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How does working on a full scale production feel? Is it like the real thing, or does it feel like just another class? Nothing in Project X, a project-based animation design course, is previously produced. Everything, from sound to story to special effects, is generated by students. The process of design, composition and technical execution, when held to professional standards, sets students up for smoothly transitioning into their post graduate careers, and also renders them, in the words of one participant “more social, able to build really strong bonds with everyone, which is very much the atmosphere at creative studios”.

Steven Chitwood, class of 2015 and now at Disney Animation, described rendering this way, “Rendering is the process of calculating a final image from a computer. It’s the last step that lets you can see what you see on the screen. It requires a lot of computational power to make it so.” He was speaking to members of the community who had gathered recently for a private screening of “Trouble Brewing”, the latest Project X short animated feature that is now being shown at film festivals. The event featured a panel discussion among 10 alumni who had worked on the project over the past 2-3 years. How they quite naturally shared the stage and the spotlight between them illustrated what they have learned in the way of developing deep working relations. Sentences often started with a thought and someone else would elaborate or refine it, rendering a most enjoyable evening for all.

The Project-Based Class Offers A Creative Adventure

The panel was asked just how long it took the farm of render machines to compute the values for a single frame during the final stages of production (keep in mind that each frame is 1/24th of a second in duration and the final product is over 400 seconds in length, or over 10,000 frames to be rendered for the entire film). Vineet Vijaykumar, class of ’16 and now at Method Studios, estimated the time required to calculate a single frame of the Troll character, once his skin and clothing was textured and lights were put on the scene, took about 40 minutes. “And the environment in the scene was another 30 minutes as well. And if it didn’t turn out the way you wanted it, you had to do it again. And, you had to find out what was wrong with it before you could do it again!”

For all Project X teams, students are selected to participate in the development and production of an animated short feature based on their animation coursework, skills and abilities to work on a project over an extended period of time. As the project evolves, so does the makeup of the Project X team, with each semester bringing in a slightly different set of skills and personalities.

The origins of “Trouble Brewing” were established with guidance from faculty to produce something with goats and a troll, with a theme of a character that acts out and learns that their actions have an impact on others. A small writing team assembled to develop the concepts and illustrate them in storyboard form. This first stage of the project produced a final storyboard for the project in the first 6 weeks. From there, teams of technical engineers and artists created digital models, developed motion systems for them and animated them to bring the story to life. Backgrounds, objects and sounds were designed to flesh out the experience. Finally, textures were applied to surfaces, lights were cast and elements in scenes were composited together prior to rendering finished frames.

For students taking a full course load, Project X required long hours. “I just brought my computer in from home and blasted away”, said Steve Chitwood. “I tried to stay in the project room as much as I could. It was definitely a good work load but well worth it.” Jason Bursese, ’15 and now at Kabam Games said, “On the audio side of the production it was long hours. Here we were, full time students and this was another job on top of it.” “That’s exactly what it was”, said Richard Ash, class of ’15 and now at Avisys, “The caliber of work that was being done in the audio classes was already high, and we were always trying to do better. We were always pushing ourselves to perform at as high a level as we could.”

Pictured (from left): Vineet Vijaykumar, Bugi Kaigwa, Steven Chitwood, Jamil Green, Jason Bursese, Kristal Sana, Kegan Chau and Steven Mortensen

The Project-based Environment Creates Team Bonds

“We always had teamwork” added Kristal Sana, class of ’15 and now at Blur Studios. “It was very similar to how it works in the industry. You have a team lead, you have supervisors and directors, both students and faculty. It’s a learning curve with teammates. We didn’t have to rely only on ourselves. I learned from people here on the panel and I am grateful”. Added Vineet, “The project-based environment is different from classes. It wasn’t the case where you get an assignment for a week and then it’s due and you get graded. Here it was an iterative process. My role was in compositing, so I would start with rendered frames and then ask what was the color or tone or mood we are looking for with a shot. Then I would work on it and show it for feedback on a Tuesday. I’d them go back and work on it some more and show it on Thursday. That back and forth enabled me to do things, sometimes by accident, which turned out really nicely. I enjoyed Project X. It felt like having fun and at the same time working and trying to create something that is really beautiful.”

Kegan Chau, class of ’15 and now at Hangar 13, a subsidiary of 2K Games, said, “There is a difference between working on a project and balancing your classwork in college. Now, I am asked to focus on a single project at work for a prolonged amount of time.  It’s a different mindset- it’s not like the more you push, the faster it will get out.” Jamil Green, class of ’14 and now at Apple, said, “I modeled the character of the Troll in ‘Trouble Brewing’, but I had to overcome doubt as I started my career. It can be very intimidating. When you see actual job listings, you look at all the requirements and they are looking for years of experience. At my current position, I applied for the job a year before I got the offer. So, that is one thing that I’ll suggest to students coming out of college. If there is a job role that you want, don’t be afraid to apply for it. It might come in handy just when you need it. Because, for me, it actually did.”

Everyone on the panel smiled knowingly when Vineet said, “My first day on the job I said to myself, ‘oh my God, I don’t know anything… I have so much to learn’! But the good thing from that is you have that feeling and you are hungry to learn, but at the same time your co-workers know that you are new and they are more than willing to answer your questions. Sometimes it’s a little awkward if they are wearing headphones and you have something to ask them! You learn from everybody. I have a pipeline responsibility so I’ll learn from different coders, but at the same time I can talk to artists and learn their workflow. I will come away with an understanding, to say ‘OK, so this is what we have to do’. Your willingness to learn and the passion that you have is what brings you forward.”