Chris Caufield's Journey From NYPD Detective To Geico Gecko

Former NYPD detective-turned animator Chris Caufield draws on a hard-won understanding of human behavior to bring characters like the Geico gecko, the creatures in "Clash of the Titans," and the Smurfs to life.

Chris Caufield, 47, had been a New York City cop for 20 years when 9/11 prompted him to pursue a lifelong love of art and animation. Diving in headlong, he quickly rose through the CG ranks, becoming a sought-after pro who has worked on movies like Clash of the Titans and The Smurfs, and numerous Super Bowl ad spots. For five years, he was one of the key animators who gave life to the iconic gecko in Geico’s TV commercials. Here, he discusses how he's navigated a wildly eclectic career—and what criminal investigations taught him about body language and working under a ridiculous amount of stress.

FAST COMPANY: You must have been pretty young when you joined the NYPD.

CHRIS CAUFIELD: I went to the Police Academy when I turned 20. I’d gone to the College of Staten Island for a couple of weeks, but it wasn’t my bag at the time. I wanted to work. After six months in the academy I was assigned to a training unit, and after another six months I ended up doing patrols on foot and in the blue and white cars in the 60th Precinct in Coney Island.

How did you make the move to detective?

When New York City started the community policing program, in 1988, I was assigned to a foot post for four years. During that time I created a children’s fingerprint program, distributing cardboard kits in public schools so parents could make prints themselves so if, God forbid, anything happened, they could identify them. I got private sponsorship and the police department distributed it. I got some recognition for that and was assigned to a plainclothes, anti-crime unit where we did a lot of gun arrests, and then in 1994 I became a detective in the robbery squad in Coney Island.

What was the daily routine?

In the robbery squad, I’d patrol in plain clothes in robbery-prone areas. We’d respond to calls, pick up the victim, canvas the area for suspects. If we couldn’t find them, we’d have people ID photos at the station, go door-to-door looking for people who’d seen anything, distribute wanted posters, and conduct lineups. We also did a lot of stuff in court, testifying. And there was lots of paperwork. After seven years, I went to the "regular" squad, investigating everything else except robberies.

How did 9/11 change your work?

After 9/11, detectives were kind of responsible for investigating what happened. That meant I was at the Staten Island landfill, looking for body parts, 7 days a week. No days off. I loved to draw as kid—when I was in school, I even sent a letter to Frank Thomas, an old-time time Disney animator, but never heard back from him. Every day when I went home from the landfill, I would start drawing, and it picked up more and more as I got into that. In 2002, I told my ex-wife that I wanted to go to school for animation. We knew someone who taught at the School of Visual Arts, and I went to his class and loved it. I continued working as a detective—I was in charge of cold cases, which gave me better hours—and did that for a year and half while going to SVA.

You must have been one of the older students in your classes—did that help you at all?

I was 37 when I started—most of the kids in my classes were 18 and 19. But that was good. The school had just created an accelerated program, where students whose grades put them in the top 10% of the class could study through the summers and graduate in three years instead of four. I got in with 11 other kids. It’s different when you’re paying for your own school—I worked and studied hard because I wanted it more than someone who was getting help from their parents. I knew what my loans were, how much I was investing. I was determined not to spend all this money and not get something out of it.

Did your time as a detective help you with learning to be an animator?

Definitely. I was drawn to character animation early on, and at SVA, kids would come to me with questions about how people would act in certain situations. I didn’t realize how much I knew until I reflected on it when I started doing animation—I was so used to noticing people’s gait, how they walk when they’re up to something, how they fidget when they’re lying.

I also did extra work through an online animation school called Animation Mentor, which has teachers from Pixar, Blue Sky, DreamWorks—and this woman, Bret Parker, an animator at Pixar, really helped me bring it all together. She drove home the need to see how the physics of the body worked, how everything starts with the hips, then the shoulders, then the head follows. A light went off for me, and it all started to click.

Police work was obviously stressful, but you went into another pretty high-stress work environment at some of the best animation studios in New York, including Frame Store. There’s a lot of deadline pressure—were you ready for that?

Deadlines? You gotta be kidding me. This is not stressful for me at all. Part of it depends on where you’re working—if the people above you decide it’s panic time, it spreads. But animation as a whole is a lot more laid-back. In the police department, if your meeting starts at 8, it means 8. In animation, you stroll in an hour late, it’s fine. On projects where I’m lead animator, I’ve tried to get the guys I’m working with to approach the work flow a little differently—if we can get in a room and review things early, then we can eat breakfast and bullshit a while, and be relaxed when we get into actually doing animation. You can get clients with a last-minute change and everyone has to bust their ass, but I keep everyone on board by saying, "Look, you could be out there having people point guns at you." I’m used to being the oldest guy in the workplace now, but the younger guys are getting old faster than I’m getting older myself. For a couple of years I’d bring a ball and get everyone out to play four square at lunch once a week. It’s good for them to get out.

Do you think changing careers like you have is generally a good thing?

There are some people I’ve met where animation is just natural—takes no effort at all. You just see that’s what they’re supposed to do. For me, it took some work to learn parts of this, but it definitely helps being able to sit back and have the perspective to understand what a character is thinking, why they’re doing things—stuff that may seem minimal but really helps. And in eight years doing this, I’ve never not had a job.

Read about other members of Generation Flux:

Ari Wallach's Career Solution: Become A Real-Life Problem Solver
Adobe's Corporate Culture Through The Lens Of A Documentary Filmmaker
MyEnergy CEO Ben Bixby's Eureka Moment Literally Involved A Light Bulb
How IBM's Big Data Guy Found A Career In Chaos

[Smurf Image Provided by Sony Pictures, Gecko Image via Geico]

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