The aim of every film student is to make an award-winning short that earns them recognition on a global scale and opens doors to a lucrative career in the entertainment industry. However, very few will know what it feels like to be honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, especially for something they made in school. We recently got in touch with this year’s Student Academy Award winners’Sarah Wickliffe (Art’s Desire), Youngwoong Jang (Mirage) and Bevin Carnes (A Leg Up)’to find out what went into their stand-out projects and how the win has changed their lives.
Director: Youngwoong Jang (School of Visual Arts, New York)
Film: Mirage (Gold Award)
Animation Magazine Online: How did the idea for this film come about?
Youngwoong Jang: There is a question for Buddhist meditation: how to fill a pot broken at the bottom with water? Mirage is my autobiography based on uncertainty. Since I was born, I have been collecting knowledge, skills and materials. However, I have never been satisfied with my status because once I achieve a goal, I then pursue the next goal. When I was a high school student, going to a university was my first goal. After I got to university, getting a job became my ultimate goal. After I got a job, I wanted to get a higher position. While I was pursuing a goal to another goal, I realized I would not be satisfied with my circumstance. Now, I am studying overseas with my wife and my six-year-old son. Although I well know that my wife wants me to have more time with our family, I say in order for our family to have a better life I have to work harder than when we were in Korea. While I was studying at School of Visual Arts in New York, my father in Korea passed away from heart failure. He was healthy when I left Korea. His sudden death wakes me from my endless desire to get better life. Then, I started to meditate on what my life means. What do I struggle for? Although I realize happiness could be in my mind depending on how I see my life and the world, I could not get away from my endless desire, just as my robot character always wants more water. That is the reason he could not recognize that he was already living in water. Mirage is a story about my life as a collector having endless desires.
AMO: What software and other tools did you use?
YJ: I used Softimage XSI as a primary animation tool, Real Flow for water and Shake for compositing. Even though our MFA computer department at School of Visual Arts offered only Maya classes, I decided to use XSI because I already had a few years experience with Softimage 3D. I thought it would be easier for me to learn XSI than Maya. As a result, I did not have a lot of chances to gain software knowledge from my teachers and classmates.
AMO: What was the biggest challenge or stumbling block?
Mirage is my first short as a thesis film. I am not a good storyteller and also I had never trained as an animator. Animation is about storytelling. How does a bad storyteller make a good animation? But it is visual storytelling so, instead of using verbal or body language with characters, I chose to focus on visual language, layout, color, pose and editing. I especially tried to catch meaningful moments from life and I expressed subtle emotional changes within Mirage. Like most artists, I feel many regrets with Mirage, but it keeps pushing me to my next project.
AMO: How has winning the Student Academy Award affected the project and your life in general?
YJ: I can have a dream I had never imagined. My goal was just pursuing a career to get a better job for living. After having the award, I actually feel that I got attention from many people in the film industry and started to feel that there may be a way to keep my passion on my own creative project as a filmmaker. On the other hand, having this high honor makes me feel stressful. I might have good luck so I have to learn more about filmmaking and business. At least, I had a good start for my future work.
Jang is currently working as a lighting technical director at Blue Sky Studios on Fox Animation’s CG-animated adaptation of the Dr. Suess book Horton Hears a Who, set for release in March of 2008. He’s also struggling to find time for an independent project of his own, and says he doesn’t want the security of steady work to detract from his passion for filmmaking. He hopes to one day have his own small animation studio.
Director: Sarah Wickliffe (New York University)
Film: Art’s Desire (Gold Award)
AMO: What inspired you to bring classic works of art to life in a comical way?
Sarah Wickliffe: When I transferred to NYU from Pratt, one of my first assignments was to design two characters and do 100 poses of them in a week. I was a little overwhelmed and searched through an art book for inspiration. When I came upon Guernica, for some reason I focused on the screaming woman holding the baby. It’s, of course, a very serious painting about a tragic subject, but, with my sick sense of humor, I kept thinking about how funny it would be to go about your daily activities with your head upside down. I made the ‘drawer lady’ a companion to the flounder-headed Picasso woman. By my senior year, I knew I wanted to make a film in a museum. I saw it as an opportunity to showcase many different styles of animation and work with paintings’my first love. Most importantly, I decided I wanted to make a film about a character taking the initiative to change their situation for the better.
