The lights dim as we open on the face of a cartoon man wearing an eyepatch and a fiendish grin. As a distorted industrial soundtrack hums in the background, he shifts the patch to cover his good eye, revealing a jet black orb that suddenly morphs into an eyeball. Suddenly, he begins drooling a lime green acid — it sinks past the bottom of the frame only to reappear oozing from the top of the screen, splashing onto his head and slowly dissolving him.
The clip’s director, Music, Theatre & Dance senior Sam Zettell, slouches nonchalantly as the video ends. The faces in the audience are tinted with a mixture of incredulity and awe at the clip’s complexity and eccentricity.
Somebody chimes in humorously: “I think you never cease to be incredibly weird, and I’m assuming you’re going to take that as a compliment.”
Zettell grins as the class bursts into laughter.
This is SAC 406: Computer Animation II, and these students are presenting their projects in rotoscoping, one of many animation techniques they learn over the course of the semester. It’s a labor-intensive process — one that involves tracing individual live-action frames and playing them together to simulate movement — and is a precursor to the course’s three- to five-minute final project. Due to the more time-consuming nature of animation, the clips are short, averaging between 15 and 20 seconds, and have low frame rates that give some of them a choppy, almost stop-motion feel.
To their professor, Chris McNamara, these students’ projects exemplify the creative berth animation gives artists. Though the source material many students chose was similar, varying approaches lent each project an unpredictable and unique sense of personality.
“There’s this initial thought: ‘Well, it’s all going to look the same,’ ” McNamara said. “Everybody — the way they hold their pen, the way they use their mouse, the way they approach what to include and what to exclude — I think it’s where the personality and the style of the individual artist come out in ways that you can’t anticipate.”
The diversity of the projects is impressive. In addition to Zettell’s avant-garde experiment, there are tributes to the Swing Era, featuring rotoscoped versions of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to Sinatra. There’s a cartoon mini-skateboard that flips along the cereal bowl it’s superimposed against. There’s even an animated version of Tom Goss, the University researcher often seen playing harmonica outside Shapiro Undergraduate Library.
For students like Zettell, this is the appeal of animation. This is a medium that can take fantastical concepts — like the living playthings of “Toy Story 3” and the ferocious, cat-like beasts of “How to Train Your Dragon” — and bring them to painstaking, heartwarming life. The ability to create one’s own fantastical world, free of the logic and predictability of live action, holds plenty of allure.
“The possibilities are much more limitless,” Zettell said. “To make really highly fictionalized stories in film, you gotta have a butt-ton of CGI, and it doesn’t always look as good.”
Despite its boundless creative potential, animation is relatively new to the University. It was first offered in the late ’90s as a night school program that used primitive technology. Since then, the program has moved to a brand-new classroom in North Quad, designed to balance students’ access to technology with professors’ constructive criticism. Desks along the walls feature rows of state-of-the-art iMacs, each running the latest version of cutting-edge software like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe After Effects. Students split their time between these platforms and the discussions, critiques and presentations that happen around the long wooden table at the room’s center.
“This room was really designed for a course like this,” McNamara said. “As much I want my students to have access to the computers, I want to have a lot of face time as well.”
This principle of seminar-like input allows McNamara to vary the pace of his teaching and give plenty of valuable feedback. In SAC 406’s advisory prerequisite, SAC 306: Computer Animation I, McNamara builds slowly from the ground up, constructing a solid technological foundation and allowing students from unrelated majors to get their feet wet and explore. Zettell, for example, is not a SAC major and started animation knowing almost nothing.
“I never knew how to use Photoshop,” Zettell said. “(SAC 306) starts with bare basics.”
A semester-and-a-half later, Zettell and his peers are their own one-person production companies. They create their own storyboards, score their own soundtracks, execute their own images and put the pieces together into the unique final products that flash across the screen. It’s this intense level of creative control and the opportunity to make something specifically tailored to a deeply personal vision that attracts students.
“A lot of students come to it in the hopes of not having to do crew-based work,” McNamara said. “(The students) tend to work individually, sometimes in small groups, and they basically take charge of everything.”
This system isn’t exactly how major animated studios work. The animated features vying for Oscar gold this Sunday are massive collaborative efforts — “Toy Story 3,” for example, has more than 60 people credited under the animation department. Instead, the course shares more with the creative process behind animated shorts. These projects trade financial resources for more time and artistic flexibility and can be just as poignant and critically acclaimed as their big-screen counterparts.
A prominent example of this phenomenon is this year’s “Let’s Pollute!” The brainchild of former Pixar animator Geefwee Boedoe, the short was directed and animated almost entirely by Boedoe himself over more than three years. It’s now nominated for an Oscar. Another example is “Wallace and Gromit,” a stop-motion franchise with its roots in the short-film format. Written, directed and animated almost entirely by Nick Park, the original short film, “A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit,” was also nominated for an Oscar in 1991 and became a blockbuster franchise. For the students of SAC 406, starting small and starting alone may be their key to future success too.