ATEC short films impress animation studio with intricacy

screen-shot-2015-10-17-at-3.10.01-pm-1050x591Summer animation class rushes to finish two shorts in 11 weeks

ATEC’s first summer Animation Studios class completed and screened two short films created under the guidance of Dallas-area animation company, Reel FX.

The students showed the shorts, entitled “Snatch” and “Terminal B,” first to representatives from Reel FX and later at a premiere at the Angelika Film Center in mid-September.

Peter Dang, an ATEC senior who came up with the original idea for “Terminal B,” directed and worked on the animation for the film. He said collaborating on the projects with experts from Reel FX was an excellent chance for students to get a taste of the real film industry.

“It’s a really great opportunity for you to work with people in the industry,” Dang said. “I, personally, learned a lot just because you get all these people from different departments that actually work in the industry, so they know how it works.”

Dang said he was going for a “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” aesthetic with the animation style used in “Terminal B.” He said the class had a lot of fun animating in that fashion because they hadn’t done anything like that before.

Because the course was only 11 weeks long, Dang said he and the team working on the shorts really felt the pressure of a time crunch.

“We just made decisions and the short just had to be finished,” he said. “And it was finished and I think it was a success.”

Asya Mantey, another ATEC senior, came up with the original story idea for “Snatch.” She primarily worked on lighting for both of the shorts and was the director for “Snatch.” She said it was the lighting that really suffered under the pressure of the deadline. Although the course finished in the summer, she and the rest of the lighting team worked well into September to complete their jobs.

“We were all working every hour we could to work on the lighting of these shorts,” Mantey said. “So my first few weeks of school were literally me going to class and then going right to the lab to work on lighting … Now I actually know it’s really tough making animations and it’s something to really appreciate.”

Normally, the ATEC Animation Studios classes have two semesters to finish just one short. Mantey said she felt the harsh deadline was actually helpful in forcing them to work quickly and efficiently.

“I think it’s necessary to be under a time crunch or else you’ll never get it done,” she said. “I thought it was really impressive we did manage to do two shorts in a summer.”

ATEC junior Ethan Crossno credited the help and guidance of the Reel FX team with the class’s ability to finish two shorts in such a small amount of time.

“They had a lot of helpful little tricks that really sped it up,” Crossno said. “Without the stuff that they gave us, we probably wouldn’t have been able to make them in 11 weeks. It’s a pretty big feat to do two shorts in 11 weeks.”

Crossno was involved in the lighting and texturing of both shorts. He also was in charge of setting up a pipeline — a way for clips to move between departments like lighting and animation smoothly — for the project. For this class, Crossno reworked the existing pipeline to allow lighting and animation to be done at the same time.

“There are hundreds of things that could go wrong and all of them go wrong,” he said. “It’s just a lot of teamwork with the other departments.”

Once the two shorts were complete, the team showed them to Reel FX to hear their feedback on the finished products. Crossno, Dang and Mantey all said the representatives from the company were really impressed with the shorts.

“It was really nice having them around and hopefully we’ll be able to have future projects with them,” Mantey said.

Originally published in The UTD Mercury

AIR Time featuring ATEC Professor Todd Fechter

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

airtimelogolines3_categoryAIR Time interview: 7:00 – 7:45 p.m. followed by a screening of the Matrix at 7:45 p.m.

Alamo Drafthouse

100 S. Central Expressway

Richardson, TX 75080

Admission Info:   Admission is FREE, but when reserving a seat online you must purchase a $5 food voucher which can be used at the event. Walk-ins are welcomed, but a reservation guarantees a seat.  Tickets are available at


Todd Fechter ‘s professional background is in the field of 3D computer animation. He has experience working on both television and film productions, which he gained while employed at DNA Production, Inc from September 2002 through June of 2006. There he held the position of Head of Environment Modeling, where he led a team of eight modelers in the planning and creation of all environments and props.

After leaving DNA Productions he worked as a freelance 3D artist providing both modeling and texturing services for various companies including Jeep, Ember Studios, Reel FX Entertainment and NASA.

In October 2006 Fechter accepted a position at Element X Creative as Head of Modeling. There he worked on various projects ranging from promotions to a direct to DVD animated series.

Fechter is currently the Interim Dean of the school of Arts, Technology and Emerging Communication and an Assistant Professor of 3D Computer Animation at UT Dallas. During this time he has been able to integrate his production experience and expertise into his teachings with the goal of better preparing students to reach their professional aspirations. This includes the creation of the first online Arts and Technology computer animation digital class material archive where students have unlimited access to course materials and examples that allow for off campus learning and review.

Fechter will present the work of his students as he shares two short films — “Snatch” and “Terminal B” — during this AIR Time interview.

