The June 24 release of "Cars 2" marks a milestone for the BYU Center for Animation.
A door was opened more than five years ago when the first BYU student landed an internship at Pixar Animation Studios. Since then, many students have earned internships, worked on some of Pixar's big animated movies and been retained in full-time positions. Pixar likes BYU's program so much that its animators mentor their students.
The special relationship has helped BYU's animation program emerge as one of the top programs in the country.
"Over the years, Pixar has worked with a lot of different universities around the country and hired people," said Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Walt Disney Studios, in a 2008 visit to Provo. "One of the interesting things is, all of a sudden, in the past few years, we found that BYU has risen to the top. BYU has an extraordinary program."
R. Brent Adams, a BYU animation professor, said Pixar informed him it received more than 10,000 applications worldwide for about 90 internships last year. Of those 90 positions, at least six were awarded to students from BYU's animation program. Pixar has been so impressed by BYU's interns that many are eventually offered full-time jobs. Other students and graduates have gone on to different studios or video-game companies.
"It's brutally difficult to get into this industry," Adams said. "Virtually every university, private arts school and junior college has some kind of animation/computer-graphics program, but there are so few opportunities in this industry. We are very fortunate that Pixar has decided to make some sacrifices and help our program."
It all started in 2005 when BYU animation and computer-science student Seth Holladay sent a portfolio to Pixar. He honestly didn't expect to hear back. Three weeks later he was shocked when Pixar called and offered an eight-month internship. During that time he worked on the final renderings of the movie "Cars." Pixar was impressed with his work and he was offered a job, which he accepted.
"I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was a huge amount of fun and a huge amount of stress," said Holladay, who also worked on the environmental effects of "Ratatouille," "WALL-E" and "Up." "I didn't want to blow it, so that motivated me to work."
Pixar also took interest in BYU's animation program and noticed something that set it apart. BYU's students work as a team on one project, not separately on individual projects.
"It boils down to one word — collaboration," Adams said. "In most animation programs, education is about the survival of one student. The students are willing to work in a collaborative mode on the quality of a five-minute film."
More than three years ago, BYU became one of two schools officially mentored by Pixar. The other is Cal Arts, a private animation school founded by Walt Disney. The mentor relationship grants students the chance to interact with Pixar animators.
"Every semester they will send out half a dozen people to work one-on-one with students," Adams said. "They share their emails so students can contact them when they run into problems and ask questions."
As a result, BYU students are more prepared to enter the profession because they understand the culture of how to take the lead on a project, give out assignments, learn to solve problems creatively and work with others, Adams said. These skills are developed as students take a specialized role and work on five-minute film projects. BYU animation students have won 11 student Emmys at the College Television Awards in the past eight years, with the most recent recognition coming last April for "DreamGiver," directed by student Tyler Carter.
"Working in a studio environment is very similar to working on the group projects at BYU," said Jonathan Hoffman, another BYU grad now with Pixar. "We still have limitations on time and technology. Stuff still breaks out here in the real world, and figuring out how to fix it creatively, and any problems that arise, are lessons I first learned in the labs at BYU. Learning how to work in a team was crucial as no individual here can make a film — it takes hundreds of hands working in unison to put out a movie like 'Cars 2.' "
Trent Crow, a former BYU animation student and current Pixar employee from Jackson, Mich., spent the past year working on "Cars 2" with a team of 12 animators. They created the colors, patterns and materials for more than 100 different characters.
"Some of my more significant personal contributions included being in charge of the shading pipeline for our background cars (in shots where hundreds of small cars are on the screen, they have to be shaded more cheaply and efficiently), and also shading the pit crews for the racing teams," Crow wrote in an email.
Crow started at Pixar as an intern in 2006. He has also worked on "Ratatouille," "WALL-E" and "Toy Story 3." "It's been really neat over the past five years to see more and more interns and new hires coming here out of BYU," Crow said. "When I came … BYU's animation program was not as well known. But the talent coming here from BYU has been so great … (we) have really fit in well, both socially and professionally. I think that really attests to how great of an animation program BYU has and how well it prepares its students for this industry."
Other Pixar employees who spent long hours in the BYU animation program include Hoffman (Orem, Utah), Jared Fong and Masha Ellsworth (Chernigov, Ukriane).
As more BYU interns performed and accepted jobs with Pixar, an animation pipeline was established. In 2009 Holladay was offered a teaching position back at BYU, which he accepted. He is now teaching animation and working on a doctorate. He is grateful for his time and experience at Pixar but doesn't think he did anything special.
"I was in the right place at the right time," said Holladay, who says he worked on the noodles in "Ratatouille" and the plasma blasts that came from Eva's gun in "WALL-E." "It was exciting to be part of that. I didn't see the ramifications at the time, but I am grateful it opened doors because there are so many that want that opportunity."