Andrew Pearce, BSc’84, MSc’88
By Deb Cummings
You know those moments of clarity that seem to beam down on certain folks — the kind of serrated laser beam that blasts people with a vision so powerful, it shapes their lives?
That’s what sort of happened to Andrew Pearce, BSc’84, MSc’88, one day when he was benignly ambling between two of UCalgary’s oldest buildings — Science B and Earth Sciences. He remembers glancing up and spotting, “some early and crude computer graphics, by today’s standards, that were on display in a glass cabinet along the hallway.”
It was an epiphany for Pearce, who at the time was an erstwhile economics student but is today the VP of Global Technology at DreamWorks Animation (yes, that DreamWorks). “I had always wanted to be a cartoonist, but couldn’t draw as well as my friends,” he recalls from his home in the Hollywood hills. “But here was a way to make computers draw.
“I was hooked . . . When I realized computer graphics had the possibility to unlock and visualize these worlds that were on the pages of books, well, it blew my mind.”
The next semester, Pearce ditched economics, enrolled in computer sciences and soon stumbled over another omen — a poster from the movie Alien taped up in Prof. Brian Wyvill’s office, which Pearce interpreted as “a path from UCalgary to working on films.”
Who watches Star Wars 60 times?
Pearce had many heroes along this path, such as comic book legend John Byrne (who created the all-Canadian X-Men spin-off, Alpha Flight); Prof. Wyvill, PhD (a.k.a. “Blob,” showed Pearce “how to fold who you were into your career”); and John Gibson (his first mentor at Alias, one of Canada’s pioneering computer animation companies).
But many of his Arch Award nominators said it was really Pearce, and Pearce alone, who carved, built and paved a golden path from UCalgary’s GraphicsLand Research Lab to working for Alias. At Alias, Pearce saw computer graphics take off with his software that was used to help create the water snake in the Abyss and the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Pearce then made the leap to Hollywood and landed at the VFX firm behind the Matrix movies.
Through a combination of hard work, timing, chutzpah and a healthy dose of snappy humour, the man who claims to have watched Star Wars 60 times joined DreamWorks Animation in the early 2000s and soon became the director of its R & D team.
Today, Pearce, who also sits on the Academy Software Foundation board, is not only considered a computer graphics pioneer, but a giant among patent producers and an all-star negotiator. The visionary is quick to graciously point out that his eclectic lineup of interests/talents links to the extracurricular activities he did at UCalgary. Zip back to his student days and you could have found Pearce yukking it up on stage at the Loose Moose Theatre, drumming in a band called The Now Feeling, or volunteering at CJSW and The Gauntlet. From managing budgets (he thanks his two years of economics for that) and writing press releases, to being the keynote speaker at events like Adobe’s Tech Summit and understanding the nuances in story structure that allow him to discuss films with directors, Pearce is a huge proponent of developing interests and hobbies outside one’s chosen field of study. And he favours UCalgary’s well-rounded grads, having hired numerous alumni.
As for the future of animation . . .
Whether it’s humility or that “golly-gee” Canadian thing, Pearce, who is also known to love curries and sushi (not together) deflects any suggestion that he’s “driven” or an “über-achiever.” Instead, he defines himself, simply, as a “good self-motivator who gets bored easily.”
Explains Pearce: “There’s a great character from a Robert A. Heinlein short story where he’s basically lazy, so he looks at things he needs to do and optimizes them to reduce the labour needed from him. I feel that resonates with me. I like working myself out of a job. Then you’re available for the next project that comes along.”
As for what shape the future of digital entertainment might take, speculates Pearce, “machine learning is changing computer animation; the power of the chips is getting better and better. I think fully ray-traced, immersive environments will become the norm. Telling a real video from a modified or manufactured one will be nearly impossible, even for machine-learning algorithms trained to spot them. I worry about that issue the most for a whole raft of reasons.”
I like working myself out of a job. Then you’re available for the next project that comes along.
With DreamWorks continuing to be a world leader in animation, Pearce admits it’s not so different from when he was a student at UCalgary, trying to meld career opportunities with passions, skills and an unknown future. “My job wasn’t remotely even a thing back then, so there’s no way I could have projected that far out,” he says. “The best tools I took from university were learning how to research and learn. Oh yes, and collaboration was another — those group assignments may be tough, but finding a way to partner effectively and figure out how best to work with the messy human bits is so valuable and is always worth making it work.”
Even after all the glam and glory of decades spent in Hollywood, Pearce still has a soft spot for Calgary where he continues to miss getting “really cold water from a tap and the people of Calgary . . . it still feels like home every time I step off the plane there.”