Bellingham man had hands-on role as computer animator for 'The Hobbit'

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 17, 2012 

Moviegoers will see a Whatcom County connection to "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" if they stick around to watch the credits.

In the long list of people who did technical work on the movie, watch for animator Andrew William Park. He's the son of Douglas and Christine Park who grew up in Bellingham and graduated from Sehome High School in 1994.

After working several years as a cook at upscale local restaurants, Park decided to pursue his interest in drawing and in movies. He worked at several studios doing TV and movie animation, but kept his eye on Weta Digital, the New Zealand studio that worked on the "Lord of the Rings" movies and is partly owned by Peter Jackson, director of the "Rings" and the "Hobbit" movies.

Once Park's work résumé was solid enough, he contacted Weta about a job.

"I knew they were going to do the 'Hobbit,'" said Park, who is visiting family and friends for the holidays. "I'm a huge Tolkien fan."

LOVED ART AS A KID

Park, 36, recalls writing a third-grade book report about Walt Disney, an assignment that contributed to his early interest in animation. Even as a kid, he enjoyed drawing TV, comic and Disney characters.

"I loved drawing Garfield, the Snorks and Smurfs," he said.

After leaving the world of cooking, Park studied art history and film at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. To complete his degree, he enrolled at Vancouver Film School, B.C., and studied classical animation, the pencil-on-paper kind.

By then, however, computer-animated movies were hitting the big screen, led by "Toy Story," and Disney had announced it was deep-sixing its TV animation operations.

After film school, Park found a job with a Vancouver studio animating storyboards for the Cartoon Network show "Ed, Edd n Eddy."

"It was one of the few cartoons that was being hand-animated at that time," he said.

But he knew he'd have to change to keep pace with a changing industry, so he moved to Seattle for a daytime construction job while he studied computer animation from Animation Mentor, an online school based in Berkeley, Calif. Later, while still in the program, he moved to Oakland to be close to the school's headquarters and closer to California's film world.

That paid off with a job at Rhythm and Hues Studio in Los Angeles, where he did computer animation on such movies as "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "Yogi Bear."

When Weta Digital offered Park a job, he moved to Wellington, New Zealand, in September 2010 and started working on "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Later Weta assignments included "The Adventures of Tintin" and "The Avengers."

Park began working on "Hobbit" footage last February, initially on the second film, "The Desolation of Smaug," then shifting to "An Unexpected Journey."

A COMPUTER ANIMATOR'S LIFE

Park works in an office building that overlooks Wellington's airport, putting in 14 to 15 hours at his computer during crunch time. He works on film footage frame by frame - 48 frames per second, in the case of "Hobbit," instead of the usual 24 frames.

For an idea of what he does, imagine a scene in which Martin Freeman, who portrays Bilbo Baggins, is filmed in front of a green screen for a scene with Gollum, portrayed in motion-capture by Andy Serkis.

On Park's computer screen, Gollum appears as a gray presence, akin to a torso with plain skin. Park's job is to tweak that digital version of Gollum so the scene with Bilbo moves smoothly and realistically. If Gollum puts his hand on a rock, Park makes sure the rest of his body shifts accordingly. If Gollum's eyebrows need worried crinkle, Park crinkles them.

"You have to believe the creature is there, or else you're going to lose interest in the movie," he said.

The characters that Park animates lack fur, clothing, weapons and other details. Those are inserted downstream by other computer workers. So if an actor lays a hand on a goblin's arm, for example, Park leaves a gap between the hand and arm so clothing, warts and fur can be added later.

As an animator, Park doesn't create a goblin or giant squid from scratch. That's the work of conceptual designers and model makers. It's their computer-generated (CG) creation that Park manipulates with his mouse and keyboard.

Interestingly, in his high-tech world, those digital creations are still called "puppets," hearkening back to the early days when animators like Ray Harryhausen painstakingly filmed stop-action scenes with models for memorable scenes like the fighting skeletons in "Jason and the Argonauts."

"We're basically puppeteers to CG models," Park said.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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