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.”

ATEC Student’s Whimsical Graphic Novel Takes Flight

Building on the design and animation skills she has developed in the Arts and Technology program, UT Dallas student Alyssa Lee recently published Candy on a Plane, her first graphic novel for children.

Candy on a Plane is Alyssa Lee's first graphic novel for children.

The book and a collection of art and animations – spawned from wondering, “What if clouds were made of cotton candy?” – has been a labor of love.  Lee said, “I’ve worked on Candy on a Plane between classes since 2009, and several people have been following its development.”

The project grew into much more than a comic over time, as now it includes 2D and 3D animations, T-shirts, buttons, mugs, cards and a cookie recipe.  She also founded the company COAP Inc. to oversee the works.

Candy on a Plane follows the adventures of a yogurt-covered raisin named Raigurt, who boards a plane to the Rocky Road Mountains. The plane is full of optimistic candies and sweets ready for a mountain vacation, but unexpected challenges – such as when the plane gets caught in the clouds – disrupt their flight.

Alyssa Lee has been working on Candy on a Plane since 2009.

Candy on a Plane helped channel my skill growth as an artist and animator,” Lee said. She took the project from idea to completion, from the story, characters, illustrations, color and layout, to formatting, marketing and promotion.

The graphic novel is available for purchase on the Amazon Kindle, and in print through Indy Planet.

Lee has also been accepted to the Animation Mentor online education program, which she’ll begin after finishing her ATEC bachelor’s degree at UT Dallas.

Film Festival to Screen 3 UT Dallas Video Projects

Three films produced by students and faculty at The University of Texas at Dallas have been selected for the upcoming Dallas International Film Festival.

The 2010 Dallas International Film Festival runs April 8 – 18, and three UT Dallas-made video projects have been chosen to participate April 12 in the North Texas College Showcase, featuring the best work from students of local universities.

Among the selected videos are UT Dallas Arts and Technology (ATEC) Assistant Professor Todd Fechter’s animated short The Longest Moment, which tells the story of a pair of loving stop-motion puppets who dream how their relationship could have been once their animator retires for the evening.

Literary studies graduate student Brad Sanders’ Aint I a Womanquestions the socially constructed boundaries of gender through the journey of Lesley (a transgender doll).  The film examines its theme at intersections with high technology and advanced capitalism as part of a vision of a post-gender future.

Finally,  Arts and Humanities PhD student Luis Fernando Midence’s live-action online video, Uncertain, relates the drowsy dream of a teenage boy who has taken an overdose of pills to end his life in response to the bullying he’s suffered at school.

All three videos will be screened Monday, April 12, at 10:15 p.m. at theAngelika Film Center Dallas (5321 E. Mockingbird Lane) as part of the college showcase. Tickets are $10 per person and can be purchased online at the film festival Web site or at the venue the day of the event.

ATEC Prof to Take Clinical Concepts to Virtual World

Assistant Professor Marjorie Zielke has been awarded a three-year, $350,000 grant to create online training in neonatal nursing through an ongoing collaboration with the UT Arlington School of Nursing (UTASON).

“Student learning will be enriched by faculty perspectives from across the country,” Marjorie Zielke said of her project.

Zielke, with Arts and Technology (ATEC) faculty members Monica Evans, Frank Dufour and Todd Fechter, will build a Web site that allows student nurses to be taught concurrently by faculty from Dartmouth University, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the University of Texas at Arlington and Stony Brook University School of Nursing in New York.  The new research enhances subject matter review and creates a more portable learning experience.

“Student learning will be enriched by faculty perspectives from across the country,” said Zielke. “Students also will benefit from the social community of other graduate-level nursing students through this virtual learning environment.”

The course subject matter covers conditions in fetuses and babies under 2 years old.  Students can download a lecture as a podcast or video, and then follow up with a virtual examination of an infant in a no-risk environment. The virtual environment allows for endless practice and limitless scenarios in a risk-free environment. For instance, the instructor can program symptoms such as respiratory distress into a 3D model, rather than teach based on the conditions of patients visiting a clinic or hospital on a given day.

ATEC students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels also will participate in this project, performing research, modeling, animation, story development and computer programming.

