Bielenberg 87, visual effects supervisor for Shrek, talked
to film and animation students on a visit to campus in January.
A fascination with animation
Two RIT alumni helped create two of the most successful animated feature films of 2001, Shrek (PDI/Dreamworks) and Monsters, Inc. (Pixar/Disney).
Although they work for competing companies, Ken Bielenberg (computer
science '87) and Mike Krummhoefener (manufacturing engineering technology
'92) have a lot in common. For starters, both love their work. They
also agree that there's nothing easy about the fantasy business.
"The people I work with are amazingly talented," says Bielenberg,
visual effects supervisor for Shrek. "That makes it fun. But it's
incredibly demanding. On Shrek, the bar was raised tremendously with
the human characters. We didn't know how we were going to do it at the
start, but we knew we would."
Krummhoefener, a technical director and character artist for Monsters,
Inc., echoes those comments. "The challenge always is to do more
and more and more."
Shrek, the story of an ogre who falls in love with a princess, and
Monsters, Inc., which reveals a world where monsters are afraid of children,
both scored domestic box office sales of more than $200 million - an
accomplishment achieved by only three other animated features. Both
were nominated for Oscars in the Animated Feature Film category. Monsters,
Inc. also received nominations for best musical score, best song and
sound editing. Shrek received a nod for best adapted screenplay.
As a kid, Ken Bielenberg loved making films with his Super 8 movie
camera. He also was a good student with a mind for math, so he came
to RIT to study computer science. But after two co-ops with a major
computer company, "I decided that really wasn't what I wanted to
do with my life,"he says. He returned to RIT and took as many courses
in film and animation as possible.
Understandably, he was a bit apprehensive about announcing his new
career plans to his parents. But his father "was actually relieved."
John Bielenberg taught in the theater department at SUNY Binghamton,
and was active in regional theater.
"He knew I'd be happier if I was using more of the visual/creative
side of myself," Bielenberg says.
After graduation, Bielenberg entered a summer program in film at New
York University, and thought about staying on in the Big Apple. "But
my brother lives in California, and winter was coming." He headed
for the Bay Area and applied for jobs at major movie animation/visual
effects production companies.
(PDI/Dreamworks) received an Oscar nomination in the Animated
Feature Film Category.
Lack of experience proved a handicap. "It's the Catch-22," he
says. "You can't get a job if you don't have experience, and you can't
get experience if you aren't working in the industry."
He took a job with a small company and tooled up to do projects on his own. In 1990, PDI hired Bielenberg as a production assistant. After a few months of "grunt work," he moved into production, and worked his way up from there.
He worked on corporate logos and countless commercials, and visual effects for feature films including Heart and Souls and Angels in the Outfield. He was lead technical director on the 1995 Halloween episode of The Simpsons - the one where Homer and Bart enter the third dimension.
Then PDI merged with Dreamworks, bringing bigger projects into the picture. Bielenberg became effects supervisor for the groundbreaking animated feature Antz, overseeing the animation team responsible for creating the extensive water simulation and other effects. Even before Antz was completed, he began working on Shrek.
"As the visual effects supervisor, I had global responsibility for figuring out how to achieve the directors' and production designer's view for what the film should look like, and for getting that final picture up on the screen," he explains. He supervised the work of about 80 people.
On a visit to RIT in January, Bielenberg described the scope of the project to a standing-room-only audience of about 350 in Webb Auditorium. The movie, a tremendously complex project overall, was especially difficult because of the humanoid characters.
The challenge: creating characters with complex face and body movement, a realistic complexion, believable hair, expressive eyes, and the many other minute elements that define a character's humanity.
"It took a whole year to develop Fiona (the female lead)," Bielenberg says.
Such carefully crafted characters needed equally rich settings. Shrek takes audiences into 36 enchanted locations, including a muddy swamp, a deteriorating castle, a medieval village, and a forest. The sets required rendering 1,250 props and 3 billion leaves.
Bielenberg says that perhaps the most difficult segment was the "transformation" scene with its swirling, sparkling, cloud. Magic, it seems, is very tricky.
Small wonder Shrek was four years in the making - but the hard work paid off.
"We're very proud of it," says Bielenberg. "People really enjoy it,
and that makes it very rewarding."
"I guess I always had an appreciation for animation," says Mike Krummhoefener. But engineering seemed like a solid career choice. "And when I started college, who knew from computer animation? It's come so far in 10 years."
His degree in manufacturing engineering technology took him to a good job at Bausch & Lomb. Then he saw Jurassic Park. "I was blown away."
He wanted to know more about the companies making that kind of movie, what technology was being used - and what it would take to get into the action. "In 1993, the technology was really expensive," he recalls.
Inc. (Pixar/Disney) also received an Oscar nomination in the Animated
Feature Film category.
"I actually ended up selling everything I owned, moving back home,
taking out loans so I could buy the computer and software I needed.
I quit my job so I could learn about this."
Under the name Hoefener Digital Studios, the Rochester native began
getting work from local companies developing animated company logos
and photo-realistic images of prototype products. The RIT background
helped, he says. "I wasn't 'just' an artist. I had more understanding
of the products."
His work came to the attention of Pixar, creator of Toy Story and A Bug's Life, and the innovative computer animation company called. Although his own company was beginning to take off, Krummhoefener found he couldn't say no.
"They were starting on Toy Story 2. It was the kind of work I wanted to do, so I moved to California."
After Toy Story 2 came Monsters, Inc., for which Krummhoefener served as a technical director and character artist, which means he helped sculpt and model the film's characters and form their quirky, humorous personalities. Seeing them come to life - and then watching kids and adults react to the stories - makes the job intensely satisfying.
He's now working on Finding Nemo, an under-the-sea animated adventure about a father fish searching for his son.
After six years at Pixar, it's still "like playing all day," he says. "I never want to go back to the real world."