Season 3, Episode 6: Your Work Is Not Your Life with Valentina Forté-Hernandez

Stephanie Warner: Welcome to FCAT After School, a podcast from SFU's Faculty of Communication, Art, and Technology. In each episode, we join student hosts in conversation with alumni as they explore career journeys since graduation, and gather advice for the next generation. Today, host Torien Cafferata sits down with technical director Valentina Forté-Hernandez, a graduate of SFU's joint-masters program at the Centre for Digital Media. Valentina works at world-class animation studio Bardel Entertainment. Together they speak in-depth about work-life balance, tackling perfectionism on the job, and how a broader, more expansive approach to expertise can be a strength.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: I think I've felt a lot of stress in my life as somebody that has dabbled in a bunch of different things that I've wasted time or that I was making mistakes before finding a certain thing, and that I should have been dedicating more years of my life to a particular thing. But I think there's a lot of benefits in having your toes in a bunch of different waters.

Music: Cinematic Documentary by Aleksey Chistilin

Torien Cafferata (Voice Over): There is a story we are told, until we learn to tell it to ourselves and to each other, that says “it’s okay to make mistakes.” It feels like over the last decade or two, you can find TED Talks all about failing faster and better; school posters with pithy tips on work-life balance and dealing with stress; instagram stories on how the best entrepreneurs, technologists, artists are people who know how to take risks, how to iterate, mess up, and learn. It’s a story that says “just be human, don’t worry, we’ll catch you,” but with the hidden subtext of “so long as you stay competitive, find your one thing, then make that your livelihood – and your life.” It feels like a two-faced myth and it kept knocking around in my head when I sat down with technical director and artist Valentina Forte-Hernandez.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: I currently work for Bardel, which is an animation studio. The thing I think we're most known for is Rick and Morty. // I am a graduate of the MDM program at SFU, which is jointly put on by SFU, BCIT, Emily Carr and UBC.

Torien Cafferata (VO): TThe MDM program or Master of Digital Media is an intensive multidisciplinary graduate program at the Centre for Digital Media, one of whose various university partners is Simon Fraser University.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: We have our own campus on, right next to Emily Carr's campus. So we're a little bit removed from the rest of SFU. I was like in the pandemic cohort. So I graduated in the midst of that. And after I graduated, I think I was feeling a little bit overwhelmed. Because a master's degree is hard. And the pandemic was hard. And so I was having a hard time figuring out what I wanted to do. And even though I have been a programming for quite a few years, it's something that I've always felt pretty insecure about in terms of like the skills I should have to be somebody that works in programming.

Torien Cafferata (VO): That’s when Valentina noticed something about the work of her husband, whom she had met in the same program and who had already started working as a technical director.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: My husband was talking a little bit about the kinds of things he did on a day to day basis, I was like, I could do that.

Torien Cafferata (VO): which led to getting noticed by a recruiter from Bardel

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: And then I applied and I've been there ever since.

Torien Cafferata: So how would you characterize your current work or practice?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: At Bardel, I primarily work on production processes and production workflows, and improving those. What a technical director does is they create tools that different people in a studio can use to basically make their workflows a little bit faster or a little bit easier. And sometimes people work on DCCs like artists software —

Torien Cafferata (VO): or Digital Content Creation tools

Valentina Forté-Hernandez:  — and make a tool that does something really cool or new in a DCC, but I primarily work on production workflows

Torien Cafferata (VO): essentially, working with project management software to schedule and organize everything that’s happening on a given show.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez:  — which means things that are more kind of like in the organizational space.

Torien Cafferata: Mm. And do you find that that's something that, that you've always been drawn to this being like a problem solver being a leader?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: I've definitely always been a problem solver. I was an only child. So I feel like when you are an only child, and you want to make things happen, sometimes you need to get a little bit creative, because you don't necessarily have like, siblings in your house that you can rope into your schemes. So I've always put a lot of thought into ways to organize people or ways to kind of like, incentivize people to want to collaborate with me. So in that sense, I guess I've always been a bit of a leader, though I do definitely feel like quite a bit of social anxiety in many spaces, especially when there are a lot of new people I don't know. I think being very organization focused or like logistics focus often kind of provides a sense of comfort, if I'm feeling nervous, or like there were a lot of unknown factors and a new situation.

