From Shy Student to Multimedia Master

John Koltai (BA '04).

John Koltai (BA '04) was a freshman studying computer science when he met a friend in his dorm who was working on an animation project for a media studies class.

“I remember thinking that everything he was doing was so cool and exciting,” he says.

It wasn’t long before he decided to veer away from computer science and explore different areas of study—from music history and media studies to filmmaking and broadcast design.

“My experience at UB was a truly transformative one on many different levels,” John says. “I started out as a shy kid from Amherst, New York, without a clear vision for the future and not yet ready to leave the town I grew up in. But I ended up leaving confident and focused with my sights set on making a career in the motion graphics industry in New York City.”

Learning and linking in the Big Apple

While his education gave John a solid foundation to build his career, he knew he was missing essential connections—so he packed his bags and moved to New York City to pursue a master’s degree in fine art at Parson’s School of Design. 

“At the time, the online job data world was in its infancy,” he says. “I knew that Parsons would expose me to adjunct professors who worked in the field and could provide networking opportunities. Three of my professors offered me internships, and I took all of them.”

And it paid off.

Knocking it out of the park

Cathoderay—one of those production houses he interned with—offered him a full-time position as a junior designer once he graduated. During his time with the company, he created video promotions for shows on big networks including the History Channel, ESPN and Comedy Central. 

“I was so eager to knock projects out of the park that I’d end up sleeping in the studio to make deadlines,” he says. “It all paid off, though. I’ll never forget the night I went out with some friends after work and saw the first spot I did on TV. It was an incredible feeling.”

At Cathoderay, John was able to build on his design experiences and connections at the company with coworkers and freelancers. 

“A lot of people only design or animate, but I was able to see projects from conception to completion,” he says. “I built their trust and they’d give me a whole spot to run with. Now, I’m able to market myself as both an animator and a designer.”

john koltai (BA '04).

A Marvelous design

After a year with Cathoderay, John decided to pursue a few short-term opportunities and then landed a full-time position at Perception, a creative production company. At Perception, he designed title sequences for two animated Marvel films and handled the design and animation of UI and HUD designs for Iron Man 2 and Men in Black 3.

“Perception was such a great fit for me,” he says. “Everyone coming on was in the same career stage and was incredibly talented and passionate about what we were doing. It was like a crew of best friends who were all hungry to produce.”

John came on during a time where Perception was transitioning from broadcast and advertising to feature films. During his tenure, the group became one of the only East Coast companies contracted to do visual effects work for Marvel movies.

“Marvel originally contracted our team to design just one scene for Tony Stark’s presentation, but they loved an idea we had for his cell phone. So, we dropped everything and took the next week to design and test a fake user interface that they loved. After that, everything changed.”

Ultimately, the Perception team touched over 125 shots in the film.

John Koltai (BA '04) at work.

Finding freelance freedom

Today John is a full-time freelance designer, animator and director—who continues his work on films such as Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier and Thor: Ragnarok—and has worked with both small boutique design houses and some of the biggest, most well-known visual effects companies. He’s also freelanced directly with independent filmmakers and with companies such as Showtime, Blue Sky Studios and Columbia Pictures.

“I really love the creative variety of my job,” he says. “One month I might be coming up with concepts for a new Showtime show, the next I might be designing the cockpit display for a Marvel Superhero and the next working with an independent filmmaker on a music video. For me, it’s really important to be able to keep things new, fresh and exciting in order to be inspired enough to create something that really stands out from the rest of the crowd.”

His freelance career has led to some life-changing travel experiences, like the summer he spent working with a design studio in Milan, and, more recently, a winter spent working in Los Angeles with Method Studios on Ant-Man and Cantina Creative on Pixels and Hunger Games.

Most recently, John has been working with Blue Sky as the motion graphics lead for Spies in Disguise, an upcoming animated feature starring Will Smith and Tom Holland. He has also created heads-up displays and holograms for Spider Man: Far From Home.

“Will Smith’s character has a ton of tech gadgets—like touch screen displays in his Audi e-tron sports car, various heads-up displays, agency headquarters graphics and a holographic watch—that I’ve been hired to conceptualize, design and create for the film,” he says.

John’s not sure where his career will take him next, but he knows one thing for sure: he won’t forget about his Buffalo roots.

Story by Grace Gerass

Published June 21, 2019