Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
PROVO — There's nothing too unusual about newlywed James Jackson's honeymoon plans this weekend — romance in Vegas, sunbathing in California — except, of course, he's got to swing by Hollywood to pick up the student Emmy he and his animator peers at BYU just won.
"I told my wife we didn't have to go," said the coproducer of Brigham Young University's latest animated short, "Kites," Wednesday. "She was like, 'Are you kidding?! You just won an Emmy!' "
Jackson shrugged his shoulders, a man clearly infatuated.
"She wants to go," he said with a sigh. "So, I guess I'm renting a tux."
Almost everyone in BYU's Center for Animation acts similarly casual about the award. It is, after all, the ninth student Emmy the department has secured in the past six years.
"We've won one-third of the Emmys," said R. Brent Adams, the center's director. "It's a little scary."
This year, students will actually bring home two of the three student Emmys Hollywood passes out for animated films: one for the newly completed "Kites," which tells the sentimental story of a little boy's journey as he deals with the death of his grandfather, and another for "Pajama Gladiator," completed in 2008, which follows a child through the perils of alien abduction.
Neither BYU's professors nor students went into this year's project expecting an invitation to Hollywood, however.
"We've done it before and we've done it again," Adams said. "But somehow it's still surprising — stupefying, really."
Adams said, as a team, the animators, the computer scientists, the musicians, and all the other students who worked on the project decided to take a risk this year. "Kites," an ethereal, almost spiritual piece dealing with grief and death, is a far cry from BYU's tried-and-true slapstick comedies.
"We started out by telling ourselves we'd already failed," Adams said. "It's easy to make someone laugh in three minutes. It's not so easy to provoke thought and discussion."
The short film starts out in a stark, nearly empty bedroom, where a Chinese-American boy sits moping. He gets tears in his eyes as he first, glances longingly at a photograph of his grandfather and him flying kites together, and second, crumples up a hand-made get-well card. He tosses the crushed card out the window, and surprisingly, it's hurled right back at him. Grandfather's head isn't far behind, winking. The two are soon zipping through the clouds on the backs of elaborate Chinese kites, speaking to one another's hearts only with their eyes.
The students took a vote to determine whether or not to try out the unusual plot line.
"Some of the kids didn't like the idea at first, didn't think it was fun enough," said Jordan Pack, the 26-year-old producer of "Kites."
Pack, who graduated last year and is now working for Disney, said he feels a sense of accomplishment in having taken the "road less traveled."
The university frequently invites executives from major animation studios to drop by throughout the year to monitor students' progress and provide pointers. At one screening, Pack said, a few CEOs left a little teary eyed.
"It's cool to see that we can do that," he said. "I mean, I don't want to make people cry. But it's cool to see we can evoke that kind of emotion in just a few short minutes."
As head of the animation program, Kelly Loosli said he and the other professors generally spend most of their time "standing in the back of the classroom." That's part of the reason BYU has not only a tradition of bringing home student Emmys, but also a 90 percent success rate placing students with high-profile studios like Pixar, Disney and Sony.
"We don't want the students to work on our projects," he said. "We want them to own the creative content. When they take that ownership, artistically and in terms of the message they are trying to portray, they just kill themselves trying to make it work."
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