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An Animator’s Golden Age

Animation is an art form with limitless creativity, where artists can fulfill our wildest dreams, fuel our curiosity and even spark action. New technologies and digital platforms give animators more freedom than ever—and more influence on the viewer’s experience. Some of the minds behind the magic are Syracuse University alumni.

Michael Lasker holding his Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.
Michael Lasker ’98 holds the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.

In February 2019, Michael Lasker ’98 heard the words he’d waited for since childhood: “And the Oscar goes to...Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse!” The directors and producers may have accepted the highest industry award for Best Animated Feature Film, but for Lasker the moment was no less exhilarating. After all, he oversaw the whole look of the picture, leading a team that transformed the Spider-Verse from a director’s creative vision to a fantastical world for millions to enjoy on the big screen.

As a full visual effects supervisor for Sony Picture Imageworks , Lasker works with directors to create the worlds they imagine for their films. “I get to have a real hand in the movie making,” Lasker says. “How characters move, textures, lighting, backgrounds—basically taking a painting and making it come to life.”

The New York native always dreamed of working in the animated film industry, and in the early 1990s Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) had one of the few computer graphics (CG) programs in the country. “We took all different types of fine arts classes, so you got the full spectrum,” Lasker says. “Then, senior year, I took an animation course, and the software we used for class was so cutting edge it helped me get my first job.”

Lasker started out as an intern-freelancer at a small but well-known commercial effects company in New York City, eventually securing a full-time position. He spent eight years in NYC doing architecture digitalization and TV animation, then moved to Los Angeles in 2006. He joined Sony Picture Imageworks as a lighting artist and gradually gained responsibility—designing the environment for Surf’s Up, developing the look of the main characters for Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and supervising an artistic team for the first time on Hotel Transylvania.

Of all Lasker’s film credits, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is his favorite—and not because of the Oscar. “It was the movie you always wanted to make—it gave us a chance to just be artists again,” he says. “It was so hard to do, but that’s what made it great.”

“Invisible” Art

Two people in a motion capture studio kicking a football.

While Lasker’s work is designed to stand out, David Pietricola ’05 thrives on blending in. As a CG generalist for Zero VFX, a Boston-based production studio, Pietricola has worked on a variety of projects, but he specializes in set extension, motion capture and invisible effects. “You know that dinosaur is fake, but did you know the building behind it is completely fabricated? That’s when it’s fun—when you don’t have attention called to things you design, you know you’re doing it right,” Pietricola says.

From earlier design work in medical visualization, Pietricola learned the art of “rigging”—a process that gives a 3D character or object muscle systems, expressions and movement, tying together the components that make it animate. Rigging is a specialty within the vast CG field, and Pietricola enjoys sharing it with Syracuse students.

For the second year, Zero VFX has hosted three VPA students for competitive winter break internships. Selected students spend the break in Boston with lodging graciously donated by VPA Council Member Jim Morris ’77, G’78, general manager at Pixar . “I want to give them a view into the business,” Pietricola says. “They see how a studio functions, how group dynamics work. We see it as a recruiting source.”

Interns pitch project ideas which Pietricola critiques, helping them come away with work to put on a demo reel. “We don’t want to see the greatest alien or dragon, because we don’t know what it looked like in your head,” he says. “We want to see the most beautiful toaster, because you took that from the real world. That’s translating your skills in a marketable way.”

For Pietricola, the internship is a way to support VPA while providing a hands-on experience he wishes he had as a student. Heath Hanlin, associate professor of computer art and animation in the Department of Transmedia , recalls Pietricola’s time at Syracuse and has helped VPA’s computer art and animation program evolve over the past 20 years. “Originally, computer graphics students took other art courses and wouldn’t go near a computer their first year,” Hanlin says. “But animation became so skills heavy, we needed more time with the students.”

Today, first-year students take animation courses exposing them to everything in the pipeline. Then they move from a generalist approach to honing in on a specialty. Hanlin says it’s been rewarding to see the program grow and produce a skilled alumni network. “These days, it’s pretty rare to have an animated film come out that doesn’t have Syracuse graduates working on it,” he says.

To keep pace with the industry, Hanlin and his transmedia colleagues constantly look at trends, new technology and how to keep the curriculum aligned. “We’re really excited about gaming and building up that program so it has the same strength as animation,” Hanlin says.

From Window Painting to Floor 84

Jeff Hardy in front of a group of Syracuse students.
Jeff Hardy ’98 speaks to students about the interactive gaming business during a Syracuse University in Los Angeles Maymester program.

Jeff Hardy ’98, founder and CEO of Floor 84 Studio , an interactive and game development studio in Van Nuys, Ca., has proven that gaming is a popular area for students. His studio is a regular stop on Syracuse University in Los Angeles’ Maymester immersion trip, and interns spend the semester working on real projects. “VPA’s program has evolved nicely, and with Syracuse interns we know what to expect,” Hardy says. “We make a real effort to connect with the students and have given several graduates work.”

Creating games across mobile and console for entertainment giants like Disney, Warner Bros. and Discovery Channel, Hardy and his team have developed hundreds of titles to support some of the biggest brands in the world. The company’s success reflects Hardy’s practical approach to art and business.

Growing up in Utica, N.Y., Hardy transferred to Syracuse after two years in community college, and he majored in illustration , not computer art . After graduating, he stayed in Central New York and got jobs creating signage and window art for commercial businesses—a car dealership, a home and garden center and others. Hardy enjoyed the work but disliked the sometimes unforgiving environment. “Have you ever tried to paint a window when it’s 20 degrees out?” he says. “It’s very difficult; the paint freezes almost instantly.”