AIR Time is a program of AIR (Arts Incubator of Richardson) in partnership with Alamo Drafthouse Cinema/DFW. This program is funded in part by the City of Richardson Cultural Arts Commission.

Hang around after the interview fora screening of The Matrix at 7:45 p.m. This 1999 film features a stellar cast including Keanu Reeves , Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss.


Animation Students Find Ideal Habitat for Producing ‘Sticky’

A young chameleon is learning how to blend in with his environment in a new short film from UT Dallas’ Arts and Technology (ATEC) program.

Sticky is the brainchild of 32 undergraduate and graduate students who spent two semesters planning, drafting, building and editing the short. The multidisciplinary production team consisted of various types of artists, animators and designers. Overseeing the students were assistant professor Eric Farrar and associate professor Todd Fechter.

“It takes a year to complete a project of this size. We start at zero,” Farrar said. “Students pitch ideas, storylines, and after we select one story to work on, we spend time refining the narrative. The next steps involve building everything from scratch — the characters, the characters’ environment, the texture, lighting. It takes a long time to achieve a final product.”

Farrar and Fechter bring years of industry experience that helps guide the long process. Farrar worked on the films Night at the Museum and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Fechter has worked on the television series The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius on Nickelodeon.

designing sticky
Thirty-two undergraduate and graduate students spent two semesters planning, drafting, building and editing Sticky. For behind-the-scenes details about the short, visit the course’s website.

This is the second project that has emerged from the two-semester animation studio course. Last year, students released FrightLite, a film about a boy who grapples to overcome his fear of monsters. This time around, Farrar said the makeup of the students altered the outcome of the project.

“Each class has a slightly different concentration of skills and talents among the students. This year, our animation, the movements, are perhaps a bit simpler, but the look and feel is more sophisticated,” Farrar said.

The openness of the space invites students to gather on their own to meet and solve problems. People are more likely to run into each other here. The quality of the building certainly adds to the success of our projects.

Eric Farrar,
Assistant Professor

Students said the class was centered on building and maintaining positive relationships among one another.

“Just like in any successful studio, this class is all about teamwork, respect, dedication and hard work,” said Huda Hashim, who is pursuing a master’s degree. “When talented students collaborate on the creation of an animated short, you realize that there is always more room to learn and improve to become the best that you can.”

Hashim said that she hopes her experiences better prepare her for a future in the world of animation.

“This class creates an energetic environment for dedicated students to explore and learn new 3-D techniques, and the ability to connect with other students and professors was beneficial,” she said.

Hashim said she is enrolled in the third iteration of the class, which started this semester, to remain motivated and challenged.

While working on Sticky, students were, for the first time, housed in the new Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building. Farrar said the new space provided new places for students to work together outside of class time.

“The openness of the space invites students to gather on their own to meet and solve problems,” said Farrar. “People are more likely to run into each other here. The quality of the building certainly adds to the success of our projects.”

FrightLite to be Screened at Student Filmmakers Association

FrightLite, an animated short film created by Arts and Technology animation students and faculty, has been selected for screening at the SMU Student Filmmakers Association Spring Film Festival. The film depicts a boy who grapples to overcome his fear of monsters.

(L-R) Arts and Technology masters students Vincent Lo with fall 2013 graduates Sarah Wright, Greg Slagel, Ashley Hackett and Chelsea Suarez at the USA Film Festival. The students participated in a two-semester course to create the animated film.

The event will take place at the Mockingbird Station Angelika Film Center on Tuesday, May 6 from 7-9 pm. A question-and-answer session will follow the films.

Earlier in the year, the film pre-screened at the Self Medicated Film Festival (RxSM) in Austin, TX. RxSM, which takes place each year alongside South by Southwest, features boundary-expanding storytelling that falls outside of the mainstream. 

FrightLite also screened in April at the USA Film Festival, where it was a finalist in the National Short Film and Video Competition. The USA Film Festival festival, now in its 36th year, encourages excellence in the film and video arts.

Animation Program Gets Top Marks Second Year in a Row

For the second year in a row, the UT Dallas Arts and Technology (ATEC) animation program has been recognized by Animation Career Review among the best program nationally and regionally.

Animation Career Review cite the ATEC program as  the number two animation school program in the southwest and 20th nationally.  The criteria used in making this list consists of academic reputation, admission selectivity, depth and breadth of the program and faculty, value as it relates to tuition and indebtedness, and geographic location.

10-25-13 UTD ATEC-81 (1)

According to the Animation Career Review, “Animation programs on the cutting edge are often those that seek to bridge the gap between technology and art, and UT Dallas’ Arts and Technology Department is no different. What is unique is the way in which the program combines an array of faculty and students with varying interests- from performance artists and gamers to programmers and designers. The B.A. in Arts & Technology is tailored to each student and includes animation, interactive games, virtualworlds, sound design and more. An M.A. in the department works similarly, as does the MFA and PhD programs.”

