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ND alum discusses work for Avatar

Liz O'Donnell | Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Notre Dame alum Allan Hemberger told students who packed the DeBartolo Hall auditorium Tuesday evening that the most enjoyable and difficult area of his career is working in visual effects.

Hemberger discussed his experiences working in the field of feature films and the technical background that accompanied it.

“Every time I come here, I try to summarize what I do and the answer changes each time,” he said.

Hemberger, a 2001 graduate of Notre Dame, has worked for WETA Digital, a five-time Academy Award winning visual effects facility in New Zealand, for several years. He will start work at Pixar in May.

“I spent the past year working on Avatar,” he said. “I carved out a niche at WETA as a person who loved working on really hard problems. It was a lot of headaches and long hours, but I liked having an area to work on.”

Hemberger worked as computer graphics supervisor for the Academy Award-winning movie “Avatar” and as a 3D digital water technical director for “King Kong”.

He began the presentation by showing students a demo reel he created while working as a computer graphics supervisor on the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

“A lot of tricks that I learned on ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ transferred over into my work with ‘Avatar,'” he said.

While working on “Avatar,” Hemberger said he was in charge of creating the graphics for the character Jake playing around in the water.

“The first task they gave me [when I was working] on ‘Avatar’ was to create a river,” he said. “That one scene took about eight months from start to finish.”

As a computer graphic supervisor on “Avatar,” Hemberger was in charge of a number of light artists.

“Everything that went into the computer graphics for the scene had to be delivered through me,” he said. 

Hemberger showed a video about the ways water graphics can be generated using a computer program.

Hemburger said film footage shot on a regular camera could previously be used to generate graphics, but that is no longer the case.

“On ‘Avatar,’ the problem was we couldn’t use 2D elements anymore, we had to use all 3D,” he said.

Hemberger said one of the most difficult scenes to create was one that showed the character both above and underwater.

“This scene was infinitely more challenging because the camera breaches the water’s surface,” he said. “What makes it complicated was that there were two entirely different elements at play here.”

Hemberger said he had been working on an animated film for the past few months but dropped the project when he took the job at Pixar.

“This is the long and short of the adventures of my past year or so,” he said. “I’m going to Pixar to be an effects technical director. There, I’ll probably be doing more effects like the ones I did at WETA.”

After the presentation ended, Hemberger fielded questions from members of the audience about attaining a career in the field.

Among other projects Hemberger worked on were “Eragon,” “The Matrix Reloaded” and “X-Men: The Last Stand.”  

The Department of Computer Science and Engineering sponsored Hemberger’s talk, which was called “Experiments in Feature Film Visual Effects.”