Zilbalodis grew up in the Latvian capital of Riga. His parents met in art school, so it was no surprise that he quickly fell in love with illustration and filmmaking. As a bright-eyed 15-year-old, he made a two-minute short called "Rush," with a "pretty old iMac" and a piece of software called Toon Boom. The hand-drawn tale depicts a boy crossing a busy road and narrowly missing a flurry of cars. As he contemplates his near-death experience, another car honks its horn, causing the youth to twist his head and accidentally walk down a manhole. "I was attempting to make something funny," Zilbalodis said, "but that's not what I'm good at."
The budding animator enrolled at JRRMV, an art-centric high school in Riga, where he worked on a short called "Aqua" in his spare time. The film revolves around a cat that has to overcome its fear of the ocean. Zilbalodis "isn't really sure" where the idea came from, but he had a cat -- his family's first -- called Josephine at the time.
As the film progresses, the sea-trapped moggie learns to dive into the water, catch fish, and swim back to the surface like a kingfisher. Zilbalodis had followed a classic narrative structure called the hero's journey (character goes on an adventure, overcomes great odds and comes home changed), but he did so by accident: He only realized it after reading a pile of screenwriting books, including the revered The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler.
The cat was little more than a stick figure, because Zilbalodis "couldn't draw very well." The short is also stuttery, because he was "lazy" and used "very few frames." Still, it was good. The shots were dynamic, and the music, performed by his childhood friend Bertrams Pauls Purvišķis, was a perfect match. Zilbalodis' teacher and parents urged him to show the film at a theater owned by his uncle. He eventually caved and invited the entire school to what became an informal premiere. "The only time I could get was in the morning," he said, "while classes were happening at school. So I had to arrange a school trip for everyone."
Zilbalodis posted "Aqua" on Vimeo the same day. He refreshed the page every hour and was taken aback when it was selected as a Staff Pick. "At that time, Staff Picks were worth so many views," he said. The coveted recommendation meant it was quickly seen and covered by animation blogs. Later, he posted the video to YouTube and Newgrounds. The latter, which rose to fame in the early noughties as a place for independent Flash animation, had been a big influence on Zilbalodis as a child. "Aqua" was one of the first videos to be uploaded in HD on the site.
"I invited the entire school to the premiere."
At this point, the Latvian animator realized two things. The first was that he didn't want to work in a large company. He enjoyed every part of the filmmaking process and hated the idea of specializing. The second was that he wanted to switch to 3D, because the medium would cover his sub-par drawing skills and facilitate more complicated camera moves.