Research project sponsors are the UTASON, with principal investigator Dr. Judy Leflore, and the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Professor Zielke is thinking beyond the virtual classroom. In addition to her work on grants from The University of Texas System and other healthcare organizations, she plans to create a virtual baby, which is difficult because of the current technology used to capture motion. A researcher cannot, for instance, direct an infant to raise its right arm so that the cameras and computers can capture every nuance of the movement as a basis for animation.

“We like to take on complex projects that no one really knows how to do,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in being able to represent humans virtually, both physically and cognitively. Representing non-verbal communication is especially challenging.  This line of research has the potential to make a major difference in the way online medical education and medical simulations are done today.”

ATEC Alumnus Builds Career, One Monster at a Time

Tony Tyler’s infatuation with computer animation began with Tron, the groundbreaking science fiction film from 1982. Decades later, he read an article in the UTD Mercury about the University’s new Arts and Technology (ATEC) program and thought perhaps he could learn how to create virtual worlds and the creatures to inhabit them.

B.O.B. (voiced by Seth Rogen) meets a hot little number in green at the Murphy family reunion in DreamWorks Animation’s Monsters vs. Aliens.

Today, the ATEC alumnus brings characters to life for DreamWorks SKG, including those from Monsters vs. Aliens.

For the full-length animated film, Tyler worked as a technical director for the character effects department. The job involved pipeline engineering – creating software programs that provide the foundation, or skeleton, for animated images and link components – software development and troubleshooting artistic problems.

One of the most challenging aspects of his job was getting the cloth simulation, which replicates the texture and movement of woven material, robust enough for the movie.

From left: These Monsters — The Missing Link (Will Arnett), Ginormica (Reese Witherspoon), B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), Insectosaurus and Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie) — defend the planet in DreamWorks Animation’s Monsters vs. Aliens.

Monsters vs. Aliens was the most complicated film DreamWorks has done in terms of simulated cloth,” Tyler said. “Every character – even the little ones way in the background – had simulated cloth, which added an awesome touch of realism.

“The challenge was to make it as easy as possible for the artists to use while allowing them the flexibility to implement their creative whims.”

His favorite character of the film is B.O.B., a brainless, indestructible gelatinous blob voiced by Canadian-American actor Seth Rogen.

“Everything B.O.B. says in the film is sheer comic genius and really stood out for me as one of the most enjoyable parts of Monsters vs. Aliens,” said Tyler. “B.O.B. the animated character did some pretty amazing things. I was fortunate to be able to help develop a pipeline that helped the artists truly bring that character to life.”

Tyler graduated in 2004 from the University with a master’s degree in Arts and Technology. He studied 3-D animation and film, as well as game development and production.

“The ATEC program fostered a belief in myself and my creative abilities that didn’t exist until that point,” said Tyler. “I am so very proud of all that I accomplished in my time there, and very thankful for all the support and opportunities I was afforded.”

Monsters vs. Aliens was released in March, and grossed more than $59 million its opening weekend. The movie’s worldwide box office receipts since its opening total $364,691,105.

“Tony’s dedication and technical and aesthetic background have prepared him for a leadership role in the world of special effects-based entertainment and interactive communications,” said ATEC program director and Arts and Humanities Distinguished Chair Thomas Linehan. “He will have a major design-role early in his professional career because he is well–trained in both arts and technology.”

The Arts and Technology program in the School of Arts and Humanities offers bachelor’s, master’s and master’s of fine arts degrees.

Game Design Competition Takes it to the Next Level

Team Claims $35,000 for Developing Functional Demo and Business Plan

Eight teams of game creators from The University of Texas at Dallas found out Friday night whether their products had won them a share of $50,000.

First place went to “Balance of Power” an iPhone game that puts the player in the role of an arms dealer who provides weapons to both sides of a war.

In the second Computer Gaming Entrepreneurship Competition (CGEC), teams spent nine months creating a functional demo game and comprehensive business plan.

The winning games of the 2008-09 CGEC are:

  • First place and winner of $35,000 in cash prizes and development money – “Balance of Power,” an iPhone game by the 5 Minute Games group. The game puts the player in the role of an arms dealer who provides weapons to both sides of a war.
  • Second-place winner and Hughes Ventures Award for Excellence in Innovation recipient – “Hour Zero,” an adventure game and detective story in both 2D and 3D for Xbox 360, created by the Frisky Pixel team.
  • Third place – “Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages,” a top-down 2.5D space shooter scenario that blends fast-paced action and massively-multiplayer online (MMO)-style customization, developed for XBOX Live Community Games, designed by the Triple B Titles team.

