When Nicole Yulo was a little girl, her great-grandmother, Catalina Bernia, told stories before putting her to sleep. A natural storyteller, she prodded Yulo to change the story with her.
The great-grandmother must have known about the benefits of shared storytelling. Psychologists say that aside from developing language and listening skills, vocabulary and engagement, children’s imaginations are stimulated. Hence, they conjure up their own understanding of the story being told.
“Without realizing it, she inspired me to write,” recalls Yulo. Upon Bernia’s death in 1998, the heartbroken Yulo, then 11 years old, started to write as she missed the bedtime narratives. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing.”
Pushing 35, Yulo is a New York-based filmmaker and writer for video games and screenplays. Recently, she debuted as an author and illustrator of children’s books with “Patch of Sky,” published by Penguin Random House. Yulo notes that the July 12 release coincided with the 80th birthday of her maternal grandmother, Teresa Lauchengco.
Before the pandemic, Yulo was unsettled by an article about pigs being unable to look directly at the sky. While some stories claim it’s a myth, many sources point out that the pig’s fatty neck and horizontal spine limit the head movements.
Motivated to challenge that notion, she started to think about a children’s book.
The heroine is given a Filipino yet universal-sounding name. Pia lives in the farm with her parents and Patches the Pig.
“The story starts with Pia, while feeding the chickens, finds out from her Papa that the pigs can’t see the sky. She is upset because Patches is her best friend, and she loves the sky. She says, ‘I need to share the sky with you, Patches.’ The whole book is about trying to figure out how to get him to see the sky and failing until something happens. She gets to think creatively and he finally sees the sky,” Yulo narrates.
Addressing readers from 3 to 8 years old, the book’s message is that one need not be invincible to change the world.
She explains, “I wanted to write a heroine who persevered through failure, started thinking out of the box and finally succeeded. Pia became a motivated and imaginative person who cared very much about her friends.”
Drawing from her experience of being an achiever, the author recalls, “I felt pressured growing up to be perfect. I think it is something that little girls feel especially. Like, I always felt I needed to have perfect grades. Anything below an A was not acceptable. In college, I had to get perfect grades, be involved in clubs and work two jobs on campus. I spread myself thin and got burned out. Now I’ve learned to have more balance and not work myself to death. Prioritize instead of trying to be perfect at everything.”
A self-taught illustrator, Yulo was inspired by the intense colors and billowy images of American artist Mary Blair, who was one of Walt Disney’s most influential artists. Yulo also admires the style of English fantasy and sci-fi author Neil Gaiman’s comic book art and English illustrator Dave McKean’s graphic style.
“My recent favorite picture books include ‘Lift’ (by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat), ‘Pokko and the Drum’ (by Matthew Forsythe), ‘When Lola Visits’ (illustrated by Aaron Asis) and ‘Knight Owl’ (by Christopher Denise),” she notes.
Yulo’s own foray into art was accidental. At Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, she took up computer science since it promised a stable job, much to the delight of her parents, the late Jose Luis Jugo Yulo and actor-director Menchu Lauchengco.
In an elective art class, Ying Li, a prominent Chinese émigré artist and professor, told Yulo that she wouldn’t find satisfaction in computer science and that she should take up art instead. She has since acquired a BA Fine Arts degree with minor in creative writing.
After graduating from the MFA Film Program at Columbia University, she ventured into screenwriting and participated in film competitions and festivals.
Yulo received the Alfred P. Sloan Screen Award for science fiction writing. The foundation promotes science-based movies.
Last year, she was received as a game writer into Bafta (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Newcomers Program, an initiative for international emerging stars, and now works for a major video game company, Ubisoft. She writes for high-budget games such as Tom Clancy’s war story, “Ghost Recon Breakpoint.”
Although there are similarities between writing for movies and for film quality videos, the difference is that the audience is also the main actor in the video game.
“In a movie, you are just watching. In video game, you’re going through the story,” she says.
She would be flown to one of the major studios in Montreal. “We did motion capture with actors. They would dress up in leotards and act out the scenes. Animators would animate them into computer graphics. Those real performers become 3D or computer-generated images in a video game,” explains Yulo.
Ultimately, her heart lies in narratives. “What excites me about books is that I get to be read by children and make that connection. What is exciting about video games is that it’s a rapidly-evolving landscape. The amount of technology and work with user experience is so fascinating.” —CONTRIBUTED