Getting Personal with Animation Instructor Eric Van Hamersveld

Eric Van HamersveldHow often do you have the opportunity to learn from someone who has worked with animators like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, helped to bring the classic animated feature “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to life, animated the Oompa Loopas’ reproachful morality songs in the 1971 version of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” developed aspects of Disney theme parks, and designed Mr. Spock’s 3D chess board for the original Star Trek?

Meet animator and UC San Diego instructor Eric Van Hamersveld, who teaches Animation I: Introduction to Disney’s 12 Principles of Animation and Animation II: Skill Building. We sat down with him to chat about how he got started, what he accomplished in the world of animation and production, and how to make it in the field.

Q: How did you start out in the entertainment field?

Eric: I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas — “Where the West Begins” — to a wonderful set of parents. In today’s world, I probably would have been diagnosed as ADHD and put on Ritalin to calm me down, but ADHD had not been invented yet, so I was happy, but a handful.

The entertainment bug bit me when I was 5 years old and appeared on a local radio program called “Charming Children,” where pre-schoolers were asked various questions about life (much like “Kids Say the Darndest Things”). I remember looking up at the microphone and the director and feeling totally at home.

At 8 years old, much to the surprise of my parents, I took a cardboard box, 100-watt light bulb, and a magnifying glass mounted in a toilet tube for a lens and created a hand-operated projector. My “films” were drawn on adding machine paper rolls. Then it was off to puppets and marionettes. I wrote the scripts and neighborhood kids actually paid to see the performances.

In junior high school, I took up ventriloquism. I created a duck dummy called Danny Duckbill. Danny and I performed at various civic events and even got on local TV.

My love of animation began in high school. I bought an 8mm camera and produced several short stop-motion and cell-animated films, one of which was an animated logo for a local CBS TV station.

All along the way, I dabbled in many activities. I really wanted my characters to come alive, so I joined a community theatre group to learn acting. I was always building strange electronic devices. Using 110vt vacuum tubes, I created a wireless broadcaster that became a un-FCC regulated AM neighborhood radio station that featured my friends performing in skits that we wrote. I became a SCUBA diver, took up sailing, studied astronomy, and got my ham radio license, and learned Morse code.

With all these varied interests it came down to a decision point when it was time to go off to college. I chose a BFA in Television/Film, since it would allow me to participate in all my interests while producing films about them. Mixed into this was animation. The school I attended (TCU) didn’t teach animation, so I did the research, honed my skills, and, with a dash of school-taught directing, writing, and acting, I created a couple of projects while in school including a Coke commercial.

Q: How did you come to work with so many greats in the industry?

Eric: My first job out of college was as a director for a CBS-TV affiliate. I directed and produced news/interview programs and commercials using both live actors and animation. After two years at the station—and now married with a kid on the way—I decided to change my career for something more lucrative. I chose to pursue the production side of the industry, specifically leveraging my passion for animation.

I went to Los Angeles and knocked on several studio doors for about two weeks. I was just about to give up when, by luck, I walked into Warner Bros. They were hiring the bottom of barrel crew (aka inbetweeners) for a new TV series. I took their drawing test (being able to draw clean lines between the animator’s drawings). I had a steady hand with a firm line, so I was hired and launched my new career.

I learned “on the job” at Warners Bros. Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and other greats in the industry were my teachers. I rapidly worked my way up to Animator for theatrical films. In the animation industry you work when and where you are needed. Along the way, I worked in all the major studios (Hanna-Barbara, Jay Ward Productions, and Filmation).

I also created the first computer character-animated film for Computer Image Corporation using an analog computer called the Scanimate. This led to creating the animated song sequences for the original “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” film. I was even an Imagineer at Disney working on special effects for EPCOT, Disneyland, and Tokyo Disneyland theme park projects.

I have always been a tinkerer, and just after joining Warner Bros., I built a “2-car Laser Lab” in my garage so that I could dive into the new medium of 3D holography. My hobby culminated in creating a technique of filming live-action or computer generated animation and producing 3D short films that did not require glasses to see—much like the “R2D2-Princess Leia” scene from “Star Wars”. I loved “Star Trek” and had a meeting with creator Gene Roddenberry to see if they would be interested in using holography on the show. He agreed, but unfortunately, by the time we were ready to implement a “special” clipboard for Spock that displayed holographic images, the show was canceled. However, I did have the opportunity to create the original prototype of the Star Trek 3D Chessboard for Gene, so my time was not totally wasted.

Q: How did you transition into teaching?

Eric: Word got out about what I was up to with holography and UCLA asked me if I could teach an extension class in this new medium. I found that, with my diverse background, I had a lot to share and the classroom “stage” was an easy place for me to direct and act. I really took to teaching, so while working for the studios, I also taught for UCLA, USC, and several Community Colleges in the Los Angeles area. I also taught in a variety of other areas: holography, video editing, video production and animation.

Teaching really helped me through the “almost fall” of animation in the late 1980-1990s. Many of my fellow animators were laid-off; animation was not very popular any more. However, the computer was finally coming of age and I could see that very soon computers would hopefully be animation’s salvation. I took a two year break from the industry, and when I returned, animation was again on its way.

At first, the interface of artist and machine was pretty chaotic. My friends, who were 2D pencil and paper guys, had a very hard time switching to the “electronic pencil.” My inquisitive nature seemed to work in my favor, because I took to computer graphics right away. I quickly learned Flash and picked up several major projects. I could also help get the 2D guys up to speed, and teach the CG computer new-comers what basic animation was all about (since it’s never about the computer, but about story and performance).

Q: Can you share a few tips on how to make it in the entertainment industry?

  1. Get really good at a couple of skills. Try to have skills that relate. For example, modeling and rigging; or rigging and animation; or character design and texturing.
  2. You must have a good work ethic. You must get very used to turning projects in on time with no excuses!
  3. Leave your ego at home. You must be a team member. Learn to do the best job you can on a project, then stand back and let anyone throw darts at it without you becoming emotional about the end results. The industry is small. If you get a bad reputation, your career is over.
  4. Network, network, network! This is the only real way you will succeed in this business. The Entertainment Business is built on relationships, not faceless paper shuffling. Multi-million deals are made over coffee at Starbucks. Go to industry events, enter film festivals, join industry organization, etc. Get to know as many people as you can!

Join Eric in his upcoming online courses, Animation I: Introduction to Disney’s 12 Principles of Animation and Animation II: Skill Building, and learn the key elements to becoming a professional animator.

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