Twenty years ago, when Filipinos mentioned the name “Maritess,” they weren’t exactly referring to a “tsismosa.” They were likely talking about a distressed, pimply Zamboanga native who suddenly found herself employed at the Hall of Justice, serving a group of big-time trouble shooters called The Superfriends.
This Maritess was born from the imagination of Filipino-American comedian Rex Navarrete. Fans would know she began as part of his standup routine, but the Pinay maid and her travails would gain what we would now call “viral” popularity when it was adapted into a seven-minute short by animator and graphic designer Dino Ignacio in early 2002.
Dino was a familiar figure in the comics/graphic design/animation scene in 90s Manila. A cool-looking nerd if ever there was one, with all of his hair standing up. He was co-creator and publisher of a couple of Memento Mori issues under Alamat Comics, the company co-founded by Trese creator Budjette Tan. In 1998, he traveled to the US to personally accept the Best Weird Website honor for his Bert is Evil! website from the Webby Awards. Bert is Evil! was a parody site which connects, through fabricated images, the beloved Sesame Street character Bert to some of the most wicked real life personages, Hitler among them, even tracing the muppet’s presence in particularly dark moments in world history as the JFK assassination.
But back to “Maritess.” Dino had been living a few years in the US when he and Rex met at a café during a small independent film festival in San Francisco. “At the time, Rex had a short film about sabong and I had a bunch of little animations I was making about these silly little robots,” recalls Dino to ANCX. “We talked about working together at some point, we don’t know how, we don’t know what material, but it seemed like it would be really cool.”
Before their encounter, Dino was already well aware of the comedian. He seriously enjoyed a cassette sent by an uncle containing a recording of Rex’s material. “I can’t remember who contacted who first but we very quickly agreed to do it and agreed it should be the Superfriends 1. At that time, I was—well, still is—a big DC fan and I thought it would be a funny thing to draw.”
Like in most things he gets into, Dino dove into the “Maritess” project with a kind of relentless excitement. He began drawing a version of Superman first, using Micromedia Flash, then Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman. “Maritess was actually the last character I designed,” says Dino. “And I do remember being at a friend’s party—I was really a workaholic—I should have been drinking with my friends but I was still drawing these characters!”
“Maritess and the Superfriends” would become a certified success. Back then, there was no way of counting how many views an online video attracted but Dino says the visits to his FractalCow site, which hosted the flash animation video, quickly hit a million. “At that time a million’s a lot, [and] all within three months!”
Perhaps another proof of the cartoon’s triumph is that it hasn’t really left the Filipino consciousness over the last two decades, coming up in conversations from time to time—and quite frequently in the past few weeks when Rex’s comedy has found itself being compared to the humor of that other Fil-Am comic Jo Koy. This after not a few people expressed their disappointment over the short supply of funny in “Easter Sunday,” the Jo Koy movie about the quirks and traditions of a Fil-Am family living in the US.
We don’t know how people will respond to “Easter Sunday” when it pops up on their streaming apps in a month, a year, a few years from now—full disclosure: we have yet to see it—but “Maritess” seems to have aged well. It still brings in the laughs, and Dino’s work, despite the years and the outdated software, surprisingly looks crisp and contemporary, as if he just made it yesterday. He built on pretty good material, true, but he also gave Rex’s heroine a face, plus a pair of stressed-out, sleepless eyes, and a rosary to hold onto. In short, Dino made her more familiar to us. He made us love The Superfriends too in a new way, gave them that layer of cluelessness, humor, and, dare we say it, humanity.
We struck up a conversation with Dino recently because we thought it would be nice to mark the 20th anniversary of “Maritess.” But boy were we in for a surprise when we began talking and discovered the guy is now principal designer at Roblox, one of the biggest and certainly most influential gaming platforms online, boasting more than 32 million active users daily. He just started in the company April of 2021. The post comes after six years working at Facebook with the team that developed the Oculus headset’s VR experience.
