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Rising Stars: Meet Victor Calleja

Today we’d like to introduce you to Victor Calleja.

Hi Victor, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstory with our readers?

Like a lot of artists growing up, I started drawing at a very young age & I’ve been in love with art ever since I picked up a pencil. In school, I was the observant art kid who always carried a sketchbook on me anytime I went out. I remember my notebooks being littered with doodles of spaceships, robots & characters from imagination based off of the directly from the media I consumed growing up. As a first-generation Mexican-American, I was very fortunate to have always had the boundless love & support of my family from the moment I discovered I wanted to be an artist to where I am today. It was sometime during my senior year of high school that I buckled myself in once I learned that I could make a living as an artist, in particular as a concept designer and/or visual development artist for entertainment. I discovered these two career paths while playing Ratchet & Clank & Jak and Daxter on the PlayStation 2.

What was great about both of these games is that they each had an ‘Extras’ menu which let you unlock fun easter eggs or behind-the-scenes bits & one of these menus so happened to be the concept art of the characters, environments & vehicles, which I instantly fell in love with. I would pour all of my free time into collecting Platinum Bolts & Precursor Orbs just to unlock the art & look at it for hours only for it to inspire me to design my own stuff almost immediately after powering off our PlayStation. Amongst being inspired by the art of films, animation, manga, comic books, theme parks & so many other things, those two video game experiences are vivid memories as to how it all started. Since then, I never made a plan B for what else I could do as a career because I knew it was what I wanted to do for a living & gave it my all from the get-go. When it was time to for me to pick a college or university, I was accepted into Cal State Fullerton initially but I decided to go Orange Coast College for a few reasons; it was close to home, their campus was great & I knew it would save a lot of money with my GEs that were needed before transferring to either a 4-year university or art school. At OCC, I met tons of great instructors & friends that all worked our butts off to be the best students we could be both in school & outside of our immediate education; we’d listen to hours of art podcasts, share countless tutorials, reinforce our fundamentals, drink tons of coffee while cafe sketching, attend speaker/networking events & do everything to increase visual libraries.

The grind didn’t stop there though; after 3 years at OCC, I transferred to Cal State Fullerton because its tuition cost was within my budget, I wanted to give my parents something to be proud of for all their sacrifices & I wanted to join one of the school’s clubs, the Pencil Mileage Club. I was introduced to the PMC through Cliff Cramp while he was bunkered in at CSUF’s booth at CTN Expo sometime in 2013. There he shared with me his student’s work, gave me some awesome pointers (aka Cramp-isms) on my portfolio & he encouraged me to attend a speaker event hosted by PMC on campus even though I wasn’t officially a member. I was convinced after sneaking my way into the lecture hall that was hosting the event & felt very welcome to be there, so I made it a priority to sign up as a member my first day of class as a transfer student come fall 2014. Another 3 years went by & during that time, I had the amazing opportunity to meet some more talented friends, go under Cliff’s wing & thankfully land some internships before I graduated. They say you learn the most once you’re on the job & I feel like I got the best experience possible as an intern over at Gadget-Bot Productions when Peggy Chung & Robert Simons took me in after I reached out to them through a post on Instagram. I learned so much from them during my short amount of time there, such as being introduced to new programs, workflows & the expectations / what grade of work studios were looking for. It was an eye-opening experience & I had to push myself even harder, all while still maintaining a healthy lifestyle & paying those bills.

After graduating with my BFA in Illustration in 2017, I continued to post work online & work on my portfolio while actively reaching out to studios for any art openings. I’d send applications to studios left & right which in turn would result in at least 100+ rejections, some opportunities very close & some with no replies at all. It was discouraging at times but I had to be patient because I knew it was a part of the process. All it took was one opportunity & that opportunity that presented itself to me was a visual development artist position on a feature film being worked on by Aquamen Entertainment. Thanks to Craig Elliot, I never would have thought that I’d work alongside some of the most talented artists that worked on some of my favorite films growing up; artists like Christophe Vacher who worked on Treasure Planet & Jae Kim who worked on The Iron Giant were just a few that I learned so much from during my time there, I couldn’t have asked for a better first crew of mentors & friends to have been a part of.

Around the time that a lot of our crew was moving on, my fellow alumni, Eric Omega & Tara Han-Tran Johnson, reached out to me & asked if I was interested in a color designer position over at Marvel & I said yes to an interview without hesitation. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to the Aquamen crew, both new & old, but the timing couldn’t have worked out more perfectly because I was ready for my next adventure in TV animation. Shoutout to the Spidey S3 crew for making it a blast to work on such a fast-paced production, everyone there was so kind, helpful & driven to do their best; it was a great experience & I’m glad I took that leap of faith. As for where I’m at now, I’m currently a visual development artist at Netflix Animation with previous experience working as a character, color & concept designer across a handful of animation, game & film projects. I owe many thanks to Yuhki Demers & Alex Konstad for reaching out & asking me to be part of their crew on Netflix’s My Dad The Bounty Hunter as a visual development artist & it’s been such a blast working with our incredible team, we’re so proud of our show & can’t wait for everyone to watch the series once in airs in the near future! I’m very happy to say that I have so much more to learn on top of full-time work; apart from work I’m also taking on new challenges as a part-time instructor at my old community college, OCC.

