The Big Time Part II: Jake Hauswirth’s Animation

Jake Hauswirth’s work belt speaks volumes. On the set, the pliers, crescent wrench, utility knife, Leatherman tool, a small mirror, various rolls of tape, work gloves and light meter all show he’s a pro who means business. But the most important piece of equipment for his job rides atop his shoulders. During ten-hour days, four days a week in a cavernous warehouse in Northwest Portland, what Hauswirth uses most is his head. And with that, he knows when and where to use those tools as an Assistant Cameraman on FOX’s animated series, “The PJs.”

An original member of Salem’s snow/surf/skate band Sideways People along with Rob Morrow and Shaun Petersen, Hauswirth drummed up success in photography from the get-go, as apprentice to renowned still shooter Trevor Graves. While in Graves’ employ, Hauswirth picked up a video camera, which led to picking up a film camera, which led to some footage sales to Snowboarder, Morrow, Sessions, Sims, Division 23 and Burton¿who sent him around the world on video shoots for a good couple seasons.

Then, “Burton didn’t hire me this year so I had to get a real job,” Hauswirth laughs.

He always did hold a love for animation, saying, “I’m intrigued with shooting single frames, doing object animation, manipulating things, and just the way it comes together and looks like it’s actually alive.” And that made him a natural fit for Portland’s Will Vinton Studios, an animation studio specializing in “claymation and foamation” Vinton’s puppeteering processes have been the star of commercials for the “California Raisins” and “M&Ms,” among others.

Hauswirth tried landing a job with Vinton and eventually was selected for an unpaid internship by submitting his reel of snowboarding and other action sports shots. His free work led to paid jobs on the set, what is known as a “day player.” And since he was playing almost every day, that led to a full-time position (with benefits) on Vinton’s most elaborate project: “The PJs” in prime-time.

Instead of being on the hill every day, Hauswirth was punching in at the exact opposite kind of work environment¿a Costco-sized warehouse layered in giant, jet-black curtain partitions. Inside these animator’s cubicles are miniature sets around a foot-high that will be shot over and over, each movement broken down into 24 increments per second. If you’re an animator, that means endlessly replaying what you’ve done on a “lunch box” until you get it right¿an indescribably labor-intensive task.

In addition, he says animators, “Have to analyze movements, sometimes using a stopwatch or a metronome to break it down. They also have to be able to act, and often they have to portray more than one puppet simultaneously. They’re animating a group of puppets, switching hats every second, twenty-four times per puppet, so if there’s three puppets they have to switch hats 75 times for every one second of animation.”

That makes for draining days, but somehow, even with all the hands-on work it’s cheaper to do twelve weeks of production on one episode of “The PJs,” than a week for one episode of a live-action sitcom. There’s even less stress. “Working on a single-frame at a time is a slower pace to where you have time to talk with everybody and learn a little about the whole process instead of having a high-strung director barking orders and you don’t know why they want you to do a certain thing,” he sayd. “Instead, you’re kind of understanding it because you’re part of the whole process.”

For his job, Hauswirth says he’s been, learning a lot about lighting and grip equipment, 35mm motion picture cameras and motion control of the camera equipment. He’s also learneda bout production order¿how things are broken down, how scripts are storyboarded and how directors use the storyboard and work with a crew.

Which leads to Hauswirth’s own projects¿stuff he’s probably animating right now since “The PJs,” is on hiatus for the summer, with no word off whether it’s coming back in the fall. That’s how the clay crumbles in The Big Time. But Hauswirth is characteristically unperturbed. Just like always, he’ll go where conditions are best and find a way to do what he loves. He probably gets to ride even more. And unlike his job as a snowboard documentarian, Hauswirth finds, “It’s fun to go snowboarding without a camera backpack.”