Twenty years after “Maritess,” all that hair is still up, except now it’s taken on a greyish shade—which happens to suit his calm, contemplative air. We spoke about his journey, the reason he left Facebook, how he keeps creative, and how with his work he’s creating a kinder, better future for our children and ourselves. We did a little Maritess-ing, too—the more recent definition—and asked about his family, fatherhood, and if he sees a bit of himself in the child he’s raising, the one he’s helping create a better world for.
ANCX: Flashback to 2002–did you expect the kind of reaction “Maritess” got?
You never do know the reaction. I think I’ve gotten fortunate in a way where a lot of the things I’ve touched or worked on have somehow become viral and people ask me, do I know how to do that? Do I know the formula? I honestly don’t. I come from a place of ‘I like making things that make me laugh,’ and my primary goal is to do that. And the partner that I work with, whether its Rex or some other person, if we’re laughing at it, then that’s good enough for me to put it out in the world.
ANCX: Was copyright a concern when you did “Maritess” on animation?
It wasn’t. Ignorantly, we made the characters and we considered it parody and we felt we were protected and we were. There was never an issue with Warner Bros. or anything like that. We worked with this gentleman Elson Trinidad, he’s a musician, a friend of Rex, to score the whole thing. We basically cast him to find a tempo and the tone, to make it feel like the Superfriends but not. That’s how we thought about everything: How do we make it close enough but not the exact so its our own take on it.
ANCX: I was thinking about this with regards the question earlier about how you know if something is going to be viral. I think one of the things about your work, considering Bert is Evil and “Maritess,” is that its clearly not very concerned with rules. And a lot about being viral depends on a kind of rule-breaking, or not being preoccupied with ‘what is good to put out there.’
I'm no expert in this. I'm just speaking from what's worked for me. I'm agreeing with you there. I think it has a lot to do with, like you said, breaking conventions. But also having something to latch on to, right? So if you just break convention and go completely a whole different direction than what's expected, then there is no—whats the word I’m looking for?--connection. So I think it's equal parts having something that people care about and deviating from what they expect that thing to be. I think that helps a lot because it grounds [the product] in a way where people understand what it is but, ‘Oh, you’ve taken it somewhere else!’ It’s like the root of all comedy, right? You have a good setup then you take it somewhere else.
ANCX: It’s been 20 years since Maritess and a lot of things have changed. Tell us about what your journey has been since.
I graduated from the Academy of Art which is the reason I was in America in the 2000s. I graduated in 2005. The goal was to work in cinema. I was developing skills to become an animator, a visual effects artist for movies. My goal was to end up in somewhere like ILM (Industrial Light and Magic), or Pixar. But 2005 was actually a very tumultuous time for the industry. For context: It was around 2005 when the “Star Wars” movies were done, the “Matrix” movies were done. “The Lord of the Rings” movies were also at their end. They were laying off visual effects artists left and right.
If you were someone like me graduating at that time, you were up against 10-year, 20-year veterans who have lost their jobs. Hirap makahanap ng trabaho ng time na yun. I was on a student visa. I was trying to figure out how I was going to stay in America and get a job. One thing I realized was I couldn't get into the film industry but my skills were starting to become useful in the games industry, because 2005 was also when the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 2, I believe, were starting to come out. This was like a new era for video games. The graphics of the video game machines were finally catching up to the movies. They weren't quite there yet but the skills that I had were now transferable to the game industry. So that's why I worked at EA, I worked at GameSpot, which is a website that reviewed games. I met people and then eventually ended up in the games industry.
I ended up petitioning myself, actually—this is an interesting part of the story, and I did this mostly, as a fallback. Basically, as I was trying to figure out what job I could take—I had one year to find a job, because of the student visa that I had—I ended up applying for this thing called Alien of Extraordinary Ability, the O-1 visa which normally, at the time, was mostly given to movie stars.
ANCX: Yes, I remember Gina Alajar getting something like that.
