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Students vie for entrance in competitive BYU animation program

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If you quit drawing at the end of your classes, it’s not good enough. If you really want this, you have to put all of your time, all of your effort into it. – Taylor Holt

PROVO, Utah — Taylor Holt dreams of telling stories with pictures. She thought she might like to be a writer, "but I ended up spending more time drawing out my stories than actually writing them," she said.

Animation seemed like a natural fit when she enrolled at BYU and started looking at a course catalog. Turns out, trying to get into BYU's red-hot animation program is a high-stakes path. Each applicant can apply for the program only twice. Holt struck out on her first attempt. Holt entered this summer facing her last shot at making her dream a reality.

Had Holt, who recently completed her second year of college, chosen to study math, or science or even English, she'd already be halfway through her degree. But for many students who pursue in-demand, resource-heavy, pre-professional programs like animation, choosing a major isn't as simple as checking a box their freshman year.

Animation is just one of several "limited enrollment" undergraduate majors at BYU that accept only 25-35 students each year. Though the details vary, these programs have at least one thing in common: a high-pressure, high-stakes application process.

To make the process more interesting, news of Pixar's preference for interns and entry-level animators from BYU has increased the animation program's appeal in recent years. That hasn't made getting in any easier.

Intimidation alone may have kept some students out of the competition, but Holt and nearly 100 others worked up the nerve to submit a portfolio for this summer's review. That's about three to four applicants per slot available in the BYU program.

All of your time, all of your effort

So last month's round of applications marked the second and final chance for Holt to get into the program. Earlier in the summer she said she had learned from her mistakes last year.

"I had this horrible habit of procrastinating," Holt said. "I was still struggling to fill my sketchbook (a few days before the deadline last year). I have learned to draw every day."

She took that commitment seriously and set aside an hour of her time each day to dedicate to drawing. Once a week, she spent about six hours figure drawing. When classes ended, she joined a group in Springville to continue her practice.

"If you quit drawing at the end of your classes, it's not good enough," she said. "If you really want this, you have to put all of your time, all of your effort into it."

The others, likewise, have dedicated substantial portions of their time to developing their portfolios in recent months. John Jackson, who decided to apply to the program after returning from an LDS mission, took two days off from his job as a graphic designer to finish preparing his application.

Though he originally started as an illustration major, Jackson's greatest interests are in directing, storyboarding and character design, he said.

"I really love animals that are personified, like a crocodile who's a barber, who wears clothing," Jackson said. "Or, I'm developing this lemur character working a temp job where all the other employees are elephants."

Danny Russon, who enrolled in his first semester of college at BYU in January and took all his pre-animation requirements in one semester, doesn't plan to look for a summer job until after the review process. His interest in animation began at a young age — his father would draw pictures to keep him entertained as a child — and he dreams of working for Disney. He prefers traditional 2D animation and is working with several BYU animation seniors on "Bothered," a short 2D film that received mention in the New York Times earlier this year.

"Foremost, I like art. But I like art that tells a story, or has heart to it," he said. "In animation, you're able to create something that essentially has life to it, and people respond emotionally to it."

Digging deep to develop their art

Many, like Hannah Carver, a BYU sophomore who decided just this year to pursue a degree in animation, look to their peers for critiques and advice on improving their work.

"By and large, we get along well," Carver said. "It is a little difficult, when you think that you're actually competing against each other. But tearing someone else down doesn't make your portfolio any better."

Jackson turned to Pinterest while looking for inspiration for the last few drawings he needs to finish his application — the portfolio must include five-to-10 figure drawings, two-to-five 3D models, a sketchbook filled with sample illustrations and a complete 2D animated sequence.

"I don't feel like it's the most masculine thing to have," he said, "but there's actually a lot of amazing, cool stuff for animators on Pinterest."

While the prerequisite classes they take prepare students for the application process, most still have a long way to go before they are ready to enter the program, said Kelly Loosli, an associate professor in the BYU animation program.

"We don't necessarily promote visual art well in school," Loosli said. "Some have dabbled, but many have to dig deep to develop those art skills. … Parents don't really think that there are viable jobs in the arts, so there isn't support for that early development."

Some students who need more time to develop their skills will take a year or more to practice before submitting an application, Loosli said. This is sometimes a good strategy — students are only permitted to apply twice before they are permanently barred from the program, and those who delay generally do better in the competition. However, there are also limits on the number of credit hours applicants can accrue before they are no longer permitted to enter the program.

"The big challenge is, how long do you delay?" Loosli said.

Nothing set in stone

The competitive nature of the program has, in recent years, actually reduced the number of applicants, Loosli said. In years past, the department could review as many as 120-130 portfolios each summer. Last year, only 100 applied; 92 applied this year. However, Loosli said the program also has seen more talent among applicants. Once, the department expected about 15 "shoo-in" students with each batch of applications, leaving 10 flexible spots for students with undeveloped potential. But they filled all 25 positions within hours of the application deadline this summer, leaving no room for deliberating which "on the cusp" students to admit.

"I didn't have a good night's sleep (the night of the review), because I was thinking about those kids on the cusp," Loosli said. "It just pains me to turn these kids away, because I know they could make it."

Some of those students rejected could still succeed in animation programs at other schools, Loosli said. But at the end of the day, rejection is one of the harsh realities that aspiring artists face.

"The industry is that much more competitive," Loosli said. "Every step along the way, there is much less opportunity."

Jackson, who Loosli said created some of the best storyboards he's seen from a student, was admitted into the program one week after the application deadline. Russon will join him. Both plan to work independently over the summer while waiting for their first round of animation classes to begin this fall — Russon continues to draw for the "Bothered" film, and Jackson has some concepts for a short film he would like to develop. If he has time, he plans to assemble an animated short in Flash.

"I definitely can't rest now — this is just the beginning," he said.

Carver didn't make it on her first attempt but plans to reapply next year. She hopes getting feedback from this round will help her understand where she went wrong.

For Holt, however, a second rejection meant rethinking her entire future. Loosli said she was well-liked by her professors, but her portfolio didn't show the improvement they had hoped to see.

She's considering an illustration major and said she feels good about the new direction.

"Nothing's ever set in stone," she said. "That's what I've learned through all this. You can choose to let it ruin your life, or … there's always something else that could make you happy."

EMAIL: epenrod@deseretnews.com