By Tyler Callister
In the culmination of the spring semester, Academy of Art University’s School of Animation & Visual Effects (ANM) hosted its annual Spring Awards show on Friday, May 6. The evening celebrated top student work across ANM and the School of Visual Development (VIS) with a superhero-themed show.
Livestreamed for the third year in a row, ANM embraced the format as faculty and staff donned superhero capes and masks, in some cases, flying through the city or shooting lasers from their eyes as they presented the night’s awards.
VIS Executive Director Nicolás Villarreal made sure the focus stayed firmly on the students. During his introduction, he praised their devotion to animation and visual development.
“We’re excited to share with you our annual livestream event,” he said. “To all the winners and runners up, congratulations. To all the students, we celebrate you, your passion, and your dedication to your craft.”
Academy staff, adjunct faculty, and industry professionals voted on the evening’s awards. Throughout the show, faculty and staff announced awards in 18 categories, including Best Short (both 2-D and 3-D), Stop Motion Animation, Production Management, 3-D Modeling, Cinematic Lighting, and Dynamic Simulation.
The range of creativity was eclectic, including M.F.A. student Wilma Miranda’s playful animation featuring samba-dancing parrots, which won Best 2-D Short Film. M.F.A. student Kalpak Deshmukh’s 3-D animation of an F-14 fighter plane shooting rockets at a tank won the Dynamic Simulation category. Meanwhile, B.F.A. student Jeongmin Koo won Best Storyboard for an eerie 2-D animated scene about a brother and sister running from zombies.
Arina Agafonova wins Director’s Choice Award for “Aurora”
B.F.A. student Arina Agafonova was recognized with the Director’s Choice Award for her 3-D animated short, “Aurora.” The Executive Director of 3-D Animation & Visual Effects, Catherine Tate, explained that this award acknowledges a standout student in ANM.
“What makes a person excellent in visual effects or animation? What makes us want to hire or work with someone?” Tate said during her introduction to the award. “Compassionate leadership, a team player, fearless innovator, tireless troubleshooter, passion for their work, an eye for art and design. Patience, a mentor with a good heart.”
Agafonova embodied each of these qualities, said Tate.
The B.F.A. student’s winning film follows the adventures of a woman riding a snowmobile in the arctic mountains.
Agafonova explained that the film used motion capture to create the animation for the main character. She used her iPhone to record facial animation and Rokoko Studio—3-D character animation software—to animate the body.
The film was not a solo effort; it came to fruition with the help of Agafonova’s peers. The student collaborators in Studio X—the Academy’s in-house production studio housed in ANM—helped produce the elaborate short film.
“There were a lot of challenges that we overcame because we had a great collaboration and helpful environment,” said Agofonova. “I’m very proud and pleased to work with so many like-minded people. But also learn a lot about each pipeline step… Thank you, everyone, for your hard work.”
Animating in the pandemic
Following the show, Tate said that the 2022 ANM Spring Awards represented many of the challenges and unexpected benefits brought about by the pandemic.
Previously held live at the Academy’s Post Street location, the Spring Awards have been presented online since 2020. ANM students and faculty miss the experience of celebrating student work in person, said Tate.
But she explained that there was also a silver lining for the many domestic and international ANM students who take Academy classes exclusively online. “What has worked well with the Zoom event is that students who couldn’t attend the event in San Francisco could easily join and have the same experience as onsite students,” she said.
Tate said the success of the online event would be a lesson for future events. “If we have the ceremony onsite, we want to make sure that we can give easy access to students and staff who are not local,” she said.
The real superheroes
While the ANM Spring Awards show clocked in under an hour, the production behind it was elaborate, shared ANM Editing Coordinator Will Ziegler, who was the editor and art director for this year’s show.
“The Spring Awards is the big one,” said Ziegler. “That’s definitely our biggest project every year. But it’s also the one where we get to be the most creative.”
Ziegler said that the presenter was recorded over Zoom for each award presentation and superhero effects were added. He started the process by asking each presenter which superpower they wanted.
For example, ANM Story & Storyboard Lead John Korellis turned into a secret agent who jumped through a window and flew through a city as he announced Best Storyboard. Graduate Associate Director George Pafnutieff turned into a masked superhero throwing knives at bad guys as he announced Best 3-D Modeling Hard Surface—all thanks to the magic of animation and visual effects.
Ziegler said that this year’s production was a collaboration across the school. Students from StudioX helped design many of the animated effects, as did ANM lab technicians. Ziegler said 2-D Lab Supervisor Julian Meyer played a significant role in creating the show’s elaborate introduction in which a red Academy of Art superhero is seen flying through a city.
“The lab techs are the backbone of the Spring Awards production,” said Ziegler.
Concluding the show this year was Stop Motion Lead Aaron Guadamuz announcing the awards for Best Stop Motion Animation. Dressed in a mask and cape, Guadamuz praised his fellow animators and students for their heroic work.
“If you ask me,” said Guadamuz, “the real superheroes are the ones who are putting in those long hours on the animation and visual effects that make it all happen.”
Watch this year’s Spring Awards in full below.