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Animated praise for BYU program

'Faux Paw: Adventures in the Internet' receives national attention, Emmy

Faux Paw is an animated cat who, like many children her age, gets pulled into the Internet and, in a chat room, meets a new friend — "Happy Fluffy Kitty Face." But like many Internet predators, Happy Fluffy Kitty Face is not what he appears to be. Outside cyberspace, Kitty Face is bulldog, intending to do Faux Paw harm.

The lesson is simple, say BYU animation students who helped bring Faux Paw to life. The Internet is dangerous.

Now they hope that students in grades two, three and four across America will understand their message. And if accolades for their student film are any indication, they will.

The BYU Film, "Faux Paw: Adventures in the Internet," recently garnered a first-place College Television Award, commonly referred to as a "student Emmy." Student Producer J. Chad Erekson will accept the award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation March 14 — two weeks after he presented the animated film at a press conference in Washington D.C. Feb. 28.

The award not only speaks to the success of the film itself, but also to the success of BYU's four-year old animation program. To date, the program has earned a total of three student Emmys and a "student Academy Award."

In addition to "Faux Paw," BYU also won third-place this year in the non-traditional animation category for the 3-D film "PetShop." "PetShop" was made by students who, before the project, had no knowledge of 3-D animation, said Trent Halvorsen, the student director for the digitally animated film. Considering that fact, the Emmy is "pretty incredible," he said. "It definitely speaks to the caliber of people on the 'PetShop' team and in the BYU animation program."

Brother Erekson said he started work on "Faux Paw," hoping to create a largely distributed film. The fact that the film was created not only to entertain, but also to teach long-lasting values, made the project that much more meaningful.

He said he first knew the film would be a success when his 2-year-old daughter caught the message almost immediately, yelling warnings into the television; "No, No, Kitty Face!" the little girl said.

Government and community leaders across America have also seen the value of the film for young children. In the animated movie, Faux Paw teams up with McGruff the Crime Dog to help children on the Internet; one out of every five of whom will receive a sexual solicitation this year alone, and 29 percent of whom will give out personal information online if asked. Those numbers may be higher in Utah, a state that has some of the country's highest numbers of computers and children per household, said BYU professor Kelly Loosli, head of BYU's animation program.

BYU student involvement with "Faux Paw" began when Brother Loosli met with former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, now U.S. Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services, to discuss the project, which would be based on a children's book written by Utah's former first lady, Jacalyn Leavitt. Students in BYU's advanced storyboarding class developed story ideas and presented them to the Leavitts, said Brother Loosli. Production on the animated film began in 2003.

About 25 students participated in the creation of "Faux Paw." Students produced storyboards, rewrote Sister Leavitt's original story for a film format, painted backgrounds, animated characters and directed in-studio character voicing — done by the Leavitts. From storyboards to finished product, "Faux Paw" took 1 1/2 years for the BYU team to complete.

The students also created illustrations for a "Faux Paw" children's book that's part of a public safety campaign.

The Leavitts, active Church members, founded the Internet KeepSafe Coalition to educate children about online dangers. Faux Paw is a key part of the coalition's Web site, where parents can view the movie with their children. The campaign will also use public service announcements and involve the governors and spouses of almost every state, said Brother Loosli.

"Anyone introduced to the Leavitts' Internet safety campaign was impressed with the animated film's quality," said Brother Loosli. "They were even more impressed after learning that the film was made by students, whose efforts allowed the Leavitts' vision to be articulated at a level that attracted support from organizations like the FBI and McGruff the Crime Dog."

R. Brent Adams, BYU associate professor of industrial design/animation, said the other remarkable thing about the film is its price tag. A 30-second animated short without music typically costs studios like Disney, Pixar and Nickelodean $750,000 to $1 million to produce. In contrast, the BYU team spent only $7,000 on "Faux Paw," which is 4 minutes and 15 seconds.

Brother Adams said those pioneering BYU's animation program know that, by continuing to produce high quality work — made possible by the university's donated super computer and software — they will be able to have a long-term positive impact on the industry.

"Kids will watch animation," he said. "We know that we can do a lot of good in creating these types of projects."

More important, he said, students who leave the university — now being placed at the nation's top animation and motion picture studios — will make their own mark.

Animation, said Brother Loosli, is known as a family film media. Animation and BYU, he concluded, "are a nice fit."

For more information about "Faux Paw" or Internet safety see: www.iKeepSafe.org.

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