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October 06, 2016

From traditional painting to 'Chicken Little'

From traditional painting to 'Chicken Little'

Hal Lewis: "The students push each other." Photo by Rob Muller/CIA

Veteran animator helping to launch new careers

By Betsy O’Connell

To be a professional 3D animator, you needn’t be trained nor live on the coasts.

Animator Hal Lewis says Cleveland is a fine place to be.

“You don’t have to go to Los Angeles to get the right training for the industry,’’ says Lewis, assistant professor in the Animation Department at Cleveland Institute of Art. “What we have here — the faculty and school — is a match for anything out there. We are all experienced professionals working in the field.’’

Lewis’s own art credentials include creating work for live action films (George of the Jungle, Gone in Sixty Seconds and Mighty Joe Young), animated feature films (Bolt, Meet the Robinsons and Chicken Little), animated 3D ride films for Disney theme parks, video games and helping to create Marvel Comics toys and action features.

But Lewis started his artistic career in an entirely different direction.

“I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York and majored in painting,’’ Lewis says as he shows a visitor a 3D animated dinosaur he created. He now paints digitally, sculpting layers of color and texture over the bones of computer creations. He peels back layers on the computer and uncovers the rigging he uses to makes his creations move. “I wish I had this when I was in school.’’

His early training definitely informs his computer animation work.

“You don’t have to learn painting to do this, but what I learned in painting I apply to my work now,’’ he says. It helps him decide what colors, texture and lighting to use, and how to frame a shot.

Lewis is in his third year of teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He started as a part-time instructor. He wasn’t sure how much he’d like teaching — “I was a production grunt,” he says — but quickly discovered the path was right for him.

“I love working with the students. Their enthusiasm is really something special. CIA is a great art school and has a great vibe. The standards we set here are very high, and the students push each other,’’ he says. “We know what they need to know, what they need to create on their demo reel to get that first job.’’

CIA exposes students to all types of animation, although Lewis teaches all 3D work. Mudbox, a software program developed by artists with Weta Digital for director Peter Jackson’s King Kong, is an essential tool for Lewis and his students. “The software that students use here is all what is used in the professional industry,’’ he explains.

Students learn all aspects of the four main stages of creating an animated film: story development and scripting, pre-production, including storyboards; production; and post-production.

“The development stage is crucial. Animated films are very labor intensive,’’ Lewis says. With 24 to 34 frames a second in a film, “you can’t afford to make a mistake, so you have to figure out what you are going to do ahead of time.”

Lewis continues with professional projects. During summer of 2016, he was in Shanghai for several weeks, training artists at Oriental DreamWorks, a Chinese/American film production company. “I was ramping them up on how to do facial controls for animated figures.’’

While CIA grads today can find jobs all around the world, they are available in Northeast Ohio as well. Lewis notes that American Greetings contracts animators for shows they create and produce, as well as for animated online cards. “There are some small gaming companies here, too.’’ And 3-D animation also has major applications in industrial and medical settings.

When students start school, “I think probably they don’t realize how collaborative the film animation process is,” he says. “On a film, as a group, you collaborate to create the best possible thing.’’

A premier college of art and design.
11610 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland OH 44106 USA
800.223.4700

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