Texas A&M lab preps grads for Hollywood special effects industry

Thursday, May 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Brian Green’s job: Bring to life a squatty ankylosaur named Url for Disney’s high-tech film Dinosaur. But how to do that when Url can’t speak, unlike the movie’s other prehistoric heroes?

Man’s best friend threw him a bone.

"I got most of my inspiration from my roommate’s dog," said Mr. Green, a 30-year-old Houston native and a graduate of Texas A&M University.

Inspiration was only half of what Mr. Green needed, though. Making the computer-generated Url trounce and yap like a playful pup took serious computer and artistic skills. Skills he developed at A&M’s elite Visualization Sciences graduate program.

While enrolled in the program, Mr. Green learned to use the same animation software Disney employed to create Dinosaur. The film, which liberally blends filmed footage with computer-generated animation, made $38.6 million at the box office last weekend to debut at No. 1.

Those trained at the "Viz Lab" as the academic program’s main work area is known - for years have played key roles in some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.

Simply put, students learn to communicate ideas visually. Instructors rain upon them concepts of art and computing, teaching them to create and tweak images with software.

Viz Labbers are highly valued in software development, forensics and multimedia. But the film industry comes calling loudest, seeking students’ expertise in computer-generated images.

"For many years, our students were almost exclusively going to Hollywood," said Bill Jenks, manager of the Viz Lab. "That’s where the money and sexy jobs were."

Movie studios and effects houses typically hire former students as "TDs" or technical directors - people in charge of lighting, coloring and modeling computer-generated scenes. Recruiters rank Viz Lab students with those of California Institute of Technology, Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Texas A&M students created effects for Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (lab grad Tim McLaughlin oversaw the development of Jar Jar Binks, the hyper alien that was completely computer animated.) They breathed life into the Toy Story films, Antz Fight Club, Alien Resurrection and dozens of others. Their work has also appeared in the Academy Award-winning short films Geri’s Game (Pixar, 1997) and Bunny (Blue Sky Studios, 1998) and on television shows and commercials.

"Studios know [former students] have technical and artistic skills," said Pixar’s Stephen King. Mr. King worked as a shader on Toy Story 2, meaning he digitally painted skin, clothing and other textures onto Buzz Lightyear, Woody and other characters in the film.

Mr. King studied at the Viz Lab from 1993 to 1996 but never finished his master’s thesis. He’s not alone. At the time, studios were so desperate for qualified technical directors that they hired students faster than the lab could produce them.

"I put off doing interviews as long as I could because I knew I would get an offer I couldn’t refuse," Mr. King said.

The demand tempered toward decade’s end, and school officials said most students now complete their theses. But Hollywood is still hot for Viz Lab.

"Viz Lab students come particularly well prepared for technical direction," said John Donkin, managing technical director for Blue Sky Studios in New York City, which employs seven former students. "They get a good understanding of the technology beneath the tools."

The short but happy life of the Texas A&M Viz Lab came about partly by design and partly by coincidence.

Technology was the impetus, as affordable computers became more prevalent in the mid 1980s. Faculty within Texas A&M’s College of Architecture moved to create courses that would mix computers and architecture, Mr. Jenks said.

A graduate-level program received approval in 1989. By this time, interested students already had a head start in the university’s new Visualization Laboratory, which was equipped with the latest computers and imaging software.

A&M joined a only a handful of universities with similar programs, Mr. Jenks recalled, most notably the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design at Ohio State University.

"We knew it was inevitable that computer design was going to play a role in everything, not just Hollywood," he said.

In fact, the program didn’t aim to train special-effects artists. It just so happened that the program’s first few years coincided with a "bubble" in Hollywood - when computer effects began to take center stage in filmmaking.

Memorable movies, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park, heavily used computer effects. The rapidly evolving technology became a growth industry. Industrial Light and Magic, the standard bearer of special effects founded by George Lucas, soon found itself in competition with such rising companies as Pixar, Will Vinton Studio, Blue Sky, Pacific Data Images, Rhythm and Hues and more.

Viz student and Grand Prairie native Jodi Whitsel went to work for Blue Sky in 1997, when the studio was in production for Bunny. The seven-minute film, entirely animated and using revolutionary lighting techniques, won the studio its first Oscar.

"Initially, I wanted to go into multimedia," said Ms. Whitsel, who created lighting for about one-fourth of the film. "When I interviewed at Blue Sky, they were working on Bunny. I thought, anybody who wants to make movies like that, that’s where I want to be."

Whitsel entered visualization sciences with an artistic background - she majored in architecture as an undergrad. At the Viz Lab, she bolstered her programming skills. The mix prepared her surprisingly well, she said, for her job at Blue Sky.

"A lot of what we did at school was the same as what we did here," Ms. Whitsel said.

The Viz Lab’s success in developing both artistic and technical talents is a big factor in the Hollywood attraction, said lab director Fred Parke. And he predicts the demand will persist.

"The cost of computing is coming down and the power and speed is going up," Mr. Parke said. "The use of visual effects won’t be limited to high-end studios who have bigger budgets. It’s trickling down to television. I think a major limitation is going to be the number of people with this talent to make use of the technology."

Getting into the visualization sciences program isn’t easy. The acceptance rate averages 25 percent. Mr. Jenks said ideal candidates performed well as undergraduates, scored high on their graduate records examinations (GRE) and show personal drive and vision.

But opportunities abound once inside. Students have at their disposal the latest animation and modeling software, computers and video editing equipment. There’s even a small studio.

The Viz Lab is where the aspiring visualization experts test drive what they learn in class. Slowly, over the course of several semesters, they develop one or two major projects.

For all the glitz of computer-generated effects, the creative process is extensive and tedious. Viz Lab student Barbara Ellison spent two semesters making a movie based on Hindu goddess Kali. Ms. Ellison filmed a real woman for the sequence but used computers to add an animated backdrop and imbue the woman’s eyes with a fiery glow. Total running time: about 30 seconds. Projects like Ms. Ellison’s make up the bulk of each student’s demo reel. By the time people leave the lab, they’ve typically amassed 90 to 120 seconds of film to show prospective employers.

Those who opt for film and effects jobs enter an ever-changing world.

Ms. Whitsel is working on a Blue Sky production titled Ice Age. The all-animated film will be a major theatrical release, according to the company. Pixar’s Mr. King is on the production crew for a film titled Monsters Inc., and Mr. Green created work for Disney’s summer release Fantasia 2000.

Technical directors are expected to be a key component of future computerized special effects. Mr. Donkin of Blue Sky said the biggest challenge facing Hollywood effects artists is making familiar objects look more real - people, cloud patterns, water. He said it’s only a matter of time and talent before near-perfect onscreen realism is the norm. "As we get better at doing things that are familiar and real, we can do fantastic things that are completely believable," he said. "Because the technical directors are often the ones who have to figure this out, they’re very important."