Jacob Luamanuvae: a life in 3 dimensions

Jacob Luamanuvae is a benchmark for 3D animation, he is internationally renowned (he notably did all the modelling of the faces on Avatar), he endlessly throws himself into new challenges with the aim to tell, through his own film, Maori myths and legends and in particular the story of Māui-tikitiki. Interview:

Where did your enthusiasm for animation come from?

I grew up in Invercargill[1] on the southern extremity of New Zealand’s South Island, the last stop for boats departing for the Antarctic. My passion for drawing comes from being shut in all day because of the cold. In parallel, films have always fascinated me, especially ‘Star Wars’ and also ‘Clash of the Titans.’ It was a completely foreign world for a child from where I came from: Hollywood was light years away. I think that animation came from a mix of all that. […] I was good at art at school, but I did not know that I could make it my profession and as the son of Samoan immigrants, I could not tell my parents that that I wanted to head in this direction: they wanted me to have a good job, for me to become a doctor, lawyer or civil servant; my mother had this idea that artists only became rich after their death. But after two years wasted on psychology in Canterbury, I finally decided to take my father to an art exhibition to prove to him that you could have a good job, even earn as much money as a doctor, in the world of art. That convinced him. I therefore left university with his blessing.

What did you do?

Visual communication, anatomy drawings, illustration, sculpture…I began by learning to use a computer. Thus, I did some design work and clients started to recognise my ‘Pacific touch.’ Little by little, I had more and more clients and I finally left my course before getting my degree to form my company ‘Giant Squid.’ Work then took me to Auckland as that is where most of my clients were. I began to work in advertising and I was then recruited by a head hunter to go to Wellington, to work in an advertising agency, for which, due to my origins, I formed a link as such with people from the Pacific to win specific markets. Little by little, I began to make adverts for television. And in 2000, when Peter Jackson released his first Lord of the Rings, I worked for a small company which made an animation series about Maori myths and legends. I started to work there as a conceptual designer. When my contract came to an end, I came to the studio at night-time to learn 3D modelling. Subsequently, before my 3D modelling contract came to an end, I had learnt 3D animation… I spent many years without sleeping but I had acquired sufficient technique to create a demonstration model of my work. The small company for which I worked closed. I felt that it was an opportunity. The rest was a combination of luck, good timing and a minimum of contacts: I went to knock on Jackson’s door and I was hired in 2002 as a “rotoscoper”[2] on the second instalment of Lord of the Rings, ‘The Two Towers.’

And bit by bit, you climbed the rungs…

I effectively started on the bottom rung. I proved myself for six months and in 2003 I joined the department of “actor performance in animation” for ‘The Return of the King.’ From there, I specialised in mocap (motion capture). From 2004 to 2006, I was then recruited to work on Happy Feet in Sydney, as supervisor of the “motion edit” department. And after that, I returned to New Zealand. The advantage is that I was no longer working at the local rate: going to Australia pulled me up to the rank of international artist. It was there in 2009 that I was hired to work on the modelling of faces for Avatar. And last year, I further specialised in face animation for ‘The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.’ Now I still need to work on lighting and composition in order to master the processes for the creation of a film in order to tell my own story.

Is the connection with FIFO to be able to observe different creative processes?

What drew me here is the fact that these are Polynesians who are telling their stories. […] As a kid, the only cinema hero with whom I could identify a little was Bruce Lee, because he was a little Chinese. Today I would like to be able to tell a Polynesian story, that of Māui-tikitiki to begin, and to see brown-skinned faces as film heroes. […]I hope to be able to give something back to my culture thanks to my work and become an inspiration for the young Samoan generation.

Apart from the professional opportunities that FIFO will be able to offer you and you will also offer to young Polynesians, what do you think the festival can bring you on a personal level? What are you expecting from it?

The films on which I have worked represent colossal budgets worth several thousands of dollars. I greatly admire people who make quality documentaries without this financial support, these directors who have a deep-rooted passion for telling stories. It is the sort of inspiration that I hope to find here.


Manon Hericher


[1] (Murihiki in Maori, means the whale’s tail)

[2] Rotoscopy is a cinematic technique which consists of tracing over the contours of a figure filmed in live action, frame by frame to transcribe its shape and actions into an animation film. This process allows the dynamics of the movements of the subjects filmed to be reproduced realistically.