And I’m not that. Just to be clear, I'm not that (laughs). But if you look at that O-1 visa, some of the things they ask are: Has your work been published worldwide? Has a certain number of people seen your work? Have you ever won international awards? There are like seven items there and you need to be three of those.
I somehow was able to rationalize three or four of the seven things they needed on there. Gathered documentation for it from different people. And then I somehow got it! I don't know how but I did. It allowed me to be a little bit more “free” in America and be able to find a job that I really wanted to take. It meant that I wasn't at the mercy of employers.
So from there, I ended up in the games industry. I worked at EA for six years working on a game called “Deadspace.” I worked on Battlefield 3, 4. Eventually I moved to Oculus which was just acquired by Facebook and I was there for six years before I went to Roblox.
ANCX: How did you end up at Roblox?
My time at Facebook was really where I honed my skills as a product designer. When I was at EA, I was more of a UI (user interface) designer. When you're making UI, you're really more focused on the visuals, which is very nice because I am very much a visual designer. But then my time at Facebook pushed me to become more of a product designer. The difference is that you're now thinking about why the product exists or the whole experience the user goes through. You're more concerned about the problem you're solving than the product you're making.
ANCX: What were you doing exactly at Facebook?
Initially, I was a designer for a lot of the internal VR experiences for Oculus when it first started. I was there well before we shipped the first headset. Me and my team—and I can’t take all the credit for this—we were the ones who designed things that are just patterns now in VR. So back then, these were, you know, gazing, looking around, teleporting, locomoting around. These seem like really simple, expected things now but back then there weren't any patterns. You couldn't say, ‘Oh, you see how that other game did this? Can you try that?’ There was none of that. We were the team that was experimenting and trying to figure out how to do those things that makes sense for people. And now those are patterns that other companies have taken.I was manager for the designers for a product called Spaces. Spaces was Facebook's first social VR experience, where you can virtually hang out with friends around a table. Eventually, that led me to managing Facebook Horizon Design Tool. We were trying to build this product that allowed people to create and socialize in VR. I was in charge of recruiting and finding designers that could do that job. Eventually, on my last two years at Facebook, I led the Avatar design team. So across the whole company, whether you're on Messenger, whether you're on WhatsApp, VR or AR, however you represent yourself on Facebook, you have an avatar. I was the lead for the team that designed all that.
Through the pandemic, just to answer your question, I started to feel less and less aligned with the morals of Facebook. And then I saw my child really getting into Roblox in early 2020. A year and three months ago or so, I decided to leave Facebook and join Roblox. I was gonna lead up the Avatar team [at Roblox] and do similar work that I was doing in Facebook but in a company more ethically aligned to myself.
ANCX: May I know what exactly about Facebook's culture you felt you were not aligned to?
In my time there, I realized that a lot of the metrics that we measure success with in Facebook are basically along the idea of competition or conflict. With no malice to the company or the people over there—I love my friends who work there, some of the best design thinkers and product thinkers are in that company—[But] It’s a machine, right? So the way it works is, if you posted something on Facebook right now, and you said something very benign, like ‘The sky is blue,’ I will come along and probably thumbs-up it and then never think about it again. I’ll move on.
But if you said something controversial, I will probably go there, comment, and every five minutes look back on that same post and see if you replied to me. And you will reply and I’ll reply again and other people will get into it. And pretty soon we're gonna keep coming back to Facebook. So without any malice, the company’s created a machine where things that are “higher conflict” are the ones that come up in the feed more.
And that is something that is true in everything they were doing, even VR and gaming, where it's all about competition, leaderboards, conflict. The way they bring you back in VR is: “Oh, Jerome just beat your score in Supernatural. Why don't you try to see if you can beat him.” So it's all about competition. In all honesty, it's not a bad thing but when you think about, like, what is the next version of the internet you wanna build? What is the version of the metaverse you want to create? If you ask me, I don't think I'd like it to be built around competition.
