A Fruitful Challenge for Asian-Pacific Students

Dedicated professionals from Lucasfilm, Rhythm & Hues and Rising Sun Pictures help launch Autodesk’s successful animation boot camp.

The pros came from Singapore, America and Australia, bringing animation expertise gained on The Clone Wars, Happy Feet, Terminator Salvation and many more high-profile projects. Lucasfilm Animation’s Ben Huber, Rhythm & Hues’ Markus Kurtz and Rising Sun Pictures’ Daniel Thompson accepted Autodesk’s invitation to mentor and evaluate teams of college students competing in the first PANORAMA Asia Pacific Animation Challenge. Held last December in Hong Kong under the auspices of Autodesk and the Cyberport IncuTrain Centre, the four-day ‘bootcamp’ was, in Thompson’s words, ‘Very intense. At first I thought, ‘What can these guys possibly get done in four days?’”

What the 11 teams created (and which are posted at http://www.apac-panorama.com/content/Home) were short films animated in a striking array of styles. The students, who came from Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Australia and the Philippines, labored to finish these films at breakneck speed. ‘Most students worked 16 to 18 hours a day,’ recalls Kurtz, who is director of production technology at R&H, L.A. and a veteran of Superman Returns and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. ‘On the last night, they even worked through the night. This boot camp provided a playful simulation of a real working environment, with technical challenges, a compressed time frame, lack of sleep, teamwork, excitement, creative challenges and real deadlines. It gave the students a good taste of what real production environments will be like.’

The professionals did their initial critiquing together and then worked individually with three to four teams each, providing technical and creative feedback. ‘We realized early that we had to do some sort of triage, to separate things that could be addressed in such a short time,’ says Huber, who usually supervises lighting and compositing for Lucasfilm’s Clone Wars and whose credits include War of the Worlds and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. ‘One of the most important skills in this industry is managing the best quality of work, given time constraints. We spent a lot of time re-editing, shortening or re-emphasizing. It was a good reminder of how hard it is for artists to let go of their work once they’ve fallen in love with it. Cutting out a shot that took a lot of sweat and tears to create but makes the story drag is tough. But that’s an important lesson. Some teams took that better than others.’

Fixing Those Technical Glitches

‘For some, it was a matter of making small changes to bring a film to a point where it worked,’ observes Thompson, who’s worked in a variety of capacities at Rising Sun on films including Australia and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. ‘I tried to let the students do as much as they could on their own using the resources they were allocated. But there was the odd technical hurdle that students would come across where I offered some hands-on assistance.’

While the mentors shared their technical expertise when needed, Huber views the event in a broad creative context. ‘When somebody decides to pursue a career in animation, they concentrate on learning what the tools can do’for example, how they can assist in shadowing an object’but they forget to learn the basics of why a shadow would fall a certain way, given the light. Understanding those basics is the difference between a good shot and a great one.’

Throughout the event, the students found time to document the event behind-the-scenes via flip-cams, and their footage was posted on the PANORAMA micro-site. Sony Pictures’ Asian cable channel Animax also documented the Animation Challenge with a variety of vignettes about the competition. The commitment of the students was evident, despite the obvious pressures. As Markus Kurtz recalls, ‘They took advantage of every minute to improve their work based on our feedback.’ The students’ films ultimately were judged not just on the final results, but on the amount of progress each team made over the course of the four days.

In the end, the PANORAMA Champion Award went to the team from the City University of Hong Kong for the film Tancho, animated by Oscar Sheikh and Sin Yu Tsang. The runners-up were My Territory (by Chin Kuan Win, Julian Chai and Yow Han Chong) and Nature’s Roar (by Loh Yong Kang, Tan Guo Xiang and Teh Beng Eu). Both of these teams were from The One Academy in Malaysia. ‘Based on the quality of the work,’ concludes Thompson, ‘some of these students were ‘industry-ready.’ I was a student myself just four years ago, and I would have jumped at an opportunity like this. If you are a student I highly recommend that you apply for the next round.’

To learn more about the boot camp, visit www.apac-panorama.com.

Ellen Wolff is an award-winning, Santa Barbara-based journalist who specializes in education, visual effects and animation.