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Pixar career is on the way up for physics grad

05-19-2011


Sacramento State alum and Pixar animator Henry Garcia.
Henry Garcia is talking a mile a minute, a cascade of arms and floppy waves of dark hair and the requisite science-guy spectacles. He’s guiding a rapt audience of students, faculty and staff through the process of making a Pixar animated film – from story pitch to rendering – with a natural ease that suggests he might have made a most engaging professor.

He did in fact consider such a professional destiny. Instead, he owes a debt to that same gift of gab a debt for landing him at Pixar in the first place.

In delivering a colloquium titled “From Physics to Pixar: How Physics Applies to a Career in Computer Animation” in Mendocino Hall at Sacramento State on Thursday, April 28, Garcia detailed his path to working for the animation titan.

The difference between toiling on nanotechnology projects in an antiseptic laboratory and figuring out how many balloons it might take to allow a house to fly to South America might seem a quantum leap. But for Garcia, it really wasn’t. After an ill-fated year at Indiana University (he followed a girlfriend there), he began at Sac State as a Computer Science major in 2001. He was taking required Physics courses within the Computer Science discipline and loved it. He decided to undertake a double major – successfully completing 26 units one semester – graduated from Sac State in 2005, and arrived at another conclusion.

“One night in the middle of summer,” Garcia says “I thought, ‘I’m gonna get a master’s degree in Physics and be a professor.’ It’s gonna be awesome!’”

That impression held until soon after he started grad school in 2005 at UC Berkeley, where the budget climate and campus politics made him think, “Nah.” Instead, he busied himself working for the famed Alex Zettl Lab on nanofabrication projects, including experiments with a nanotube radio. But he had long been a huge Disney fan, and when company recruiters showed up Berkeley in 2008, Garcia jumped at the chance to meet with them.
Never mind one glaring shortcoming: He had no computer graphics background.

Once in the room with an interview panel, Garcia told the recruiters of his extensive coding background, his summer as a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and another summer at Argonne National Laboratory. “I don’t know anything about computer graphics, but I can do this,” he told the panelists.

After his interview, the room was split. But one higher-level player was in his corner, and Garcia was hired for a one-year temporary position working in sim/effects, one of the latter parts of the moviemaking process. His work appears in the Oscar-winning features “Up” and “Toy Story 3,” the latter of which he is responsible for the heavy lifting in the trash shredder scene near the end of the movie.

“It was a combination of my skill set and enjoyment of the department that drove me to sim/FX,” Garcia writes in an email. “I love being able to point at the screen and show my family and friends some really cool work.”

The creative and technical aspects of his job also appeal to Garcia. And his physics background comes in handy in completing effects, which are heavily dependent on knowledge of reality and the laws of physics. Garcia is thriving in an environment that fits his life philosophy of “work hard, play hard.” There are no cubicles; animators instead work in stylized Tuff Sheds with themes such as a Western saloon, a castle and a New York skyline.

And it all started at Sac State, where his physics classes challenged him with difficult problems that required him to draw on multiple skill sets for solutions. “I also learned to ask a lot of questions, which I can thank my professors for. They always had their door open to students regardless of office hours and that helped encourage me to ask questions. At Pixar, I am constantly learning and constantly asking questions of my peers.”