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FMX at 20: The Enduring Legacy of Professor Thomas Haegele

Entering retirement, humility and grace continue to define the FMX Conference founder and creator of the world-renowned Animationinstitut in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

It seems fitting that Professor Thomas Haegele slipped into retirement with the same quiet absence of fanfare that signified and defined his professional efforts of the past decades. Always humble and never one to take the spotlight or even acknowledge his own contributions to the significant events at hand, Professor Haegele is almost bashful when discussing his dual crowning achievements: The FMX Conference and the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Writing “tribute” pieces sometimes seems almost melancholy – celebrating a lifetime of someone’s work often is like putting that last piece of packing tape on a box filled with soon forgotten sentimental highlights before you slide it onto a shelf in the storage shed and head back into the house. But this is far from a standard tribute piece and Professor Haegele has built and is still involved with things far more vital and vibrant than a smattering of dusty factoids of CG history.

The FMX Conference, to many people, is the world’s most important professional gathering in the animation, visual effects games and transmedia space. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, FMX showcases all that dazzles our eyes, wows our senses and baffles our minds in contemporary CG entertainment and related fields. The Animationinstitut has become synonymous with excellence in high-end animation, VFX and post-production education, consistently churning out top talent into an increasingly crowded marketplace of professional digital content magicians. Through his own efforts as well as those of his wife Renate and numerous others he has mentored and supported, these two institutions have prospered not because of any one decision, programming track, room full of equipment or set of speakers – their very essence derives from Professor Haegele himself, which ultimately, both defines and secures his legacy. For those who know the modest artist and teacher, his strength of character and focus of purpose is the centerpiece and most meaningful measure of all his tremendous achievements.

I recently had a chance to talk to Professor Haegele on the occasion of his retirement, looking back with him on the two unique institutions he created. He shared his insights about the conference, the school and his modest assessment of the role he played in their immense success.

Dan Sarto: So you’ve retired! It’s tough not seeing you front and center at FMX like you have been every year since I’ve been coming here. The transition to Jean-Michel’s leadership [Program Chair Jean-Michel Blottière] has seemed pretty seamless. But unless I missed the memo, your retirement wasn’t widely announced. Can you share some of what’s gone on?

Thomas Haegele: In Germany, it’s a rule, you retire when you’re 65. My original contract ended when I was 65. I added another year working at the Filmakademie [Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg] and then last year, I retired. I didn’t talk much about it because it’s a normal procedure. I was happy to do so. I’d worked a lot over the last 20 years and I was really looking forward to having more time for myself. So this is nothing out of the ordinary.

My successor at the Institute has been named, Professor Andreas Hykade. You may know him…

DS: Yes, I know Andreas very well…

TH: I will still do some consulting for FMX and of course Renata [Thomas’ wife Renata Haegele] is still the head. Not many things have change or will change. Though with an institution like the Filmakademie and an event like FMX, you have to change all the time. You have to react to things that are happening both inside and outside. There is no such thing as standing still. You have to adapt all the time.

DS: The Filmakademie is known throughout the world as one of the top programs. Each year, every new group of the best student shorts includes work from your school. You continually place your students at studios across the globe. What’s the basis for this success? What was your mission in building that program? What were you trying to achieve?

TH: Well let me go back a bit to give you some perspective. When I was in my studies, there were no such things as digital tools. It was good old analog stuff. I studied visual communication, which was primarily graphic design. I started doing some hand-drawn animation using a Rostrum camera and similar equipment. Then I went to work for a multimedia company doing events, presentations, advertisements and corporate communication. We used all available technology like film projection, slide projection, audio and theatrical gear doing a lot of work for big companies.

