San Jose State Students Capture Bin Laden

With the aid of SJSU students, writer-director Scott Sublett’s Flash-animated feature hits the festival circuit and gets a DVD release.

September 2009 marked a milestone for students at San Jose State University in Silicon Valley, California. That’s when Cinequest Distribution released the DVD of Bye-Bye Bin Laden, a Flash-animated feature made by SJSU students under the direction of faculty pros. When the film premiered at the ’09 South Beach Animation Fest, it won the ‘Best Feature’ prize, and now that it’s available through Netflix, its creators are hoping their unique accomplishment will attract wider attention. ‘Making the film was in some ways easier than getting it distributed,’ observes animation director Dave Perry. ‘But Cinequest had the faith in the film to pick it up. And when the economy turned south they had the faith to keep it.’

A musical satire about war, TV and religious fanaticism, Bye-Bye Bin Laden was written and directed by San Jose State University film teacher Scott Sublett, based on his play staged at San Francisco’s Off Market Theater. When he had the idea of turning the piece into an animated feature, he envisioned a cross between South Park and The Daily Show.

Not being an animator himself, Sublett enlisted SJSU senior Jennifer Corker, an animation major who was taking his screenwriting course. She agreed to use her preproduction expertise to get the project going. ‘I had been an intern at Film Roman and I’d seen how the production process worked,’ Corker recalls. ‘I wanted our animation students to be able to see from start to finish how a feature is put together. Of course, a lot of people thought we were crazy to attempt this.’

To lead the team of student animators, Corker found Flash expert Dave Perry, who was teaching animation at nearby De Anza College and Cogswell Polytechnical. Corker notes, ‘The Flash course at San Jose State at that time was part of the film department and was more web based, so it wasn’t really considered animation. That’s where Dave was important. He taught Flash to a lot of our animators as we went along.’

Perry, whose background includes a stint at Colossal Pictures and web consulting for clients like Hewlett Packard, admits to being skeptical at first. ‘I had to evaluate whether this film was doable, because I was pretty certain that a feature hadn’t been done like this before. There was hysteria, and then denial, but about halfway through the first semester I became confident that as long as we could keep a reasonable core of students consistent across the semesters, that this was achievable.’

‘All the students who wanted to work on the project submitted demo reels so we could see what their capabilities were,’ says Perry. ‘We had a range of students’from those who were just completing their first animation class to seniors nearing graduation. We probably had about 50 students, with a strong core of about 15. They earned internship credit or upper division elective credit.’

The production of Bye-Bye Bin Laden showed students how to break down a feature project to make it manageable, and how to work as a team. ‘The entire first semester was all concept and visual look development, and storyboarding,’ Perry explains. ‘I worked with a select group of students to have them go through iterations of looks.’

In addition to teaching the students how to use Flash in a feature production pipeline, Perry showed them how to build character and background libraries. ‘In a short film, you can create backgrounds on a per-shot basis, but in long form you have to prepare backgrounds with an eye towards re-use. So there was a lot of technical instruction.’

The student animators worked in the media lab in the film department at San Jose State, as well as on their own computers. Perry notes, ‘We wanted the students that had Flash available to them at other locations to be able to access the latest assets, so the asset libraries were placed on the Internet. We used Google groups, and that allowed us to control the flow of updated stuff. That definitely sped the process up.’

It ultimately took three semesters to complete Bye-Bye Bin Laden, and the production utilized student voice actors, composers, arrangers and musicians. San Jose State music department chair Dr. Pablo Furman was one of the film’s producers, and music student Jason Buchanan contributed much of the score. As Jennifer Corker observes, ‘It was pretty amazing how student-powered this project was. It’s not a very common thing, but just when you don’t think it’s possible, animation finds a way.’

Several of the student animators from Bye-Bye Bin Laden are now working together on an original short, and a number of them are working at game companies. As Perry notes, ‘This film gave them a published credit coming out of college.’ Perry himself is currently spearheading a student film being made at Cogswell Polytechnical, but he’s kept in touch with writer/director Scott Sublett as well. ‘Scott occasionally says, ‘If I ever say I want to do this again, just shoot me!”

For more info, visit www.bye-byebinladen.com.