Animation courses in Arts and Technology continue to produce an array of outstanding work by students who are guided by faculty that have been heavily involved in the production of both feature films and pieces which push the boundaries of the industry.

New 3D Film Celebrates Tricks and Treats

With Halloween still months away,  Arts and Technology faculty member Todd Fechter’s new animated film honors both the trick and the treat of the annual celebration.

Rigg R Reet is a 3D animated film about a little, candy-obsessed girl who stumbles onto a trick-or-treat jackpot. The film combines a unique, hand-sketched look with a streamlined production workflow. The final look of the film is meant to closely resemble the original 2D concept sketches.

Rigg R Reet recently played in the Cleveland International Film Festival and will show at the Athens International Film Festival.

“Beyond just telling a story, this short focused on new production methods which allow for highly stylized visual looks in extremely reduced economic ways,” said Fechter. “The goal was to enable small teams and individuals to create 3D animations containing recognizable, signature elements of their own artistic styles to break away from the current standard 3D look.”

The film was produced and directed by Todd Fechter with contributions in the areas of rigging and animation from fellow ATEC faculty members Eric Farrar and Sean McComber.

Follow the production online.

ATEC Alumni Put Animation Skills to Work on Feature Film ‘Free Birds’

The new feature film Free Birds is a digital showcase for the finely detailed work of local animators, including four UT Dallas alumni who contributed to the project.

Sing Khamnouane BA’05, MFA’08; Kenneth Kanipe BA’09; Nicholas Shirsty BA’10, MFA’13; and Edward Whetstone BA’11 graduated from the Arts and Technology (ATEC) program and now work at Reel FX Creative Studios, a visual effects company in Dallas that animated the film.

“We’re responsible more or less for putting together the final image that ends up on screen,” said Whetstone, a lighting and compositing artist.

The film opened Nov. 1 in theaters nationwide. It centers on two buddy turkeys, Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson) and Jake (Woody Harrelson), who travel back in time with feisty fellow turkey Jenny (Amy Poehler) to the first Thanksgiving, in an attempt to take turkey off the holiday menu.

It may sound simple, but animating a full-length feature is incredibly time-intensive and highly technical, said Eric Farrar, assistant professor of 3-D computer animation who taught three of the four alumni.

Animation work is broken down into specialized phases, Farrar said. First, working from 2-D drawings, modelers, like Khamnouane, build 3-D static wireframe models on the computer. Khamnouane built Free Birds characters that included the president’s daughter, baby turkeys and Chief Broadbeak.

Sing Khamnouane

“We produce an accurate translation of the 2-D concept art into the 3-D world. So basically everything you see on screen was built by a modeler,” Khamnouane said.

Then rigging artists, like Kanipe, take the models and create joints and bones and control handles, which allow the models “to move in an intuitive way,” Farrar said.

Kanipe said he and other rigging artists created a skeletal system for each piece of geometry used in the movie – characters, vehicles, props and environments.

Next, character animators take the rig “and put it through its paces and really bring the character to life,” Farrar said.

Lighting and compositing artists, like Shirsty and Whetstone, then add nuance to each scene.

“We place digital lights on a digital set in a similar way in which a cinematographer would with real lights on a real set,” Whetstone said. “There are many settings you can adjust – how the shadows behave, how the light falls off and the color of the lights – but the main thing is to determine where the light is coming from.”

The next step is rendering, where the computer interprets the settings and colors the lighter has set up, as well as the textures and colors painted on the 3-D models of the characters and environments.

Nicholas Shirsty

“All of these settings are run through an algorithm that calculates how the light, reflections and shadows behave,” Shirsty said. “This is an incredibly time-intensive process, so a lighter has to be efficient. How can I get the best-looking image in the least amount of time?”

It can take several hours per frame to render a single character, Shirsty said. And many shots might have hundreds of characters.

Free Birds was filmed in 24 frames per second and stereoscopic 3-D, Shirsty said. So for each second of footage on the screen, 48 different images had to be generated – 24 for the right eye and 24 for the left.

The last step of the process is called compositing, where the artist compiles an image from multiple layers – including the reflections and shadows – to create the final frame of the film. During this phase, color correction and final tweaks are done, Whetstone said.

Kenneth Kanipe

Kanipe said that working with ATEC professors like Todd Fechter and Farrar helped prepare him for the animation industry. For example, he studied rigging with Farrar for a motion capture project at the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, in which speech therapists attached sensors to track the positions of the tongue to provide visual feedback that could improve a patient’s therapy.

