- Many film professors begin their careers in the film industry before moving into teaching, but for Professor Gil Zimmerman, it was the other way around. That path worked to his advantage, because it gave him the diplomatic and teaching skills necessary to bridge the divide between traditional and digital artists at Disney and to encourage directors at Dreamworks to see the new possibilities in digital animation.
Zimmerman left a full-time career in music, playing for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and recording with artists like Leonard Bernstein and Fleetwood Mac, to earn a degree from UCLA in Graphic Design, in the hopes of pursuing a new career in the film industry. After graduating, Zimmerman began working at RFX Incorporated, the first reseller of Silicon Graphics computer systems and digital animation software in California. It was there that he caught the attention of Ray Feeney, the company’s founder, who hired him as a trainer at the Digital Media Institute.
While teaching at DMI, Zimmerman met Disney art director Daniel St. Pierre (The Lion King), who invited him to work for Disney. There, Zimmerman helped develop Deep Canvas - a software program designed to integrate traditional animation with three-dimensional, digital backgrounds for the movies Tarzan and Treasure Planet.
“There had been a history at Disney,” says Zimmerman, “of division between the traditional and digital artists. They saw that I understood the traditional artist’s point-of-view and that I had a way of teaching people how to use computers in a non-threatening way. They hired me because they wanted put a friendly face on the computer graphics department and help bridge the gap between the two departments.”
In 2002, Zimmerman moved to Dreamworks, where he worked on Shark Tale, How to Train Your Dragon, and Puss in Boots. Working exclusively in digital animation, Zimmerman tried to show people the cinematic opportunities that the new medium provided, while still respecting the audience’s expectations.
“So often,” says Zimmerman, “my job was to convince the directors that we couldn’t just stick to the way things were storyboarded. We had to be open to new layout ideas and different approaches or it would start to feel like a more traditionally animated film. On the other hand, we always had to remember that the audience is used to the traditional constraints of a live camera and that if we got too carried away with vast landscapes, 3D effects, and cool camera moves, we would lose the story we were trying to tell. It was a tricky balance to strike, but in the end, I think we were able to tell our stories in a way that felt organic while still giving audiences something they had never seen before.”
In between his work at Dreamworks and Disney, Zimmerman continued to devote time to teaching at DMI, USC, Siggraph, and GNOMON. He now teaches Advanced Pre-visualization for Motion Pictures in the Digital Arts program at Chapman.
As for which of his careers has brought him the most satisfaction, “I know my movies will live on,” says Zimmerman, “but I don’t think people will ever feel I had an impact on their lives because they saw my name in the credits of a film they saw 20 years ago. If they spent quality time in the classroom learning from me, that’s where I feel I have the best hope of impacting their lives on a personal level and for me, that is the ultimate.”