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Many Degrees Later, A Digital Animator Seeks to Teach in West Lebanon

  • Shallon Thorpe, owner and instructor at Pixel Power, located in the Glen Road Plaza in West Lebanon, N.H., on November 5, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Shallon Thorpe, owner and instructor at Pixel Power, located in the Glen Road Plaza in West Lebanon, N.H., on November 5, 2013.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap

  • Thorpe says this image is an example of the sort of animation he has worked on for movies and video games.

    Thorpe says this image is an example of the sort of animation he has worked on for movies and video games.

  • Shallon Thorpe, owner and instructor at Pixel Power, located in the Glen Road Plaza in West Lebanon, N.H., on November 5, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Shallon Thorpe, owner and instructor at Pixel Power, located in the Glen Road Plaza in West Lebanon, N.H., on November 5, 2013.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap

  • Shallon Thorpe, owner and instructor at Pixel Power, located in the Glen Road Plaza in West Lebanon, N.H., on November 5, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Thorpe says this image is an example of the sort of animation he has worked on for movies and video games.
  • Shallon Thorpe, owner and instructor at Pixel Power, located in the Glen Road Plaza in West Lebanon, N.H., on November 5, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

The degrees keep coming. Shallon Thorpe mentions that he has five of them, from colleges on both coasts (and in between). He earned a computer animation degree in the mid-1990s, then detoured into electrical engineering. He worked on a research paper on deep space propulsion in conjunction with NASA.

He was a chef for 12 years, a fact he tossed off after more than an hour of discussion on his current loves: video game design and animation. He has worked in 17 restaurants. Ran five of them.

“I’m a man of many interests and hobbies, and I like to explore them fully,” Thorpe said, sitting in a room of about 300 square feet nestled in the upstairs suites of the Glen Road Plaza on Route 12A in West Lebanon.

The room is the base of operations for Pixel Power VFX, Thorpe’s foray into animation and game design education following years of working as an artist on several movies and video games. He, along with his fiance and two kids, has been in Lebanon for three months. He’s had the West Lebanon office for several weeks.

Thorpe plans to use it to teach classes of as many as 12, from ages 9 to 18, the basics of animation and game design. Beginners could eventually publish iPhone and Android games, if they put in the time, he said. More advanced students will be taught to use the professional-grade Unreal engine.

Thorpe and Carrie Mooney, his fiance, have not yet begun an advertising blitz, and classes have not yet started. But the room feels ready, decorated as much by mechanical pencils and printer paper as it is by computer screens, posters and knickknacks. A PlayStation 3 sits atop a large bookcase full of reference books, trade magazines and video games meant for inspiration and downtime. Thor’s hammer sits atop a windowsill.

“I’ve been collecting all this over the past 10 years,” Thorpe said earlier this week, beckoning to the bookshelf and computer paraphernalia.

Five Degrees of Separation

Thorpe came to Lebanon from Berkeley, Calif., 3,000 miles and several worlds away, but before that spent time in Vermont. And Washington state. And Alaska.

He was born there, in Anchorage, and went to high school in Washington. A week after graduation, he started taking classes at the Art Institute of Seattle. He received his associate’s degree in computer animation in 1997.

Thorpe’s three technology-based degrees bookend his academic career. He didn’t begin his next degree in animation and visual effects until 2005, instead opting for culinary school after the first graduation.

Why? He loved cooking. His grandmother instilled that in him.

After that, he received his degree in electrical engineering.

Why? He loved aeronautics. His grandfather instilled that in him.

He was living in Middlebury, Vt., in 2007, working on his bachelor’s degree in animation and visual effects while working full-time at a gas station to support both his degree and his two children, when he met Carrie Mooney, an executive chef at a local inn.

“From the beginning, I had a lot of respect for Shallon’s integrity,” Mooney wrote in an email.

The two often spoke when she bought her daily coffee. One day, he offered to cook her dinner.

