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Software paves way for Y. artists

The unique training Brigham Young University students receive on a sophisticated software imaging program is landing them jobs from Hollywood to Detroit.

"I feel like it has pretty much marked the end of the starving artist syndrome, where you don't want to go into art because you can't put food on the table," said BYU visual arts professor Brent Adams. "Many of our students are starting out at between $40,000 and $60,000 per year."Last year, Toronto-based Alias Wavefront donated the latest version of its computer animation software to BYU's Visual Arts Department. The donation of 20 copies of the specialized 3-D modeling software used to animate blockbuster movies such as "Toy Story" and "Jurassic Park" was worth $4.5 million.

Now, BYU students who have learned computer graphic design skills with the software while in school are putting their knowledge to work creating special effects for films and commercials in Hollywood and designing cars in Detroit.

"It was a direct result of my knowledge of this package that I was able to get my foot in the door with the company that did the work on Titanic," said senior Dan Lemmon.

As an intern last summer at Digital Domain in Venice, Calif., Lemmon was part of the animation team that created the characters falling from the stern of the sinking Titanic in James Cameron's wildly popular film.

From May to August, Lemmon helped create character images of the ship's passengers on computer. The character images were then woven into film shot of a 1/16-scale model of the ship. The most difficult part, Lemmon said, was matching the lighting of the animated characters to the lighting in the film of the actual actors they replaced.

But, the long days spent in Digital Domain's computer lab paid off for Lemmon, who not only got his name in the credits of one of the highest-grossing films of all time, but also gained invaluable experience that will help him in his job search after he graduates in April.

For BYU graduate Vernon Wilbert, the powerful Alias software arrived at BYU's Brimhall Building just in time. During his final three months in Provo, Wilbert used the Visual Arts Department's first Silicon Graphics machine with the animation software to create his demo reel, a kind of resume.

"In this industry, that's the thing," Wilbert said. "Whatever you have on the demo reel, that's who you are."

Wilbert's demo reel was good enough to land him a job at Digital Domain. Most of his co-workers learned the animation software at private arts schools or through on-the-job training, but few had the luxury of accessing the software in college.

Among Wilbert's successes is the work he did to create Pepsi's popular new commercial with a Canada goose and skyboarder doing airborne tricks. The commercial aired for the first time during last month's Super Bowl, and was named the No. 1 Super Bowl commercial by USA Today's Ad Meter.

"It was like a culmination of everything I learned at BYU," said Wilbert, who was responsible for modeling the goose, adding its texture and animating some of the scenes.

"I was elated to see my model do so well."

Meanwhile, recent BYU graduates Kevin Ketchum and Dave Bentley were hired by General Motors, where they work in the advanced concept design studio. There, designers are responsible for coming up with the coordinated look of all General Motors vehicles and the design of cars for the future.

"We're ranging from the practical to off-the-wall things," Bentley said. "Maybe the door hinges differently or you get out the front of the car."

The good ideas are translated into future car designs, and the others are discarded, Bentley said. Most of his visualization work is done using the same Alias software he learned at BYU.

In fact, he said, BYU's impressive animation lab was the primary motivation for GM to hire BYU graduates. Their knowledge of the 3-D modeling software will help phase out the clay modeling and outdated computer-assisted design packages at GM.

Adams kept the animation class that he teaches somewhat of a secret for the past year. He hasn't listed it in BYU's course catalog for fear of being overrun with interested students. Enrollment is limited to 20 students, and word-of-mouth has been more than enough to fill those slots.

Also, Adams didn't want to publicize what the students do in BYU's animation lab before they had actually done something. But now that students have shown the industry what they can do, he feels more comfortable talking about BYU's unique program.

"Private art schools have some of this capability, but there aren't hardly any universities that do," Adams said. "We're trying to get back to where the university's exploring and experimenting and is out in front (of industry)."

Adams makes it clear that although the imaging software is powerful and innovative, students can't depend on it to make up for their own deficiencies. In fact, he said, "It makes good artists better and bad artists worse."

Computer illustrators must understand how the joints of the human body function to animate characters, for example. They might need to know what a DNA molecule looks like to create a presentation that could be shown to science classes. And they must have a broad education.

"When you do special effects for Hollywood, it has to be dead-on accurate, and you better understand the physics of it," Adams said. "It really forces the student to have a more well-rounded education, and to be a more observant person."