their backyard, local students can come in for support if they need to, according to Pochat, but they rarely do.

“We don’t teach from within the building at all because (our instructors) are in San Francisco, Vancouver, Montreal, U.K., New York, all these places,” Pochat says.

For more information about Vancouver Animation School, visit vanas.ca.

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