Thorpe finished his degree online during the trip from Vermont to California, Mooney and his children in tow. He received his master’s in animation and visual effects from San Francisco’s Academy of Art University while taking on various freelance projects in the animation and game studio-packed Berkeley area.

He said he worked primarily as a digital matte artist, creating the environments that characters lived in. He contributed to several video games. He worked on the recent movie Saving Lincoln, which was filmed entirely on a green screen. The digitally inserted backgrounds were based on photos of the time.

At one point, he said, he turned down Bungie, the Washington-based video game developer, for a job on Halo 4. He didn’t want to move his family again.

But he became disenchanted, while working toward his master’s, with the number of game designers in the area. “There were too many artists and too few jobs,” he said, estimating there to be about 150 studios in the area, but between 3,000 and 6,000 interested graduates a year. “It’s a bloodbath.”

Thorpe turned to teaching, working as a freelance instructor through an educational game design company, carting around 12 laptops between schools to teach. He loved teaching as much as he didn’t love the crowdedness and phoniness he said he found in California.

He wanted to make teaching his next venture. As far as areas of expertise, he and Mooney, as she puts it, were yin and yang.

“I love the mundane, administrative work, accounting, form, function and order,” wrote Mooney, who’s handling Pixel Power VFX’s books. “Shallon loves art, passion, color and controlled chaos.”

So they began to do some research. The question: Where’s the best place to go to teach animation and game design, making it a business they can own and run together?

’Round Here

They landed in Lebanon. Not entirely by accident, to be sure, as Mooney was born and raised in the city, leaving for the first time after graduating from Lebanon High School.

But there’s this: The Upper Valley is not exactly a hotbed of emerging technologies. The Hartford Area Career and Technology Center offers several tracks that touch on some parts of animation and game design. Other than that, though, it’s pretty much an empty market. Thorpe and Mooney believe there are plenty of school-aged kids who are interested in the field, but don’t have an outlet to learn the basics.

So does Bruce Waters, the commercial real estate broker with Lang McLaughry Real Estate who helped Thorpe secure the room.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to learn that trade and still be able to offer that quality of life we offer here in the Upper Valley?” Waters asked.

There are other schools, but none quite within arm’s length of Upper Valley residents. Thorpe cited Cawd, the Essex Junction, Vt.-based animation and game design education program, as a success story. On one hand, Cawd differs from Pixel Power VFX because, like the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center, it’s a regional vocational program for high schoolers, in this case juniors and seniors from schools in the Burlington area. Pixel Power VFX is instead an after-school, extracurricular program, though Thorpe hopes one day to get degree accreditation for the company.

But the type of education offered — the art, the technical and the marriage of the two — is similar for both programs.

“This is proving to be an industry worth watching,” said Matt Cronin, an instructor at Cawd, which was founded in 2001. “More and more money is being spent on video games. More and more time is being spent on the web.”

And more schools are taking game design as a serious discipline. Look no further than Burlington’s Champlain College for a nationally recognized game design program.

Cronin said the benefits of the programs extend far beyond the creation of animations and games.

“It can really help build the spirit of entrepreneurship,” he said. “You don’t need a $50,000 car lift or a $30,000 oven, necessarily, to get started in the industry.”

For Pixel Power VFX’s classes, art materials will be provided, as will computer software. But much of the software itself is free. Students will have the option of downloading it and bringing their own laptops to class, if they choose.

Pixel Power VFX will accept applicants on a rolling basis, Thorpe said, for a two-month, three-times-a-week after-school program that includes open studio time on Saturdays. Classes will be offered on beginner and advanced levels, starting at 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. Thorpe will head to West Lebanon on weekdays after school — he’s currently a substitute teacher in the Lebanon School District, and is working toward getting his art teacher credentials.

Thorpe is confident enough in this venture that he expects to purchase one or two new computers a month, eventually expanding in the Glen Road Plaza suites. His overhead is low, which helps, and Thorpe is ready to launch.

“I’m kind of nervous, but I’m excited,” Thorpe said. “I just want to start teaching.”

For information about Pixel Power VFX, call 603-276-9263.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.