Free State grad turned animation pro shares jokes, wisdom at Schools Foundation breakfast

Hamilton Lewis, a 2005 graduate of Free State High School, speaks to a packed ballroom Friday, Sept. 15, at the Lawrence Schools Foundation's annual community breakfast at the Doubletree by Hilton hotel, 200 McDonald Drive. Lewis, who grew up dreaming about the worlds in his favorite sci-fi movies, now works as a senior pre-visualization artist at The Third Floor, Inc. in Los Angeles, and in the past has worked for DreamWorks Animation.

Hamilton Lewis has always dreamed big, even as a kid growing up on his family’s farm near tiny Larned.

“I wouldn’t trade growing up on a farm for anything, but my parents wanted me to do more,” Lewis told the crowd gathered Friday morning at Lawrence’s Doubletree by Hilton hotel. “They wanted me to get out of there and see the world and experience it.”

And so he did. Lewis, now a senior pre-visualization artist at Los Angeles’ The Third Floor visualization studios, has built a successful career upon his boyhood fascination with sci-fi movies and superheroes since graduating from Free State High School in 2005.

On Friday, after taking a stroll around the hotel ballroom with Free State mascot Freddy the Firebird, Lewis delivered the keynote address at the Lawrence Schools Foundation’s 16th annual community breakfast. The nonprofit raises money to fund innovative teaching grants for local educators and scholarships for Lawrence Public Schools graduates.

About 550 people attended this year’s event, which also raised $2,600 (in the form of change dropped into collection cups at each table) for Houston schools impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

Lewis, who also did a stint as Freddy back in his high school days, paid his own debt of gratitude to the schools that nurtured his creativity and offered him an escape from a complicated home life.

It started, he said, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. That spurred the family to move to Lawrence, closer to treatment facilities. Lewis soon enrolled at Southwest Middle School, he said, “and that’s where I got involved.”

“I had a very difficult childhood, so I didn’t want to be at home dealing with my parents or my little brother or things like that,” Lewis recalled, so he became deeply involved in school.

The creative kid — he’d always enjoyed working with his hands, growing up on the farm — joined just about every club and extracurricular activity he could find. Art classes, of course, were a no-brainer for the future filmmaker.

At Free State, he became involved with the school’s Firebirds Productions, developing his craft shooting sports highlights reels and homecoming videos.

After attending Florida’s Ringling College of Art & Design, Lewis snagged a job at DreamWorks Animation. His first big assignment was laying out sequences for 2010’s “How to Train Your Dragon.”

At DreamWorks, Lewis worked on films such as “Rise of the Guardians,” “Penguins of Madagascar,” “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” three “Kung Fu Panda” sequels, and this year’s “The Boss Baby.”

But after seven years, the former Kansas farm boy felt it was time “to stretch my wings” and move on, Lewis said. Always looking for the next challenge, Lewis recently joined Los Angeles’ The Third Floor Inc. Unlike DreamWorks Animation, which produces all its films in-house, The Third Floor works with outside clients to develop projects at every level from storyboards through post-production.

The move, he said, has allowed him to work on the kinds of movies he loved as a kid — like “Star Wars” and X-Men and other Marvel superhero flicks.

“It’s an incredible, incredible place to be — that no one knows (about),” Lewis deadpanned, eliciting laughs from the audience. “But it’s OK. I like being behind the scenes.”

And he misses Lawrence, too. Despite living in a 48-unit apartment complex, Lewis said he knows only three of his neighbors. “Not because I don’t try,” he joked, adding in self-deprecating fashion that his neighbors simply aren’t all that interested.

By the end of his remarks, Lewis passed on a bit of career advice he’d learned from one of his higher-ups at The Third Floor: Surround yourself with coworkers you want to work with.

“When it comes to being 2 a.m. and we’re up super late in the deadline, who do you want to order pizza with and then get a beer with afterward? Because those are the people that you’ll trust and will stay with you forever,” Lewis said.

“Find those people and start something,” he said, adding, after a pause, “and let’s have pizza.”