We were early users of computers way before the Apple and PCs. Once they became affordable, we used computers to control our projection systems. This work came naturally to me. As soon as you could do even simple graphics with computers, I was interested. The company I was at had some of the early graphics workstations. When the first machines came out that allowed moving computer images, I wanted one. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

In 1985, the company I was at raised the money to buy a Bosch FGS 4000, one of the first turnkey computer animation systems you could get. Back then it was a million deutschmarks, something like that. It was a lot of money. To raise the money, I setup a collaboration between my company, TC Studios and the Akademie of Art in Stuttgart. They had a graphic design class which I had been teaching. Half the week the company used the machine to create TV station idents and commercials, this kind of stuff, while the other half of the week the machine was used for Akademie students to learn computer animation. Roland Emmerich [director of Independence Day] was spending time in Stuttgart and I can remember we met and he asked if we could do big spaceships that would fly over a city. I told him yes, but only for TV resolution, not film. It’s funny to think of that now. This was in 1986 I think. It took another ten years I think for him to do it on film.

So when Filmakademie started, I was involved from the beginning. I was asked to join, to bring in all the stuff involved with pictures, from using Avid systems for offline editing, to digital post-production. We had early SGI machines running Alias and Softimage. All sorts of things. We setup a program teaching students how to do animation using digital tools. Coming from my background, I wanted to create an environment that would invite interesting people and give them an opportunity to work with their own creative ideas using state of the art equipment. My goal has been to create an infrastructure where these artists could develop their own language. People applying still today to the Filmakademie are a bit older and have work experience, which they bring to the program. They are not starting from scratch. They have knowledge they can both share and build upon. It’s very much like a post-graduate program even though it isn’t officially.

We still try to give them everything they need to create interesting and ambitious stuff. We are very much interested in students working together. This is something very much that Renate, who has also been involved from the beginning, who also worked in graphic design at a company I worked at, Polygon, has always stressed – making students collaborate. The program embodies that spirit, that all students help each other. If you look at the things I’ve done at the school, sometimes we have very big teams working on a movie. We only take 10-15 students per year. But everyone works on everyone else’s movies.

DS: So the program started because of your joint effort with the school to purchase and start using expensive computer graphic systems.

TH: The Filmakademie is financed by the government of Baden-Wuerttemberg. The government made it possible for us to buy all this equipment. We are very thankful to all the companies involved because they afforded us school pricing. Getting these setups would not have been possible otherwise. They trusted our students to use these tools effectively, which they have. It’s been a win-win situation.

DS: Thomas, certainly over the last few years, there have been many schools built all over the world with access to the same types of tools, who have created digital art programs as well. But the caliber of people coming through your program consistently remains tremendously high. Additionally, students coming through the Filmakademie are all so gracious, frankly, in how they speak of you. Is it your philosophy? What is that special ingredient?

 TH: We try to let people do their own things. We support them learning and growing as artists. If you look at the films our students have done, there have been many, many different styles. People have had the freedom to express themselves, develop their own ideas. We work on anything that has to do with animation, from classical hand-drawn animation to computer animation. We have always supported all kinds of experimental animation, visual effects, combining animation with photo-realistic elements, interactive, games, transmedia, real-time visuals, VR and augmented reality. We have embraced all aspects, not just what big studios need.

We have students interested in animation as an art form. We have students interested in animation as a way to make a living. I’ve always looked for students that have a spark, that are interesting people themselves, who have vision, who are interested in all sorts of things. People who can complement each other. Not just people who are all the same. Storytellers. Technical directors. Producers. People come to the Filmakademie because they know they will be supported as they explore their own possibilities.

DS: Looking back, what were the biggest challenges you faced building and sustaining the program?

TH: One of the biggest challenges was in the beginning, starting this program in Stuttgart. The city had no media industry you could talk about. Nobody in Germany was thinking you could be successful in Stuttgart doing the things we wanted to do. Germany, in the 1990s, was not the country for animation. Animation was done in the States [US], in Europe in the UK and France. Maybe some Eastern European countries. Germany was not so famous in animation.

But we felt we could do it, that if you gave people the opportunity to grow, they would grow. We looked at the whole world, not just Germany. We convinced people over the years that you could do something in this area in Stuttgart. And one of the things I’m most happy about is that now we have a very healthy animation industry here in Stuttgart. We have 30-40 companies doing interesting stuff, many working on big American productions. It’s wonderful what’s been happening.