Torien Cafferata: Mm. Mmm. So like, you take a lot of comfort in, there are objective ways to solve this problem. And especially if there's a lot of new people around. Would you say that – you're a facilitator and Problem Solver with social anxiety? But the problem solving is like part of the coping with that?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: Absolutely. Yeah. I, I need to collaborate with people a lot, I think most people do, there are definitely some super solitary, creative processes. But a lot of creative processes, require collaboration with other people. And since I can be a little bit shy at first or have problems meeting new people at first, because I get a little overwhelmed. I think the ways I can incentivize people to want to collaborate with me, are to make it really easy for them. And that comes with being really organized.

Torien Cafferata (VO): And Valentina was no stranger to collaborative creative processes; before starting at Bardel she was creating interactive exhibits for the Vancouver Art Gallery, accessible web design for disability theatre, and studio art she would tour across the U.S. and Mexico.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: Yeah, I definitely have a pretty untraditional background coming into a software developer role. But I would also say that pretty much everybody on my team has a somewhat untraditional background, including my boss. And I think that's kind of why he hired all of us is because he didn't have a traditional experience. And so he kind of appreciates how non traditional experiences can bring different types of knowledges to a team.


Music: Inspiring Nature Technology by Yurii Semchyshyn

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: There's basically just a chain of events that kind of like led me to programming. When I applied for college, I was going in with kind of the intention to do writing and acting and maybe some film stuff because I – in high school I would always participate in theater and I wrote a lot of my own plays and put them on in my backyard. That's another roping people into my schemes kind of thing. And so by the time I actually got to college, I was pretty serious about film studies and making my own films. And then working with different professors in the film program at my school kind of led me to installation art. And then I sort of quickly realized that I wanted my installation art to be interactive. And in order to make that happen, I had to learn programming. And so then I learned programming. And my kind of senior thesis project was a gallery show of interactive art. And then, after graduating, I thought I could kind of land in a bunch of different places with the background, I had, I kind of applied for a wide variety of things. But the thing that panned out was a technical assistant role at an animation studio. But I also wanted to move. And since I was from the US, moving to a different part of the world isn't just something you can decide to do, and do it. So I decided to get my masters in Vancouver, because that was where I was interested in moving to. And it happened to have a really good industry for what I worked in.

Torien Cafferata: Mm. I'm really, I'm really interested in the kinds of shifts that have occurred in your life. Because, it seems like there was a shift. And I think sometimes in when we're in our degree, there's this assumption that there's a very narrow set of things to do after your, you know, when you're done and that have to do with your degree, but so many people I meet, end up making radical shifts into different professions, or they realize, Oh, hey, I didn't realize that my skill set here, because I wanted to find your case I had because I wanted to make this artwork. My skill set that I've developed in order to do that is actually perfect for this other thing where I can work in this wonderful team and and find maybe, perhaps, if I may be so bold, find a kind of stability that maybe a lot of artists are struggling to find.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: I definitely crave stability in part due to the way I grew up because my mom had me when she was really young. And while we had a lot of familial support, I was raised by a single mother and she was forming her career as I was growing up so she was figuring her self out. So I think that I've kind of been looking for, I don't know, my place in the journey that I saw her go through, which eventually kind of landed in a place that she's really passionate about. I've always been more drawn to things that feel more traditionally, like art, I think the only thing that I've really kind of committed to my whole life is singing. But the instability of trying to be a musician definitely conflicts with the things that I feel like I need to feel not super overwhelmed. I think that I'm primarily motivated by curiosity. And I think that that's what has taken me into a bunch of really different places.

Torien Cafferata: Yeah, no, I definitely see, like a through line. I love that, that a huge part of that is curiosity. I'm kind of curious what – what you do now, that still satisfies the urge to sing the urge to create the, the urge to like, it has now become like, put in the place of, of hobbies, where, you know, it's not, you don't have the pressure of like, oh, this has to make money, you can just be like, Oh, I can make it because I enjoy it. And I have the freedom to do that. Because I'm sure there's a lot of artists listening right now being like, Oh, how do I how do I like do this thing, but make it my profession? Or should it not be my profession so that I can actually enjoy it? And still find stability?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: Yeah, I basically have my job so I can sing. And so I need money to be able to do that, and yeah, I definitely have a very strong separation between what is work and what is life and I very strongly feel like for me personally, that I work in order to live my life work is not my life

Torien Cafferata: Hmmmm. Yeah, that's great.

[small beat]

Torien Cafferata: Do you feel like there are any other things because you're you have this this fairly unique position of — would you say you come from the art world, would that be a fair thing to say?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: Yeah, my family's all artists and creative people. So it's been like since I was a kid.

