LOS ANGELES —
A lot of young people watch cartoons and animated movies and think they’d love to be an animator some day. Very few of them do, though, for one reason or another.
Paul Schoeni has followed that dream and is finding success in his art.
Schoeni grew up in Douds, just 25 miles southeast of Ottumwa. Being from such a small town, coming to Ottumwa was like going to the big city. Trips to the movie theater, Spud’s Emporium and the Canteen were all special events.
“I loved going to Spud’s Emporium. I guess that’s kind of a geeky thing to say, but it was really a weekly thing for me — as often as I could,” he said. “I’d go down on Saturdays, go to Spud’s and probably spend way too much money just buying comics and engrossing myself in all the glorious details.”
But it wasn’t the characters or the plot lines that were especially interesting — it was the artwork.
“I was just fascinated, and am fascinated, with that type of artwork,” he explained.
Family provided turning point
Schoeni’s parents, Gary and Kathy, still live in Douds. He says they have been instrumental in guiding him to be able to do what he loves.
“When I was 16 or 17, my favorite birthday gift of all time, another geeky thing to say, was my own drafting table my parents got me. They could see that this was what this kid wanted to do. It was just the best gift ever because I was just a high school kid, but I felt like a professional,” he said.
When Schoeni was 16, his dad surprised him with a trip to Disney World in Florida while they were visiting his grandparents. There was an attraction where visitors could actually watch animators doing their work.
“I just fell in love at that point. That was it for me. I saw my world open up,” he said. “I just thought, ‘Wow, I could do that for a living.’ This was awesome! That was a real trigger for me ... it felt like pure joy.”
Schoeni’s parents raised three boys, each with completely different interests. One is now a lawyer, one is a Navy SEAL and the third is an artist. It was busy work for their parents to encourage each one individually with such a wide range of talent.
“They did a great job of fostering and encouraging each one of our interests. Whatever we leaned towards is what they encouraged us to do.” Schoeni said. “Now having said that, my dad, with his business background, has always tried to encourage me wisely, to not squander my time. He had a lot of good encouragement and guidance as to how to make an art career happen.”
Along the way, friends, family and teachers have all had a profound influence on getting Schoeni to where he is today.
“One of the people that really encouraged me along the way was my high school art teacher, Mary Sederburg,” he said. “(She is a) great lady, very patient and very supportive of me.”
Out of Iowa
Schoeni graduated from Van Buren High School in 1996 and spent one year at Brigham Young University in Utah. Then he took two years for a Mormon mission trip to Guatemala, learning Spanish and spending time with the local people, immersing himself in their culture.
“Then I came back to finish my education at BYU, and that’s when I really got into animation. I came back and had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I’d always been one of those kids growing who loved drawing, loved comics, loved animation, loved movies, and I never grew out of it.”
BYU was beginning a brand new major, one that wasn’t even approved by the university yet, in computer animation. Brent Adams, the supervisor, became a great mentor for Schoeni and encouraged even more love for animation.
“The learning curve is different because it’s not exactly like drawing or painting, but once you get over that steep learning curve, it’s just awesome,” Schoeni said. “You realize that the computer is this amazing tool. It’s like a pencil, but it’s just another tool. You still have to use your own creativity.”
While it wasn’t an official major yet, Schoeni signed up for the program. He earned his bachelor’s of fine arts degree in industrial arts because that was the closest thing they had at the time to an animation major. The program was approved shortly after he graduated.
One memorable moment from the program was his senior project.
“The name of the project was ‘Lemmings,’ a short, animated movie about the travails of these ill-fated creatures who like to jump off of cliffs. It ended up winning both a Student Emmy Award and a Student Oscar,” he said.
While in his senior year, reality began to sink in. Here he was getting all this information and experience, but how could he get a job doing what he loved?
He showed his student portfolio to someone from Digital Domain to test the waters and see what would happen. The response was good, but there nothing happened immediately.
A career begins
Later that summer, after graduation, Digital Domain called with a position — if he could be in California in three weeks. It was an entry-level position for camera tracking, creating digital effects and CGI special effects for films. The first movie Schoeni had the opportunity to work on was the Will Smith film, “I, Robot.” The computer animator’s job is to match the live-action camera shots with virtual camera shots whenever necessary. The work was tedious, often going frame by frame, matching the virtual and real camera shots.
When the call came, Schoeni’s wife, Amber, was eight months pregnant with their first child. They owned a condo in Utah, so they were making a huge life-altering decision by making this move. After finding an apartment and getting settled, their oldest daughter was born three weeks later.
From there, Schoeni wanted to do something more art-related. This led to modeling, which is essentially sculpting but done inside the computer. He volunteered his time to help the lead modeler for “I, Robot,” getting some work on the side doing what he truly loved. He spent six months doing both his camera tracking job during the day and 3D modeling after hours. When a position opened up that would allow him to work in modeling full time, he was more than willing.
And all that extra effort led to an offer from DreamWorks in 2005. He can now add titles like “Kung Fu Panda,” “How To Train a Dragon” and “Shrek Forever After” to his list of accomplishments.
“There’s a lot of people who work on it, there’s a lot of talented people here, so in some ways I feel embarassed to say that,” he admitted. “I’m one cog in a huge machine of people that are making these movies happen. But I’m proud to say I’ve worked on those movies and made some good additions, based on what I think looks good.”
There was a point, though, that an itch to try something completely different began to kick in.
“I love animation. I love every inch of the process,” Schoeni said, “but at the end of the day, I’m still making someone else’s vision. So there’s still this itch that I have to do something else.”
That something else is reaching into the realm of animation and apps for technology like the iPad and Android devices. His small start-up company, Caffeine Free, is creating interactive entertainment that is truly interactive, not simulated for effect. The company’s current project is called “Club Caveman.”
“The kid will talk to the character and the character will respond to them. The character will do things according to what the kid has asked them to do,” Schoeni explained.
The project requires both animation talent and voice-recognition technology that have to coordinate in a way kids find believable.
“It’s kind of a new breed of entertainment,” he said. “There’s other companies that have had a lot of success with it recently on the iPad. We’re just trying to take it a step further with the voice recognition where you can actually talk to the character and the character does what you say.”
As a brand new company, Caffeine Free has started a Kickstarter page, which allows people interested in the project to donate money to the cause. It’s a very powerful way for supporters of a business to have a hands-on influence in the company's success.
As of Tuesday afternoon, they had reached 75 percent of their $10,000 goal, which must be met by Aug. 8. Proceeds from the Kickstarter funds will go to hiring a full-time programmer. Right now, all five creators involved in the project are also working full-time jobs. They’re doing all the app-related work on the side. That means scraping together time, energy, money and ideas in their spare time.
If all goes as planned, “Club Caveman” will appear in October.
“Assuming this is successful and people respond to it really well, I think we’ll be in iPad/iPhone/possibly Android Land for a while, just trying to put together a string of successes,” Schoeni said. “If we create some really cool properties, there’s no telling where that could take us. We just want to create a really successful iPad app that parents will enjoy downloading for their kids and kids will really get into.”