To go back to Roblox, what I recognize in my time seeing my child play Roblox those months of the pandemic, the top games on Roblox are based around the idea of collaboration. The three highest played games on Roblox are all about, like, How do I help others? How do I come in and maybe adopt these people in this game? And maybe we'll play together and whenever we do good things together we both succeed.
Not to say that there aren’t competition games in Roblox. Believe me, there are. [But] The games that bring 10 million users a day, 20 million users a day, are the ones that are all about collaboration. And so when I saw that, I saw an opportunity to join the company and see how I can help bias the company further towards that area. Because if you think about, you know, again, about the conflicts we have everywhere in the world—not to be so idealistic here—but I think that has a lot to do with the type of interactions we created for ourselves. And so I'm very much invested in trying to see if we can find a better way to do that.
ANCX: You’re a principal design manager now at Roblox, is this correct?
I manage a few different areas now in Roblox. I manage Trust and Safety. I manage Economy, avatars, or what we call Digital Life, and assessment tools. So these are the different groups that I manage.
ANCX: But it's still a creative job?
To be completely honest with you, these days because I'm supporting nine, verging on 12 designers, my days are mostly spread around making sure my designers have what they need, that they have growth opportunities and I’m helping them become better. And then on the side, I'll take one small project that I can do so that I can keep my skills sharp. Right now, I'm helping design one feature, but you know, most of the other features are being done by my team.
ANCX: You left the Philippines in 1999, yes?
The way it happened was the year before that was the year of the Webby Awards. And I had gone to San Francisco to be at the award ceremony. It’s funny, at that time I was a Fine Arts student in UP. I had a very limited worldview of what it meant to be a creator. Back then, my thinking was I needed to be a fine arts painter to be a creator. My worldview was very limited.
And then I went to the States for the Webby Awards and I met all these digital arts luminaries, in this new emerging technology. The internet was happening. And I realized that there were other opportunities. And so I remember coming back to Manila after winning the Webby Awards and thinking I've got to go back to San Francisco. I'll continue my education there, and so I left a year later.
ANCX: Are you still based in San Francisco?
I was in San Francisco for 16 years. And then I left in 2015 when I joined Facebook. The Oculus office at the time specializing in the work I was going to be doing was in Seattle. So they moved my whole family there. Funnily enough, I started managing people in the Menlo Park office in the Bay Area. I was flying regularly to the Bay Area three times a week. All the way to the start of the pandemic. It was pretty rough. Now that I'm in Roblox, even though my headquarters is in San Mateo, also in the Bay Area, I've only been flying in once a month so I feel like my work-life balance is fine. My mental health is okay. Because it was really taxing to fly so often.
ANCX: You have your own family now, Dino? You have a kid, as you mentioned earlier.
I do, yes. I have an 11-year-old child. My wife and my kid, we all live in Seattle.
ANCX: What’s a day like for you these days? You said you work from home.
My alarm usually goes up at 6am. Partly because my kid needs to be prepared for school. That's around the time we need to get ready because school starts for them around 7AM—their pronouns are they/them so if I’m confusing at all. With them graduating 5th grade starting next year, I don’t have to have that 6AM alarm.
So I start off that early. And then I just have breakfast with the family. And then get ready to start my day. I’m probably answering emails between eight o'clock and 10 o’clock. Meetings start at 10AM, most of them obviously are online. I'm on Zoom most of the time. There’s lot of reviews of products, I do some demos. I present stuff. I look at my team’s work. If it's Tuesday, my day is extra long because that's the day I meet with my team in China. I manage a designer in China as well.
When I’m lucky, and when the sun is out in Seattle, around my lunch hour, which I hold sacred, I don't hold meetings. I step out and I walk to the beach. I live about a mile’s walk to the beach. I walk down and walk back straight up and then I continue my day.
ANCX: How do you keep yourself creative?
