What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Steve Hoogendyk and my current occupation is Creative Director at Geeta Games. We are a small indie game studio working on our first animated adventure game “Lilly Looking Through.”
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
One summer, in my teens, I got a job as an usher at a local movie theater. I thought this would be a great way to break into film and work my way up to lead projectionist. I quickly learned that the job of projectionist was the most coveted of all job, and had at least a 3 years waiting list. My best memories are cleaning up vomit in a dark sold out theater, while the movie continued to play (I guess the show must go on). Ushering an understandingly frazzled older couple out of “Menace II Society” (they thought they were going to see “Denise the Menace”, which was actually playing next door). Seeing “Jurassic Park” (which I probably saw at least 10 times that summer). As the summer ended, I was pretty sure being an usher was NOT the best way to break into the movie business.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Walt Disney’s “Bolt”, It was my first animated feature film, and the animation team was amazing. “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as well as Animation Director, Pete Nash gave the animators incredible freedom to create highly stylized animation. This project was just a complete joy to work on. “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” I am a big fan of author C.S. Lewis , plus this was the first film I got to work on, so it holds a special place for me. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” My wife and I got to live in London for a year. Plus, during the first part of the project, we worked at Leavesden Studios where they have most of the practical sets. During lunch, we would walk around and take in the wonderful sets. The craftsmanship put into the Hogwarts Castle miniature was breathtaking, and sitting in Dumbledore’s actual chair was kind of magical.
How did you become interested in animation?
I had always been interested in animation, acting, special effects, video games and computers. However, the summer I saw Jurassic Park, and then just a few years later “Toy Story” I knew what I wanted to do. It was the combination of almost everything I loved: animation, storytelling, and computers.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Before animating I had been working in videogames for about 5 years and wanted to try animation. I had done just about everything else as an artist in videogames from texture painter, environmental artist, lighter, character modeler, and production designer. I saw what the animators got to do every day, and I really wanted to try my hand at character animation. I’ve always had a keen interest in acting and storytelling, so this seemed like the dream job to have. I made a rather risky decision and quit my videogame job to spend 6 months trying to teach myself animation. I bought two books “The Illusion of Life” and “The Animator’s Survival Kit.” I read them page by page, front to back, and took meticulous notes. I then realized that I needed a mentor to guide and critique my animation. So I asked Jeff Wilson, an animator I knew, if he would be willing to be my mentor and thankfully he said yes. I created an overly complicated rig, and started work on my demo reel. After 6 months, I thought I had a pretty good reel, and my mentor didn’t totally hate it. So I sent off 50+ copies of my reel on videotape (VHS) and waited for doors to fly open. Two months later, and I had either heard nothing back from the studio I submitted my reel to, or received a very nicely worded rejection letter. I actually saved every rejection letter at the time, and had quite a pile.
During this time I continued to look for job posts, and I saw that Activision’s Luxoflux was hiring Junior Animators for a Shrek 2 game, so of course I applied. The recruiter got back to me and asked me to do an art test. The test was to create Shrek’s swamp, and I was told everyone had to do it. So I modeled and textured Shreks’ house and nearby swamp in record time. I sent it in and the test was approved. I mentioned I thought it was odd that I should have to model and texture an environment for a junior animator position, but was happy to do it. There was a long pause on the phone, then the recruiter said, “You’re applying for the Junior Animator position”? I said, “yes.” I think the recruiter must have felt bad about the mix up, and just sent me the Junior Animators animation test without even asking to see my demo reel. This was a big break. I worked on a personality test and walk cycle for a really cool giant ogre character they sent me. Shortly thereafter, I received a call from the lead animator Justin Rasch, and he told me I passed and offered me a job as a junior animator. I was thrilled! At the time, I was a little bummed that they never saw my demo reel I had worked so hard on. Looking back, that was a real blessing in disguise.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
My wife Jessica and I just started an indie game studio called Geeta Games this year. We are so small that we wear many hats. It’s hard to say what a typical day is like, except that its different every day. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on all aspects of game development which is a real asset when the total team size is 3 people. Right now my area of focus is game puzzle design and world building.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
The best part of my job is creating characters and worlds that tell a very visual story. I think I like this part of the job best, because it reminds me of when I was kid and how much fun it is to make believe. Our game does not have much dialogue, so most of the story is told by watching how the characters interact in this mysterious world. It’s very rewarding to see how much story we can tell just by the way our character Lilly moves.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
It can be hard sometimes to go down into the basement and work by yourself day after day. I miss some of the collaboration and benefit being in a studio environment and surrounded by other aritsts. However, we are doing a kickstarter campaign right now in hopes of bringing on other artists, so that could change very soon!
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
The old technology I use is paper and pencil. I sketch out all ideas in this early brainstorming process and it’s still the fastest way to create and change ideas. After I have the basic blueprint for an area, I move to computers. The character animation is done in Maya, and the hand-painted environments are created in Photoshop.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
As an indie developer the most difficult part is funding and living with a safety net. After working in the studio system you get used to 401K, comprehensive medical, profit-sharing, bonuses etc. At the same time working at the studio can give you a false sense of security, since studios sometimes have to do layoffs or downsize between productions.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Absolutely. Working at Disney Animation, John Lasseter would occasionally attend our dailies of Bolt. As well, Disney has such a wealth of creative and technical talent that I got to meet many amazing artists and technology wizards.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
One tough situation was when it was announced that Sony’s Albuquerque Studio, where I was working, was closing its animation department. I had great hopes of staying in one location for a while, and we had purchased a home we knew we would have to sell at a great loss. I think every crisis is an opportunity though. I don’t know that we would have tried starting our own indie game studio if I hadn’t lost my job. So looking back, in an odd way, I am thankful for it happening.
Any side projects or you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
During this month of June we are doing a “crowd funding” kickstarter campaign to raise money to add few talented artists and programmers to the Geeta Games team. This will allow us to speed up production on our first animated adventure game “Lilly Looking Through.”
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Even though my wife Jessica and I both have backgrounds in animation, we actually met salsa dancing. Later on, we competed in amateur ballroom dance competitions (we wore dance outfits and everything). We still love to dance, and recently performed together in the musical “White Christmas” at our local Civic Theater this past December.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Definitely, and it was advice that was given to me. When I was working at Disney the famous writer Ray Bradbury (Who just recently passed away on June 06, 2012) came to give a talk. One of the things he said that really resonated with me was “Whatever you do, never forget your first love.” When you have a passion for doing something you love, it gives you all the motivation to continue to improve, especially when you experience rejection. I’ve a whole collection of very nice rejection letters, and as nice as they are written they still hurt. My “first love” for animation is the magical moment that can happen when you see someone moved by a performance you’ve crafted and animated. It makes working on your craft absolutely worth it.