Volume 2, No. 38
October 4, 2002

Alumnus creates his own reality

By Beth Concepción

It takes a village to create a village, at least in the world of animation. One of the skilled players in that world is Savannah College of Art and Design alumnus Benjamin Cheung.

Cheung was the digital artist/animator for "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," released last year. Written and directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the movie is based on a series of video games and features a future Earth, overrun by evil aliens.

"Final Fantasy" officially stars the voices of James Woods, Ming Na, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi and Donald Sutherland, but the real star is the animation, according to many reviewers. Steve Murray, film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, called the movie "a visual stunner." He said the movie’s phantoms are "things of creepy beauty" while "the two-legged characters are probably the most realistic humans ever mapped by computer.

The movie has Cheung, in part, to thank for that. Cheung worked for Square USA, an animation firm based in Honolulu, and was in charge of all the creature set-ups, modeling, skin system, animation control, pipeline integration/automation, shot-based special setups and trouble shooting for "Final Fantasy."

For the human characters, Cheung improved the facial pipeline, a complicated system to create about 30 different talking heads with different personalities and proportions. "We only had three people to make all those heads: a modeler, a programmer and me," he said. "I had to make a very efficient pipeline that could do it in a short period of time with quality that director would approve."

He now works for DreamWorks in Los Angeles and is the technical director for the upcoming feature animation "Shark Slayer," featuring the voices of Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Renée Zellweger and James Gandolfini. The movie is slated for November 2004 release.

"My job at DreamWorks is character pipeline creation and integration with combination of various software packages and specifically created proprietary software," he said. "I use the best and most effective tools and methods to create pipelines that the production will depend on through out the whole production period."

His movie animation credits also include "Russell Mulcahy’s Tale of the Mummy" (1999) and "Air Force One" (1997).

Born in China and raised in Hong Kong, Cheung said he knew art was in his future.

"I’ve always been obsessed with drawing," he said. "I have been trained in a combination of Chinese and Western art since I was 11. I’ve also always liked to play with computers. That makes it perfect pair for computer art."

After studying in Australia and Hong Kong, Cheung decided to pursue computer art at SCAD in 1991 — the first year the college offered the major.

"Actually I was going for graphic design at the beginning, but because SCAD began a new major — and I’ve always liked new things — computer animation became my career," he said. "If SCAD hadn’t opened that door for me, I would probably be a graphic designer, instead of seeing my name on the silver screen."

After a college career that included a stint as president of the International Chinese Association, Cheung graduated from SCAD in 1995 with a B.F.A. in computer art and quickly found work in his field. His first job was at Three Space Imagery, a full-service motion capture and animation house. Cheung ended up collaborating with TSi founder Alberto Menache on a book titled "Understanding Motion Capture for Computer Animation and Video Games."

"SCAD has various classes to help prepare for the job search, and that’s why I got responses right away," he said. "SCAD also brought in people from various companies to give us a chance of gaining interviewing experience, which was a big help for me."

He also credits his professors at SCAD with expanding his horizons. "[SCAD] opened my mind about how computer and art can be one," he said. "That’s exactly what I am doing: combining science and technology with art and motion."

His long-term goal is to have his own independent film studio, but he is happy right now with working for others.

"The best thing about my job is the chance to see what you have created on the big screen," he said. "The feeling of it is inexplicable."

Cheung said that any stressful parts of the job go away when he sees the final product — and during that moment when friends and family call out his name during the credits. "Everything seems worth it," he said.

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