My kid is a great help. We like to create stuff, we like to draw, we like to paint, we like to make little short videos. We cosplay. So I craft, I design things with my kid. We build a lot of things. We built a full-size R2D2 on our own. I build costumes. We go to Comic Cons. We make little children's books. A lot of the stuff that I do right now are either revolving around my kid’s creativity, or my nerd fandom. I love Star Trek and Star Wars so I end up building replica props from scratch. I'll 3D model it, 3D print it, and then work on building electronics in it as well.
ANCX: Do you see yourself in your kid, Dino? Were they like you when you were young?
Yeah, I think so. My kid’s very, very confident and very kind. I'd like to think they're a better version of me. They're very aware of themselves. I don't think I was as aware. But I think I was trying.
ANCX: Were you raised by creative parents?
That’s a great question. My father ran a construction company. On the side, he was very much into lettering, so I knew he had a creative streak. He was always designing logos for the companies he was running, handwriting signs whenever somebody had a birthday, so I think my love of graphic design came from him. Also I wouldn’t call it creative in the more traditional sense but his business acumen was there. He started with nothing, got into the trucking business. He was always good at figuring out what needed to be done so I think I got that creative thinking from him. My mother was always great at figuring out what the home needed. A homemaker, great cook, and always improvisational in cooking. When one ingredient is not available, she would try different things. Again they’re not creative as probably you and I think about it but I think they were.
ANCX: And how did they raise such a kind man like you?
My father was always very humble. I think what I saw in him was that it didn’t matter who he was talking to, whether it was some government official or mayor somewhere, or one of the people who worked for him or someone selling him balut, he was always very kind. Always treating them with the same amount of respect. He was also very generous, to a fault. And I think that rubbed off on me. I think my father was a socialist and he didn’t know it. I think that’s my world view and it came from him. Thank you for thinking I’m kind but a lot of it was from how my father raised me.
ANCX: What advice would you give someone dreaming of joining the gaming industry in the field of design?
To always start with the question of “What am I solving?” People sometimes latch on to the surface level: How can I make a better version of Whatsapp? How can I make a better version of Tiktok? Or how do I make a better version of Uber. And all they’re doing at that point is just looking at table stakes, like the baseline, and copying something. If you start from there then you’re never really gonna be punching upwards and becoming innovative. Instead, as designer, you should really start by examining “what is the problem I’m solving?”
You look at a product, for example, Uber. At the surface level, it’s a product that allows me to call a car to take me somewhere. If you think about it, the root problem you’re solving is how do I as a person get from A to B as easily as possible? That’s the deeper question. And if you think about that, at the base level, you end up with a more innovative product. Maybe you don’t even have to leave the home. Maybe we’ve created a way for you to use VR and maybe robots that you can embody at the other end of the world without leaving where you are. I guess what I’m saying is that instead of copying what exists, examine what the deeper problem is that you’re solving. You may come up with innovative answers.
ANCX: What's the best part about doing what you do now Dino?
Are you talking about my professional work?
ANCX: Professional work and I guess the life you've created for yourself, which sounds like a very creative life.
Thank you. Right now what keeps me really motivated with work are two things. One, as I started to tell you earlier, I'm really excited about the potential for whatever we're creating. Like I can almost taste what the next version of interaction’s gonna be. People call it the metaverse or Web 3.0. I don't know what it's going to be called but we’re at the black and white TV stage of what that is. And it's really exciting. And it keeps me going trying to figure out these things, about the interaction of user experience, policy, trust and safety, economy, all these things that we don't quite understand that are happening in the digital realm right now. It keeps me excited.
And then the other part is creating a very sympathetic design culture. I've had the opportunity now to work through many different design cultures or work cultures, whether it was the time I was at EA, where it was like a factory, or Facebook, where the impact was more important than the process. Now having the opportunity to help designers grow in an environment where they care about what they’re making, and you’re always examining the why and the product instead of just the what, that’s very exciting to me. That’s what keeps me going.
Portraits by Joseph Pascual
Photographed at Sine Pop!