Torien Cafferata: Right. So you've come from the art world. And you are now at this at this big studio? Would there be like wisdoms lessons advice that you can offer undergrads now who are also trying to strike that balance and maybe trying to figure out what are their own boundaries? I think there's a huge, there's so much discourse right now around artists of like, how, what do I say no to what can I afford to say no to? And how do I actually prevent burning out? Because this is a an industry where you're kind of encouraged to just say yes to everything. And so what have you learned that you didn't learn in school that you could impart?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: Yeah, I don't think school, at least in my experience, really taught much about self care. I think that it's talked about, like people say, “Don't burn out.” But that doesn't really provide any action that you can do to keep yourself from burning out. I think, for me, I needed to feel like my creative work wasn't a chore. Because I think the worst thing I could do to myself is turn my creative processes, which are, you know, for me coming from a place of love or healing, or doing something for myself, when it's feeling like something that I absolutely have to do, then it starts to lose some of its charm. And that might be really difficult for somebody that is trying to like financially sustain themselves from a creative practice. But I guess what I would say in kind of the people around me that are in more strictly creative lines of work is finding tangentially related sources of income to their creative practice, you know, like, maybe you don't want to be a professional singer, but you will feel okay being like a vocal coach. It just kind of depends on I think, how much time you can put into your practice before it starts to wear on you.

Torien Cafferata: Hmm. I'm curious if there were discoveries for yourself, as you entered this industry, when you learned those things, or you were like, Oh, this is, I've let people cross this boundary or like, Oh, I'm noticing I'm burning out. And here's what I'm going to do.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: Yes, for me, I absolutely need a job that I don't have to think about when I'm not at it. And I've had a bunch of jobs in the past where there was this sort of promise of flexibility. And that was sort of provided as a perk that, you know, we're flexible. But that also means that I had to be flexible and I am a very hyper focused person. So if there's not a clear end to my day, and on projects that tout themselves as more flexible, sometimes there isn't really a clear end because it's on you to decide when you stop. And it's hard for me to tell myself to stop. So I really need a job that ends when it ends, and that I don't have to think about when I'm not there.

Torien Cafferata: Yeah, freedom through structure.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: It feels much more well confined than some other experiences I've had. And I do not think about my job over the weekend. I do what I want. And that's really important to me.

Torien Cafferata: Yeah. So how do you spend your weekend?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez:  A lot of singing.

Torien Cafferata: What do you sing?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: I mean, I sing a lot of different things. I'm in a choir that does musical theater and dance pop. Me and my husband host these, like, we call them we concerts or like mini concerts in our living room. So we'll perform and we'll have some of our friends perform as well. That's basically how I spend my spare time.

Torien Cafferata: That's so cool to think of like, during the week, this like hyperfocused like, technical director with social anxiety. And then on the weekend, you are singing musical theater numbers with your friends. That sounds like a great balance.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: Yes, I also do it on the weekdays too, after the work day.

Torien Cafferata: That's great. [pause] What's a new  mode of thinking or creating or a new trend or new technology is exciting to you in your discipline?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: I think a lot of the – I think there's a growing rhetoric around people not needing to be expert in things to do them. I think I've felt a lot of stress in my life as somebody that has dabbled in a bunch of different things that I've wasted time or that I was making mistakes before finding a certain thing, and that I should have been dedicating more years of my life to a particular thing. But I think there's a lot of benefits in having your toes in a bunch of different waters, I don't know, if it's strictly like a cultural thing. And North America or something that really puts this idea in our heads that, like, we need to be experts to be successful. But I think that more and more people are understanding that that's not true. And I think that that gives people a lot of room to explore, and to not feel like, oh, I need to dedicate my life to this thing in order to deserve to do it. Like you can do things. badly, everything starts off hard. And I think that that's the way to open more opportunities to different kinds of people.

Torien Cafferata: And so, if people don't need to be experts, what do we need to be?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: I think you need a little bit of drive. And a little bit of passion, doesn't have to be your life. Like my passion isn't coding, but that's what I do for work. But I think because I searched for ways to make programming more appealing to me, by using programming to make art, I was able to learn something that is able to sustain me in like a kind of practical way. And I think, if I had not had people in my life that were not supportive of curiosity, or if I felt like I need to have a certain set of skills to even pursue this field, then I would have never done it.

Torien Cafferata: Yeah, there's that word again, curiosity, drive, passion. And maybe some problem solving as well.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: Yeah, bit a problem solving. Yeah.

