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Check Out Aprilyn Cunanan’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Aprilyn Cunanan.

Hi Aprilyn, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I’m a Filipino-American 🇵🇭🇺🇸 illustrator and a background designer and painter working in indie, TV and feature animation. I was born in the states but I spent most of my childhood growing and bouncing between Jacksonville, Florida and in Okinawa, Japan. This was because my dad was in the US Navy and deployed often. As a result, I had a difficult time keeping friends. Because of this, I was exposed at an early age to many American cartoons and Japanese animation.

I was maybe eight when I entered coloring contests in local grocery stores….. and started winning prizes. I think eventually, the grocery store caught on that I was the winner every month and ended my streak, but I do remember that was the first inklings of the creative trajectory my life would take.

I entered competitions as a young teen for fun and participated in as many art honors societies for youths too. After school, I took some portrait and realism drawing one-on-one tutoring from a Japanese man who always kept a box of cigarettes in his shirt pocket. But I did this for fun, I didn’t think it would be a career. It wasn’t until a fateful night where I was watching a VHS tape of “Anastasia”, the animated movie from 1997, for probably my umpteenth time when a name in the rolling credits stood out to me: Joel C. Cunanan. He was credited as a Character Clean-up Artist. Seeing someone with my unmistakably Filipino last name on a movie I loved very much changed my life.

I honestly didn’t actually think that Filipinos /could/ have a career in animation. I grew up thinking that we all would have to become a nurse, or a doctor, or an engineer. It didn’t occur to me then what it occurs to me now is that is why representation is so important.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
My parents were wary about my decision to pursue animation but thankfully so very supportive. I wouldn’t have gotten where I am without their unwavering faith in me. I went to Art Institute of Jacksonville for my Associate’s Degree in Media Arts and Animation and then transferred over to Jacksonville University to complete my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Animation. My time at university was a blue period for me. I wasn’t sure where my art would fit in the world.

I completed my BFA in Animation thesis and began applying for internships out here in Los Angeles. An internship was required to graduate at my university. I was trying for bigger studios like Cartoon Network, Disney, Nickelodeon, Blue Sky, Dreamworks. A lot of my professors weren’t sure I’d get any studios to bite my line. One professor even cautioned me that I was being too ambitious and told me that “there is rather big chance they wouldn’t choose you over a CalArts kid,” It sounded bleak and disheartening to hear but I tried anyway. I was rejected from all but one studio: WB Animation.

In 2017, I packed only essentials in my car including my then two-year-old Shiba Inu, Frodo, and drove a five-day cross-country drive to Los Angeles sick with pneumonia. We made it out here and I interned on “New Looney Tunes”, and then became an assistant production manager on that same show. After, I went on to being a production assistant for three years on “DC Super Hero Girls” (the 2019 reboot created by Lauren Faust).

Being in production was being underpaid and doing thankless hard work. It’s also incredibly difficult to break out of. They’re non-union too. And just to be clear, unionizing isn’t rare in animation. Animators, editors, timers, actors and writers are all part of their respective guilds and organizations. But production work as long been excluded them these unions. Production staff has no protections against wrongful layoffs, workplace harassment and have worse benefits than the union co-workers they work with every day to get a show on air. I was making $15 an hour. My retail job at a mall before this was $10 an hour. Most of my income went to rent. I barely had enough for groceries and furniture my studio apartment. I was sleeping on an air mattress for a year.

But the crew of “DC Super Hero Girls” supported my goals and cared for me and I officially broke into a union position and became a background painter. Since then, I’ve worked with clients such as Netflix and Cartoon Network and on shows like “Tig n’ Seek” (2020), “Carol” (2021), “Did I Do That To The Holidays? A Steve Urkel Story” (2022), “Tiny Toons” (2022). I’m currently background designing full-time for “Jellystone!” (2021, a Hanna-Barbera series developed by C. H. Greenblatt).

Very importantly, I now have a proper bed and couch!

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I especially love color very much. I think that it’s such a powerful tool for creating a visual narrative. I’m especially fond of the primary colors (red, blue and yellow) My personal work is something I like to call lineless work. I make my illustrations in shapes, colors and light. I go plein air painting (painting outdoors) almost every weekend. And it’s been a great way to keep in practice. Capturing the spirit or essence of a landscape through natural light and color is relaxing and also challenging. I use Holbein gouache paint, some compact flash brushes, a pochade box and a tripod.

Can you share something surprising about yourself?
Most of my professional art career has been working remotely and seeing coworkers only in Zoom, Slack or Teams meetings. When I do run into someone I never met in person, it always seems to surprise many how short I am! I stand at a comfortable 4’11 but I just think everyone else is just too tall (laugh). If I’m not wearing makeup and go into a restaurant with my family, I get wordlessly handed some crayons and a kid’s menu.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Haley Gansert IG photography account @heimeiphotos

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