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The World Behind Computer Animation



An evening with alumni visual effects artists

Notre Dame alumni Allen Hemberger, ’01, and Scott Aufderheide, ’14, returned to campus on Thursday, April 20, to discuss work they have done for companies such as Pixar and Method Studios and how Notre Dame helped bring them to those companies.

Both men work in visual effects, which, as Aufderheide described it, “is not just computer science or design or film … but all three combined into one.” He added, “visual effects are supposed to support the story that’s being told and show what can’t easily be shown.” Hemberger discussed the many components of production, saying that though both artists have similar backgrounds, their day-to-day work as visual effects artists is drastically different.

Scott Aufderheide majored in computer science while at Notre Dame. However, he said, he also focused on incorporating CGI and other computing into the other classes he took, which was most helpful in rounding out his talents. He then attended graduate school at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and, after earning a degree in visual effects, he accepted a job at Method Studios in New York.

At Method Studios, Aufderheide works as a pipeline technical director, managing software and developing tools to make the production more efficient. Most of his projects involve CGI for commercials, TV shows, and the occasional film such as Disney’s most recent Beauty and the Beast. These projects are small and quick, requiring creativity and talent.

“I like doing a lot of work really quickly,” said Aufderheide. “It’s cool to do a half dozen things in one month, not one film for a whole year.”

Allen Hemberger, on the other hand, is used to spending a lot of time on one project. For the past four years, he has worked at Pixar, concentrating mostly on water animation. He described the difficulty of developing CGI water, both in its simulation, or how it moves on screen, and in its rendering, or how it looks in different lighting.

“My job is to look at something and wonder, does this look right?” explained Hemberger. While this might sound like simple editing, the process required a lot of research and many failed attempts. For Disney hit movies The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory, Hemberger spent a year and a half developing the proper animation for a small splash of water.  Hemberger said that he faces the question ““What do we need to do to be able to build or create to make you believe the picture?” For The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory, he said, “we had to throw out old tools we used over the years and build new tools.”

Hemberger began to learn the skills for this work while at Notre Dame, where he mixed a computer engineering degree with design and programming. The most important factors, however, were problem-solving and originality, he said. Learning how to incorporate these traits into his work while at Notre Dame was crucial to an impressive resume. Aufderheide was quick to agree that an entrepreneur spirit helped him get to where he was.

Speaking to design and computer science students in the audience, both artists stressed the importance of worrying less about technical skill and more about creativity and hard work.  “You have a vision, but you don’t really understand what goes into it until you’re there,” said Aufderheide. To conclude, both artists assured students that Notre Dame would help them get to where they wanted to be, just as the university did for them.
Monica VanBerkum is a freshman living in Cavanaugh Hall and majoring in Anthropology. During sunny days, you can find her outside anywhere procrastinating homework. Contact Monica at mvanber1@nd.edu.

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