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Visual Development Alumna Lands Dream Job With Tonko House

JJ Jaehee Song’s hard work and diligence has paid off as she continues to flourish in her career

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A still from Tonko House's PIG: The Dam Keeper Poems. Image courtesy of JJ Song.

School of Visual Development (VIS) M.F.A. alumna, JJ Jaehee Song is working as a visual development artist at new and award-winning animation studio Tonko House.

While Song has been with Tonko House as an intern since 2015, she has had a long and winding journey to her current position as an established visual development artist. “Very early, when I was 12, I fell in love with animation, specifically, it was Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. After I saw that I decided my dream and studied art,” Song said in an interview.

Song began drawing and painting around the same age before attending Kookmin University’s industrial and product design B.F.A. program in Seoul, South Korea.

“Industrial design is very helpful to study drawing. It taught us not only drawing but how to create something complete and also study 3-D programs,” she said. “Industrial design encompasses all parts of art. I made mock-ups and did everything: Modeling, drawing, design and sculpting. It was my strategy to do industrial design to make my base skills, then come here to study visual development.”

After solidifying her foundational art skills at Kookmin, Song procured a student visa to join Academy of Art University’s VIS M.F.A. program. In her final year at the Academy, Song was interning at a small video game studio when the Tonko House CEO approached VIS Director Nicolás Villarreal for a recommendation for a student intern. He recommended Song, who began interning with Tonko House almost immediately after.

“Since JJ started in the visual development program at the Academy, she always proved to be a focused, driven and talented artist,” said Villarreal. “She always took classes seriously as if they were professional projects. Her work ethic, passion and optimism are visible every time. I’m eager to see where her work will lead her.”

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Academy of Art University School of Visual Development alumna JJ Song. Photo courtesy of JJ Song.

Founded in 2012, Tonko House is a hot new animation studio based in the Bay Area. They have been lauded for their simplistic and distinct visual style, most notably in their animated short film, The Dam Keeper, which was nominated for best short film at the 2015 Oscars. It was this distinct visual style that presented such an allure to Song’s artistic tastes.

“I really struggled with their style. Tonko House’s style was more than that,” said Song. “I really wanted to study and get it. Robert Kondo’s design and line work are really so beautiful.”

After her internship, Song was brought on as a contractor and then a full-time visual development artist. She now has a wide variety of responsibilities, from mentoring a small team of interns, which includes other Academy students, and developing both The Dam Keeper graphic novel and PIG: The Dam Keeper Poems, a light-hearted short-form prequel series about the titular character’s path to becoming The Dam Keeper in the film.

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A still from Tonko House's PIG: The Dam Keeper Poems. Image courtesy of JJ Song.

Song spoke very highly of how the Academy prepared her for work at one of the industry’s renowned new studios. Like most successful animators, she cited hard work first and foremost as the most important attribute.

“My first class at the Academy was studio drawing. I studied really hard,” she said. “If a student had an assignment of 10 pages, I did 30 pages. That really helped me.”

She also praised the faculty across the departments for their expertise and congeniality. “The instructors are really friendly. The teachers really know how to help students in [the Academy]. The teachers and students get really close,” Song said. “I also did oil painting a lot. I do not look at oil painting, watercolor or drawing as different. It’s all about modeling and light. The teachers taught me a lot about how to use the light and how to control it.”

Song won the first place for character design for the Academy’s Spring Show in 2015 and 2016, her graduating year. She has come a long way from watching Monsters, Inc. to become a visual development artist, but her story is a testament to what is possible.