Bobby Pontillas Drew from His Own Experiences in Designing TJ, the First Filipino Muppet on “Sesame Street”
When Bobby Pontillas was asked to help create TJ, the first Filipino American muppet on Sesame Street, he immediately thought of the physical features that would represent most Filipinos, including himself. Growing up, he did not see himself represented onscreen so designing a Sesame Street character that would reflect his ethnic background felt monumental.
Pontillas collaborated with Louis Mitchell, Sesame Workshop’s creative director of character design, who also worked on Korean character Ji-Young, the first Asian American muppet on the iconic children’s show.
“We talked a lot about skin tone, nose, features. I told Louis, ‘Look at me. I look very Filipino. People see me on the street and they’re, like: yes, he’s Filipino,’” he shared via a recent Zoom interview, one of several he’s done since Sesame Street debuted a clip featuring TJ that immediately went viral after its May 7 release. The historic representation was picked up by various news outlets.
It was a fellow Filipino American, Rosemary Palacios, Sesame Workshop’s director of talent outreach, inclusion and content development, who reached out to Pontillas about the project. They worked together at an AAPI History Month panel two years ago and when Palacios pitched the character to Sesame Street and it was approved, she reached out to the animation director for the design.
Pontillas was born in Guam and grew up in the state of Washington. His first big break as an animator was for the 2011 film Rio and he worked his way up in other animated blockbusters like Big Hero 6 and Moana.
Pontillas was with Disney for several years before joining a company called Taiko Studios where he co-wrote a short film called One Small Step. The heartwarming and visually stunning story about an Asian American girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut garnered an Oscar nomination for best animated short in 2019.
He used his own Filipina single mother as an inspiration in bringing to life the protagonist’s immigrant father.
“When you’re growing up as a kid, you don’t know the struggles of your parents and it’s only when you grow older that you really appreciate that. When I was growing up, I wasn’t the best son. She was a single mother and looking back at it now, I really appreciate all the sacrifices that she made for me to have a better life. She went above and beyond,” Pontillas shared with ABS-CBN News in 2019.
Now Pontillas is able to pay forward her mom’s sacrifices by helping marginalized and underprivileged young talents who want to pursue animation. He is also currently developing and pitching stories to various studios.
“I’m so proud to be Filipino American so my plan now is to go with Filipino-inspired, Filipino-based stories. I just think there’s so much to it – great folklore and so many stories that need to be told. So, I’ll continue to go around Hollywood pitching it and be a Filipino American storyteller,” he says.
What instruction did you get when you were asked to help create Sesame Street’s TJ?
I got to work with those geniuses over at Sesame Workshop. Louis Mitchell asked a lot of really caring, genuine, smart questions about what kinds of qualities I think represents Filipino youth, physically and personality-wise. We talked a lot about skin tone, nose, features. And he was very receptive. He wanted to be respectful and to make that representation as genuine, as authentic as possible. We did the back and forth and created some art together. And then at the end, we kind of settled on something we were both happy with that they can produce and make, and then his team went off and made it a reality.
That is amazing because many Filipino kids grow up being constantly teased about our nose.
Yeah, yeah. You’re touching on something that’s very true, and it meant a lot for me to discuss that with him. It meant a lot for me to discuss darker skin. It meant a lot to me to discuss wider nose, flatter nose, Filipino features. It’s a simple design, a simple muppet, but something like darker skin, it means a lot to a lot of people because we were never represented before. Rosemary and I have the same goal of wanting to have young Filipinos see themselves reflected on the screen.
During the pandemic, you co-founded Rise Up Animation, an organization that helps diverse talents who are trying to get into the animation industry.
It bridges the gap between people trying to get into the industry. The pandemic opened up the world for me. It actually changed my life. The pandemic was really tough and isolating but the biggest thing that happened for me was Rise Up Animation and how it opened up the doors and social aspects for me worldwide and that kind of led to things like meeting Rosemary and working with her. And I went to the Philippines last year. I had a talk and a workshop and got to meet the students. They pitched me their ideas and their stories, and it is great to interact with them. Occasionally, I also do online workshops for students.
Growing up, you didn’t have anyone like you as a role model, right? Someone who can be a mentor, who works in animation.
No. So it means the world to me to meet up-and-coming, young Filipino artists, and kind of share my experiences with them and then trying to encourage them, educate them in any way I could. We remember what it was like to grow up and not see any representation in any kind of media, growing in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
For the longest time, you and other artists of color didn’t see yourself represented in the lead characters that you designed in animated films.
I’m glad you brought that up. I think a lot of us in the industry, it didn’t even cross our minds that we could potentially have the power to put forth those stories. We just wanted to be in the industry. And then when we get in there, we were like, ‘I’ll work on everything. I’ll work on Frozen. I’ll work on Disney movies and all that kind of stuff.’ And at some point in your career, you’re just kind of like, ‘Listen. I’ve accomplished enough. Maybe I can do this now.’ And now they’re asking us what kind of stories we want to tell. I want to tell stories that are based on my family, my culture, my heritage, and put that forward because, A, it’s who I am. It’ll be meaningful. B, there’s not a lot of that stuff out there. So, you know, it gives your career purpose from that point on. It certainly has been that way for me. And that’ll be it from here on out, it’s what I want to do. Be in those space and tell Southeast Asian, specifically Filipino, stories.
How do you feel about the incredibly positive reaction to a Filipino American character in Sesame Street?
Rosemary has texted me that she’s cried a lot. And I certainly have gotten very emotional about it because I knew people are going to be very excited about this. People have grown up with Sesame Street and it’s such a big part of their childhood that it just resonates with them. It just means so much. I grew up with Sesame Street. I used to watch it with my lola (Filipina grandmother). And then now there’s a Filipino character who says the words Filipino, Tagalog, lola all in that short initial clip. it just means so much to many people. And that’s exactly what Rosemary and I wanted. Whatever happens with our personal careers, I think the thing that we have in common is we just want to make our people proud.