July 9, 2014

'Monster' comes to life

By Courtney Harrell | CU Denver

The Digital Animation Center’s Senior Lab 800R has one cardboard cutout of a Star Wars death trooper in the back corner, a few game controllers on a side table, and a pirate flag saying “render the booty” on the wall.

This is the place where 14 seniors in the College of Arts and Media, supervised by the director of DAC, Howard Cook, recently completed their group capstone project, “I Need My Monster,” a short film adaptation of a children’s book by the same name.

The display of intricately textured monsters took three semesters, or 18 months, of hard work directed by Stephen Baker, with technical direction by Tripp Vroman and Paul Conner. But all the animation students’ dedication is about to pay off.

People are talking

Shari Greenspan, the publisher of the children’s book, called the adaptation “exceptional” and praised the students for work that “brought the book to life and added dimensions that we couldn’t have imagined.” In an email to one student, the book’s illustrator praised the film’s “truthfulness and luminosity,” and Flashlight Press, the publishing company, will be proposing to Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores that they include the display of the film with the books. And that’s just the beginning.

“It’s the best one we’ve done,” Cook says of the film. “The overall quality, the attention to detail, and the follow-through was just superb on this project.”

Ready to compete

In a few months, Cook will be sending “I Need My Monster” to hundreds of film festivals around the country, including the biggest film festival of them all—the Student Academy Awards. Cook expects the film to see a lot of wins, and the students even fantasize that this time next year, they could be reuniting to accept a student Oscar.

Animation student Michael Launder blames the monsters for their success. “Everyone loves monsters,” he says. “It was fun to work with them.” From the hand-drawn sketches of the animated monsters on the lab’s fridge and the excitement on Launder’s face, it’s clear that making the film was fun for the students.

“How can you call this work?” Launder asks.

It’s funny to hear a student shrug off hours of hard work, sometimes 100 hours per week of hard work, as play, but that’s what he does. Launder points to the community of animation students as the main source of joy in the project and the primary thing he will miss now that the project is over.

His second favorite thing? The reactions.

One of Launder’s jobs was making sure that the eyes of all the monsters looked appealing. After spending 18 months fine-tuning such minute details as the amount of reflected light on the bottom of a monster iris, Launder says it’s easy to keep nitpicking every detail. When the film finally premiered at the Red Line Gallery in Denver, Launder was thrilled to see that the children in the audience couldn’t take their eyes off the eyes he had spent so long creating.

“They would sit there and watch it on repeat,” Launder says. “I’m talking five, six, seven times in a row. The kids loved it.”

Launder says it’s that feeling, watching an audience be moved by something you created, that has motivated him throughout the project. “I want to use visuals to move an audience,” he says. “I want to take a splash of blue and yellow and make you feel.”

Ready for the big time

Launder has friends like CU Denver graduate Jeff Gipson who are already making that dream a reality. Gipson is working as an animator for Disney, and when Launder visited him they went to a café where Walt Disney used to bring his animators for meetings. “That’s the dream,” Launder says.

Launder has applied for a job at Nickelodeon and internships at Blue Sky, Pixar and Dreamworks.  He feels ready to apply for these kinds of elite positions, and he should.

“Working on this project is about as close as you can get to real-world experience,” Cook says. “The students have to manage their own time, make creative choices, meet deadlines, and when they finish, they’re ready for the real world. There’s no book learnin’ for this kind of stuff.”

To prepare students for work in the real world, CU Denver provides some of the highest-quality lab equipment in the country, including motion-capture stages, high-definition cameras and computers with fully maxed-out RAM. Students have all the tools they could ask for, but that doesn’t change the fact that Hollywood uses thousands of machines to produce animated films like “I Need My Monster.” At a Hollywood studio, it takes hundreds of people to make movies like this one. It took only 14 seniors at CU Denver.

After working on the film, the animation students are qualified to get work doing animation in a variety of fields, including  forensics, engineering, architecture, games, and, of course, films. Animation is everywhere, Cook says. The students will never have a shortage of work.

Down the hall from Senior Lab 8A, there are other computer labs where the next class of animation students will soon begin their own capstone projects. Cook says the bar in the animation program keeps getting raised every year. The underclassmen watch the projects of the upperclassmen and always try to one-up them.

“The work just keeps getting better,” Cook says like a proud dad. “I can only imagine what’s coming next.”

Published: July 7, 2014 
Contact: courtney.harrell@ucdenver.edu