He also learned the importance of working together on an animation project.

“This is a rare industry where you need an entire team to work the many facets,” Kanipe said. “The projects we did making the digital shorts at UT Dallas were eye-opening in seeing how other people worked and got the job done.

“In art, unlike other professions, there is no one right way to get something done. There are many avenues one can take, and the more I learned from what other people did, the better a student and artist I became,” Kanipe said.

Shirsty said the animation production classes at UT Dallas and the quality of faculty equipped him to be able to put together a computer-generated project.

“The animation production classes were an especially good simulation, and having professors who have worked in the industry was a key factor in developing my skills to be able to work on a feature film,” Shirsty said.

The alumni agreed that their ATEC degrees have helped launch their careers. And having worked on a feature film is a thrilling accomplishment that speaks well of the program.

“It’s a big deal,” said Farrar about the film’s release. “We’re really excited. Our graduates are able to work on a Hollywood-level film without having to move out West.”

A private screening of the movie for UT Dallas alumni is planned as part of Homecoming 2013 festivities. The already sold out event at the Alamo Drafthouse will feature an appearance by the alumni who worked on the film.

Animation Faculty and Alumni Premiere New Films

Two animated films premiering this year feature the work of Arts and Technology faculty and alumni: Disney Pixar’s Toy Story of Terror and Reel FX studio’s Free Birds.

ATEC Faculty Sheds Light on Pixar Film

Toy Story of Terror

ABC, Disney Channel, and Disney XD recently premiered the new Disney Pixar’s Toy Story of Terror Halloween special featuring the lighting work of Arts and Technology professor Kyoung Lee Swearingen.

What starts out as a fun road trip for the Toy Story gang takes an unexpected turn for the worse when the trip detours to a roadside motel. After one of the toys goes missing, the others find themselves caught up in a mysterious sequence of events that must be solved.

The cast includes Tom Hanks, Joan Cusack, Carl Weathers, Timothy Dalton, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn and Kristen Schaal.

Toy Story of Terror was so much fun to work on because of the amazing crew,” said Swearingen. “Collaboration is always the key to success behind Pixar’s films, and I am hoping to deliver more of that spirit to ATEC.”Swearingen joined the Arts and Technology fall 2013  and teaches lighting and composition courses.

Prior to joining UT Dallas, Kyoung worked as a technical director of lighting for major films from Pixar such as Brave (2012), Cars 2 (2011), Up (2009), Wall-e (2008) and Ratatouille (2007).

ATEC Students Take Turkeys Off the Menu

On Friday, Nov. 1 the animated film Free Birds in opens in theaters. The film features two buddy turkeys, Reggie and Jake (voiced by Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson), who travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving to take turkey off the menu.


Created by Dallas-based Reel FX studio, the film features the work of over 15 ATEC alumni in various animation departments including lighting, modeling, shading, rigging, animation, and rendering.

Associate professor of 3D computer animation Todd Fechter also contributed to the film creating set and prop models.

The same group of alumni have begun work on the animated feature film The Book of Life executive produced by Guillermo del Toro and set to be released in 2014.

ATEC Students Shine Bright with 3-D Animated Film ‘FrightLite’

From concept to completion, the process of making a two-and-half minute computer animated film can take an entire academic year, as a group of Arts and Technology (ATEC) students at UT Dallas recently learned.

In a new, two-semester course, undergraduate and graduate students in the ATEC program worked as a multidisciplinary team to create FrightLite, a short film about a boy who grapples to overcome his fear of monsters. “Everything in this animation is made from nothing. It took multiple teams, simultaneously working on different aspects of the project, from beginning to end. It takes a lot of time,” said associate professor Todd Fechter, who taught the course with assistant professor Eric Farrar.

Fechter’s professional experience includes working on the television series The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius on Nickelodeon, and Farrar has worked on the films Night at the Museum and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

“This course truly helps prepare students for careers in their respective industries – they become problem solvers, weighing their solutions versus the total benefit of the team,” Farrar said. “The course is really about allowing students to develop a skill set in an environment that allows them to experiment.”

Among the 25 students who worked on the project was Greg Slagel BA’13, who served as a project coordinator.

“The course provided a very exciting production experience. As the project coordinator, I had to stay up-to-date on everything going on in the project. If an animator added a single frame to their animation, that’s 1/24th of a second, then the lighting team needed to know about it so that they didn’t miss that extra frame,” Slagel said. “I also learned how to keep a team organized. For example, I made a map of everyone’s class schedules so team members could better arrange meetings.”

The process of creating the animation started with crude drawings and sketches, and, eventually, the early concepts and storyboards were created into 3-D images. From there, the students designed scenes, complete with sets and camera movements.