Torien Cafferata: Yeah, I would love to know, with all this talk of achievement, productivity, and diverse different ways of of achieving and producing things, according to our own metrics, what is one thing that you wish you could more safely fail at?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: Pretty much everything, I hold myself to a really high standard, a standard that I don't hold anybody else too. And more and more, I'm trying to find opportunities to let myself fail. Like even though my job kind of requires that you mess things up or break things sometimes. It it's so really hard for me. And I think the things that would make it easier for me or maybe other people like me to fail. It's just a little bit more understanding of the stakes of things. Like you know, I work in animation, the stakes often feel very high, but it's not life or death. If something is delayed, I don't know, depending on the studio you work at that can feel more or less. Okay. But I think yeah, I think that there just are other things that people can kind of give to the people around them that are trying new things, to make it feel safer to fail. And I think a lot of that is patience.

Torien Cafferata: Mmhmm, And if you're focused on efficiency, there's little room for error. And even though like it's something that I'm very self aware about, it's still hard to turn it off. And do you find and you find ways of of that at work? I know, you you find clearly you find ways of of embracing it. On the weekends, when your head singing, but at at work, are there things that things you've had to advocate for or boundaries that you've you've had to protect to be like, actually, it's okay, if it's not meeting this, impossible standard that we have set for ourselves.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: I think anybody that's done the job that I do knows that sometimes you break things like, not every piece of code you write is going to be perfect. Like, even though I think we think about codes and computers as the sort of perfect entities. They're made and designed by people and people make mistakes. And so I do feel like at least in the people I work with directly on a day to day basis, we're all in the same boat of understanding that people make mistakes, and they break things. I think because of some of my tendencies, it's a little bit harder for me emotionally when I break things, but just seeing other people in the same role. So my teammates and my husband and kind of seeing when they've broken things, maybe we'll make it a little bit easier one day, but it's I just don't have a choice. Sometimes you have to break something because you can't always be perfect.

Music: Street Food by FASSounds

Torien Cafferata: I love that. I think that's as good a place as any to finish but before we go. Do you have a favourite Rick and Morty episode?

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: I don't actually watch it.

Torien Cafferata: That's perfect. Work life balance means sometimes you don't watch the show. Sometimes you leave it at no you go and you sing Sondheim.

Valentina Forté-Hernandez: Exactly.

Torien Cafferata: That's beautiful.

Torien Cafferata (VO): Here is a new story; “it’s okay to make mistakes – to break something because you can’t be perfect and why would we want to be? And you can’t always know where you’ll end up or just how useful all of your previous knowledge will be in finding your livelihood – and your livelihood does not have to be your life. It does not have to be one thing. It can change – it probably will, and not in the pursuit of ‘failing better faster’ to be competitive, but in honour of curiosity. Imagine what your life would be like if you were allowed to safely fail a little bit more at everything. Imagine a work family flexible enough to make space for you to sing, and to sing unburdened by the expectation of capital or the standards of efficiency.” This is the story that, I feel, Valentina was offering. It’s difficult to grapple with, myself being an artist anxious to absorb every passion and curiosity into my profession, either for validation or for fear of starving, but I think we all deserve sometimes to leave work at work. We’re not machines. So just be human, don’t worry, maybe we can catch each other. I’m Torien Cafferata, thanks for dropping by After School.

Stephanie Warner: Thank you to Valentina Forte-Hernandez and Torien Cafferata for their powerful insights on how we can strive for work-life balance in earrest, and the hidden power of nurturing interests outside of your career.

FCAT After School is produced by Emma Jean, Torien Cafferata, and Stephanie Werner, with help from Stu Popp and Tessa Perkins Deneault. We respectfully acknowledges the Musqueam  (mus-kwee-um), Squamish (squa-mish), Tsleil-Waututh (sail-wha-tooth), Katzie (kat-zee), Kwikwetlem (kwee-kwet-lum), Qayqayt (key-kite), Kwantlen (kwant-len), Semiahmoo (semi-ah-moo) and Tsawwassen (tsa-wah-sen) peoples, on whose unceded traditional territories our three campuses reside, and where many of the stories shared in our series take place. If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to leave us a rating and subscribe to FCAT After School wherever you listen to podcasts. You can follow us on social media at FCAT at SFU. That's F C A T @ SFU across all platforms. For feedback or guest suggestions, reach us by email at: F cat ENG @ All links in the show notes. See you next time.