If you've seen Disney animated films such as “Tangled,” based loosely on the German fairy tale “Rapunzel,” or “Wreck-it Ralph,” about an arcade-game villain turned hero—and can picture in your mind the endlessly long hair of the beautiful princess trapped in her tower or the villain’s squared-off shoulders, you have some idea of what John Huikku ’90 does for a living.
His previous job was at Walt Disney Animation Studios as a look development artist—which involved, he explains, “developing the look” of whatever is called for. Working digitally from a 3D model, he says, “We make metal look like metal, put freckles on a character’s cheeks, hair on its head, fur on an animal, whatever the subject is that day. It’s pretty incredible stuff.”
Huikku worked at Disney for nearly a decade—first as a lighting artist and then in look development—and has had his hand in roughly a dozen films, including those mentioned above, as well as the 3D conversions of “Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and mega-hits “Bolt” and “Frozen.” Before that he spent nine months in New Zealand as a texture artist and matte painter for Weta Digital’s “Lord of the Rings.”
In 2014, he left Disney for Brown Bag Studios, a computer animation company in Dublin where he serves as technical supervisor on a number of projects. One, Peter Rabbit, recently won three daytime Emmys.
It seems to have all begun, though, at the University of Lowell in the late 1980s, around the time he switched his major to art from electronic engineering and began spending time in the Art Department’s computer lab, often with Jim Veatch, Associate Professor.
“That was back in the pre-World Wide Web days,” he says. “It was all new, all self-led exploration, a different world from today ... Jim and I, we did some pretty cool stuff.”
Huikku graduated in 1990, and for the next two years continued to work at the University’s Interactive Media Group, a job he’d held during his undergraduate days. In 1995, following short stints as a test engineer and video editor at projects in Massachusetts and New York, he got a call from a former ULowell classmate Terrence Masson, ‘89, who offered him a job as visual effects artist with a start up in California, SimEx Digital Studios. From there, it was a half-hour's drive north to Dream Quest Images in Simi Valley where he would find himself 18 months later, in the fall of 1996.
The next few years were a creative time for Dream Quest and its visual effects artist—spawning “Mission to Mars,” “Inspector Gadget,” “Flubber,” “Bicentennial Man,” “Armageddon,” “George of the Jungle”—but nothing close to the period that would follow.
During his time at Disney, at least seven of the films Huikku worked on have been among the 100 top-grossing animated films in history. “Frozen” is the highest grossing animated film ever and won two Oscars, including one for best animated feature film at the 2014 Academy Awards.