Veteran animator, Geoff Hemphill. (Photo by Derrick Hammond)
As our first interview on the Animated Spirit Blog, I’ve asked an old and dear friend of mine, animator Geoff Hemphill – a talented veteran whose experience spans many different arenas of this industry and one of the most sincere and hard-working individuals out there.
Geoff’s CV includes a long list of hit projects; from live action films such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Star Trek, Narnia: Prince Caspian, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, to feature animation productions like Free Birds, Rango, and Robots as well popular games like Star Wars: Bounty Hunter and Jedi Starfighter, and most recently, the next generation multi-player shooter, Evolve.
Behemoth character, from Evolve, developed by Turtle rock Studios. Animation by Geoff Hemphill.
Today, we’re asking him to share a bit about his background, his life as an artist, and what he’s up to today:
Welcome Geoff. Thanks for agreeing to be our first guest.
“I’m honored! Thanks for having me.”
Geoff, tell us briefly about yourself, like where you’re from and all that stuff before animation?
“I grew up in Louisiana and then the Portland, Oregon area. After high school I started getting interested in animation and eventually graduated from Sheridan College’s Classical Animation program, in Canada.”
Scene from Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Animated by Geoff Hemphill.
You’ve now been an industry veteran for a long time. Tell us, what was the main trigger that got you started in this field?
“It was a practical decision. I needed to figure out something I can do for a living. As a kid, I had typical influences like Super Mario Bros, Doom, JRR Tolkien, and Star Wars. I started paying attention to the people behind this stuff. I liked ILM’s model shop, Milt Kahl and Glen Keane. I was also influenced by my college professors.”
What drives you now to continue to do this?
“My interests are pretty diverse, so there isn’t one thing in particular but my latest drive comes from my family. I love watching my son react to a character or game I helped make. I get to see him experience it for the first time, and it reminds me of when I was a kid exploring dungeons in Ultima Underworld, or watching The Dark Crystal in the theater.”
One of the funnest shots from ILM’s Oscar-winning animated feature film, Rango. Animated by Geoff Hemphill
Geoff seen here doing the research necessary to create a memorable performance.
You’ve worked on an impressive number VFX projects, feature animated films and video games, working in many different studios and living in different cities. But you also made a short 2D film. What drove you back to such a classic medium given the industry is now so completely absorbed in digital technology?
“My graduation from Sheridan’s Classical Animation program coincided with the death of 2-D feature animation as a viable day job. I wanted to keep my own modest version of that torch lit. I got an idea of this weird little story while on a road trip. I chose 2-D because the medium is appealing, and because it’s something I can do all on my own. I chipped away at it on nights and weekends.
Drifter, a classically animated short film by Geoff Hemphill.
There were long stretches of crunch at my day job where I didn’t have time to work on it. It took longer than I’d hoped, but I finished it. I felt like Steve McQueen at the end of Papillon, “Hey you bastards! I’m still here!” It seems traditional, but I actually completely re-did it digitally, though it’s still classical animation. I realized I couldn’t get smooth in-betweens at the scale I was drawing on a light table, so I switched over to using a Wacom Cintiq. The experience was like building a life-sized sand castle with tweezers.”
Now you’re onto another new adventure at Oculus VR, a Virtual Reality company that is making headlines around the world. What brought you there, and why?
“There have been some pretty cool things happening in game development that made me want to get back into it. Virtual Reality (VR) is one of them. Some friends I worked with at ILM joined Oculus and recommended me. It was a tough decision because at the time I was at a game dev’ job I enjoyed and my family and I were happy in California. We decided to take the chance and I’m grateful to my wife for her willingness to make the move. She’s been very supportive.
What I like about game development is; you give the player some tools and environments, and they get to be the center of their own story. VR takes it a step further. I’m hoping this feeling of “being there” can help players empathize with each other. When that happens in games it’s a pretty great experience. It brings along a bunch of new challenges for VR dev’s, which is more fun for us because we love tough problems.
I’m also interested in the non-gaming aspects of VR. In ‘06, my brother and I visited the Angkor Wat complex. Unfortunately for people like my grandmother, long distance travel isn’t possible. I’d love for us to be able to put on the Rift and tour Angkor Wat as a family.”
Trying on ‘Rift’, Oculus’ popular VR headset, during a visit to Oculus VR in Seattle, Washington.
What is the best part of your day there as an animator?
“The best part of my day is getting to see the next steps in the development pipeline after animation. The programmers take the animation assets and give them a brain. VFX and sound bring them to life. It takes so much planning and hard work to pull it off. Without them, the animation would just be a bunch of disjointed clips.
Related to that, I also enjoy showing my animation to the people I rely on for art assets. The concept artists, modelers, and tech artists have put in a lot of work and want to see some great animation. It’s really fun to hear them react positively to some piece of animation. At that point I know there’s a good chance the player will also like what they see.”
And how do you get through the parts of the job, or any job you’ve had for that matter, that are less interesting?
“I’m lucky in that I have diverse interests and don’t get bored easily. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten interested in tools programming and animation tech. It uses the other side of your brain. Switching from animation to Maya Python on the same day can be almost physically painful to an artist. At first, it feels like downshifting from 5th gear to 1st on a freeway. Once you get used to switching back and forth, solving a problem through code is fun.”
Some lovely naturalistic animation of Templeton, the talking rat, from the film adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, released by Paramount Pictures. Animation by Geoff Hemphill.
A hypothetical – apprenticeships are rare in this day and age, but if you were to choose anyone that you could apprentice under, anyone throughout history, who would it be and why?
“I have my list of ‘The Greats’ but there’s this picture by French Pre-Impressionist, Toulouse Lautrec that just gives me a ‘case of the sighs.’
A sketch of Henri Ibels by Toulouse-Lautrec that sits at the NY Metropolitan Museum.
But in general, I try not to think too much about idols because it kind of diminishes our appreciation of the mentors we have right now. I’m already lucky to have been mentored by some of the best people in their field. Pretty much every place I worked at had someone who’s work I admired who took time to mentor me. I’m surrounded by these people and I’m constantly leaning over and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a question…’ Outside of work, I’ve got my parents, in-laws, and friends to mentor me in the stuff that really matters!”
That’s very well said Geoff. Thanks again for your time and generosity. We look forward to seeing more of your work in the future!
To learn more about Geoff and his work, you can visit his Facebook page here.