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Disney, Pixar hire BYU students who earned another student Emmy nomination for animation

PROVO — BYU's image has become synonymous with its spot on top of the Princeton Review's annual Stone-Cold Sober list. That's the power of a 19-year winning streak.

While the school's hold on that title appears unassailable, BYU is building another strong brand with similar longevity: animation incubator.

The latest student animation project recently earned the school's 19th student Emmy nomination. The film, "Taijitu" (the ancient Chinese word for yin and yang), is one of three nominees vying for a College Television Award to be announced on Wednesday in Los Angeles.

The awards won by BYU student films are a major reason animation studios at Pixar, Disney and other companies are peppered with the school's graduates.

For example, the sound director on "Taijitu," Caitlin Stratton Walton, accepted a job on Friday to work as a production assistant at Dreamworks after completing an internship there in April.

"It really is a realization of a dream I wasn’t sure I could reach so quickly," said Walton, 24, a film graduate from Boise, who focused on producing and sound design to open doors to animation. "I had no expectations that my first job out of college would be at my dream studio, working on TV, too."

Each year, seniors in BYU's Center for Animation work together to create an animated film for their senior project. It is their film. While professors provide advice, the students make the final decisions. They regularly recruit help from others inside and outside the major.

"If you're a sophomore who is really good at texturing rocks, and the senior film needs a lot of rocks, you can guarantee you will get to work on the film," said Johanna Taylor, a 25-year-old from Cedar Hills, who wrote the script for "Taijitu" and graduated in animation with an emphasis in concept design.

Adding underclassmen to the mix also helps to ensure the success of future films. "Taijitu" included more than 40 animation, illustration, computer science and music students.

BYU animation projects typically focus on humor, but this year's film departed from the norm. "Taijitu" is about a little boy named Ten who is chosen for a big job: turning the mechanism that turns day to night and night to day.

"This film was so different from things we have done in the past and is not a comedy, so we were a little concerned that it might get overlooked," said Kelly Loosli, theatre and media arts professor who directs BYU's animation program and was one of the film's executive producers.

"We were thrilled" by the student Emmy nomination, he added.

The film is all about light and dark. Given the ability to manipulate day and night, Ten is tempted to use his power selfishly. He learns his choices have consequences beyond himself.

Executives at Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony and Disney mentored this year's BYU students. Eight students from the team, including Walton, have landed jobs at Disney, Dreamworks, Blue Sky Studios and Pixar.

Each film is a major project that takes more than a year to complete. That provided enough time for at least one romance to incubate. The film's art director, Emma Zaugg, 23, an animation major from Oregon City, Oregon, had a personal rule against dating anyone in the program. She overturned herself when she realized how well she worked together with the film's director, Conner Gillette, 25, of Redondo Beach, California.

Gillette and Zaugg got engaged Nov. 2, 10 months into the project, and married on Feb. 4, nearly a week after the team submitted the film. They graduated in April with degrees in animation with an emphasis in visual development. They will attend Wednesday's ceremony at the Television Academy Saban Media Center's Wolf Theater.

The Gillettes are searching for full-time jobs to fit their circumstances. For now they are working freelance jobs from Provo and planning a trip to tour where they served as Mormon missionaries, in the Philippines and Thailand. Asian missions played a major role in the selection of the theme and style of the film.

Another major portion of "Taijitu" was the music. The film's music director, Dallas Crane, 24, of Sandy, is a commercial music major. He enlisted BYU's Philharmonic Orchestra to play the film's score. That added 70 more students to the list of those who worked on "Taijitu."

Crane composed the entire score himself over seven months. He is now an intern with famous, Oscar-winning Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer, who has composed music for 150 movies like "The Lion King" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" and for TV series like "Miami Vice."

Gillette was grateful for the latitude Loosli and other professors gave the seniors this year.

"They were very supportive," he said. "They did make sure we were very aware of the different challenges and pitfalls that come with making a more serious film, but not once did they try to convince us to make a comedy."

Walton, the newest Dreamworks employee, is married to Peter Walton, another film graduate who was the director of editing for "Taijitu." She will work on two Dreamworks projects, "Volton: Legendary Defender" and "All Hail King Julien."

"I was so pleased to be asked to help out on 'Taijitu' and get some exposure to the animation process," Caitlin Walton said. "It gave met the chance to test my sound design skills and explore where I could fit in the animation process."

"Taijitu" will be available for viewing online later this year. However, BYU has posted a video about the making of the film that includes scenes from the movie on BYU's YouTube channel.

To view BYU's past short animated films, visit animation.byu.edu.