Cause for Celebration

By Greta Chiocchetti

The School of Animation & Visual Effects’ (ANM) annual Spring Awards proved that even a global pandemic wouldn’t keep Academy students from producing top tier work this year. 

Streamed live via YouTube on May 8, the ceremony showed off the most polished and entertaining projects from both ANM and Visual Development students, including storyboarding and animatics, art and layout design, 3-D modeling, stop motion, visual effects short films, as well as both 2-D and 3-D animation short projects.     

To win an award, the work needed to be of professional quality, according to ANM Director Catherine Tate. “First of all, it is a show, so we look for the entertainment factor and how it would present to an audience of varying people: from people in the industry or even people that are not in the industry,” Tate said, noting that students didn’t miss a beat this year.

Director of the School of Visual Development and 2-D Animation Nicolás Villarreal agreed that students surpassed expectations given the semester’s challenges. 

“I am extremely proud of the work created by our students for this year’s Spring Show,” Villarreal said in an email. “I was concerned that the quality might be affected due to the drastic lifestyle change we all encountered these last few months, but the students put out a product equal to previous Spring Shows. I am truly inspired by their determination.”

Tate credited the Academy’s robust online learning program along with the department’s IT team for providing students with everything they needed to succeed throughout their transition to online learning. 

“As we speak, there are people working in our labs virtually,” Tate said. “We actually can have students log into the computers in the lab remotely and use them as if they were there. We also gave students access to what we call a render farm, which means that they could use multiple computers to finish their jobs. If we hadn’t been able to do that—if we hadn’t been able to give them machines and give them access to our labs—I don’t think we would have been able to do what we did this year.”  

Among the many impressive works recognized during the ceremony was M.F.A. student Xiaokang Hao’s visual effects short film, “Alien,” features a monstrous extraterrestrial creature creeping through a forest in search of a magical mushroom. Along with the short’s grotesque, slithering sound design, its rich, masterful lighting and animatics proved that it earned its rightful place as the category’s winner. 

This year, one of the most impactful works came out of Studio X, a series of student-run collaborative classes based on real animation and VFX studio experiences. “Redemption,” which won the award for 3-D animated short, tells the story of a man who is preparing to end his life, but at the last moment is faced with a new reason to carry on. Meticulously produced over the course of several semesters by students and faculty alike, “Redemption” was overseen by ANM instructor Derek Flood, who supervises the CG animation arm of the Studio X program.  

“When you’re a student, you might take months and months and months to make something on the computer, and you’d be really proud of it,” Flood said. “But when you come into a [professional] studio, they’re like, ‘Cool. Do that in one week.’ That’s what we’re trying to simulate.” 

Originally, “Redemption” was a master’s thesis by student Seora Hong, who wrote and directed the piece. Flood identified the short as a great story with the potential to be a valuable addition to students’ demo reels, and with Hong’s permission, guided Studio X students through the piece’s look development, cinematography, lighting and rendering processes.     

Studio X also had a hand in the actual making of the Spring Awards ceremony. This year’s theme paid homage to the city by the bay through San Francisco-themed animatic transitions, which were produced and edited by eight students and 14 faculty members. 

Editing Coordinator Will Ziegler said he came up with the idea for a San Francisco theme back in December before he knew that a pandemic would force many Academy students to abruptly leave their beloved city halfway through their semesters. The transitions included recognizable landmarks like the Land’s End labyrinth and Dolores Park, reimagined with creative animations.  

“It felt really appropriate, that people who had to return home could still get to see the beautiful city and all these landmarks,” Ziegler said. “That kind of just happened to work out⁠—we were lucky that we were able to capture all the footage before the shelter-in-place hit, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to do it.” 

Ziegler said he wanted to reflect the hazy, dreamlike state that most of us are likely in at this time in history through the show’s transitions—but he wanted to offer a sense of comfort, too. Through the use of warm colors and some dreamy lo-fi music, Ziegler said he hoped that viewers at home would be invited to relax and celebrate their accomplishments together. 

Sergio Rincón, an ANM master’s student, was one of the many collaborators working on the show’s bumpers. Rincón, who also submitted winning work to the VFX Compositing Category and was the runner up in the VFX Short category, used images of colorful graffiti murals around the Mission District for his transitions. 
“I wanted to get the most out of my time here at the Academy,” Rincón said of his decision to get involved. “Joining the Spring Awards production team seemed like a good way to do that—and I was really happy with the way the show turned out. We all contributed some great work.” 

See all of the winners be announced during this year’s Spring Awards below.

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