DOWNEY -– Since Briana Ornelas was a young girl, she dreamed to someday be able to share her creativity with the world. Family, friends and teachers would always find her drawing different characters in a notebook or on her homework; if there was white space on the page, it would be covered with her imagination.
Ornelas grew up in Downey and attended Downey Unified schools from kindergarten, starting at Williams Elementary, to 12th grade at Warren High School. The first art project she remembers feeling proud of was her drawing of the Tasmanian devil in Mr. Desalernos’ art class at Stauffer Middle School.
“He was the first teacher to tell me I was talented, and from that moment, I wanted to do my absolute best to show him that he was right,” said Ornelas.
In high school she discovered her passion for animation. From sophomore to senior year, Ornelas was part of the animation program at Warren High School. In Mr. Austin’s animation class, Ornelas was given the opportunity to branch out from the group and work on her own projects.
It was in this classroom that she created her first official animation project.
“Everyone starts somewhere and I am extremely grateful that Mr. Austin gave me the chance to work freely and be creative in his class, because it was there that I discovered my love of animation,” said Ornelas. “There are some teachers who wouldn’t have given their student that freedom.”
During her junior year of high school, she had a vivid memory of her time at Williams Elementary School. As she reflected back to her third grade classroom, she remembered receiving Disney gifts from her teacher Ms. Kaveney’s husband, who worked with Disney Consumer Products.
Ornelas had a goal to work with Pixar Animation, and she knew that this could possibly be the connection that could lead her there. She reached out to Ms. Kaveney, who then provided her with a personal contact with a Disney employee. It was eight long months after reaching out that Ornelas finally received an email with an invitation to have lunch with an animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank.
“This truly was the first stepping stone to my animation career,” said Ornelas. “It all started because of a small detail I remembered about Ms. Kaveney and had I not contacted her, I might never have had all the opportunities I am lucky enough to say I’ve experienced thus far.”
Ornelas drove out to Burbank anxious and excited for the moment that she was hoping would forever change her life. She had been envisioning this moment since her passion for art was ignited and, as she arrived at the studio lot, just seeing the sign from the gate took her breath away.
Before lunch, she was given a brief tour of the studio. During the tour, she met Eric Goldberg, one of the top American animators, directors and voice actors at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Ornelas could barely believe her eyes as she stood talking with him.
As they conversed about the world of Disney animation, Goldberg mentioned that he heard marvelous things about Ornelas and kindly gave her a gift, a book he had written, signed with a drawing of his original animation: Genie from Walt Disney’s film “Aladdin.”
“Meeting Eric Goldberg was the biggest inspiration I could have asked for,” said Ornelas. “Being in the presence of such a rock star was unbelievable! It truly solidified my dreams and did nothing but propel me forward in my endeavors.”
Only weeks before her freshman year of college, Ornelas decided to apply to Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD). She had visited the campus in high school with Mr. Austin’s animation class, and though she felt hesitant about the traditional styles of art that she saw, she was pleasantly surprised when she received a $40,000 scholarship and started classes just a few weeks later.
Throughout her four years at LCAD, Ornelas spent long hours and often sleepless nights pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in animation. From working on various animation projects for school, to a 12-week master class with “stop-motion maestro,” Stephen Chiodo, Ornelas found any opportunity to better her craft.
During her junior year of college, she interned at an animation studio known as Picnic Productions where she had the opportunity to animate several short films used to teach young children about history. It was one of Ornelas’ English teachers at Warren High who taught her the art of storytelling.
“I was excited about the opportunity to use animation to tell stories and engage learners, something I had learned to enjoy at Warren in Ms. Than’s class,” said Ornelas.
As her time at LCAD was coming to an end, Ornelas was ready for the next adventure in her animation career.
In March of this year, Ornelas applied for the internship program at Pixar Studios in Emeryville, California. Two months later, she received a call from the studio informing her that she got the internship. Thrilled by this news, Ornelas packed her things at LCAD and made the journey up to Northern California.
During this summer internship at Pixar, Ornelas will have the opportunity to work on different assignments that will showcase her skills with storytelling and character development in animation. She will also have the opportunity to learn Pixar’s unique computer animation software.
“I remember finding my bucket list I created when I was 12 years old and at the top, I wrote ‘Work at Pixar forever’,” said Ornelas. “Now I’m here and I don’t want to leave because everyone is so encouraging and it feels like family.”
Some of the assignments she has already worked on include trying to make the Pixar signature lamp look alive through technical motion and conveying attitude in the pink elephant “Bing Bong” from Disney Pixar’s film “Inside Out.”
The final project Ornelas will be working on will be a dialogue scene using characters from Pixar’s animated film “Cars.” Once she completes this project, her work will be reviewed to see if she qualifies to be hired to work on “Cars 3” while concluding her internship.
Ornelas believes that the encouragement she received throughout her youth in Downey Unified, along with her drive to never give up, has allowed her to get this far in her animation career.
“Looking back, it was the cumulative support of all the staff and teachers within Downey Unified who each inspired me in different ways.” Ornelas shared. “From working on my own animation projects in Mr. Austin’s class, to drawing in the margins of my tests; my teachers never got mad and always encouraged me to follow my dreams. This is something I truly appreciated throughout those years and still do today.”