“This level of support by Kingdon Hughes of Hughes Ventures helps us place the study of game development right next to the study of the business of game production,” said Dr. Thomas Linehan, ATEC program director and Arts and Humanities Distinguished Chair.“Kingdon helps our students connect to the real world they are about to face.”

The first-place winners represent a cross-section of technologically cutting-edge schools at UT Dallas; 5 Minute Games team members are from the Schools of Brain and Behavioral Science, the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Arts and Humanities.

“I am continually impressed by the level of sophistication, innovation and hard work these students have shown,” said Monica Evans, competition coordinator and assistant professor of computer game design in arts and technology (ATEC). “Each of the teams worked on their own outside of classes for months to create these games, and I’m proud of each and every one of them.”

Second place and the Hughes Ventures Award for Excellence in Innovation went to “Hour Zero,” an adventure game and detective story for Xbox 360.

The first place team will continue to develop their game this summer with the assistance of Robert Robb, associate vice president of technology commercialization at UT Dallas, and Ludovick Michaud, creative director with Dallas-area animation studio Jamination, as well as faculty members from the ATEC program at UT Dallas.

Teams were made up of three to eight UT Dallas students. Teams received guidance and review of their games at checkpoints throughout the competition design phase.

“It’s a gift for us to have so many game industry professionals in the area who have helped by advising teams, judging the final submissions, or volunteering to assist the winners with further development,” said Evans. “It helps tether these games to the professional world, and gives our student teams a shot at creating something that will flourish beyond the University.”

Kingdon Hughes, head of funding sponsor Hughes Ventures, has high hopes for the competitors and for the ATEC program.

“Maybe someday a business venture will be started from these fledging projects,” said Hughes. “UT Dallas has an enormous opportunity to expand on the gaming business, thanks to Dr. Linehan and his team. With his leadership and the talent of the students coming out of the program, I can see the UT Dallas ATEC program becoming the #1 gaming education program in the country.”

The GCEC is sponsored by Hughes Ventures, UT Dallas, The Institute for Interactive Arts and Engineering and The Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. For more information about the competition, contact Dr. Monica Evans at (972) 883-4332 or visit the competition Web site at atec.utdallas.edu/cgec.

ATEC Prof Designs Robots for ‘Terminator’ Sequel

An Arts and Technology (ATEC) faculty member has had a small stake in whether the next installment in the Terminator series flies or flops at the summer box office.

Todd Fechter, assistant professor of 3D computer animation with the ATEC program in the School of Arts and Humanities, spent the last two months working on components of a viral Web site which supports the upcoming Warner Bros. release, Terminator: Salvation.

Todd Fechter may use the Terminator experience as a case study for his classes.

For the viral site skynetresearch.com, Fechter designed five robots for the “Products” section, which is designed to look like a corporate Web page for fictional company Skynet Research. Fechter designed full 3D models and wireframes for each of the five robots, which took 60 hours each to complete.

Fechter took on the project to keep in practice within his field and be associated with big-name material like the Terminator movie. He may even make the experience into a case study for some of his future classes, merging his private and public sector endeavors.

UT Dallas faculty member Todd Fechter produced some of the digital animation for Skynet Research, a Web site that bears information about the fictional corporation featured in the movie.

“UT Dallas students are really smart and technology-savvy,” said Fechter. “Some of the best ATEC graduate students come from other technology fields like engineering and computer science, where they develop a base layer of technical knowledge. When they come to ATEC, we equip them with creative strategic skills and specialized experience.”

Fechter teaches both undergraduate and graduate classes in UT Dallas’ Arts and Technology program. He received his BSD in Industrial Design and his MFA in Computer Animation from Ohio State University. Fechter has also worked on projects for Jeep, NASA and TV shows such as Jimmy Neutron.

