Juan Vaca was a Marine and is an assistant producer at Telltale Games, where he has worked on such titles as The Walking Dead, The Walking Dead: Season Two, The Wolf Among Us, and Tales from the Borderlands. He also wrote a few things for The Amazing Spider-Man game and Avengers: Battle for Earth during my time at Marvel.
Find interviews like this one on the Military Veterans in Creative Careers podcast.
Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to share your experience with us, Juan. Before we delve into the awesome creative work you have done, what is it you did in the military, and how did you handle the transition out? Did you know exactly where you wanted to go next?
Juan Vaca: I spent 8 years in the Marines Corps infantry. I started off as a mortarman, then became a scout sniper and then finished my 2nd enlistment as a combat instructor at Quantico, VA. My transition was a bit difficult because there were no creative jobs that directly correlated to my skillsets. I knew that I was ready to “hang up my boots” for good because I didn’t want to lead a life as a cop or military contractor, which is a common trend among newly separated infantry Marines. I told myself “after 8 years of being told what to do, now it’s my time to do what I want to do with the rest of my life” and that was working in games. I originally thought I could be a military advisor for the Call of Duty or Battlefield franchises, I just needed a way into the industry. Luckily for me, my local community college offered a game design track that led right into University of Baltimore’s game program. Then I learned about USC’s game program and that became the focus for my next step. I had always wanted to attend USC’s film school, so a game program within the film school was like a dream come true.
JS: That’s awesome that you went to USC and studied interactive entertainment. Can you tell us more about this program, as well as how you managed to get accepted to such a prestigious school?
JV: The USC School of Cinematic Arts has been one of the top programs focusing on the art and craft of story-telling in movies for years. Their Interactive Entertainment program was closely modeled after their film program, but instead of making student films we were making student games. Applying for the school is no different than any other program; there’s an application, a couple of essays, and a portfolio/demo reel.
Funny enough, I didn’t get accepted into USC my first time around, but I really wanted to go there so I called their admissions office and got feedback as to why I was rejected. Turned out I was missing a math and English credit, so I took those classes at my community college, tweaked my essays and portfolio, and applied again.
JS: What would you advise an aspiring video game maker who is trying to get into the USC program? Is there something they can do to stand out on their application? Will the military experience be seen as a bonus?
JV: Whether it is movies or games, the best advice I can give is make movies, make games, write, draw, storyboard; anything that you create is experience! If I applied to USC straight out of the military, I wouldn’t have gotten in; I was a veteran with no demo reel or portfolio. Once I started going to community college, my assignments became my portfolio pieces. I took game classes and was making prototypes. I took a 3D modeling class and used those models in my animation classes to make an animated short. If you want to stand out, you have to demonstrate that you are more than interested in your craft; you have to actually practice it. The things you create don’t have to be perfect; after all, you are still learning while in “school mode.” Unfortunately, my military background did nothing for me creatively, but my training and work ethic allowed me to set goals and achieve them.
JS: Okay, that sounds like a great way to break into the video game world. So what was next and how did you do it? Was it all about the network and did USC help?
JV: Networking helped a ton. As an older student, I was focused on getting the most out of my education and gauging the quality and work ethic of my peers when collaborating on assignments. I wasn’t going to fail because someone else didn’t do their homework; that’s not a reflection of me, so I would volunteer to lead teams on assignments. That eventually led into my producer role on school projects. If you work hard you will deliver quality projects and get good grades, and people will want to work with you. Success is contagious. School is an enabling environment for people with similar interests to work together. I knew a bunch of artists, programmers, and designers and I used that opportunity to build my team and introduce people to each other. Two guys that I introduced on a project ultimately started their own company and recently released their own indie game. Networking is a valuable social skill; it helped me land my internship and eventually my first job in the industry. It’s still paying dividends and I now have friends and contacts all over the industry.
JS: I see from your LinkedIn profile that you were an intern at Marvel. That must have been amazing, but at the same time you were coming from being an awesome scout sniper in the Marines to now being an intern. Did this bother you at all? Is this normal when making a career transition? What can you advise other service men and women in this regard?
JV: That was a lesson I had already learned a few times over while in the military, so adjusting to reinventing myself was not anything new. As a sergeant and a section leader of my mortar platoon, I was in charge of over 30 marines. When I tried out for snipers, I knew that I would be starting over again because I knew nothing about sniping. Rank meant nothing in the sniper platoon, it was a merit based system where only sniper school graduates were in leadership positions. Sometimes you have to be professional to recognize your place. Same thing happened when I started school as a 27 year old freshman. I was older than the other students, TA’s, and sometimes even the professors. The worst thing you can do is feel entitled because you have military experience. The military teaches you a lot of things and teamwork is one of the most important ones. Swallow your pride when you’re starting over; people are going to want to work with you for what you can contribute. Being a veteran has its advantages, but don’t let that define you. Use it as a tool, not your only tool. Humility goes a long way, especially if you’re the only veteran around. Don’t be “that guy or gal.”
JS: You did what you had to do to get the position, and now work at what many consider to be the most awesome video game company out there. Bringing it back to the military side, was there anything about being in the military that you feel helped you get where you are, or helps you on the day to day side?
JV: I continue to use the two main Marine Corps missions everyday: mission accomplishment and troop welfare. Productivity and flexibility go hand and hand; at the end of the day if you deliver what is expected of you, people will notice. As a producer, I ensure my team has everything they need to accomplish their tasks. I also check in on their morale because I genuinely care about them. I care about their performance, and want to help them succeed and move up in the industry.
JS: Thank you again, Juan. Before we sign off, do you have one last piece of advice you would like to leave us with?
JV: Be resilient. Hard work and dedication pays off, even when someone tells you “no.” I failed out of sniper school my first time through; and as much as it sucked going through a second time around, graduating was worth it. I also didn’t get into USC my first time around, but I didn’t let that stop me from pursuing my dreams. I even got rejected by Telltale when I first applied, yet I’m here now.
My second piece of advice (more directed to veterans) is: force yourself to take your time and do things right. Don’t just take any job. Use your GI Bill, go to a real school; even if you start at a community college and just do night classes. I know we’re eager to move into the next phase of our lives as soon as we leave the military, but shortcuts into jobs and pay-for-profit schools are not the way to go. They are more interested in taking your time and money than giving you the education and opportunities you deserve. Don’t sell yourself short.
These interviews will appear in an upcoming book on military members and veterans in the world of entertainment. As you wait, please read my book Creative Writing Career, on Amazon.
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