Character building, just off Burnside
Hinge occupies an odd place in the Portland visual effects/computer animation/virtual reality/augmented reality ecosystem.
Not the work the company does, but where it is. Hinge is based just across from the Timbers stadium and the West Burnside Dutch Bros. It doesn't bother the founders at all that this fragment of Southwest 20th Place is removed from the core of Portland's business district.
Hinge cofounder Roland Gauthier is happy to lead a tour of their space. It was here in The Pit that they created the Oregon Trail-inspired web game as a promotion for Travel Oregon. In collaboration with creatives from Wieden + Kennedy, Hinge staff recreated the look of the original 1991 8-bit video game that is a nostalgia point for people in their 30s to 50s all across the U.S. The lo-fi graphics and the keyboard input — enter a number to change pace or buy supplies — fit with the quirky sensibility the travel authority is trying to project. Apparently, it worked, as Travel Oregon told Gauthier it is one of the most popular parts of their website, which is geared toward luring tourists and getting them to book flights and rooms. Mashable, Boing Boing, Men's Journal and Food and Wine all excitedly took note.
There's the theater with a 2k-4k projector, 175-inch screen and real theater seats where they watch the dailies from Toonami or clients can try out virtual reality content, watching on-screen what the person in the headset is reacting to.
Gauthier explains that the building used to be used by KPTV, and that elephants once walked the corridors when The Ramblin' Rod Show was made here. There was Silicon Graphics (SGI) and an animation school.
Now those halls are tastefully decorated with ad industry trophies and framed movie posters from Disney, Sony Pictures Imageworks and LAIKA where the Hinge founders worked and met.
Great recession, dude
Hinge was formed in 2009 when the three founders were laid off from LAIKA as that studio moved away from computer graphics and doubled down on stop animation. It was also the Great Recession, and 250 other people were let go within six months.
The trio were faced with three choices. Moving where the jobs were — Sydney, Australia for one, or back to Los Angeles and the Bay Area — or looking for work at another Portland firm.
"The real options in town were limited, especially for us who had been heads of departments," says Michael Kuehn. "We were not going to walk into another role like that here."
The third choice was to start their own company and do what they were good at. And that was character-driven CG animation. "It was gun to the head time. Do you stay and work with really talented people but complain you can do better, or plant the flag and try something new?"
Startup costs were low. They built their own computers with parts from Newegg and Amazon, using first generation Intel i7s. "We invested in decent CPUs and the best graphics cards we could afford." They got a NAS — a Network Attached Server — to store their projects and filled the rooms with furniture from other companies downsizing. Their first conference call was on an iPhone.
Their look was polished computer graphics, as seen in Chicken Little, Fantasia 2000, Spider-Man and Stuart Little 2.
Their break came when people they knew at an agency in Fort Lauderdale, Florida askd them to create an animated character for a broadcast TV campaign for H.H. Gregg. The electronics firm had had success with its newspaper insert detailing its sales and new products. Hinge came up with an animated rolled-up newspaper insert which had arms and legs and a face.
It was a hit.
(Gauthier had moved here from the Bay Area in 2003 to work at Will Vinton Studios. He worked on the animated M&Ms and Cheerios, so he knew the power of a fun character in advertising.)
They started to grow, finding interns who became hires. "We've grown this ecosystem bit by bit," says Gauthier. "People would say 'Do you do print work?' and we'd say 'Sure!'"
In 2017 they rebranded from Hinge Digital to Hinge, since "digital" made people ask if they made banner ads and websites.
The Pit is a quiet, darkened room where graphic artists sit in clusters at their monitors. On a recent morning, Ai Lim was learning a software package called Cinema 4D. A lighting and texturing specialist, she usually uses Autodesk Maya. She was taking a couple of days to work her way through the Cinema 4D tutorials and play around.
"When I'm done I will tell them (her colleagues) what we can do it with," she says.
Gauthier sees this type of on-the-clock training as a way to grow the capabilities of the firm.
Another artist, Eric Gordon, was working on Toonami, a popular cartoon on Adult Swim and a staple of Hinge. "Eric wanted to do more compositing. He did fifteen shots for Toonami, which really stretched his compositing skills using Nuke and it takes some of the workload off the others," says Gauthier.
From dysentery to kombucha
Sitting 90 degrees from Lim was Tyler Kenworthy, who worked extensively on the Oregon Trail game for Travel Oregon.
"The creative team at the agency (Wieden + Kennedy) were always saying 'That's awesome but make it less pretty'," he says. "But Travel Oregon also wanted lots of beautiful vistas in the shots and we had to strike a balance." The original Oregon Trail game had no middle ground shots, or head and shoulders images of the characters with vistas behind. So Hinge artists created them.
"A lot of us are from Oregon, so we used vistas we know," says Kenworthy, pointing at a chunky, two-frame animation of Willamette Falls. He comes from Jacksonville in Southern Oregon, so that town features prominently too.
Today he's just working on an AR (augmented reality) digital holiday card, which depicts the Hinge staff in 8-bit graphic glory, singing and dancing their greeting. It's all about staying in touch and staying on top.
