Portrait of a Special Effects Whiz

Our Science of Hollywood columnist profiles Allen Hemberger, who's worked as technical director on the Oscar-winning team of Peter Jackson's King Kong

PHOTO: Allen Hemberger

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 Zealand–based 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.

Upon graduation, Hemberger found that it wasn't his artistic skills that people wanted. When he submitted a demonstration reel of his work to a special effects company, it was drawn to his Bachelor's in computer engineering instead. A company called Big Ideas, which made a children's show called Veggietales, needed someone with technical skills to help its team. Hemberger took the gig. And, to his surprise, he found that worming his way into the company as an engineer was a stealthy way of covering his bases.

He wasn't alone. The people with engineering backgrounds were viewed as some of the most valuable players. "It turned out other guys like me tended to be super savvy at fixing problems across the board." he says, "All the departments found that useful."

Before long, he got his first break on the art side: creating water effects for the company's first feature film. It was an epiphany. He didn't have to choose to be either an artist or an engineer. As a special effects creator, he could be both. "It's a hybrid between the technical and artistic," he says. "You're a liaison between these two worlds." Hemberger was on his way.

In 2003, he got the ultimate payoff, a job working on the effects of the hottest sci-fi movie franchise in Hollywood, The Matrix . As the lighting technical director on the Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions , Hemberger worked on making the lighting effects within the digital world as realistic as possible. He wasn't the only one drawing on his background in engineering and physics to calculate optimal solutions. Most of his colleagues, including his boss, had engineering backgrounds.

Since King Kong , Hemberger returns regularly to Notre Dame to reach out to kids who might have trouble bridging the arts and engineering

"It was phenomenal," he says. "I'd never been surrounded by so many smart people in my life." Engineers also populate his job working on effects for Jackson at Weta in Wellington, New Zealand. On King Kong , Hemberger worked on the water effects, spending 10-hour days making sure the waves crashed both dramatically and realistically.

He also found that he wasn't the only person who came to the job via a love of gaming. "This is an industry filled with a bunch of big kids," he says. "People have TVs with The Big Lebowski playing in the background. My office mate is playing "Seinfeld" on the computer while working. It's kind of like being in college working on finals projects."

Since King Kong , Hemberger returns regularly to Notre Dame to reach out to kids who might have trouble bridging the arts and engineering. He gives them advice: take photography classes to learn how cameras work, take art courses, and get your feet wet by playing around with the Maya Personal Learning Edition, the free version of the popular Maya digital effects program. With an Oscar on his resume, he hopes to be an example of an engineer who made the leap--without leaving his geek cred behind.

About the Author

David Kushner is a journalist and writer. His latest book, Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (Random House, 2005), is about underdog gamers who hit Las Vegas. His previous book, Masters of Doom (Random House, 2003), about the co-creators of the video games Doom and Quake, is being developed into a movie for Showtime. He has also written for Rolling Stone , The New York Times, Wired , Salon , Spin , and other publications.

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