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"All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them." Walt Disney's famous words are the motto that Jillian Ma lives by. The principal field art director at Walt Disney Imagineering Asia learnt to draw by the age of 5, and had soon made up her mind to turn her interest in art into a career.  After secondary school, she was accepted to the Academy's School of Theatre and Entertainment Arts. This initiated her into an extraordinary world of colours. Over the next 10 years, this artsy young woman has risen through the ranks to win a Construction Industry Outstanding Young Person. What hasn't changed is her love of the paintbrush, which she now uses to colour other people's dreams, and to create a vivid and colourful path for herself.


Jillian's artistic talent was apparent in childhood, and she had parents who encouraged her to pursue it.  At first, she wanted to major in art in university, but while attending the HKAPA Open Day, she came into contact with scenic art technology for the first time.


"I was fascinated by the techniques of drawing wood grain and marble," she recalls. "A trawl of the Internet revealed many similar courses overseas, but the Academy's course was the only one in Hong Kong.  A precious opportunity indeed. I decided to give it a go."


The year Jillian enrolled in the Academy coincided with its implementation of a new complementary studies programme requiring students to take subjects outside their major, including the humanities and language.


Year 1 students also had to undertake the combined study of areas such as Media Design and Technology, Technical Direction, Stage and Event Management, the sound system, and lighting design. Jillian felt she only wanted to draw, so she questioned the need to take courses that were unrelated to her specialty. But when she started taking on part-time jobs, she quickly realised how handy her knowledge of lighting, sound, and prop design was.


"There were many productions at the Academy," she says. "As crew, we had to be versed in different kinds of professional knowledge. For example, lighting can change the colour of sets and props. If we know nothing about lighting, we can only follow the designer's instructions. But if we know how lighting works, we can engage in a discussion. This makes for better communication among the different teams." Those factors help prompt demand for the Academy students within their professions. Jillian says her classmates used to joke that school was a part-time gig while work was their full-time job.


"Working part-time allowed us to put what we learnt into practice," she explains. "Through attending classes, participating in productions, and doing part-time jobs, we learnt about teamwork, communication, organisation, and problem-solving. The 9 am to 11 pm work schedule was hell, but in hindsight, I'm immensely grateful for the opportunity to build a solid foundation, and explore the direction I wanted my career to take."


Never a Wasted Stroke


No matter how busy her jobs kept her, Jillian didn't slack off in her studies. In fact, she received a Helena May scholarship. "I loved going to class," she asserts. "The teachers really put their hearts into teaching. How could I let them down?"


Her scenic-art lecturer at the time was the now-retired cinema-poster painter Jimmy Keung. She admits that in the hot-bloodedness of her youth, she was arrogant on account of her excellent A-level results. "Mr. Keung never berated me," she says. "He patiently brought me around to seeing things from different perspectives."


She says she suddenly "came to her senses" just before graduation. "On graduation day, I told Mr. Keung I felt I wasn't ready to graduate because there was still a lot to learn. He grabbed my arm and said, 'Jill, have you finally understood? I was always worried that your attitude would get you into trouble in the workplace!' "


Mr. Keung gave her some advice she recalls to this day: "Every stroke you paint is the result of what came before. If you just go through the motions, you're wasting time. If you give up before the end, you will stand to regret it." His words are etched in her heart, and she has honoured them with her actions. "I am not here to simply finish a job," she insists. "I'm here to do every job well."


Action Over Words


After graduation, Jillian held jobs in the film industry, theatre, and theme parks; she was also a window-dresser. One day, she heard that Walt Disney Imagineering was hiring a painter for Shanghai project, and decided to apply. "The day after the interview, I was notified that I got the job. I then found out that I had been picked from among several hundred applicants from the Mainland, the United States, France, and Japan." She admits that her English was not exceptional at the time, but the self-confidence, candidness and expressiveness that she acquired from her training at the Academy caught the eye of her future employers.


Jillian was responsible for the colour design, vetting, training and field art direction of all theme-park facilities. In male-dominated construction sites, a young woman's professional ability is often questioned. She quelled doubts with a hands-on approach.


"I wanted it known that I am a woman of action," she says. "When there is a problem, I prefer to get down to it rather than spend time arguing. I just pick up a paintbrush and show them how it's done. When your workmates see that your method is effective, they start to respect and trust you."


The Castle of Magical Dreams, which got a facelift last year, is one of her proudest pieces of work. "This was a very challenging project as it was the world's first theme-park castle expansion using prefabricated components. There must be consistency and harmony between the old and the new. We were very nervous. Luckily it turned out well."


Fight for Resources


Beyond her workplace responsibilities in technical direction and quality monitoring, Jillian, as Walt Disney Imagineering Asia's principal field art director, also needs to concern herself with industry development and her legacy. She won the Construction Industry Outstanding Young Person Award last year. Her greatest wish is to secure better resources and opportunities to train local paint technicians.


"At present, the industry relies on the import of talent from the Mainland and overseas," she notes. "I would like to see more Hong Kongers joining the field." The theme-park business is booming, with plenty of parks in the Mainland, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and Dubai. "Scenic artists have excellent prospects for developing their skills and finding employment," she continues. "Young people can find jobs all over the world. But first, they need to hone their skills."


The Hong Kong Institute of Construction recently invited Jillian to hold a scenic-art masterclass at Hong Kong Disneyland for the benefit of teachers from various academic institutions. The aim was not only to teach theme painting techniques, but also to deepen understanding of the industry. She hopes this will encourage participants to relay information about career prospects to their students.


Having spent 10 years in the field, Jillian's passion for her work continues unabated. "Disneyland is dreamlike," she says. "I did not experience this when I first joined. But as I got to know more people through my projects, I felt greatly inspired and enriched. I have received much more than I dreamt. I hope to pass this dream on to the next generation."


The article was published in the April 2022 issue of Academy NewsClick here to read the original story.)


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