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November 01, 2010
Creative thinking fuels the global animation career of CIA grad Kevin Geiger '89.
Kevin Geiger ’89 is CEO of Magic Dumpling Entertainment, a Beijing-based developer of original content for animated films, TV series, and mobisodes (short episodes edited for viewing on a mobile device). In a recent email interview from Beijing, he talked about his career and his education.
Q: You graduated with a BFA in painting but made a career in animation. What were the most valuable of the skills you gained or strengths you honed at CIA and were able to transfer to animation?
A: I came away from CIA with visual and conceptual thinking skills that were not necessarily as quantifiable as engineering or programming skills, but ironically more valuable with respect to animation – even in relation to a “high tech” form such as 3D CGI [computer-generated imagery]. The principles of creative exploration and visual problem solving that were emphasized at CIA assisted me not only as an animation artist, but later as a supervisor and now as a producer. You learn to see the world in a different way, which is what animation is all about.
Q: You left Disney Feature Animation after 12 years to focus on independent filmmaking. Was that a huge leap of faith, or just a natural progression in your career?
A: It was a natural progression in my career that was a huge leap of faith. Leaving behind a very good, steady paycheck was one thing. Moving halfway around the world to Beijing was quite another. I had worked on my own independent short films throughout my career at Disney, and had always aspired to produce my own animated feature films. Ironically, the country that affords the most latitude to pursue that dream is China. The Chinese animation and film industry is the fastest growing in the world, but also rather a mess. However, there is golden opportunity and great potential within that mess. My company, Magic Dumpling Entertainment (magicdumpling.com), combines Chinese cultural cues with Hollywood development and production techniques to create “stories for the global family,” as we say.
Q: Why do you think animation is so appealing to adults as well as children?
A: Very simply: animation appeals to the child in each of us. As an entirely synthesized medium, it is the purest form of cinematic escape capable of anything one can imagine. The advent of digital technology has not only expanded and accelerated the fantastic possibilities, but also dissolved the boundaries between animation and live-action film. For example, Pixar’s animated features are incredibly cinematic and also very sophisticated story-wise. How else could an animation such as Up be nominated not only for “Best Animated Feature” at the Oscars, but also for “Best Picture” against a slate of live-action competitors (something Disney first achieved with Beauty and the Beast years ago)? Animation is what Hollywood calls “four-quadrant” entertainment: appealing to young and old, male and female. On an artistic level this means a very broad audience base for your work, while on the business side it means a very broad consumer base for your content and merchandise.
Q: What qualities do you look for in good animation; in other words what separates high-quality animation from poor animation?
A: People might expect a technical answer to this question, one that focuses upon the screen value of the work. Certainly that is important. But compelling characters and good stories are more crucial. I appreciate animation that draws me in and has heart, whether this is achieved in a student’s stop-motion short film in Eastern Europe or a studio’s 3D blockbuster feature in Hollywood. Walt Disney established animated feature film as an art form with Snow White. For the first time in human history, grown men were moved to tears while watching a cartoon. High-quality animation brings fantasy worlds to life in such a vivid way that you cease watching and begin feeling.
Q: Your current company, Magic Dumpling Entertainment, sounds very savvy about international business. Do your creative talents help you approach the challenges of business development?
A: Ha! Yes. The two assets I appreciate the most on this front are my creative education from CIA, and the improv classes I took while at Disney. As a creative industry, the business of animation requires you to think outside the box and also to think on your feet. Everything is changing so fast – especially now. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, is fond of saying, “You learn from your mistakes, so at Pixar we try to make our mistakes as fast as we can.” That’s certainly a good way to describe my own career learning curve. I’m known for jumping headfirst into areas that I don’t know much about, and ramping up to speed in very short order. It’s good, scary fun. If we are afraid to step outside of our comfort zone, we might as well crawl back into the womb.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Chinese audiences?
A: How much they are like American audiences. There are strong cultural differences, of course, but on a fundamental level Chinese audiences will respond to the same primal qualities of film and story that move audiences anywhere in the world. We are each human, after all. Art can cross boundaries when it speaks to this common humanity.
Q: What's your favorite thing about living in Beijing?
A: Beijing is a city of many faces, racing into the future while trying to respect its past. I love the varying qualities of the different districts, the food (a little too much perhaps), and the people – who are generally quite friendly. The eclecticism of Beijing is remarkable. I can wake up to people singing Maoist hymns in the park outside my apartment, have a bowl of Beijing noodles for lunch, visit the Great Wall in the afternoon, split a pizza with friends for dinner on Sanlitun bar street, watch Toy Story 3 at the local megaplex, and finish the evening with Taiwanese coffee at a boutique bookstore. Combine that with the craziness of my business and each day is an adventure.
Q: What do you miss most about Cleveland?
A: My parents! I was born and raised in Cleveland, so it’s truly my home. There is a relaxed quality to the city that makes it very livable, and Cleveland of course is a great center for the arts. People might laugh if you called it a seat of culture, but it really is. (OK, perhaps a folding chair of culture, but you hopefully get my point.) I also miss the trees and the lousy winters.
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NOTE: CIA now offers a major in animation!
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