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BYU animation reaches new heights

Center for Animation produces award-winning films and in-demand grads

Far from the light of day, bunkered in a basement encompassed by austere concrete walls, animated armadillos are springing to life on flat-panel computer screens at Brigham Young University.

A spaceship beams youthful protagonist Eli back to his kitchen in "Pajama Gladiator." The film was directed by Glenn Harmon, now working for Sony Pictures Animation, and produced by Ben Porter, currently employed by Pixar Animation Studios.
A spaceship beams youthful protagonist Eli back to his kitchen in "Pajama Gladiator." The film was directed by Glenn Harmon, now working for Sony Pictures Animation, and produced by Ben Porter, currently employed by Pixar Animation Studios. Photo: Courtesy of the BYU Center for Animation

The hard-shelled, soft-bellied, three-dimensional cartoon characters are the stars of "Xing" (pronounced "Crossing"), an in-the-works animated short film from the decorated students of the BYU Center for Animation.

Producer Jenny Harris and director Carson McKay coordinate the work on "Xing," currently in its animation stage. Animators feed distinct, intermittent frames into a computer program that renders the in-between movement which must occur to get from one image to the other. Although computers do much of the work, good old-fashioned manpower is still required to painstakingly touch up things like shadows and depth perception that artificial intelligence cannot fully calculate on its own.

BYU's Center for Animation is currently in the animation stage of production for its upcoming film "Xing." Students do the work in a basement-level computer lab adorned with posters for animated full-length features such as "Kung Fu Panda," "Robots," and "Monsters vs. Aliens."
BYU's Center for Animation is currently in the animation stage of production for its upcoming film "Xing." Students do the work in a basement-level computer lab adorned with posters for animated full-length features such as "Kung Fu Panda," "Robots," and "Monsters vs. Aliens." Photo: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

In a computer lab nestled on the bottom floor of the Crabtree Building on the north end of the BYU campus, two dozen computer workstations are placed back-to-back down a long line spanning the length of the room. Wall decorations are composed entirely of movie posters for animated major motion pictures such as "Bolt" and "Kung Fu Panda." Beneath the looming visuals, ever-present reminders of where these students' careers could someday carry them, work on "Xing" presses forward methodically and without fanfare.

Student Emmys are the gold standard for college animators, but only three of the statuettes are awarded every year to student-produced animated films. Despite the nationwide competition, BYU bagged two of the three awards in the animation category at the College Television Awards, a black-tie gala held in Hollywood on March 21.

"Kites," the latest creation of the Center for Animation, won first place at this year's Student Emmys. It tells the story of an adolescent boy who magically gets to fly kites one final time with the spirit of his recently deceased grandfather. The other BYU recipient, "Pajama Gladiator," is a rollicking romp about a young boy who fights aliens with only his blanket as a weapon. It nabbed second place. ("Pajama Gladiator" competed in the 2009 Student Emmys because it missed the Jan. 15 deadline for the 2008 competition.)

Rare air The latest animated short film from BYU's Center for Animation, "Kites," nabbed top honors at the College Television Awards on March 21. The film portrays an emotional reunion between a boy and his deceased grandfather as they fly kites together.
Rare air The latest animated short film from BYU's Center for Animation, "Kites," nabbed top honors at the College Television Awards on March 21. The film portrays an emotional reunion between a boy and his deceased grandfather as they fly kites together. Photo: Courtesy of the BYU Center for Animation

With the accolades recently bestowed upon "Kites" and "Pajama Gladiator," BYU is now the winner of nine Student Emmys for animation since 2001. An interdisciplinary program, BYU's Center for Animation is the offspring of the College of Fine Arts and Communications, the Fulton College of Engineering and Technology, and the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. R. Brent Adams, a professor of industrial design and animation as well as director of the center, has guided the program since its inception.

By virtue of being an interdisciplinary program, animation offers students the resources from each of its parent colleges – including the state-of-the-art computing resources at the College of Engineering and Technology needed to run the proprietary software that digital animation requires.

"The animation program at BYU is a joint program – that's one of its real strengths," said Alan R. Parkinson, dean of the Fulton College of Engineering and Technology. "We combine both the artistic side and the technical side together across the colleges, and that's one of the reasons the program's been so successful."

In "Pajama Gladiator," winner of a 2009 Student Emmy, a club-brandishing cyclops is one of the aliens a young boy named Eli defeats using his blanket.
In "Pajama Gladiator," winner of a 2009 Student Emmy, a club-brandishing cyclops is one of the aliens a young boy named Eli defeats using his blanket. Photo: Courtesy of the BYU Center for Animation

Within the animation industry, BYU has the ability to produce students who are especially attractive to potential employers because, first, the animation program is competitive to begin with (150 students take the introductory course, 90 apply to the program and 25 get accepted). Then, once accepted to the program, students have the liberty to develop very specific niche areas of expertise.

