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Alumni Updates - Kiel Figgins

Kiel Figgins

Kiel FigginsAnimating characters

A Q&A with alum Kiel Figgins

Where’s home/where did you grow up?

I grew up in Hampden, Maine where I lived for most of my life before heading out to further my education and start my career.

Why did you choose UMaine?

I chose UMaine for a number of reasons. UMaine offered courses similar to the field I was pursuing, mainly in Studio Art and New Media. I always believed this would be a powerful merger, taking the foundations learned from a traditional art training and applying them to new technical mediums and modern situations. Beyond that, I was met with a very positive response when I visited the UMaine campus as a high school senior. I was offered a scholarship through the Art Department to continue with that direction, and I was impressed with how much the instructors where interested in the digital work I’d done previously.

What years were you here and what was your major and minor/concentration?

I attended the University of Maine from fall 2001 through the spring 2003, while working summer 2003 at ASAP, the on-campus Web design studio. My focus was a Bachelor of Fine Art in Studio Art with an Associate of Art in Art History and an Associate of Science in New Media. My main concentrations were figure studio for my art programs and 3D animation for my digital arts. I tried to infuse elements of each into my class work and personal projects to take what I was learning from the curriculum and apply it to real-world applications. During my time at UMaine, I was on the Dean’s List every semester.

What kinds of projects were you involved in at UMaine that prepared you for your career as a character animator?

There were several projects that I worked on at UMaine that helped prepare me for a career in character animation. While working at ASAP, I was able to use 3D applications to model the Maine Center for the Arts, craft 3D logos for various on campus departments and websites, and even make a 3D mock-up of an interface for an engineering tool. In terms of studio art, the numerous figure-drawing seasons I attended allowed me to study the human body and anatomy, and how people move, flex and react. A real turning point, however, came from an independent study through the New Media Department, learning and creating work from a new software, Autodesk Maya. After preparing a projected write-up and list of goals for the study, my proposal was approved and I was given class credit to find uses of Maya in terms of creativity and application for the New Media Department. This study really spurred my commitment to 3D and a related full-time career.

I understand from your bio that you went to Full Sail? When were you there? Can you tell me about your educational experience?

I started at Full Sail in summer 2003 and graduated fall 2004. During my time there, I learned specific details and inner workings of 3D and the 3D software, Autodesk Maya. The extremely short time frame of the curriculum — a two-year degree in 14 months — was a stark contrast to the time I had spent at UMaine. Through this accelerated course study, I was presented a great deal of information, but allowed little time to gestate and process it. UMaine provided more backing and a base understanding of the creative process and went into the “why” of the craft, where was Full Sail was more about the “how.”

How and when did you become interested in 3D animation? What about it do you find particularly intriguing?

My interest in 3D animation started when I began playing video games as a child. I was really drawn to the characters and the actions they could perform, along with the fantastical creatures they fought against. Upon seeing Blizzard cinematics for Warcraft 2 and the movie Jurassic Park, I knew this was the field I wanted to pursue. The most intriguing part of Animat is instilling a sense of awe in the viewer. I remember feeling a rush of excitement while watching certain 3D movies or scenes of epic battles and space marines. Since then, I’ve always tired to bring that same level of viewer involvement into my work.

How did you get from Orono to LA by way of Texas (besides by air)?

Throughout my career and academic studies, I’ve had the opportunity to move rather frequently around the U.S. I grew up in Maine, and attended UMaine in Orono, then trekked down to Orlando to Full Sail. Upon completing Full Sail and promoting myself on various online CG forums, I gained the interest of a Dallas-based studio called TKO games. It gave me my first opportunity animating for various titles, ranging from cell phone games to full PC platforms. Once that studio shut down, I relocated to Austin, Texas, to work for NCsoft on its next AAA title, Tabula Rasa. Working at NCsoft for the next few years really helped hone my abilities in creature and in game animations. It also was during that time a classmate from Full Sail got in touch with me about doing remote work for a San Diego-based studio, Shilo. I ended up working remotely for Shilo for a number of years while working at NCsoft during the day. Once Tabula Rasa shipped, Shilo offered to relocate me to San Diego. After my stint in-house for Shilo, I moved on up to Los Angeles to pursue a VFX and film career. Since then, I’ve roamed around the various areas of LA, loving every minute of it.

