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Meet Nigel Tierney

Today we’d like to introduce you to Nigel Tierney.

Hi Nigel, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?

I was raised on a farm in rural Kilkenny, Ireland, but have always had an obsession with American culture, especially when it came to animation. When I saw Shrek in the cinema as a teenager, I told my friends that I wanted to do that, not really knowing what “that” was.

Although my dream was to make cartoons, I was faced with the reality that I was a rubbish artist. My academic strengths always leaned towards mathematics and science, albeit barely. And thanks to the flexibility of swapping majors back and forth to validate my lack of artistic acumen, I settled on leaning into my strengths and studying computer science (CS) at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. I lasted a year at Maynooth, before a brief and memorable summer abroad working on a J1 visa as a walking Irish stereotype in the Irish toy shop in Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, I knew America was the place for me! I came back from the U.S., immediately dropped out of NUI Maynooth and moved to Norfolk, Virginia to attend Tidewater Community College, and settled into the hustle of American life by transferring to Old Dominion University.

It was at ODU where I was able to focus my CS major to be really built around computer graphics (CG), which allowed me to create visual art using mathematical knowledge. Continuing straight from my Bachelors to my Masters degree, I doubled down on CG as a focus for my research, dabbling in everything from making mini-games to developing and publishing academic papers on virtual reality solutions for gait rehabilitation in stroke patients. The latter was fiercely fulfilling, but I was eager to get out of research and live up to my childhood fantasy of heading to the magical land of Hollywood to start working on cartoons.

Because I was testing the limits of the American immigration system and was coming up to an end of a string of student and work visas, I knew I didn’t have that much time or resources to mull about the U.S. looking for a job. So I spent pretty much all the money I had left from my research gig to attend Siggraph, a major graphics and animation conference, in Los Angeles, where I knew all the companies that I dreamed of working for would be. That week in 2008, I wore the same ill-fitting suit from 7am in the morning – catching multiple connecting buses from where I was staying in Culver City to the Convention Center in downtown LA to sometimes catching the last bus late at night – to attend all the post-conference events. I spent each day meeting with animation companies and Visual FX experts, learning the lingo and after buying a printer halfway through my first day would update and print new resumes and cover letters, based on what I learned that day. After failing pretty hard with one of my favorite companies that I met early in the week, I scheduled my interview with my favorite company – Dreamworks – on the last day of the conference, to make sure I was as prepared as I could be. After a very fortunate interview and a follow up round of interviews a week later, I got offered a job at DreamWorks to become a Technical Director.

I am constantly reminded of how lucky I was to have gotten that dream job, especially it being 2008 with the recession in full swing. I also cherish the fact that the first movie I got to work on was Shrek Forever After. I loved walking through the arched gateway of the campus in Glendale and having had the privilege to collaborate with some of the most talented people I have ever met. Still, I realized fairly early on that the job felt creatively limiting and I really wanted to push myself beyond the comforts of what I was good at. So I did what any typical artistically challenged engineer would do and jumped headfirst into stand-up comedy. My fandom of cartoons was closely followed by an infatuation with comedy. When I was in secondary school, I would volunteer at the local comedy festival just so I could be near the comics and watch a bunch of shows for free. It didn’t hurt that they would also “pay” me in beer vouchers. Seeing those talented comedians such as Mitch Hedberg and Lewis Black perform in those wee Irish pubs always had me wondering if it was something I would be able to do (obviously not to their level of course). So years later, after my wife heard me go on about that obsession for probably a wee bit too long, she graciously bought me a set of comedy classes with David Arnold (amazing comedian by the way, please check him out). Those classes got me hooked and quickly transformed into an immediate addiction of doing 3-4 open-mics a night. It was my creative therapy, and whether I killed or bombed – usually the latter – I always felt an incredible high. That raw pleasure was gifted by the journey of the craft. My comedic delusion led me to go full bore also into Improv and sketch classes, initially at DreamWorks, but then through Upright Citizen’s Brigade. There I learned the ability to partner with incredible comedic talent as well as the power of collaboration through the writer’s room. I started filming my sketches with other talented up and coming peers and I really got to grow a network of like-minded people. My love grew into me creating a community within the studio system to teach sketch-comedy writing on the side and to help share the knowledge I was learning in real-time.

