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BYU course teaches animation students what life is like in the real world

PROVO — There is both art and science to this animation thing — this process of taking something flat and motionless and giving it dimension and mobility.

That's one reason, says R. Brent Adams, assistant professor of technology, why Brigham Young University's animation program is so successful. Theirs, he says, is an interdisciplinary program involving faculty from the departments of visual arts, theater and media arts, and the industrial design program. "We use both sides of the brain. Our students are artistic, and do beautiful imagery, but they are also very deep technologically. Studios tell us that's the thing they have the hardest time finding, the thing they look for the most — students that are adept at both."

So it is no surprise that BYU has a close to 100 percent job-placement rate for its graduates.

But there's another difference between the BYU program and those offered at other universities and art schools, says Kelly Loosli, assistant professor of theater and media arts, who helps direct the animation program.

"Every other school emphasizes students doing their own thing. We all work together on one senior project."

Some of their colleagues tell them they are doing the students a disservice, he admits. "But the industry loves it."

Adams was at a conference recently where animation mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg was speaking. "He came in and asked who else was doing group projects like BYU. No one was. But this is the way it works in the real world."

So, again, it is no surprise that since the program was launched, BYU students have won three student Emmys and a student Academy Award for their work. Or, that one of their shorts, "Faux Paw: Adventures on the Internet," has become a key part of a new national campaign to teach children the essentials of Internet safety.

In the meantime, alumni of the program have gone on to produce digital effects for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the recent "Star Wars" films, "Titanic," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Van Helsing," "I, Robot" and "Garfield."

"Our projects have been so successful," adds Adams, "that we have a hard time keeping students here. They get job offers before they graduate. Most art schools tell their students to not even try for major studio work their first years out. But about half our graduates go to the studios and the other half to video-game companies."

The animation program was launched in 2001, with the first film completed in 2004. "Lemmings" tells the story of a critter trying to convince others of his kind not to jump off a cliff, and it won both a student Emmy and a student Academy Award.

It was followed by "PetShop," the story of a chinchilla desperate to get adopted, as well as the special project "Faux Paw." Earlier this year, both received student Emmys in different categories.

Two films are currently in the works. Production is almost wrapped up on "Noggin," a little prehistoric adventure in evolution that would have been finished had its director not gone off to work in Hollywood.

This year's senior project has the working title "Pinata," and it will tell of the wild and crazy adventures of these children's toys — from the other side of the stick. That one is just getting under way.

How it all works, says Loosli, is that in the middle of their junior year, all the animation students have to pitch an idea for a film. Students vote on which one they want to work on.

Once that is decided, the students all do character designs for the story, and again they pick the ones they like best. "Every student gets an opportunity to pitch an idea and to come up with character ideas, so each student has a lot of input into the project," says Loosli.

Once those are decided on, a student director and student producer are chosen, and as their senior year begins, they dive into production.

"Students take ownership of the program. We become the mentors," says Adams. There's an interesting switch in the senior year, he says. Up until then, "it's our job to tell them how bad they are, how they can improve. Then as seniors, we have to rein them in."

The industry standard for animation, he explains, is that it costs $1 million to $1.5 million per minute of animation. "We don't have the resources to do that, so it's our job to decide the compromise point, to make the film as good as possible with the resources we have. We have to decide the point we no longer strive for perfection."

Even so, students are likely to spend 60-80 hours a week in the lab. "They'd live here and survive on pizza if we let them," Loosli jokes.

Animation — even as it is done by computers these days — is no easy task. It involves not only making characters move but also giving them texture and modeling, creating backgrounds, achieving lighting effects, and then putting it all together.

In the jargon of the craft, students talk of using "nurbs and subdivision surfaces" to create characters; achieving a "painterly look" through the use of "hand-painted and procedural textures"; intentionally "perturbing" edges to give them a "noisy" effect; "rendering pass files" to get depth and texture; "rigging" a character by putting in bones.

It's every bit as time-consuming as drawing individual cels by hand — the way animation used to be done, says Loosli. "The difference is in the aesthetics. Computer animation just looks different."

Individual bits of art may involve as many as 40 different passes, or layers, before they are "composited."

To do all this, students use software called Maya and Renderman, among others. But their biggest tool is a super-computer, dubbed Mary Lou X, which is considered the 312th most powerful computer in the world (it outranks any computer owned by Norway, Spain, all of Africa and Eastern Europe).

They've also been fortunate to have lots of support, says Adams. "We've had millions of dollars' worth of software donated by Pixar and EA Sports," for example. In addition, "we have access to mentoring money given to BYU by Ira and Mary Lou Fulton." They have been able to set up some conference-call mentoring sessions with industry specialists.

"If it wasn't for our donors' help, our program would probably not exist," he says. Even so, film production is not cheap. " 'Noggin' will cost about $50,000 to produce."

Finished films are sent to various film festivals around the country, even the world. "Our films have been shown at Annecy, France, which is considered the most prestigious in the world. Kodak showed our film at Cannes," Adams notes. "This brings prestige to our program, but when our students go out with clips and executives have already seen them at major festivals, that's a big plus."

It's a three-year course of study that leads to a major in animation, says Loosli. Currently, about 70 students are enrolled.

Seth Holladay, who has just returned from a seven-month internship at Pixar, came to the program through the computer-science door, "but I've always had an interest in animals and arts. When I was 3, I loved Donald Duck."

At Pixar, Holladay worked on final renderings for a movie called "Cars." It was his job, he says, "to make you forget the technicalities and just watch the story. That's what happens when animation is done well."

Kamy Leach, producer for "Pinata," likes the combination of art and technology that goes into animation. And she likes the group approach. "It becomes like a family before we're done."

Tom Leavitt, director of "Pinata," agrees. "We've learned cooperation, to respect one another and to value each other's contribution."

When it's all said and done, he says, his goal is simply to "entertain. I love to make people smile. And I like that this is a way to influence a lot of people."

For Adams and Loosli, the ultimate goal is to give their students a well-rounded education and help them find ways to make a living in the arts.

But if there is a side benefit, it might be this: "What if we flood the market with values-driving workers who have learned how to learn?" asks Adams. "And what if they can help executives in New York and L.A. understand what those of us in the 'fly-over' states really want in entertainment?"