High School Girls Talk Technology in Engineering School Tour

High school students visiting UT Dallas for Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day got a lab tour, an introduction to some of the technology behind high-tech toys and a thumbnail sketch of the path that brought one faculty member to her current position as an assistant professor of electrical engineering.

Dr. Rashaunda Henderson (far right) gives a tour to students from the Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School, with help from one of their teachers (far left) and UT Dallas student Anastasia Kurdia (third from left).

Students from Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School in Dallas visited the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science at UT Dallas as part of National Engineers Week.

During their tour of Dr. Rashaunda Henderson’s lab, they got a chance to operate two remote-control helicopters while Dr. Henderson explained the difference between one helicopter’s infrared system and the other one’s radio-frequency system. She urged the students to identify the area of study that they enjoyed the most and then dedicate themselves to mastering it. For her that was electrical engineering, and it took her first to Tuskegee University in Alabama and then to the University of Michigan, Motorola Inc., Freescale Semiconductor and UT Dallas.
“Engineering is about developing technology that will be useful for people,” she said, “and I believe women’s unique perspectives and creative insights are imperative to the future of the field.”

An expert on radio-frequency integrated circuits like the ones in cellphones, Dr. Henderson is pursuing research regarding the design and fabrication of microwave circuits and components for wireless applications.

During their visit, the Irma Rangel students also saw several other parts of campus, including the Arts & Technology (ATEC) Motion Capture Lab, where Dr. Midori Kitagawa showed the group how animators capture human movement. Animators, and particularly video game developers, rely on motion capture research because it can produce highly accurate and realistic movement results in a short amount of time. The girls also saw some animations produced in the ATEC program.

The girls also heard remarks from both UT Dallas President David Daniel and the University’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, Dr. Magaly Spector.

“Our first Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day was a tremendous success,” Dr. Spector said. “This community outreach program provided us a great opportunity to bring together female engineering students and faculty from UT Dallas and professionals from the Texas Instruments Women’s Initiative to encourage young women to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

The University’s first Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day was a joint project of the Galerstein Women’s Center, the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, the Arts & Technology Program of the School of Arts & Humanities and the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement, with the support of numerous student groups.

UTD Arts and Technology Program Hits the Road

The Institute for Interactive Arts and Engineering at The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) later this month will take its highly acclaimed program on the road — to the Mexican Research Center for Mathematics (known as CIMAT) in Guanajuato, Mexico — with a course in computer animation and Internet graphics.

The class, which begins on June 27 and is scheduled to last six weeks, will focus on advanced animation techniques and Internet graphic methods. Students will be required to complete an interactive technology project and will have an opportunity to use UTD’s state-of-the-art animation software.

Dr. Thomas Linehan, who is a director of the UTD institute, along with Pablo Trinidad, a Ph.D. student in arts and technology, will lead the undergraduate-level program.

According to Linehan, the class is believed to be one of the first of its kind to be offered in Mexico, and perhaps in all of Latin America.

“Mexico is a budding area for animation and art technology, and CIMAT has many talented students who are interested in pursuing careers in the field,” Linehan said. “By offering this course, we hope to provide a curricula model so that CIMAT could potentially create its own offerings and eventually establish an undergraduate program in arts and technology to complement UTD’s.”

UTD’s interactive arts and engineering tract, created in 2002 with the arrival of Linehan from The Ohio State University, has been at the forefront of adopting innovative new offerings in the areas of animation, game design and virtual-reality technology.

In January, for example, UTD announced the creation of an interdisciplinary Motion Capture and Virtual Reality Laboratory for the digital recording of motion in 3-D spaces and creating virtual-reality environments. It is one of only a handful of facilities in the country to employ cutting-edge technologies to facilitate the study of human movement, which could spur advances in many disparate fields, including entertainment, education, military, medicine and numerous other research areas.

Motion-capture technology typically is carried out by multiple cameras positioned throughout a lab that track so-called “markers” or reflectors placed on the bodies of live subjects. Data derived from tracking the movement of the markers are used to help create more realistic computer images of humans and even animals. Animators, and particularly video game developers, rely on motion-capture research because it can produce highly accurate and realistic movement results in a short amount of time.

UTD, through its Center for U.S.–Mexico Studies, established a formal collaborative relationship with CIMAT last February, but the two institutions have enjoyed scholarly and professorial exchanges for several years.