The pivot for me creatively was when I created a comedy club within the walls of Dreamworks both to selfishly satisfy my need to write and perform as well as offer the DreamWorks executives an opportunity to see a wide array of diverse comedic talent that I was getting the privilege to witness on the comedy circuit. It was wild because I started to help others with their project development and pitches to studio execs and knew that this was where my heart was. Being a Technical Director was no longer a passion for me and although it was wonderful to work on amazing projects like The Croods, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Captain Underpants, it didn’t satisfy my own creative itch to direct and produce.

I made the decision to pursue developing short-form animated series of my own, leveraging my passion for comedy and the clout of my DreamWorks experience. That along with some very fortunate “right place-right time” connections, allowed me the opportunity to finally direct and produce a variety of celebrity-driven passion projects. That being said, I am still an engineer by trade and towards the end of my time at DreamWorks and the experience of working on my own projects, I picked up a new passion for mixed reality and how performance capture animation powered by real-time game engines like Unreal and Unity were starting to open up new ways to create. It was like I had found the marriage of how to combine my skills with my interests, and it was at this perfect time when Verizon’s then newly acquired innovation studio, RYOT, reached out to see if I wanted to lead development for their new wave of immersive 5G content. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity immediately.

That role, which now has me leading creative content for Yahoo and it’s massive ecosystem, continues to be such a spectacular position, gifting me a wide array of content opportunities, from green-lighting abstract augmented reality series, capturing holograms, doing virtual reality festival takeovers, and creating innovative animated projects. It has been a wild ride and I am as enthusiastic now as I was back when I got to step through those arched gates at DreamWorks for the first time.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?

I have been beyond fortunate with the gifts and inherited privileges that have led me to where I am today. And although there have been personal struggles, like how to immigrate to America, how to afford college, and with the passing of my brother and dad, I have always had a strong support system provided by my family and everyone who has believed in me enough to want to work with me, which always has me living in a world of gratitude.

I reminisce on how my Ma (aka mother) would travel with me to the U.S. embassy in Dublin just to make sure I didn’t mess up my visa application after the 10th visit trying to get to the U.S. Or how my wife’s support in letting me go out and gallivant around the comedy clubs at night just to perform 5 minutes of dodgy jokes to a bartender and a lonely drunk who didn’t want me there at 2am. Even to get to America, my Ma helped me take out a loan that just as it was about to run out a couple of years in, was financially rescued by a Scholarship ODU International Admissions offered me. I would be lying if there weren’t times where my ego would have me declare how proud I am of my “hustle” of getting the scholarships, college degrees, or jobs, but that is an idiotic way to ignore the phenomenal support system and advantages that have elevated me to where I am today.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?

Ultimately, I love making animated experiences. Besides my current work as a Director and Producer, I am now the Head of Content for Yahoo’s award-winning content innovation incubator, overseeing the creative development, art and marketing departments. My main focus is to shepherd the advancement of immersive, future-forward formats, targeting the integration of storytelling, brand and celebrity, as well as creating original content across Yahoo’s suite of brands and partners such as: Disney, Snap, NFL, Time & our current innovation partnership with IMG’s New York Fashion Week.

I am most proud of the work I did in directing and producing the critically acclaimed and award-winning EARTH with Lil Dicky, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ariana Grande & 30 other celebrity artists which launched the global campaign It was just so unbelievably satisfying and creatively fulfilling and I was delighted that Dave (Burd) trusted me and the team to make something so special.

On top of getting to spearhead innovative content, I am proud that I got to help lead a team to build out a state-of-the-art and first-of-its-kind 5G Innovation Studio, getting to play with all sorts of cool tech such as latest in motion capture and broadcast technology to help inform new kinds of storytelling. That level of freedom and trust to create something so new is what is deep in Yahoo’s technical DNA.

How do you think about happiness?

Wow – love that question and thanks for asking. Honestly, creating fun cartoons with people far more talented than me is my happy space. I’m just obsessed with the process, from the ideation to the writer’s room to seeing the concepts come to life in art. All of that collaboration just brings me such joy. My personal mantra is to do dope shit with dope people every day and anything that takes away from that really inhibits my mood. By the way, I really should have said my wife and kids because they really do make me feel the absolute happiest; there’s nothing better than a good playful snuggle with the family – pure, pure JOY! Can I change my answer? Oh and my dog!… I think I might have messed this answer up – definitely, definitely FAMILY.

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