There’s a memorable scene in the film E.T. where
children bicycle through the night sky, silhouetted against a full
moon. It was that surreal image that inspired 11-year-old Akira
Orikasa. “I was fascinated to see how they tricked the audience’s
eyes,” Orikasa said in a recent interview with RenderNode,
a computer graphics e-magazine. “I immediately thought, ‘I
wanna do that!’ ” His father gave him a book about Industrial
Light & Magic, the renowned special effects company founded
by filmmaker George Lucas. “That [book] made me realize that
in America, there are actually companies that specialize in visual
effects. … My dream became to go to America and do special
forward 20 years. Miniature zoo animals traipse across a tabletop
in the 2002 film Spy Kids 2. The lion languidly drops his
heavy paws, the elephant’s ears gently sway. Akira Orikasa
is the trickster now—he breathed life into these animals,
pixel by pixel.
Orikasa graduated from CSU, Chico with a bachelor’s degree
in communication design/graphic arts in 1998. He quickly landed
a job at CaféFX, a design, animation, and visual effects
company in Santa Maria, California, where he is a lead artist in
computer animation. He has worked on visual effects for several
feature films, including The Core, Gothika, The League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen, Panic Room, and Spy Kids 2.
Orikasa says that while he sometimes works on animation, he specializes
in modeling, texturing, and lighting. For the Spy Kids 2 animals,
Orikasa and his colleagues began their work at the zoo. “Creating
realistic animals required some research,” he says. “We
videotaped animals to study how they move. We took pictures to study
their textures and fur.”
After Orikasa earned an economics degree at a university in Japan,
he looked to California for an affordable computer-animation program.
He chose to study at CSU, Chico, figuring it was small enough “to
keep people friendly,” which would help him learn English.
As technology revolutionized digital animation in the 1990s, CSU,
Chico expanded computer graphics classes and developed a new major,
applied computer graphics, which became official in 2003.
Since graduating, Orikasa has built on his solid knowledge base
and capitalized on his innate artistic talent. “Our projects
are becoming more and more complex, and more difficult to achieve,”
he says. “We always try to push the limits.” As an example,
for the supernatural thriller Gothika, CaféFX developed
groundbreaking digital fire effects. Orikasa worked on the man-on-fire
shots. “I was in charge of creating his burnt skin, match-moving
his motions to recreate his body geometry, texturing and lighting
them, and compositing them on to the actor,” he says. In other
words, Orikasa and his colleagues created a believable (and horrifying)
Coming soon, to a theatre near you: more of Akira Orikasa’s
A Hot New Major
For the computer whizzes responsible for special effects in movies,
it’s all about light refraction, particle animation, and Z-depth.
For the rest of us, all that tricky stuff is just plain cool. Computer
graphics students at CSU, Chico are developing their skills with
state-of-the-art software and finding jobs at some of the industry’s
most prestigious companies.
In 2003, applied computer graphics became a new major in the Department
of Computer Science, after years of development by professor Clarke
Steinback and Rick Vertolli, lecturer and technical director of
the Instructional Media Center (IMC) in Academic Technologies. Because
employers need both types of workers—artists and techies—students
have a choice of two options within the major: production and technical.
Production focuses on creating animation; technical focuses on the
programming that supports animation.
Students also get advanced hands-on experience as interns in the
Computer Graphics and Animation Lab in the IMC. They collaborate
with staff professionals on complex animation projects, where they
not only hone their skills on industry standard software, but they
also add valuable work to their portfolios. In the past several
years, CSU, Chico students have been awarded top honors at the annual
California State University Media Arts Festival and SIGGRAPH, the
international computer graphics conference.
“Akira has the touch to create CG [computer generated] images
that are so real you don’t realize they are simulated,”
says Chris Ficken, Academic
Technologies creative supervisor and graphic designer. “Other
students have the gift for character animation. Some specialize
in ‘painting’ digital textures and surfaces applied
to 3-D models, while others work on lighting scenes. The list goes
According to Ficken, Chico alums work for the big players in the
business, including Disney, Industrial Light & Magic, and Pixar,
as well as smaller, independent studios that feed the entertainment
machine, such as CaféFX.
Lisa Kirk, Public Affairs and Publications
Photos courtesy CaféFX