One day he and a mentor discussed the benefits of providing his services in a sunny, temperate climate, and he received some good advice: “Where else are you going to take $20 in paint and turn it into $350 in two hours?”

Image showing a promotion for Studio 84's
Tens of millions of people have installed “Survival Run with Bear Grylls,” an original game app developed by Hardy’s studio, on their mobile devices.

When his wife, Lauren, graduated from Syracuse University two years later, it was time to move. Hardy drove to Los Angeles and set to work selling his artistic talents. “I made flyers saying ‘Jeff the Window Painter’ and introduced myself to shopkeepers up and down Ventura Blvd. That was the beginning of being in business for myself,” he says.

Hardy freelanced window painting and sign creation for all sorts of retailers, establishing relationships with the business owners. Then, as the website era dawned, Hardy saw an opportunity to leverage his illustration skills in a new way. He taught himself coding, logo design and how to work with multimedia and CG— then pitched website creation to his existing clients. He also started producing motion graphics for the music business and reality TV, which led him to animation.

In 2000 Hardy established Floor 84, and he oversees all aspects of the business. His team creates original games to support events, retail products, motion pictures and TV series. Hardy persistently follows technological advancements to help clients find their niche audiences on the right platforms. “Over the past 20 years there hasn’t been more than a 4- to 5-year run where something has been constant,” Hardy says. “If you’re not always learning, you’ll get passed by.”

Young Alumni in Animation

Portrait of Adam Hazem.
Adam Hazem '15.

Adam Hazem ’15 interned at Hardy’s studio, and, like Hardy, he was a transfer student. But Hazem overcame a whole other set of challenges to pursue his dream career.

A native of Iraq, Hazem emigrated to the U.S. in 2010 without speaking a word of English. For six months he lived in Syracuse and took language classes, then continued learning English while studying graphic design at Onondaga Community College . There, Hazem discovered an animation class and decided to apply to VPA’s computer art and animation program. “Syracuse University offered me a great scholarship, so I went for it,” he says. “It’s the best decision I ever made. Being at a large university exposed me to all kinds of stories and new ideas.”

As Hazem neared the end of his college years, his wife and infant son joined him for the Syracuse University in Los Angeles semester, where he completed his studies and interned at Floor 84. He says his classmates and the program staff were like family and made the city feel like home. “It offered the experience of living and working in LA while still being in school, so you didn’t have that culture shock after graduation,” Hazem says. “I don’t feel I would have made it here without the program.”

Hazem began a job at Cartoon Network right after graduation. As a digital production assistant for the network’s show OK K.O., he takes storyboard art and collaborates with animators on timing, framing and camera motions. “It’s a very artist-driven company,” Hazem says. “They support creativity, and it’s most enjoyable.”

While Hazem applies many of the skills he gained at Hardy’s studio to traditional TV animation, Caitlin Gillman ’16 is at the forefront of gaming—literally researching “the next best thing.” A production coordinator within the Entertainment Lab at Nickelodeon Animation Studios , Gillman and her colleagues handle research and development, exploring technological trends to leverage Nickelodeon’s brand in new ways.

A Los Angeles native who knew she wanted to work in animation, Gillman saw college as her time to experience a different part of the country before returning home. When she and her father toured the Syracuse University campus, it felt right.

Like Hazem, Gillman enjoyed being at a large institution that gave her access to all types of students and classes, instead of a specialized art school. “No one can teach you to be creative. The more experiences you have in your life, the more you have to draw from—and that makes you a better professional,” she says.

Caitlin Gillman (center) working on a computer with her colleagues.
Caitlin Gillman ’16 (center) with her colleagues in the Entertainment Lab, working on a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game.

Gillman also participated in the Syracuse University in Los Angeles semester and interned at Hardy’s studio. After graduation she did part-time and temp work, eventually landing a post-graduate internship at Nickelodeon that opened the door to her current role.

Today Gillman and her colleagues are focused on real-time rendering, virtual cinema, virtual reality (VR), augmented and mixed reality, and artificial intelligence. “For example, our first VR experience, SlimeZone, is at IMAX VR centers around the world,” she says. “People can buy a ticket and experience what it’s like being inside the world of Nickelodeon.” They also promote the network at ComicCon and VidCon, build and test prototypes, collaborate on innovation with creators and explore new approaches to entertainment.

The Future of Animation

Image of a motion capture studio at Nickelodeon.
Motion capture for a virtual reality experience being developed in the Entertainment Lab at Nickelodeon Animation Studios.

What’s next for an industry that seems to change at warp speed? Hardy predicts a gaming proliferation, using data and games to drive greater user engagement. Gillman sees the migration to digital platforms and short-form content production. “There are shows being made now for Facebook and Snapchat, and we just produced a four-episode game series for YouTube,” she says.

Lasker recalls when 3D animation emerged and 2D animation nearly disappeared. Now he sees a bell curve, with artists mixing up approaches. “Now that visual effects can almost flawlessly duplicate reality, audiences are welcoming more creative uses of the technology,” Lasker says. “Our ability to conceive new styles is limitless.”

Emerging technologies like virtual and augmented reality still present design challenges. “You can do all sorts of amazing things with characters that aren’t human, but there’s still work to be done on depicting realistic humans,” Hanlin says. “We all live in human bodies, and we’re just not that easily fooled.”

Pietricola and Hazem see the impact of streaming services on the film and TV businesses, with a shift toward designing content for niche audiences watching at home versus mass audiences buying theater tickets. And for artists, more opportunity is exciting. “Before, if you produced something, you had to submit it to a film festival. Now you just put it online,” Hazem says. “This is the Golden Age for animation.”

Carri Prue

This story was published on .

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