Living the Dream

Greg Nichols ’02 is living every kid’s dream: working all day, every day with computer graphics technology — for Disney — on some of the studio’s biggest screen hits. And all just a bike ride away from his home in Burbank, Calif.

To realize this dream, Nichols first earned his computer science degree from Central, where he took full advantage of liberal arts classes and experiences that, he says, benefit him today in his work with film artists. “Professor Mark Johnson’s computer graphics class really got me interested in this field,” Nichols says. “I hadn’t planned on a career in computer graphics, but I found I really liked it.”

Greg Nichols works in the computer graphics field.

Greg Nichols works in the computer graphics field.

After a year working in his hometown of Dubuque as a software developer, Nichols earned a Ph.D. in computer graphics at the University of Iowa. Along the way, a coveted Disney internship “fell out of the sky. I happened to be in the exact field they needed — rendering — and they found me,” Nichols says.

Today, the senior software engineer for Walt Disney Animation Studios is credited in five feature films and has shared Oscar “Best Animated Feature” winnings on two of those films: “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6.”

In Nichols’ world of computer graphics, his specialty in rendering means that he builds the technology to add realism to images on screen. These include believable snow for “Frozen,” realistic hair for “Tangled” and vivid materials for “Wreck-It Ralph,” to namedrop a few to his credit.

“When working on a film that’s three to four years out, I may know the character that they want to look a certain way or in a certain environment. So I talk to the artists at the outset, then work with them through revisions, and in the end, it’s all-hands-on-deck.”

For example, Nichols is currently working on “Zootopia,” due out in 2016. “Zootopia” has lots of furry characters — badgers and sheep — so I decide how to encode the fur into film.”

In his work today as part of a large production team, Nichols says he thinks often of how he “learned to work on a team at Central. I took art classes. Even though I wasn’t talented, I enjoyed it. Now I appreciate and can talk to artists who do it every day. We use my rendering tools to refine their concepts and together, we create amazing things.”

For today’s Central students, Nichols encourages involvement and pushing the limits. “Central encouraged lots of involvement in a variety of things,” Nichols says, recalling his days in Symphonic Wind Ensemble and InterVarsity. “I find in my work today that if you have interesting things you want to do, you can. If you can find a way to be ‘in the room,’ you can learn a lot.

“I get to work on challenging and interesting problems here in L.A., in a climate I love,” he concludes. “I’m happy being paid to work on really cool projects.” And an Academy Award is nice, too.

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