Why would Pixar hire a guy on track to become a physics professor to work on animated films? Let Sacramento State’s William DeGraffenreid explain.
“Henry and I decided to get together and watch a football game,” recalls DeGraffenreid, referring to his former student and current Pixar Animation Studios technical director Henry Garcia ’05 (Computer Science and Physics). “During commercials, he was telling me what he could about his work. I remember him asking me if I had seen Wall-E, and I said, ‘Yeah, it was a good movie,’ though it had come out before Henry had joined Pixar.”
Garcia mentioned a scene featuring a pile of garbage in which papers were fluttering randomly. In the real world, he pointed out, they would move in patterns. In Wall-E, they didn’t.
“He said, ‘But they do now,’ and he gave me a smile,” DeGraffenreid said. “He had already made a contribution to Pixar and contributed his knowledge.”
Garcia’s first project with Pixar, creating that realistic paper fluttering effect for Toy Story 3, was ultimately cut from the film. But since then, he has made his mark at the animation studio – and on some of the most beloved films of the past decade.
The rain in The Good Dinosaur? Garcia’s work. He helped a red hooded sweatshirt come to life in the short film Lou. He’s also worked on Up, Inside Out, Coco, and currently is the simulation supervisor for the highly anticipated Toy Story 4. And, in what he considers his favorite achievement, he helped create Merida’s iconic, curly red hair in Brave.
“That was 18 months of my life dedicated to building that simulator, with the rest of my team,” Garcia said. “When I look back at that film and I look at her hair and how much it brought that character to life, there’s a lot of pride.”
It’s hardly what the Citrus Heights native envisioned when he transferred to Sacramento State in 2001 after a couple of years at Indiana University. He had followed his girlfriend halfway across the country, run low on money, and was unenthusiastic about having to return home and enroll at the local university.
“In hindsight, it was a huge blessing,” said Garcia, a first-generation college student. “What Sac State did for me was amazing, and I can’t say I would be at Pixar if it wasn’t for that.”
Having been fascinated by computers and graphics since playing video games in middle and high school, he enrolled at Sacramento State as a computer science major. Then, while taking the calculus-based physics courses required for that degree, he fell in love with physics and decided to double major, with the ultimate goal of obtaining his doctorate.
Two internships helped him get into the physics doctoral program at UC Berkeley – located less than four miles from Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters. The studio recruited at Berkeley, and Garcia was fortunate enough to land an interview.
There was just one issue: Despite his computer science background, he hadn’t touched a computer in almost three years.
“After the interview, the room kind of split in half a little bit,” he said. “Half were thinking, ‘What are we doing? We can’t hire this guy. He doesn’t know anything about computer graphics.’ And the other half was saying, ‘Yeah, but he’s so passionate, he’ll figure it out. Let’s give him a shot.’ And luckily, one of the people on the positive side was the head of Toy Story 3 at the time.”
Garcia landed a one-year residency, left Berkeley, and hasn’t looked back. As a technical director, he uses computer software to animate effects like fire and smoke as well as “simulations,” such as hair or clothing, generally handling between two to 10 shots per week (a full film has around 1,600 shots total). Once the work is ready, he takes it to his supervisor for feedback, and then ultimately the director for final approval.
On Toy Story 4, Garcia has assumed a supervisory role, working with a team of about 13 to make sure the film comes in on time and on budget – and is up to Pixar’s high standards.
The work is relentlessly collaborative. For example, the Toy Story character Bo Peep wears a cloak. Technical directors like Garcia have to work with the animators to ensure that, when Bo Peep moves her arms, the cloak moves with them realistically.
That’s where Garcia draws upon his experience at Sacramento State, where he found small class sizes, engaged professors who put students first, and a highly supportive and collaborative environment he didn’t have at other schools he attended.
“That’s something I’ve taken with me,” he said. “I think part of my success at Pixar is because I have the skills to bring a team together and be a positive voice in the room, while also having good ideas. I attribute that to Sac State.”
DeGraffenreid, now a special assistant to Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen, remembers Garcia as incredibly talented academically while also bringing a sense of humor and caring to the Department of Physics. Garcia was heavily involved in the student physics club and spearheaded the group’s efforts to provide after-school science programming to local homeless K-12 students. And he has returned to campus several times to speak with Sacramento State students and share his knowledge and experience.
“Anytime I’ve asked, ‘Hey, we’ve got this opportunity, would you like to come to speak to our students and tell them your story,’ he’s ready to do it,” DeGraffenreid said. “As a Latino, he understands that he can serve as an example of what’s possible, and that by being present and showing himself as an example, he can inspire other Latinos as well, because unfortunately it remains a marginalized group in physics.”
Garcia – whose path has taken him from Sacramento to Indiana and back, from computer science to physics, from graduate school to a dream job at one of the world’s most famous movie studios – hopes current students will see him as an example of someone who wasn’t afraid to alter course when necessary.
“I’ve seen a lot of people get tripped up on being so focused on their plan that they’re not open to changes in that plan,” he said. “So as you’re progressing through your major, as you’re applying to internships, as you’re setting up and planning the rest of your life, recognize that there are a lot of twists and turns along the way, and be open and embrace them whenever they seem like a positive step.”