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John Aquino makes his Disney ‘Wish’ come true


Asha (voiced by Ariana DeBose) is a sharp-witted idealist who lives in Rosas—a kingdom where wishes really do come true.–PHOTOS FROM DISNEY

The Walt Disney Company may own Marvel Studios, Pixar and Lucasfilm, but the company was built on the magical imagination and the hand-drawn 2D animation of films like 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” the first full-length animated film ever, and the classics that came after it: “Fantasia” (1940), “Bambi” (1942), “Cinderella” (1950) and “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) Computers would later come and aid the animators but it cannot be denied that the division known as Walt Disney Animation Studios remains what makes Disney, well, Disney.
This is the studio that gave us the second golden age of Disney animation: “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Beauty & the Beast” (1991), “Aladdin” (1992), “The Lion King” (1994), and the ubiquitous “Frozen” (2013).
Walt Disney Animation Studios knows how to make magic on the screen—and Filipino American animator John Aquino knows this very well. Born in Manila before decamping to the United States tp take up Graphic Arts at the Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego. Aquino started at the studio as an inbetweener for 1996’s “Hercules” and effects breakdown artist for “Fantasia 2000” (1999). He would work his way up, becoming character technical director for 2008’s “Bolt,” modeler for 2010’s “Tangled,” the aforementioned “Frozen,” 2016’s “Moana.”

John Aquino

But his big break came as the environment modelling lead for 2021’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which is Disney’s first Southeast Asian-inspired film, and where Aquino got to draw on his past experiences in the Philippines. It was also a push for more diversity and inclusion.
Now, he has come full circle in Disney’s 100th anniversary as environment modelling supervisor for the animation studio’s newest offering “Wish.”
The film is a perfect metaphor for the work Disney has been doing for a century, as all Disney movies are ultimately about wishes. In this film, they are a literal plot point. In the land of Rosas—the land where wishes come true–a girl named Asha (voiced by Ariana DeBose) wishes upon a star and then is stunned when the star named, well, Star, actually comes down to be with her.
But then, she must face off with a classic Disney villain in King Magnifico (Chris Pine), who decides which wishes comes true but has a terrible secret. And a proper Disney film would not be complete without a wacky animal sidekick, this time a talking goat named Valentino (Alan Tudyk).
So what does Aquino do exactly? “I lead a team of other modelers to help build the kingdom of Rosas using the artwork provided by the art team and from there we interpret all the artwork and build it in the computer,” he tells Super via Zoom. “And you know, and then we go over it with the art team to make sure that it meets their criteria and satisfaction and approval, and then it gets sent to the other departments. To be textured to be you know, lit and then animation uses the sets, of course, to do their work as well.”
He says that what makes “Wish” special among all the movies he’s worked on. “It’s great to work on this project because it celebrates the legacy of Disney animation from our 2D roots, you know, and our current 3D pipeline and it’s nice to see a blend of that.”
In many ways, Aquino’s own career has grown like Disney’s. In 2020, Disney+ streamed a series called “Short Circuit” featuring animated shorts. Aquino wrote and directed the series’ sixth episode, “Lightning in a Bottle,” which makes him the first Filipino to direct a Disney short, something he’s very proud of.
And now, he comes to “Wish” with more responsibility than ever before: “First of all, I feel blessed. I’ve had this, this span of career here at Disney, from my 2D days where I was animating effects to building worlds. ‘Wish’ is just a culmination of everything that I’ve learned so far at Disney. It’s been humbling to look back and reflect on the journey. I’m always willing to learn. I will always have that hunger to do better. So I think there’s still a road ahead of me, and I just want to keep learning about myself, whether it’s an environment supervisor on the next show or being a director, or even just being part of a team that helps to create and be part of something that is shared with the world and hopefully make the world a better place.”
John Aquino has seen his Disney dreams come true, particularly with “Wish,” and there are many Filipinos aspiring to be animators just like him. To them he gives this piece of advice: “Let your heart speak for itself. If you work hard, and show a good body of work, that’s really going to blow people’s socks away. I think that you should always strive to alwayslearn and to perfect your craft and put a reel and portfolio, send it to all the studios in animation. If that’s where you want to go, then you definitely need to submerge yourself. Learn as much as you can. I’m not gonna say it’s gonna be an easy road, but it’s definitely a road worth taking. But, literally, you will learn about yourself and it will only make you stronger as a person and as an artist. So just keep striving and don’t give up.”


See Also
secret ingredient Julia Baretto Lee Sangheon

King Magnifico (Chris Pine) rules over Rosas but he alone decides which wishes come true–and that may not be a good thing

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish” is now showing in cinemas.

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