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Pixar ties to Utah run deep

Pixar is returning to theaters this weekend with its 14th film, "Monsters University," a prequel to the 2001 "Monsters, Inc."

In the nearly two decades since the premiere of the studio's first film, "Toy Story," Pixar's films have become family favorites worldwide.

"In the end you want to have something in a movie that lives a long time," said Ed Catmull, president and co-founder of Pixar. "These movies will stick around for decades or a hundred years and could still be meaningful. You want to have something that affects world culture in a positive way."

While Catmull may now live and work in California's Bay area, he grew up and attended college in Utah. And it was in Utah that Catmull first began learning about computer graphics.

Between his undergraduate and graduate degrees, Catmull spent eight years studying physics and computer science at the University of Utah. It was during his master's program at the U. that Catmull became involved with the budding computer graphics industry.

"Computer graphics were key to the changing of visual effects in movies, and that pioneering work was all done there at the U.," Catmull said. "So its role in computer science history, in computer revolution, is actually pretty strong — stronger than some people realize. But in the area of graphics it is the dominant player in the early days.”

Utah's rich history of animation work that began with the computer graphics work Catmull became involved with at Utah has continued throughout the decades.

Today, the state's two largest universities, Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, are nationally ranked for their animation and design programs.

Much of this is due to Utahns like Catmull, who has taken a vested interest in mentoring students and professionals still in Utah.

The Pixar president continues to serve on the advisory council for the College of Engineering at the University of Utah. While he serves on several boards across the country, Catmull said he has remained very close to his alma mater.

"The U. is, I think, unique," Catmull said. "... Their ability to listen to others and pay attention is really remarkable. They have a great team up there, and that’s what makes a better program."

Pixar also helped to mentor some of the creators of BYU's animation program, such as Brent Adams, a BYU professor and current director of the school's Center for Animation.

Adams sought advice from many industry professionals before creating the school's animation program.

As Adams visited a good friend who worked at Pixar, he said he was surprised to learn that the studio's president, Catmull, had blocked out a full hour to speak with Adams about the formation of the animation program.

"I was embarrassed to take so much of his time, but he had the most amazing insight into what we should be doing and how we could do it," Adams said in an email. "He is a genius. I am sure that it helped that he was from Utah and understood the culture of BYU and our constraints, but he told me that he spent time with faculty from lots of schools because of his love for education."

Catmull comes from long line of educators. His father was the principal of Granite High School before becoming principal of Taylorsville High School when that school opened. His brother taught a shop class and his two sisters work as school counselors.

"... The environment that we grew up in was education. I think it’s important," Catmull said. "The legacy that we leave unto others is what we teach them. And it just always made sense to me. So I’ve had this fondness for education."

Catmull advised Adams to not try to compete with the students and programs at private arts schools. There, students focus much more on art classes and do not have the same general education requirements BYU students have.

Instead, Adams said, Catmull advised them to make their program as collaborative as possible between the art and computer science students.

One of the keys to success, Catmull said, was creating students who could go both broad and deep in their studies. Students need to go deep and specialize in one area, he said, but they also need to have a broad enough understanding of the artistic and technical sides of animation to be able to work well on a team.

"In one of those areas you'll find you're kind of better," Catmull said. "Maybe you're better at math or logic or maybe you're better at art or drawing. So what we have is a mix of people who are all able to go deep in at least one area and then you put them together and because of their breadth they’re better able to communicate with each other."

"All this sounds very abstract, I know," Catmull continued, "but it’s part of what it means to have a diverse group of people working together."

Adams took the advice to heart and helped create a program that, in 13 years, has become one of the top animation programs in the nation. Adams said that while BYU may not have the best artists, they have challenged students and made "the artists more technical and the scientists more artistic."

"We have used that to an advantage rather than a disadvantage. It is easier for our students to do that ‘both sides of the brain’ thing," Adams said. "They are willing to work with others in a very collaborative environment. They look to help each other out and not look at each other as competition that they need to gain an advantage over."

Kelly Loosli, an assistant professor at BYU, agreed.

He said the department works hard to model the feel of a studio with students working together in teams. Instead of one student working on a project, groups of 25 or more students come together with each student focusing on one element of the animation. This cooperative style of teaching, according to Loosli, produces a professional-style product and helps train students better for the realities of working in a studio.

“Their learning curve is smaller," Loosli said. "They are already used to that environment and set-up. ... (studios) like the work ethic and the type of person that they get of our program."

Seth Holladay was the first BYU student to work with Pixar when he completed an eight-month internship in 2005. He eventually went on to work for Pixar for three years, participating in the creation of "Cars," "Ratatouille," WALL-E" and "Up."

“I loved it. They were a great company," Holladay said. "Everyone there is really motivating and hard-working. Sometimes they have to yank stuff away from us and tell us it’s good enough.

“There’s a high expectation, and you set a high expectation because you see what everyone else is doing."

Today, Holladay is continuing the tradition of giving back to the students who follow. He recently finished his Ph.D. and is an assistant professor at BYU's Center for Animation.

Katie Harmer is a journalism graduate of Brigham Young University and writes for Mormon Times. Email: Twitter: @harmerk