Thursday, August 14, 2014

CAR:530: Film and Animation Production in Context in LA

This May, Bob Dacey (Illustration) teamed with Heath Hanlin (Transmedia) to take a selected group of 19 Syracuse University Illustration, Film, Computer Art & Animation majors to Los Angeles for a two-week industry immersion in animation and film. Most of the presenters who took time from their busy schedules to share their professional expertise with the students were SU alumni. Several arranged studio visits that were the highlights among an impressive group of experiences.

This opportunity was sponsored by two prominent alumni: Pixar Executive Vice President Jim Morris (NEW’77) whose works include Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Up; and Illumination Entertainment Executive Producer Chris Renaud (ILL’89) whose works include Despicable Me 1 & 2, Dr. Suess’ The Lorax, and No Time For Nuts.

We started off the first day at the SU Los Angeles (SULA) facility in Sherman Oaks with Glenn Vilppu for an afternoon session of figure drawing emphasizing movement and weight. Glenn is the artist who the animation studios rely on to teach their animators effective drawing for character animation.

That evening, filmmaker Sarah Price, SU alumni Pete Sestina (NEW‘06), and independent Director/Producer Brent Barbano (FIL‘07) gave presentations at SULA. They all emphasized the importance of self-development, persistence, and networking…a theme that would be repeated throughout our contact period.

Rachel Moorer (CAR‘12) and Dylan Moore (CAR‘06) gave presentations Tuesday evening at SULA in which they shared their personal journeys in the LA market and how that has influenced their creative work.

Wednesday morning started with a visit to Floor 84 Studio. Owner Jeff Hardy (ILL ‘98) gave an inclusive tour of the studio, which provides Animation, Gaming and Special Effects for major clients, including the Bear Grylls franchise. Students moved freely around the studio talking with the animators and technicians for a first hand look at the pace and work ethic of a small ten-person studio.

Wednesday was capped at the SULA facility by an evening presentation from Adam Reynolds (NEW‘06), who spoke passionately about the directions the LA film market is taking today and how that will affect filmmakers coming along.

Thursday started with a four-hour tour of Sony Pictures Imageworks hosted by Visual Development Director Michael Spooner. After an informative 1½-hour presentation by the heads of each animation division, including SU alumnus Dave Bleich (CAR‘98), the students had lunch at the studio and continued on a tour of the visual effects and animation facilities. This included a rare chance to operate the animation motion-tracking equipment that was used to give a natural feel to camera movement on the recent Amazing Spiderman II movie. Everyone lined up for this opportunity and had a blast viewing the results.

That evening Michael Spooner visited with us at SULA and gave what the students would later refer to as the most engaging presentation of the entire two weeks with highlights from his work for Dreamworks, Disney, Warner Bros., Big Idea and Sony Imageworks. The students had grown up watching animations for TV and movies that Michael had created. He has agreed to come out to speak at Syracuse in the near future.

Friday was spent at Santa Monica and Venice Beaches with a lunch sponsored by Pixar executive vice president Jim Morris (NEW’77). The daylong character study assignment for each of us, instructors included, was to use a block of 4"X4" post-its and a medium Sharpie to draw caricatures of the vendors, tourists and local characters. The results were critiqued on Monday back at SULA.

Monday of the second week started with a critique of the beach location drawing assignment, after which we settled into another figure drawing session at SULA. The students demonstrated an impressive level of ability interpreting their observations, both from Friday’s exercise and the controlled studio environment.

This was followed by evening presentations at SULA by alumni Marc Zeltzer (CAR 2000) from Fox Studios (South Park) and David Horowitz (CAR’05), who spoke of the ability to be a "Jack of all Trades" to make it in the animation and film industries.

Tuesday’s visit to the Aaron Simms Company, at the invitation of SU alumnus Andrew Lewitin (CAR ‘05), was another opportunity to mingle with special effects animators working on diverse ads and sequences for commercials and movies such as the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

That evening, alumnus Mike Baylis (ILL‘03) from Fox Animation (American Dad, Cleveland Show) gave an informative and entertaining presentation of his career path with the twists and turns it has taken. Alberto Abril (CAR‘04) finished up the evening discussing his 10 years at Disney working on films such as Frozen and the effective use of acting out scenes in interpreting and defining a character.

On Wednesday we took a trip to the Getty Museum with its incredible view of the entire city of Los Angeles and its boroughs. Students explored the impressive grounds and architecture where works from Rembrandt to Pollock were on display all adding up to a comprehensive overview of artistic endeavors.

Wednesday evening alumnus Mike Stern (ILL 2000) flew down from San Francisco to share his experiences at Dreamworks as lead animator on Train Your Dragon II, and now, at Pixar as lead animator there. Mike listed the five factors he feels have helped him succeed in this competitive field: acting, technical knowledge, design sense, musical interests, and…"anybody’s guess". He also emphasized acting physicality as an important skill to work out scenes.

As Mike ran off to catch a plane back to SF, alumnus Valarie Lettura-Spletzer (SCU ‘82) gave a comprehensive overview of her 17 years at Dreamworks Animation …starting with the first integration of computer graphics into an animated feature film with scenes from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, to the latest developments in technology for animation. She invited us to tour the Dreamworks campus on Friday.

The final presentation for this long evening was alumnus Mike Franceschi (ILL’01), a ten-year veteran from the Disney Studio (Wreck it Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6). Mike emphasized truth in acting by working with an acting coach to understand basic human emotion grounded in reality as the basis for powerful animation.

Thursday started off with a tour of the Disney Animation Studio in Burbank. Still riding high on their success with Frozen, we were treated to previews of Disney’s soon to be released feature Big Hero 6. We were all impressed as we were escorted along hallways covered with original one-of-a-kind artwork interpreting well-known Disney characters.

Back at SULA that evening, Dennis Recchia (ILL‘76), a 17-year effects veteran at Dreamworks, shared his extensive knowledge of the industry with a presentation on the involved process of animation production. Susannah Tantemsaby, who focused on the artist’s role in social responsibility, followed him. The last presenter for the evening was visual effects artist Andrew Lewitin, who had hosted us for the Aaron Simms Studio visit.

Friday wrapped everything up with a five-hour tour of the Dreamworks campus as guests of layout supervisor Valerie Lettura-Spletzer. Peter Campbell, from recruiting, gave an informative talk on internships and other opportunities at the Studio, which was followed by an extensive walking tour and lunch, after which Valerie lead us through a history of the studio and shared her expertise on technological inventiveness. Valerie has agreed to visit the SU campus soon to share her interests and experiences with a larger student group.

Friday evening was a wrap-up with the opportunity to thank all our alumni/presenters with an outdoor dinner gathering at one of Sherman Oaks’ superior hamburger joints.

During our Friday afternoon recap of the two-week immersion, it was clear that the students considered this a life-changing experience. It was hard to pinpoint a highlight with the incredibly informative presentations from alumni eager to share their insights with the next wave of creators. According to the students, Mike Spooner’s presentation stood out as it reflected their development as visually aware individuals. The studio tours were memorable as well, but above all it seemed to be the down-to-earth reality this immersion offered that the students would bring back with them as they focus on their education and careers.