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Robert Kondo, co-director of Tonko House’s Oscar-nominated short The Dam Keeper.

profiles / alumni / faculty / film / illustration / product design
October 15, 2015
By Mike Winder
photographer: Jennie Warren

Persistence, perseverance and Pixar paved the path to “The Dam Keeper’s” Oscar nomination

In the 2015 Academy Award-nominated animated short The Dam Keeper, a young pig selflessly operates a windmill to keep a poisonous cloud from destroying his town.

Keeping imminent disaster at bay doesn’t seem to be an issue for Illustration alumnus Robert Kondo (BFA 02), who co-directed the film along with Dice Tsutsumi, the first project to emerge from their Berkeley-based animation studio Tonko House.

Take, for example, the story of how Kondo landed his first job. He recalls feeling sick one day during his final term at ArtCenter, walking out of class and heading to the parking lot to recuperate in his car.

Along the way he bumped into his mentor, the late Norm Schureman (BS 85 Product Design). Schureman told him he was about to meet with Harley Jessup, a production designer at Pixar Animation Studios, who wanted to see recent student work.

Schureman then asked Kondo if he could show his portfolio to Jessup. Kondo agreed, handed Schureman his book and continued on to his much-needed nap.

“When I caught up with Norm later in the day, I asked him how his meeting went,” Kondo recalls. “Norm said, ‘It went really well. I think I got you a job.’”

A series of interviews took place (“It was crazy, meeting all my heroes”), followed by months of waiting to hear back. Then, on the very day Kondo planned to sign a contract with a video game company, Jessup called and offered him the job. Of course he accepted.

“It makes me realize how much timing, opportunity and luck have to do with our paths,” says Kondo.

Fast-forward to 2014 and Kondo—having worked 12 years as an art director on films like Ratatouille, Toy Story 3 and Monsters University—and his Pixar colleague Tsutsumi decide to trade the familiarity and security of a major studio for the risky venture of starting their own.

“The hard part about that decision was leaving ‘home,’” he says. “It was just like ArtCenter, where your friends become both your family and your peers.”

But Kondo knows he made the right move. And today he feels propelled by both the terror of the unknown and an excitement for the possibilities.

“At the heart of things, Dice and I consider ourselves storytellers,” he says, adding that making The Dam Keeper gave them a broader perspective of filmmaking. “After we did that, we couldn’t go back.”

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