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Arts student nominated for animated Academy Award film

Published September 10, 2019

When Trilina Mai got the big news, she felt shocked, happy and bewildered.

“It’s always a pleasant surprise when someone acknowledges your work,” she said. Mai is a 2019 Animation graduate, who got the email from the Student Academy Awards during her summer internship at Pixar.

Her film “Push” was included as a finalist under the Animation (Domestic Film Schools) category in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences student program. She wrote, storyboarded and animated the three-minute short during her time at Cal State Long Beach.

Mai is the first animation student from the school to be named a finalist in the Student Academy Awards. For the relatively young 10-year-old animation program, her nomination is a testimony to showing what students are capable of, director of School of Art Aubry Mintz said.

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It wasn’t until she started taking classes in animation at the university’s School of Art, a department within College of the Arts, when she realized that it was what she wanted to do. While teaching Introduction to Animation, Mintz, then an animation professor, noticed her.

“Trilina was one of those students where everything she did was pretty strong,” he said.

Mintz saw something remarkable after Mai completed and turned in her first assignment, a pixilation animation where students make a stop motion style video by posing humans.

“Right away I thought ‘This person is a filmmaker,’” he said.

She went on to complete the class requirements in the animation major, which include storyboarding, character design and experimental animation. Her film “Push” was produced during her study session classes led by Animation Professor Soyeon Kim.

“When she came to my class, she had a lot of ideas already developed,” Kim said. “For the short history we have in the Animation Department, Trilina became a symbol of how we grew as a department.”

The film was also an interdepartmental collaboration, as she worked with other film students Max Phan and Khan Bui, who did sound design for “Push,” as well as Brandon Kheang, who helped with videography for her Kickstarter campaign.

“Push” tells the story of a young child and his grandfather. In the beginning of the film, the relationship is strong, with the child relying on the grandfather for assistance with things like getting around town, eating meals and playing in the park.

“There was a time when I was witnessing a lot of my friends having family members pass away,” Mai said about the storyline. “You start thinking, ‘What is life, what are relationships, what is the purpose of having roles of mentor and mentee?’

“I grew up around my grandparents. When my parents were working, my grandparents took care of me. It was easy to draw from my life to make the story flow better."

In addition to including her own life experiences, Mai incorporated her culture with different activities in the film, including going out for phở, a traditional Vietnamese soup, and drinking boba tea in the city.

As the child grows older and makes new friends, he finds himself more aloof and not as reliant on his grandfather. The grandson eventually overcomes his indifference, and at the end of the film switches roles and ends up helping his grandfather.

“I wanted the music to kind of carry you and take you on their journey,” she said. “I worked really closely with my composer from start to finish. He and I found a great way to have solid individual pieces; but together, they kind of just flow perfectly within each other.”

After graduating and completing her second internship with Pixar, Mai is now focused on landing a full-time job in animation, while working on other projects. She said that she hopes to learn new animation techniques and showcase her abilities in action, suspense and 3D animation, all while doing what she says she does best – pulling at heart strings.