Dreams Come to Life in UM Animation Program

In a darkened computer lab in McGill Hall, a group of students works on two animated films. The artwork is so smoothly drawn, so carefully crafted, that a viewer might think it’s created totally by machine. But these students know better. 
  
Digital artwork
They are all seniors in the School of Media Arts’ digital animation program. For their capstone project, they’ve formed a small production unit. They are taking two stories each from concept, storyboards and initial drawings to a finished animated film.
 
Assistant Professor Heejoo Kim, who presides over the class in an advisory role, fields technical questions while keeping the projects on schedule.
 
“I’m treating them professional-ish,” Kim said with a laugh before reminding the class to keep one story tight to the original scope. “We need to simplify the story. If you want to graduate, you need to finish this.”
 
Kim also fosters the collaboration that the budding filmmakers can expect to encounter after graduation, making the lessons learned in school even more valuable.
 
“We’re learning a vocabulary of media arts,” said Cody Whitmer. “I don’t do rigging, but I am able to talk to Kento [Kamimura, the crew’s rigging guru and camera operator], and he knows what I’m saying.”
 
A student works with digital animation on a computer.
Though human hands guide the process, technological horsepower is harnessed at each stage.
 
There’s the modified Microsoft Xbox Kinect system that helps with motion capture — a version of the technology used to bring Gollum to life in the “Lord of the Rings” films. Then there’s a room full of computers powerful enough to crunch the data generated by high-end, 3-D modeling software. Students access this professional grade software thanks to the Korean company FXGear, which donated licenses, a gift valued at over $300,000.
 

“Most of us had never touched 3-D modeling,” said Lauren Mackey, one of the crew responsible for the detail work of texturing animated characters and landscapes.
 
Located far removed from the world’s movie capitals, this advanced media arts program exists at UM because of an alumnus who found success in the bright lights of Los Angeles. Palmer West produced such acclaimed independent films as “A Scanner Darkly” and “Waking Life,” both of which feature animation styles that captivated critics upon their releases. A $1 million gift from West and his wife, Alison (also a UM alum), helped launch the media arts program and has fostered the next generation of talent right here in Montana.
 
“These kids — with Heejoo’s help, she’s a big part of why they’re producing at such a high level — are doing some amazing work,” said Mark Shogren, director of the School of Media Arts. “I think they’ll be go-to people. They have a strong chance of entering the industry and potentially bringing the industry to Montana.”
 
Students have landed internships with the cable network SyFy, and many have dreams of working in film after graduation. But the talent and skills required to master animation aren’t just useful in Tinsel Town; animation skills are in high demand worldwide to produce videos for medicine, real estate and more.
 
Until graduation day, this group of seniors will continue working on their films, frame by painstaking frame. In addition to having a professional-quality piece for their personal demo reels, they hope to enter their work in film festivals around the country.
 
“Through this process I want students to learn and experience the real world and how people promote themselves,” Kim said. “If they show their work around the world in festivals, they not only promote themselves, but our new program at UM.”
 
To find out more about the Digital Animation BFA, visit umt.edu/MediaArts