"What's nice about the administration allowing us to do this is, we get this huge gamut (of applicants)," said Brother Adams. "Even though we have a small number of students compared to art schools that have thousands of students in animation, Pixar can still come here and say, 'We know we can pick up some great students from BYU.' "

As a result of the center's sophistication and reputation, Cougar grads consistently score jobs at major animation studios – folks like Glenn Harmon and Ben Porter, both of whom graduated in 2007 after playing prominent roles on "Pajama Gladiator." Brother Harmon, a story artist for Sony Pictures Animation, is working on a film called "Hotel Transylvania." Brother Porter is a technical director who puts texture and hair on characters at Pixar; he worked on the forthcoming release "Up" and is presently immersed with plans for "Toy Story 3."

"BYU teaches hard work," Brother Harmon said. "The [animation] program's success is built on competent instructors, firm studio relationships, and the students' willingness to dive in and work hard."

The genius of the BYU animation program – or the "guardian angel," as Brother Adams calls it – is the collective senior project resulting in one polished film per graduating class. Whereas art schools typically have all students undertaking an individual animation project, BYU animation creates a synergy by pooling all of the department's resources into one single project. The process takes roughly 18 months to yield a film running approximately four minutes, but the perennial productions are sufficiently impressive to attract attention from industry leaders like Pixar, which in 2008 entered into an official mentoring partnership with the BYU Center for Animation.

"(On 'Pajama Gladiator') we worked together like in a studio," Brother Porter said. "Everybody had a role and we had to work together to accomplish the film. We had to solve problems together rather than only on our own. Students from any other school have to work alone on their projects. They don't learn about collaboration and working as a team on a film. Working at a studio was just like working on our project at school, just on a larger scale."

The concept of a collaborative group project began evolving in the days before there was even an animation major at BYU.

"The group projects came early on when we had a lot students just on campus who said, 'I want to make movies, and there isn't a major for me. I'm majoring in this; can we get together?' " said Brother Adams. "So we would get together one night a week, and I'd mentor them through this thing, which allowed us to start saying, 'How does this work? What's working? How do we run this group?' "

When in 2000 the animation major was on the cusp of approval, Brother Adams brought in Kelly Loosli, a BYU grad who worked for four years in the animation industry at places like Disney and DreamWorks, to be an assistant professor and his right-hand man. Once the animation major got the green light, Brother Loosli used his experience working at major studios to streamline the group project paradigm so that it closely mirrored a professional working dynamic.

Said Brother Loosli: "A lot of people have wanted to change media from the outside, and we decided let's stop trying to do that. Let's change media from the inside. Let's funnel as many [students] as we can out into the industry, and through their work ethic and working with other people, let's have them raise up into the industry and help influence it that way."

As the director of "Xing," Brother McKay has had a finger on the project's pulse from the beginning. But even he isn't quite sure how the film's plot came to revolve around three armadillos on the side of a highway in the Southwest United States.

"Originally our story was a lonely ghost in a ghost town who was lonely because there was no one to scare, so he causes someone to crash and then he has friends," McKay said. "We actually re-pitched it a bunch of different ways, and then we came up with a squirrel who runs out in the road, gets hit by a car, can't get a nut, and then the nut gets hit by a car and it's a ghost nut. … We finally had people draw a bunch of different things, and then they were like, 'Let's do armadillos!'

"I don't know how we got to this point – just tons and tons of story-by-committee that came up with this."

Once it was settled that armadillos were to be the principal characters of "Xing," a crew of students phoned the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City seeking an opportunity to conduct up-close observation of armadillos. Their request was granted, and Sister Harris has the video to prove it – footage showing surreal creatures with coats of armor making distinctive clickety-clack sounds as they waddle around on the long claws they dig with.

Already in the early stages of production, the center's film for 2010 is slated to star a rhinoceros named Izzy. If past performance is any indicator of future success, in two years' time "Izzy" could very well be thundering its way to yet another Student Emmy. Although the names and faces are always changing at BYU, the proverbial game remains the same for the Center for Animation as long as it can continue to attract enthusiastic and talented young adults who dreamt as kids about growing up to make cartoon magic.

"Ever since I was little, I've just decided I was going to do drawing for a living," Sister Harris said. "Especially when 'Lion King' came out, I was sitting in the theater going, 'Wow, cartoons – that's what I want to do, Mom! I'm going to do this for the rest of my life!' "

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