From the small town of Sedgefield, 3D graphics creator Steve Corder designs characters that have taken the international stage. Working with, among others, American multinational technology giant Intel, this family man’s inbox will have you gaping.

WORDS Ingrid Erlank photograph Desmond Scholtz Animation Steve Corder

 The Intel contract is, however, just the latest achievement for this self-taught 3D designer whose company, 3D Graphics, was possibly one of the first in South Africa to sell online 3D characters, backgrounds and other items to a worldwide market of hobbyists, film studios, mobile and computer game developers.

Steve, a qualified electrical engineer with a longstanding fascination with animated characters, says: “I took art at school and messed around with trying to draw my own characters at one stage, but it was only when companies like Pixar started to bring out full-length 3D animations that I really became excited. I was inspired to create my own characters.”

Steve experimented with creative and animation programmes, and soon found a gap in the market. He and Hannelie, his computer programmer wife, spent every spare moment in front of their computer screens. “It was time-consuming and a huge learning curve, but we were determined and persisted.”

Initially Steve sold his work on the United States-based digital animation site Renderosity though he now sells mainly through DAZ 3D. The couple made their efforts viable by selling more for less. Getting paid in US dollars helped and soon they were able to leave their day jobs in Johannesburg.

“We had a very specific dream – we wanted quality of life at the coast, working shoulder-to-shoulder, and with a lot of time to explore nature and have fun. Sedgefield’s slow life was the perfect fit.”

Steve and Hannelie built up a portfolio of products that have been used in applications such as television advertising, children’s TV, storybook illustrations, as well as mobile and computer games.

3D Graphics did well, but a request for a Skype voice call from Los Angeles was the start of something much greater. “Although I prefer typed chat for record purposes, I agreed to take a call between 4pm and 5pm, but when a call came in at ten minutes to 5pm, I hung up the call and sent a text saying it was too late to start a chat. Our family time is important to me and I’m strict on keeping my work to working hours only,” says Steve.

The next day at exactly 4pm, Steve took the call – it was Intel Labs venturing director Thomas Sachson, who had come across Steve’s work while searching for animators online – and so began his long-term contract with Intel.

With the company’s technical team in Beijing and main team in Los Angeles, working hours are complex. “They have come to respect my working hours and will often make joking comments if they want my feedback and realise it’s out of my 8am-5pm work day!”

Intel initially planned on more than 20 3D characters per month. “We investigated sub-contracting several animation artists but soon realised the uniqueness of our characters is our winning game. Now, we do what we do with the time that we have.”

Through Intel’s smart phone chat app, voice and text are used to vividly animate some of Steve’s characters. Steve says creating them is immeasurable fun, and the Intel contract is affirmation of his 3D design style.

“The fact that Intel could have contacted anyone in the world but chose me was a huge boost. Although I’ve worked with some big worldwide brands before, this contract is by far the biggest. Through the Intel contract, I’ve also gained a ton of experience working with companies like Sony Animation, LEGO, Coca-Cola, Mars, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL), as well as various pop stars, actors and Hollywood personalities.

“I don’t see the Intel contract as an achieved goal but rather a step to greater things.”

Steve would like to visit Pixar and Sony Animation to experience a movie production. “These days I receive files of some of these movie characters in my inbox, which still, to this day, gives me goose bumps.”

He says his favourite character is whichever one he is working on at the time. “My characters tend to gain a life and personality of their own, and I enjoy exploring their quirks.”

He advises would-be animators to be themselves and to have fun. “Find a style you are passionate about and focus on breathing your own creativity and flair into it. Be inspired by others but don’t try to copy them.

“Animation is a big field full of wonderfully creative jobs. Keep the creative spark alive by pushing yourself and constantly experiment with new ideas.”

Steve Corder