Tell me about your animation — the genre you particularly like, the favorite projects you’ve worked on. Is there a particular signature running through your animation that your fans recognize?

My personal animation style and preference is “exaggerated realism.” Types of motions that fall under this category are extreme actions that push the boundaries of human control, such as acrobatics, kung fu and parkour. The motions remain believable and could be seen against live action photography or film. This style deviates from the other popular styles of cartoony or “Disney-esque” that major studios such as Pixar, Blue Sky and Dreamworks have used in their latest feature films. Some of the more interesting projects that I’ve worked on in this style are: Tabula Rasa, a creature-heavy sci-fi game created by NCsoft; Azureus Rising, a sci-fi short film created by Blacksun Entertainment; and The Little Deviants, an ad campaign for Scion created by Shilo. During these projects, the animators were approached to create believable motions for creatures and characters that didn’t exist in real life, but would still be able to move in a way the viewer would understand and get excited about. A common motion that I try to sneak into almost all my projects is some sort of aerial flip. I don’t know why I enjoy a character that can somersault, but it conveys such control and grace, and just a hint of impossibility that it really gets me going.

What does a character animator do?

A character animator breathes life into the computer models. Similar to how Jim Henson manipulated the Muppets, animators do the same thing in a computer. Characters are posed at specific frames along the timeline, then we add, adjust and further refine those poses until the character flows smoothly from one pose to the next and the animation comes to life. This process can be used for characters, monsters, cars and other products, such as cell phones or gadgets, to create a fun and believable on screen appearance.

Who was your biggest inspiration in animation?

If I had to name one person in particular who’s inspired me as an animator, it would have to be Peter Chung, creator of Aeon Flux. Aeon Flux was a late-night show on Liquid Television on MTV. This show had elongated characters, extremely limber poses and fast actions that captivated me when I was younger. This show and his other bodies of work continue to inspire to continue working and try even more aggressive styles and posing of characters.

Where are you working now and what are your responsibilities?

Currently, I’m working for FuriousFX in Burbank, Calif. At Furious, I’m working on my second feature film credit. The first film I worked on involved animating realistic woodland critters in a live action comedy, where the animals fight back against a new housing development. This project gave me my first real exposure working with live action plates of actors reacting to nothing, and leaving the creature work to the animators to find clever ways of making the animals blend into the plate. The second film I worked on was a hallucination sequence in which a man’s tongue grows a few feet out of his mouth and snakes and slides toward the camera and other character in a creepy and eerie way. This particular project was one of the most rewarding I’ve worked on in a while. The end result looked fantastic and the project is right in the vein of work that I’d like to pursue in the future. From the initial reactions of those who have seen the clips, almost everyone has said, “Eww, that’s so gross!” That reaction couldn’t make me happier, for it means I did my job well.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years? Doing what?

In the next 10 years, I hope to have worked on the next generation of major motion pictures — movies that will inspire kids and adults alike for the years to come, the same way Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, Transformers and District 9 have inspired me. Being part of an experienced team working on high-end projects to been seen by the masses is very exciting for me. I’ve enjoyed where I’ve come from in terms of having worked in video games, education and broadcast, but the quality bar and overall appeal of feature film is still the goal I’m setting out for. I only want to animate; I have little desire to lead a team or own my own studio, as both would limit the time I can actual spend in my craft. Being given a shot and the freedom to bring it to life in a cool and memorable way is the pinnacle of achievement that I see.

Seen any good animation lately that you’d recommend to the rest of us?

The latest animation that really wowed me was the movie District 9. The story, visuals and presentation of the film are all top notch. But what really got me going was that once you’re watching the movie, you stop thinking that the insects are fake. They’re acting and moving in the world so seamlessly, you just let go and believe that they were on set when they shot the film. Though with so many other amazing films and advancements in computer animation as of late, such as Avatar, Watchmen’s Doc Manhattan and the teaser trailer for Blizzard’s Starcraft 2, there’s just too many out there. But so long as people still enjoy seeing this type of animation, I’ll hopefully continue to have work.

Originally published in UMaine Today Magazine, Winter 2009

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