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Todd Hemker: Art in Motion

In this two-part series I talk with Todd Hemker, one half of the design and animation company Yellowshed about living a low-key lifestyle in Los Angeles, learning to wear the director hat and what it’s like to see his work on the big screen, in films such as "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" and "Madagascar." Check our Part 2 of this series.

Some people have described Todd Hemker’s animation work as "quirky" but Hemker as a man seems anything but. He’s the guy wearing jeans and a button-down shirt (untucked) walking his dogs down your street. He’s the man at your corner coffee shop ordering a straight-up black coffee that "will probably give [him] an ulcer some day." He’s your average Joe who enjoys red wines, Pepperidge Farm cookies and his wife’s cooking where she "works magic with a few simple ingredients." Oh, and he just so happens to have done some animation work on a couple of Hollywood’s most popular animated movies.

To get a quick glimpse into the personal lives of Yellowshed’s Todd Hemker, 40, and Soyeon Kim, just watch the animation on the homepage of their website. The short contains just a few simple ingredients, but it works. Like magic. Here you will see a man and a woman riding bikes, his a racing bike and hers, more of a cruiser. They are both either chasing or being led by a dog, with a second dog in the basket attached to the front of the girl’s bike.

This is how Hemker says they spend much of their free time, albeit not all at once. He and Kim share a bungalow style house in Marina del Ray, about 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles with their two border collies and a myriad of things inspired by 1950’s and 60’s modernism which he calls an obsession of his. When he’s looking for a change of scenery or some solitude, he’ll ride his bike in the mountains north of Los Angeles, but other than that, they find themselves staying close to home and taking the dogs for frequent walks around the area.


Midwest Beginnings

Born and raised near La Crosse, Wisconsin, this Midwestern boy hasn’t fallen for the glitz and glamour that one expects from people involved with creating major motion pictures. "Moving to LA was just a practical decision, rather than a lifestyle choice… that is, there are more job opportunities for us in CA. In terms of scale and time, it’s vastly different… and I doubt I’ll ever get used to it. We both daydream about moving back to Wisconsin in the future."

Growing up, Hemker was both adventurous and shy. In kindergarten he remembers an assignment where the class had to draw a self-portrait based on the Latin meaning of their name. Todd means "the fox" so Hemker’s portrait consisted of himself in an "Abe Lincoln hat" walking a fox on a leash. It was at that point that people recognized Hemker had a special talent and really began to encourage him to pursue more creative outlets throughout his childhood and adolescence.

"[My parents] were always supportive and nurturing of anything creative - but wanted me to be practical, too. With that in mind, architecture seemed like the perfect blend of art and making a living. I think they were happy when I decided to pursue architecture [as a career]."

When you see it in context (with an audience) and you suddenly realize that you were part of something really special. There’s no greater sense of accomplishment that I can think of!

Settling Into the Reel Life

After studying Architecture at the University of Minnesota, Hemker took another detour in his creative pursuits and left school to pursue an apprenticeship in furniture and cabinet-making with his friend and mentor, Mike McGlynn. Hemker credits his late friend with convincing him to return to school to finish his degree. While he moved on from working with wood as a career, he hasn’t forgotten the craft, "I really miss the wood shop…and Mike."

Once he finished his architecture degree, Hemker worked for a few years in the field before realizing he could make money doing something he truly loved- drawing and animation. At that point he moved to California to attend California Institute of the Arts, from which he graduated in 2001. From there he moved back to the Midwest, settled in the Twin Cities area and started sending out film reels to local agencies. Surprisingly enough, only one responded - Reelworks Animation Studio in Minneapolis. They specialize in traditional animation and as Hemker puts it, "I think that they felt I might be a good addition to their team – not because I had great skill as an animator as much a broad range of styles and experimental techniques." He worked with them on and off for the next six years during which he was able to get his feet wet in all aspects of commercial animation.

It was during his time at Reelworks that Hemker began working with illustrator and designer Soyeon Kim. They had met previously at school, yet didn’t start collaborating until that point and they realized that "[their] skills, if not interchangeable, complemented one another. I love to take Soyeon’s designs and make pretty compositions out of them. I love gesture drawing, too." In fact, his personal favorite project is the Mall of America Halloween Spot as it was really the first project that he got to design, direct, and animate with Kim. The talents possessed by the two of them proved to be a recipe for success. This was the first of two animated spots the pair would do for the MOA.