I’m very excited for this new opportunity because of the new challenges that come with it such as better time-management, lesson planning & finding ways to bridge the knowledge gap for up-and-coming artists to where I’m at right now. It wasn’t too long ago that I was in the same seats that my students were in so it’s on me to find the best structured & clear learning solutions that’ll help propel them there to where they want to go with their careers. I’m grateful for my old instructor, Chris Kerins / now coworker, for taking a chance on me, & it’s something I didn’t think I’d ever get to experience until after or close to retirement. Even though I’ve worked very hard to get to where I am today, I still can’t believe I’ve been so blessed to experience so much in such a short amount of time. The endless support I’ve received from my family, girlfriend, friends, mentors, teachers & coworkers are part of the reason why I am where I am today & I’m forever grateful to everyone who’s had faith in me along the way. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for them playing such important roles in my life so to them, I say thank you for all of your love, patience & endless support, always & forever.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
This is going to be one of those yes / no answers because I’ve never felt the obstacles I’ve had to overcome are anywhere near as difficult as other people’s challenges be it physically, emotionally or socially. There were times where I was very impatient & frustrated with the bureaucracy behind what classes I had to take in school & how I felt like I was wasting my time GEs that did not help my career whatsoever, I cringe at who I was a few years ago but hey that means I grew right? Looking back, I should have taken advantage of classes that could have influenced my art such as taking more science or humanities courses rather than go for the easy A but hey, I’m who I am today because of the path I’ve taken. A few lessons that I took from my education aside from gaining some art-gains, was that we’re dealt a hand with where we are in life & it’s up to make the most of it; to understand that something’s are set in motion & our best plays are going to be to think ahead but also live in the moment & not take any opportunities for granted because everything is a stepping stone, nothing is the end & of itself. As ambitious & hungry as I was for opportunities after graduating, it very was easy to feel like I was going in circles during my time as a cast member at Disneyland’s Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage; I was literally going in circles inside a submarine entertaining our guests. I was very fortunate though to be employed at Disneyland because I loved my time there as a cast member but I won’t go without saying that every shift post-graduation from CSUF was rough. I joke that I could literally feel my brain melt with each lap I took because parallel to work, I felt like I was going in circles with those countless rejection letters from studios, I was impatient & was ready for what I set out to do – I just needed to be more patient. Another lesson I took from this was that my worth as a person isn’t defined by my career & ultimately I gained some great communication/people skills from my time at Disney & AMC Theatres too, I think both of those jobs were humbling & built character! I didn’t have to get it right the first time, I just had to get it right eventually; or from a career-sense, I just needed one opportunity to get the ball rolling.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I love sci-fi & mecha because it draws inspiration from so many things in life & entertainment, it’s my bread & butter but I’m also going to be super excited to design/paint a piece of bread & butter – heck let’s design a bread & butter mech while we’re at it! I’ve found that curiosity, perseverance & passion have always been constants in how & why I design, whether it’s for a client or my own personal work. That drive to create & tell stories has been nurtured through studying design, engaging in a healthy lifestyle & approaching goals with a positive attitude. I’m a firm believer that we can achieve anything with an open mindset & positive attitude; I apply these two principles to my work & the challenges that come with each task – whether they’re assignments I’ve done in the past or something completely new – there’s always something to learn & the best way to learn is to give it your all by putting yourself out there & truly applying what you’ve learned into everything you work on. I want people to know I take my work very seriously but that I also enjoy it so it’s never truly felt like work, especially when I’m working with the right people. I’m happy that I get to collaborate with folks on incredible projects & I’m always ready for the next adventure because I have the aptitude to not only be a valuable crewmate but also a creative who’s ready to adapt, grow & support others on their own journeys – we may be able to go fast alone but we’ll get further together.

We’d love to hear about any fond memories you have from when you were growing up?
I’m very happy to say I have so many to choose from but if I had to pick one of the closest ones related to art, it would be playing the trading card games that I drafted up my siblings. It brought me so much happiness to see my loved ones enjoy the artwork & all our hard work that we passionately poured our hearts into. There’s a special magic about tabletop games/card games that I was able to experience at a very young age & each round we played only propelled me further & further to where I am today. It’s a goal of mine to design a card game just to honor what we had growing up so I’m always excited to work on it anytime I get the chance to – I’ll finish it one day though. If you’re interested in following up with that project’s updates or my work, check out @playoutriders or @victorhcalleja over on Instagram!

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