The game came out on October 26th, 2017 just seven weeks after it was commissioned. One advantage of being in the same town as the ad agency, Kenworthy says, is they could meet face to face, look over his shoulder, and "riff off each other. We can be 'Let's try this!' You can really iterate and move on. It's fast-paced," he says.
In 2003 Gauthier met Cabel Sasser. He was impressed that Sasser, a guy who has a business making Macintosh and IOS software, and also has a passion for video game music. So Gauthier went straight to Sasser when they got the Oregon Trail-inspired commission.
The lead programmer, Anselm Hook, also had been a programmer on the original arcade game Dragon's Lair. "That's my favorite game ever. It's featured in Stranger Things 2," Gauthier says, with little more explanation needed of this sweet spot of 1980s nostalgia. Hook made sure the mobile phone version of the game stayed authentic and the tiny keyboard didn't get in the way of the graphics.
"This is truly gamification of a tourism website. You are getting information, on silly things — the ducks stole my lunch and my gas can — but they tell you useful info, too. It was, after all, an educational game."
Part of Hinge's growth has been into virtual and augmented reality. The firm has done ride films, such as the Lazy River ride with dancing beavers and singing birds. Very Oregon. It was a pitch piece.
"Because VR is so new, clients want to see you've already done it," says Gauthier. He explains the work they're pitching on: helping psychiatrists who are treating vertigo.
"Our visual quality is better (than average). If you are treating a fear of heights with VR, we'll build a building that's believable. It would not look just like something in Sketchup. We are distinguishing ourselves through the visual element of the storytelling."
They have done work around teaching medical professionals about rheumatoid arthritis. With the VR headset on, the viewer sees a giant hand in various stages of arthritis as he or she plays a xylophone. Such VR environments can also be used for training people in dangerous jobs, such as linemen and heavy equipment operators, such as crane driver training courses. Construction companies like the idea because cranes are in short supply and this way they don't have to be kept off job sites for trainees.
Other uses for VR include teaching people who have lost limbs to walk again, or in the auto trade for consumer car testing. He explains how you could sit in a bucket seat with a steering wheel and gear stick and the VR goggles would show different insides of cars, such as Lamborghinis and Ferraris.
"Your brain would create the connection between the virtual world and the physical wheel and the stick shift. With VR you are creating memories."
Hinge is moving into AR quickly, too. As Alex Tysowsky explains, gamers don't mind the price and bulk of VR headsetsto be the first to experience them, but these devices are not yet suited for the average person who wants to watch TV with their family.
Everyone has a smartphone, however, and is happy to use it for hours at a time. Advertisers like that, and companies such as Hinge are betting advertisers will ease into this market first with AR content, then follow with VR as the hardware becomes more mainstream.
Are they worried about a recession?
"We've seen that challenge before," says Gauthier. "In the end, people have to advertise, they're going to have to show off their new products. So the ad industry is not recession proof, but it's a necessity. In a recession advertisers might refocus from giant campaigns to smaller digital ones."
Kuehn adds that in recessions agencies and clients often cut their own in-house graphics people first, then outsource to companies like Hinge, so there could be an upside.
They are focussing their team's efforts into Augmented Reality because Apple and Google have just released their AR tools. "The difference between AR and VR is there's less need to build things."
This means that the viewer sees reality on their phone (or glasses) screen, surrounded by pop-up animations explaining things. For example, you hold up your phone to see what an IKEA couch would look like in your living room.
"If you make a household good, it's an easy sell: What does it look like in my home?" Those are opportunities where Nike and Intel will want to show their product in your environment and make it a personalized environment. It's not as much of an ask as putting a wired VR headset on your head."
The Hinge founders are certainly looking to the future.
"Eventually we're going to get to Ready Player One," says Gauthier of the sci-fi book that has people competing in immersive virtual worlds. "People will go to high school in an entire other place, but we're not there yet. The technology needs to get better and smaller. Eventually, Star Trek: it becomes the holodeck."
Character is the new content
All three cofounders stress the importance of creating characters that everyone can relate to, from business travelers to their own grade school children.
Gauthier points out how close we already are.
"Everyone has these assistants now: Siri, Alexa, Google, Cortana. It will become like that movie 'Her.' You can have a personalized audio experience, and then we can add a visual representation."
In effect, your Google Assistant could have a friendly avatar, made by Hinge. It would use artificial intelligence to anticipate your needs.
"It would pop up when you're at the gas station and say 'Hey your wife says remember to get premium gas, or did you use your points? It'd be like Jiminy Cricket, (Walt Disney's talking insect in Pinocchio)."
Or Clippy, perhaps — the persistent assistant from
"No, not Clippy," he says laughing. "Don't speak of
At Hinge, character is everything.
Address: 735 SW 20th Pl #350
Phone: (503) 820-3503
The Oregon Trail: Internet Archive Version
Hinge's Oregon Trail game for Tavel Oregon
@Hinge and @SapientRazorfish collaborated on a science demo for Purell, transporting us into a microscopic world where droplets of disinfectant spray rain down and destroy salmonella germs on contact.
Hinge developed a brand animation with Microsoft showcasing their products on the Times Square Cube display.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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