Hollywood Quirkiness

Hemker and Kim eventually took Yellowshed to Marina del Ray and teamed up with Los Angeles-based Duck Soup Studios, which currently represents them as directors. It’s this commercial representation as well as word-of-mouth exposure that led to Yellowshed landing projects such as directing and being the lead animators on the closing titles of the animated movie "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" as well as "Madagascar 2" and landing the lead animator and layout spot on "Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events." Hemker says such large productions leave him physically and emotionally drained but "[when] you see it in context (with an audience) and you suddenly realize that you were part of something really special. There’s no greater sense of accomplishment that I can think of!"

Seeing their creations on the big screen is a rush, but the road to get there can be tough. Many of their projects start at the bidding or pitching stage where they put together a few ideas to present to the client. If they are hired then it’s at that point that they meet with the client to discuss the typical nitty-gritty details like dates for progress reports and feedback sessions. After that, Hemker says that it’s a pretty straightforward process that includes storyboards, style samples, animatics and finally the animation. It’s the straightforward part that is his favorite of the process, in other words, "the middle… when all the hard questions are answered and everything is in full production mode."

Like many creatives, Hemker finds that many work-related frustrations revolve around the tools he uses to create his designs which consist of pencils, a scanner, and Adobe Creative Suite. He says it seems as if all of the computer crashes, failed renders and corrupt digital files are perfectly timed with deadlines. Other frustrations arise from the fact that he’s constantly trying to grow as an artist, "Since every project is a little different, and I always want to grow as an artist, I tend to try something new with each piece. The frustration comes from the times when I have to compromise any sort of "personal vision" in order to meet the deadline."


Hat Tricks

Having sat in the director position in addition to all of the other creative hats that play a part in a piece has added another somewhat frustrating challenge at times. "I wish I could wear the "director" hat without feeling the need to be part of the actual production process," he said. He has worn so many hats, in fact, that on his Internet Movie Database (IMDb) page, Hemker has credits under Animation Department, Editor, Director, Writer, Production Designer, Visual Effects, Cinematographer, Producer and Art Department. When asked about all of those titles he brushes them off and says, "[They are] so broad - but time really flies for me when I’m working on design, layout, and animatics. They kind of all go together since you’re essentially crafting (visually) how a story will be told. Playing with color and creating key poses for character animation are also really fun for me."

So has he ever done all of those at once? Yes. It was the first film he did as a student called "Seven Corners" and it was the only time he’s ever attempted that. "It was an extremely painful process and I swore I would never attempt something like it again. Still, it was an invaluable learning experience because I discovered my own strengths and weaknesses. It also gave me a path to follow - based on everything I learned."

The learning was just starting at that early point, though. Even at 40 ("and a third"), Hemker says he hasn’t learned his lesson yet but if he had been able to learn one, it would probably have been to be a better team player. His love is on the production side of things so working on large-scale projects can sometimes be challenging. "Animation has so many facets - and the bigger the production, the more people involved and the more specialized the tasks become. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was hard on me emotionally. It was my first time as a director on a project with more than a few people, which meant that once the creative decisions were made I spent most of my time managing the production – rather than being part of the production. Usually, the things that I love to do in animation are on the production side, so it was difficult to let go of that."

Right now Hemker is taking some 3D classes to learn new skills, working on eCards for American Greetings as well as helping Kim with a short film they would like to make into a pilot for a children’s show. At the moment his workload is "pretty normal" which translates to having the weekends off "like a normal person." If anything new arises, they just add that project to the mix and if it’s just the two of them, things remain uncomplicated and they work until the deadline is met. If it is a large-scale project then it gets a little more "tricky" because [they] have to stay one step ahead of everyone – so when someone comes to ask "what’s next," [they] have to make sure [they] know the answer (to keep things rolling forward)."

Despite all of his successes, Hemker doesn’t see Yellowshed as a business per se. Instead, they’re "a couple of artists who just like to make things. Long term, we daydream about making children’s books and various art objects. But we’re always happy to take on an animation project if there’s fun to be had." In other words, they’re always looking to make magic using just a few simple ingredients.

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