Allen Hemberger was safely ensconced at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., teaching his first semester in the engineering department when he got the call. It was from New Zealand. There was a giant ape in the woods, and they needed his help. Hemberger hung up the phone and considered the options: stay in the Midwest teaching about visual effects or hop on a plane to the other side of the planet to work with one of the world's foremost directors, Peter Jackson, on his epic remake of the classic thriller King Kong . "It was too sweet of an opportunity for me to pass up," Hemberger recalls, "so I took it."
Hemberger, 28, epitomizes a new breed--and new generation--of engineers: young people weaned on video games who find a home in the world of Hollywood special effects. He achieved the geek trifecta, having worked on the Matrix sequels, King Kong , and, most recently, X-Men 3 . This year, the company for which he works, the New Zealandbased Weta Digital, took home the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for King Kong . And, with return trips to Notre Dame, Hemberger is helping the next generation of engineers learn how they too can find a home in the world of blockbuster animation. "The demand for technically savvy people," he says, "is always high."
Just as engineers before him were drawn into their field by a childhood love of science fiction, Hemberger came to the discipline by way of the new fantasy world--video games. As a kid growing up in Kentucky, he spent hours engrossed in role-playing games such as the Final Fantasy series from Japan. The games feature anime-style dreamscapes, inhabited by characters from futuristic and forgotten worlds. "I was obsessed with them," Hemberger says, "much to my mom's chagrin."
When Hemberger shared his interest in digital worlds with his Notre Dame advisor, he was pointed to the one seemingly sensible destination for him: the engineering department. When he got into his first class, however, he questioned whether that was the right play. "I didn't really understand upfront that graphics was more software-based and computer engineering was more hardware-based," he says, "I trusted that they knew what they were talking about."
It didn't take long, however, for him to become disenchanted. The computer engineering curriculum seemed from another era and had nothing to do with what he viewed as the burgeoning and exciting new world. One fortuitous day, he met someone in the art department who suggested that he try his luck there. Though the young art students wondered what an engineer was doing in their midst, Hemberger relished the opportunity to explore his interest in the arts. And, at the same time, he didn't want to relinquish his passion for engineering. Because he was forging his own independent education, he settled for the only solution, a double major.