"Foremost, I like art. But I like art that tells a story, or has heart to it," he said. "In animation, you're able to create something that essentially has life to it, and people respond emotionally to it."
Digging deep to develop their art
Many, like Hannah Carver, a BYU sophomore who decided just this year to pursue a degree in animation, look to their peers for critiques and advice on improving their work.
"By and large, we get along well," Carver said. "It is a little difficult, when you think that you're actually competing against each other. But tearing someone else down doesn't make your portfolio any better."
Jackson turned to Pinterest while looking for inspiration for the last few drawings he needs to finish his application — the portfolio must include five-to-10 figure drawings, two-to-five 3D models, a sketchbook filled with sample illustrations and a complete 2D animated sequence.
"I don't feel like it's the most masculine thing to have," he said, "but there's actually a lot of amazing, cool stuff for animators on Pinterest."
While the prerequisite classes they take prepare students for the application process, most still have a long way to go before they are ready to enter the program, said Kelly Loosli, an associate professor in the BYU animation program.
"We don't necessarily promote visual art well in school," Loosli said. "Some have dabbled, but many have to dig deep to develop those art skills. Parents don't really think that there are viable jobs in the arts, so there isn't support for that early development."
Some students who need more time to develop their skills will take a year or more to practice before submitting an application, Loosli said. This is sometimes a good strategy — students are only permitted to apply twice before they are permanently barred from the program, and those who delay generally do better in the competition. However, there are also limits on the number of credit hours applicants can accrue before they are no longer permitted to enter the program.
"The big challenge is, how long do you delay?" Loosli said.
Nothing set in stone
The competitive nature of the program has, in recent years, actually reduced the number of applicants, Loosli said. In years past, the department could review as many as 120-130 portfolios each summer. Last year, only 100 applied; 92 applied this year. However, Loosli said the program also has seen more talent among applicants. Once, the department expected about 15 "shoo-in" students with each batch of applications, leaving 10 flexible spots for students with undeveloped potential. But they filled all 25 positions within hours of the application deadline this summer, leaving no room for deliberating which "on the cusp" students to admit.
"I didn't have a good night's sleep (the night of the review), because I was thinking about those kids on the cusp," Loosli said. "It just pains me to turn these kids away, because I know they could make it."
Some of those students rejected could still succeed in animation programs at other schools, Loosli said. But at the end of the day, rejection is one of the harsh realities that aspiring artists face.
"The industry is that much more competitive," Loosli said. "Every step along the way, there is much less opportunity."
Jackson, who Loosli said created some of the best storyboards he's seen from a student, was admitted into the program one week after the application deadline. Russon will join him. Both plan to work independently over the summer while waiting for their first round of animation classes to begin this fall — Russon continues to draw for the "Bothered" film, and Jackson has some concepts for a short film he would like to develop. If he has time, he plans to assemble an animated short in Flash.
"I definitely can't rest now — this is just the beginning," he said.
Carver didn't make it on her first attempt but plans to reapply next year. She hopes getting feedback from this round will help her understand where she went wrong.
For Holt, however, a second rejection meant rethinking her entire future. Loosli said she was well-liked by her professors, but her portfolio didn't show the improvement they had hoped to see.
She's considering an illustration major and said she feels good about the new direction.
"Nothing's ever set in stone," she said. "That's what I've learned through all this. You can choose to let it ruin your life, or there's always something else that could make you happy."
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