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Filipino Canadian visual effects artist Jo Ann Belen makes mark in Hollywood

Rowena Papasin | TFC News Vancouver

Posted at Jan 26 2023 09:22 AM

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If blockbuster Hollywood films like The Dark Knight, Iron Man 2, Captain America, Avengers, Wakanda Forever, and Elvis have anything in common, it is that these movies are part of the growing list of successful projects that Vancouver-based visual effects artist Jo Ann Belen has worked on. 

Belen, who came to Vancouver with her family in 2013, got her start as a visual effects artist for Hollywood after an opportunity to train in London came while she was working in Singapore.

Belen remembered that it was a tough call for her as it meant leaving her youngest child who, at that time, was just a year old. 

"It was actually probably the toughest decision I had to make because it was choosing between my career and my family priorities because she was just one year old. But then I had this inkling that eto na yung opportunities. It's a chance in a lifetime," she shared.

Training with the company Double Negative, she started as a roto artist for Hellboy.

But when her supervisors noticed her skills and experience, they asked her to work as a compositor in The Dark Knight. A compositor is the one who puts together all the film elements to create the final image that the audience sees in the movies.

"After three weeks biglang sabi nila, I think you can do a bit more. My first shot, first task was to paint out yung mga rig, yung, crane, yung crew. It was a helicopter crashing in the streets of Chicago. Then they moved me to more difficult comp work, which was this one shot with Heath Ledger. He was hanging on the roof."

Coming back to Singapore, Belen helped train new visual effects artists in the use of the new technology. Before long, she got another offer to work on Iron Man 2. More offers followed including work on almost all of the Marvel blockbusters.

But the UP graduate admitted that it was not an easy ride as she felt the discrimination because of her gender and her race.

"I could see the look in their eyes that 'kaya ba talaga ng babaeng 'to, you’re so tiny'," Belen said. "But when they see that you could do the job, the trust just falls into place. So yun yung masarap na feeling na, ay hindi na nila tinitignan yung ano, yung kulay mo it doesn't matter kung may accent ka."

With her proven skills, other studios have also asked Belen to work on shows like Game of Thrones, Alice in Wonderland, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Avatar. Belen said seeing her name in movie credits is very rewarding.

"It's all about hard work, kasi the more you put your heart and soul to your work, you get compensated well. and they see your work, you know na it's worth that."

Belen also said the growth of streaming services means there's a need for many more visual effects artists. She believes anyone can have their chance too if they don’t give up on their dream.

"They understand you don't have the experience but you have the potential to learn. So if you show that in your reel or your portfolio that you've got that passion, you’ve got that potential, you're willing to learn, in the bag na yun."

Belen has just recently been elected as a member of the board of managers of the Vancouver Visual Effects Society.