Jerome Solomon is Dean of the College and Director of Game Design & Development at Cogswell Polytechnical College. With 17 years of industry experience in Hollywood, he's worked at Industrial Light and Magic, DreamWorks Animation, Electronic Arts, and Rhythm & Hues Studios – and received film credits on Avatar, Madagascar, Shrek 2, Babe, Ace Ventura II, and Batman & Robin. In addition, Jerome has shipped 3 AAA game titles in Star Wars Force Unleashed, Tiger Woods 07, and The Godfather Game.

 

Jerome sits on the National Committee for ACM SIGGRAPH, a leading computer graphics conference that includes representation from a worldwide selection of large and small studios. He will serve as SIGGRAPH 2017 Conference Chair.

Interview

 

 

COG: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was very young, I wanted to sell flowers and own a flower shop. Once I met a computer, I knew I wanted to be a engineer or work with technology of some type.

 

COG: How did you become you instead?

This is a long story…but you asked so here it is. I used to tinker with these electrical sets from Radio Shack that allowed me to make a transistor radio, and an SOS signal pad. I couldn’t believe it was all possible with a 9 volt battery and a few wires. Then, I fell in love with computers at some workshop, and begged my dad to buy one. He did, and I spent every hour of my childhood on it until the wee hours of night. I was in the third grade.

            My dad thought I was weird because I preferred programming my TI-99/4A to playing outside with other kids. I got an Atari 2400 and started trying to program my own games and do graphics. By the time I hit high school, I was still a nerd. I may have been the only person in the world with a cassette tape with hip-hop on one side (Run-DMC) and computer programs recorded on the other. 

            I also had a bulletin board system (BBS) named “Fatburger” after a popular LA hamburger stand. I hacked quite a lot of systems in those days too – and was part of several hacker groups. I traded “warez” and codes for calling cards so I could make phone calls overseas to other computers. It was too expensive for me to call outside of our 213 area code. I needed to call other computers to connect by modem because there was no internet.

            So, I’d leave my computer on for 24 hours to get 10-15 numbers to make free phone calls. My hacker friends and I built silver boxes and blue boxes, and blew operators off phone lines. When War Games came out and kids started to get arrested in the news, I realized all this was illegal and I could go to jail. So, I stopped doing the illegal stuff.

            I got in to graphics when I made a 3D hierarchical dancing character in Computer Graphics at UCLA. I learned how to use math to make graphics and I was amazed. I think it was 1990. I then went to my first SIGGRAPH and met a guy named Keith Hunter. He introduced me to Steve Gray who I stayed in touch with through my Masters degree at Georgia Tech’s GVU center. And, after our team got our first short film in to SIGGRAPH’s electronic theater – I landed a job at Rhythm & Hues Studios with Keith & Steve.

            Back then, the company had about 50 people, and it was in the back of another business called RFX in Hollywood. It was a tiny company and nobody had ever heard of it. I worked on my first feature film there about a talking pig named Babe. The funny thing about Babe is that I thought it was going to be a flop. Gordy, a film released just before ours, had a talking pig and it did really, really poorly in the box office. Gordy made their pig “talk” by feeding it peanut butter. Our pig really talked, and was a hit. We did not use peanut butter. We used computers and graphics.

            I left Rhythm & Hues, and then went on to work at DreamWorks Animation (Madagascar, Shrek 2), EA (Godfather Game, Tiger Woods 07), & ILM (various films and work with the Star Wars Force Unleashed team at Lucas Arts). All great companies. I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to work with such wonderful, talented, hard-working, passionate people.

 

COG: Fave lesser-known hero (personal or fictional)?

I'm a huge fan of The Mayor from Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. I keep a Mayor action figure in my office. He watches over me.

 

COG: What’s the most enjoyable aspect of your work; the least?

Now I work in education, and I really love helping students. I love making graphics too. So, for me it's the perfect combination. I get to mess around with computers and make games with students. If that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is. But, the cherry on top of this sundae-of-awesomeness, is that we can really change and help other people. It’s very human to help other people.

The least enjoyable are those moments when it’s clear we cannot help another human no matter how hard we try. It’s very sad to me.

 

COG: If you were a hybrid, what would your two halves be?

I would be 1/2 me, and 1/2 me. I don’t know who in their right mind would answer this question and say anything else. If they did, they would not exist because they would not be whole. ½ + ½ = 1. There is no way around this.

 

COG: Describe a teacher, student or colleague you hated (or hate, you big meanie); why?

I had a colleague that I love, and hate. We're still friends and talk quite a lot when each year at SIGGRAPH. I think it is more love than hate. But, it is certainly both. He also happened to control many things at the studio. I love him because he’s one of the smartest people I ever met; also one of the most thoughtful, which is a rare combination.

            One day, I asked him for faster computers for a team. He told me since the computers were slow, our artists would be more efficient because the slow computers force them to work more efficiently. He was joking of course. But, I hate him because even though he was joking, he was still right.

 

COG: In desktop publishing, a character tag is embedded code defining the style of a word or phrase. But in the literary lexicon, “character tags” refer to fictional characters’ habits, catch phrases or other distinguishing marks: Yoda’s syntax. Hello Kitty’s bow. Clint Eastwood’s rugged squint. What’s your character tag?

My frown and my smile. I furl my forehead when I don't like something. My smile is easy to read too.

 

COG: What’s the last thing that made you laugh, cry or cuss?

The last time I cried was three weeks ago at my aunt’s funeral. I don’t cuss a lot. But, occasionally I do. I honestly can’t remember the last time – but I’m certain I have, over something silly, in order to blow off steam. I laugh a lot. The last thing I got a real good chuckle over was when I was trying to build our game using the same exact method that just failed seconds ago. A student interrupted me and told me the definition of insanity was doing the same thing and expecting different results. Our students are great. I laughed really hard. Then, of course, I tried again expecting something different. I achieved the same poor results. The game build failed. I should see a psychologist soon.

 

COG: Describe your ideal road trip.

It's a long drive by myself for a hiking trip. I really enjoy being by myself and alone. It gives me time to think & all my ideas and inspiration happen in those moments.

 

COG: What problem, large or small, are you hell-bent on solving?

I’m hell bent on improving every aspect of Cogswell Polytechnical College until it is the world’s best.

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