Photo: Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media
Blending animations with the real world has become a speciality of Greenwich software engineer Michal Finegold.
Her handiwork with computer graphics, or CG, lighting and rendering has figured into numerous Hollywood hits, such as when Ben Stiller dove through a glass window in a towering New York City apartment building in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Red Skull faced off against Chris Evans in “Captain America: The First Avenger.”
Snippets from “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “Happy Feet 2” also headline Finegold’s animation portfolio reel.
But Finegold, founder of Shmonster, hopes to use her passion and talent for software engineering with an audience outside the box office. This summer, Finegold has debuted her new animation apps at Stamford’s STEM Fest, Greenwich Brain Boost and, last week, at Stepping Stones Museum for Children Tech Time in Norwalk.
During Tech Time, it took only minutes for children’s drawings of a dogfish, lobster and alien-robot-human to transform into animated characters that their creators, which ranged in ages from 2 to 9, could make swim and dance using iPads.
Tech Time attendees began by illustrating their favorite sea creatures with markers. At another table filled with iPads, the young artists took photos of their pictures and uploaded them to FishyPaint, Finegold’s first app, to animate them in an underwater scene.
A dogfish, lobster and mussel joined a school of animated fish swimming back and forth across the screens, which the creators could control by swiping their fingers. Logan Ruiz, 7, squealed in excitement while watching his face zip around the seafloor with FishyPaint’s scuba diver feature.
Using the iPad camera, museum volunteers helped children snap selfies of themselves and their faces were inserted behind the mask of a scuba diver swimming among the fish.
Several of the older children also tested Finegold’s PuppetMaster app. Gabriella Frabrizio, 8, drew a figure she dubbed an alien-robot-human named Kyle and uploaded it to Puppetmaster, with which she could direct Kyle using her own body movements. The scene was displayed on an overhead screen so she could amuse her younger cousin with goofy dance moves. “I want to download this to my phone later,” Gabriella said afterward.
By the end of the 30-minute Tech Time, many of the children had learned how to navigate the apps without adult help and Logan’s brother, Liam, was showing him how to use PuppetMaster.
“The more CG we have, the more I long for organic things that are handmade,” said Finegold, who’s worked with CG for more than a decade. “We spend so much time on the computer trying to make things look a little damaged or handmade, I decided to use my programming skills to make it easier to do that sort of stuff. Then I thought, ‘Who would like this? Kids.’”
Originally, Finegold founded Shmonster because she wanted to find an easier animation method of combining live subjects and computer graphics, she said citing the Paddington movie as an example of her favorite sort of animation.
“I’ve always been interested in mixing physical artwork with what you can do digitally while maintaining a handmade charm,” she said.
Raising her own child prompted Finegold to alter her goals. Watching how children, including her daughter, intuitively maneuver through her apps has caused Finegold to refocus her products toward educational goals. She’s in the process of reaching out to area schools to see if they’ll test her apps in the classroom, and Greenwich Art Society has already slated Finegold to present her work during its fall programming.
Eventually, she hopes her apps will be used to teach children anything from colors and shapes to reading and history through interactive learning methods.
Merging two worlds
At the heart of her products is Finegold’s enthusiasm for fusing art and computers. “The art education you get when you’re little is so crucial to being successful and happy,” Finegold said. “I feel like everyone should have that, though it’s going by the wayside, I think. You need to be creative to come up with original solutions and hopefully these (apps) will bring that back by bringing together and merging the physical and digital worlds.”
Finegold grew up in California, where her father worked in Silicon Valley, and fondly recalls attending art and computer camps. She developed intense interests in both and vacillated between saying she’d pursue one or the other as a career.
At age 10, Finegold moved with her family to Israel, where her parents grew up. There, her father launched a software company that was eventually bought by The Hewlett-Packard Co., Finegold said.
Before attending Tel Aviv University to study physics and computer science, Finegold completed her required years of military service in the Israeli Defense Force as an instructor in the Armored Corps.
After university, Finegold started out her software engineering career by helping to develop a video conferencing tool. It didn’t take long until her profession wandered into a more artistic realm.
Finegold and her husband moved to the United States so she could earn her master’s degree at New York University, and she started freelancing for studios to make commercials and movies. Working on those projects have taken her around the world to Australia and New Zealand, but since having a baby, Finegold is keeping her work closer to home for now.
“Seeing my 19-month-old daughter figure out FishyPaint on her own has shown me that it’s not about no screen time for children, but about the type of screen time,” she said.
Both FishyPaint and PuppetMaster can be found on the appstore.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @Macaela_