AMO: How long did it take to make and what did you use?
SW: I started writing a treatment in August of 2005 and finished the film in May of 2006. So basically it was a little over the length of an entire school year, working every available moment, forsaking Saturday nights out and sacrificing sleep.
For software, I used Maya 7, Photoshop CS, After Effects 6.5, Final Cut HD, Corel Paint and this neat little program called Frame Thief, which is essentially a digital lunchbox. I bought a student license for $30 and that enabled me to pencil test from the comfort of my own home. And, of course, I used a good old-fashioned pencil, paper and a light tracer.
AMO: What part of the production process gave you the most trouble?
SW: I’d say the biggest challenge was the 3D backgrounds, just because Maya isn’t something that comes naturally to me. It can be pretty technical and, overall, I just prefer to draw. However, with some yelling at the computer, the guidance of my amazing 3D professor, Phil McNagny, and the help of some Maya whiz friends, it all worked out.
AMO: How has your life changed since winning the Student Academy Award?
SW: I made Art’s Desire for my own personal enjoyment, but also to fulfill an assignment. I submitted it to the Student Academy on a lark, figuring “What the heck, nothing to lose.” I had been working as a production assistant and suddenly people want to interview me, take my picture and ask if I have representation. I’ve used it as an excuse to really get going on some of my personal projects. I know opportunities like this don’t come around every day, and sometimes never at all. I’m currently working on a couple of pitches for animated series that I’m hoping to shop around in the near future.
AMO: What are your ultimate career goals?
SW: Immediately, my aim is to direct and produce my own animated content for television and perhaps film. My ultimate goal is to run a studio of my own. I have always wanted to run my own business. My father, Paul Wickliffe, built a very successful recording studio from the ground up. My mother, Roseanna Vitro, is a jazz vocalist who has always sought to maintain her artistic integrity. The both of them have been invaluable role models in balancing art with business and I hope to do the same.
Director: Bevin Carnes (Ringling College of Art and Design)
Film: A Leg Up (Silver Award)
AMO: Your robot story is much more light-hearted than Youngwoong Jang’s. Tell us how you made this musical flight of fancy.
Bevin Carnes: By the end of my thesis preproduction class at Ringling, I had learned so much about story that I felt I could do a lot better than the animatic I came out of that class with, so I made the tough decision to start over during the summer. The story evolved a lot in the process of trying to get it approved by the faculty, and the final animatic was almost completely different from the original idea that I came up with, but I always tried to make sure that the story had meaning to it that was personal to me and was something I really wanted to say. It’s very gratifying that now when I talk to people about the film they seem to get the message I was trying to get across.
I used Maya, RenderMan, Photoshop, Shake and Premiere to make this film. The biggest challenge I think would be trying to tell the story in the two-minute time limit. It’s hard to even get a story to make sense in a film that is two minutes or less, much less try to say something meaningful with that story. Also having a lot of characters was a big challenge technically. To all you students out there, I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but don’t have six characters in your thesis!
AMO: What has come out of your brush with Oscar?
BC: Winning the Student Academy Award has been absolutely amazing, and is a dream come true for me. I think the best thing that has come out of this award so far has been that I have gotten to show my film to a lot of people who would otherwise not have seen it. It means a lot to me that people enjoy my film, and it lets me know that I’m on the right track with my filmmaking. I hope that this award will lead to further opportunities for me to make my own films.
AMO: What are you up to now and what are your professional aspirations?
BC: I am currently an animation apprentice at Rhythm and Hues. Ultimately, I would like to make my own feature films some day, and perhaps have my own studio. I’m also very interested in the future of gaming, and how games might merge with film someday. I think there is tremendous potential in interactivity as far as conveying emotion, and I think that someday gaming could become a high art form that could explore a broad range of meaningful topics, just as film does today.
Watch both Art’s Desire and A Leg Up on AniMagTV (www.animationmagazine.net/tv). Mirage has been picked up for distribution by Shorts International.