DS: FMX, the Filmakademie and Thomas Haegele are all pretty synonymous. How did FMX come about? What was the seed for the event and how did it start?

TH: FMX started in 1994. The idea was that the Filmakademie and other German schools had some graduates that we wanted to put in touch with people from the industry. The first FMX had 30 or 40 graduates who wanted to work in animation and related areas. We invited people from TV stations, from the movie industry, from agencies, people we thought might be interested in meeting and hiring young talent, and we brought them to Stuttgart. We felt we needed a conference for all this. When I look back at that first group of graduates that presented themselves, Volker Engel was part of the group [Oscar-winning VFX supervisor and film producer], lots of other very successful people. I was recently looking at the program for the first conference. We had Mental Images presenting and of course, everyone knows what they have done with Mental Ray. We even had a presentation on Virtual Reality, what was then called cyberspace. The focus on leading ideas in animation has been there from the start. And recruiting remains a very big part of the conference still today.

DS: FMX is unique. You know I’ve interviewed literally a hundred or more top professionals over the years at the conference. I always ask them what they find enjoyable, enlightening and compelling about the event. People wax poetic about how much the event means to them. FMX truly is a place where everyone celebrates the industry and eagerly shares their knowledge with colleagues as well as students and young professionals. To what do you attribute the success of this event? It’s unlike any event I am involved with during the year.

TH: That’s hard to say. Maybe we’ve just been lucky. FMX has always been put on by people who love the business. Who love animation, visual effects, all the things we are talking about. Especially in the early years, the people, including myself, we were all fans. We didn’t do it for money. No one was trying to sell anything. We all did it for the love of animation. We were all fascinated by this stuff. When I invited people, I picked people I was interested in. I wanted to bring things to FMX that I loved myself.

I’m sure it’s the same at other events. You look at SIGGRAPH, you find people who love CGI. I don’t know what else to say. People seem to have liked FMX, they seem to come back to FMX. Everyone has enjoyed what we hope has been a nice, relaxed atmosphere. That makes me happy.

DS: If you had to share just a few, what are some of the highlights you look back on with particular fondness?

TH: This is a tricky question. Now that I’m retired, and now this year with the 20th Anniversary of FMX, I have been going through all the old programs. There are so many wonderful things, it would not be fair to single out only a few. Every year we’ve had many highlights. Hundreds of presentations have been fantastic. In 1996, I can look back to a presentation on Titanic, showing how they did all these CG characters falling off the ship into the water. I remember Mike Milne [at the time head of computer graphics at Framestore] talking about Walking with Dinosaurs a year before it was on TV. We had so many people who shared so much, even stuff they maybe shouldn’t have shown. One year, some speakers from the US, I won’t name names, talked about things they had done that hadn’t been released. They probably figured it’s Germany, no one will know this was ever shown. But it showed up the next day on the Internet. Everyone presenting at FMX has been so willing to share their work, their knowledge and inspiration. There are just too many highlights to really name.

DS: Of all your efforts with FMX, your legacy would seem not to be any one thing, but in total, how you nurtured the gathering and made it something very special for everyone who participated. You and Renate, you dealt with everyone as if they were a long lost friend whom you were inviting into your home.

TH: I must say that with FMX, I have not done this work alone. From Jean-Michel Blottiere, who started with us in 2006, to Renate, and so many others, I am always grateful this team took over and did such good work on so many things. FMX has grown so big, there is no way I would have ever been able to handle all the work involved in both growing the Filmakademie program and the conference.

DS: So what’s next for you? What are you doing to fill your time?

TH: I really have no big projects. I’m really happy to have time for my family. I’m happy to have a little bit more time for myself. Remember, I am an artist as well and so now, I have a chance to spend some time on these things. I’m starting to draw a little again, to paint, just for fun. Nothing that anybody will ever see. I’ve been invited to speak some places, which I might do in the future. But I’m done working fulltime. I hope I have more than a few years left here and I intend to enjoy them.


Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.