Visual Artists Use Computers, Other Objects as Canvas
Ambitious and passionate, three Knights are pushing the limits of animation and projection mapping
By Angie Lewis, ’03
During his senior year at UCF, Joe Rosa, ’11, knew he didn’t want to be just another name on a resume, which could easily end up being filed away or thrown in the trash. So, in September 2010, he asked classmates Heather Knott, ’11, and Chris Brown, ’11, if they wanted to start a digital media company with him, and Ninjaneer Studios LLC was born.
The trio specializes in 3-D animation and projection mapping content, encompassing all stages of the design process, from projection conception to final product.
While the threesome works cohesively as a team, their individuality is distinct.
For example, when you ask the designers what their favorite projects have been so far, you’ll get three notably different answers. Rosa is especially proud of the team’s first large-scale projection mapping for the Art & Algorithms Digital Arts Festival, while Knott fondly remembers their “Holidays in Space” presentation at the Kennedy Space Center, and Brown appreciates the innovation and challenges of the Corrosion exhibit at the Orlando Science Center.
Take a look:
In addition, while their interest in digital media began in their childhoods, they all found themselves inspired by different life experiences.
Rosa was born a Navy brat in the mid-’70s on the island of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. His late grandfather passed down his love for film and animation, teaching Rosa how to draw Disney characters when he was just 5 years old. And, when “TRON” hit theaters in 1982, Rosa found himself captivated by computer-generated imagery.
“My grandfather always wanted to work for Disney when he retired from the Army after World War II, but became a truck driver instead to support his family,” Rosa explains. “In some ways, I feel that I’m carrying on his dream through me, along with my own.”
Knott grew up in Orlando, training in traditional drawing and sculpting early on, and even attending the Theatre Magnet Program at Dr. Phillips High School. She earned a B.S. in interior design from Florida State before continuing her education at UCF.
“As I got older and tried new mediums, it inspired me to see if there was a way that I could combine all of my favorite things from each medium into one,” Knott says. “Animation does that in spades.”
Following the death of the family TV to a lightning storm, Brown started telling stories at a young age. To keep himself entertained, he listened to collections of short stories on tape, which eventually transitioned into an interest in cinematic video games when he reached his teen years.
“It’s a never-ending source of problems to solve, and new technologies to experiment with, which has always been what I love about working in digital media,” Brown says.
In 10 years, Rosa hopes they will have a well-established company and a foothold in the animation industry, with more than 50 employees working on feature-length films and hybrid versions of projection mapping and augmented reality.
He advises current digital media students to: “See how far you can push yourself, and learn where your breaking point is. I think people would be surprised at how much they can take on. Phil Peters’ class alone was perhaps the most mentally intensive class I have ever taken. It was incredibly draining at the start, but I gradually learned how to compartmentalize, and it gave me a better work ethic now because of that experience. I attribute half of my gray hair to him!”
Knott’s advice is to: “Be proactive with your education. There’s only so much you can be taught in a classroom, so if you’re truly dedicated to this path, learn everything you can. I’m five years out of college, and I still make it a point to try to learn something new every day.
And, Brown says, “Google everything. Never be satisfied with what you know how to do already, or what you know a program is capable of automatically. Sooner or later, you’ll have to do something out of the box, and the more you understand in depth, the more ammunition you will have to throw at the problem.”
Q. Dream project?
Joe Rosa (JR): My two dream projects would be to produce and direct a feature-length animated film for theaters, and to have the opportunity to work with Universal Studios on projects stemming from their new partnership with Nintendo.
Heather Knott (HK): My dream project is to create digital sets for a production on Broadway. You can take the geek out of the theatre, but not the theatre out of the geek.
Q. What’s one thing about your job that people would be surprised to learn?
Chris Brown (CB): When working in a team of artists, a not-too insignificant number of creative differences can be settled by Nerf guns.
Q. If you had to choose another career, what would it be?
JR: Restoration of old, classic, muscle cars
HK: I’d love to be a photographer for National Geographic. Traveling the world, exploring and recording it for posterity would be quite an adventure.
CB: Lion tamer. Although, if you gave me a stern look and forced me to consider my skill set, probably computer sciences or IT. I’ve always had an interest in data visualization.
Q. Last thing you Googled?
JR: Black holes and quantum mechanics. Can’t read enough about black holes and how incredibly fascinating they are.
HK: The architectural history of Bamberg, Germany
CB: Optical tracking with OpenCV
Q. Do you have any other artistic abilities?
JR: Wood working and glass blowing. I’ve always been able to build things from scratch with little to no plans or drawings.
HK: I draw mostly. I’ve dabbled in sculpting, painting, photography and mixed media.
CB: A distinct lack thereof, actually. It was dramatically clear to me from an early age that I was rubbish at drawing. Why do you think I started working with computers instead?
Q. What’s your spirit animal?
JR: Well, according to spiritanimal.info, my spirit animal is an owl. And, this whole time, I was thinking it was a dragon!
HK: Jack Skellington
Q. Best way to decompress?
JR: Spending time with my wife and children. It’s always fun to come home from a long day at work and play robots, wrestle on the floor, watch a good movie with them, and laugh.
HK: Depending on the amount of stress, either a quiet night with a book and a glass of wine, or a solid couple of hours killing things on my Xbox
CB: Video games, a good side project, a cold beer, or, ideally, a combination of the three
Q. What’s one thing you always bring with you to work?
JR: Passion. I love the company we three have created, the work we do, and the industry we’re in. Failure is a word that is not in our vocabulary at Ninjaneer Studios.
HK: Water and snacks. I have a tendency to hyperfocus on a project, so I regularly forget to eat or drink if it’s not sitting right next to me.
CB: A pen that can write on my arm. I’ve had one in my pocket almost continually since I was 17.
Q. If you could offer your 13-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
JR: To stay passionate about what you want to do and be in life. Half way along my journey, I had not lost the passion to do what I’m doing today, but I encountered many road blocks and setbacks. Never lose focus of where you want to be in life, and keep that fire and passion burning.
HK: Don’t be afraid to be yourself. It took me a long time to be comfortable with myself, and I think I let some experiences pass me by because of it.
CB: Provided he would listen, which I sort of doubt, it would be that the things you think are a big deal right now probably won’t matter too much down the road. Just relax, and focus on the things that really interest you, and, one day, if you play your cards right, people will pay you to explore them.