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School of Animation and Studio X Premieres Latest Collaboration at Sundance Film Festival

Academy of Art University’s animation school and in-house animation studio, Studio X, premiered their latest collaboration project at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Strawberry Mansion is a surrealist depiction of a dystopian future wherein everyone and everything are subject to the surveillance state—even dreams. It also marks the sixth Sundance premiere in the 12-year collaborative history between the School of Animation & Visual Effects and Studio X. 

“We definitely go for things that are pretty—with great art direction—and that look good on a reel when we’re scouting for projects,” said Catherine Tate, director for School of Animation & Visual Effects. “But it’s also important to us that the films we partner with say something substantial about the world we live in.”  

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Where Students and Professionals Become Collaborators

Under this long-running partnership, animation students are given the opportunity to work in a real animation studio setting, handling real-world projects. In the case of Strawberry Mansion, the team enjoyed making the most out of the creative freedom afforded to them, especially given that the film is set mostly in a dream world.

The Studio X team, in particular, fondly refers to the “buffalo shot,” a dream sequence wherein a papier-mâché buffalo gets shot. To make it more compelling, the 3-D team composed of students, under the supervision of the School of Animation’s Faculty Technical Lead Jason Patnode and adjunct faculty Michael Raphaelovic, decided to integrate a life-like, computer-generated (CG) buffalo head. They then added a realistic bullet hole, complete with oozing blood, for good measure. 

Maria Cifuentes, CG artist for Studio X, recounted her experience rendering and texturing the buffalo head. “For that shot, I had to do a lot of things I wasn’t familiar with.” 

I was learning the techniques at the same time in a different class, and I was applying what I was learning to what we were doing in Studio X. It was really the best way to learn it, but definitely high-pressure.

Maria Cifuentes

Meanwhile, CG artist Ryan Arnanjaya was in charge of making the buffalo blink, breathe through its mouth, as well as turn its head around to look at the live-action actors. Romina Zolpirani was the Compositing Lead, who combined all the generated elements into one cohesive scene. It was also she who attached the CG buffalo head to its actual body. 

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A Real Working Experience in Class

The animation school students lent their hands for Strawberry Mansion for the entirety of the three-month semester. Throughout this period, they not only honed and refined their technical skills, but also their ability to interface with clients, as well as adapt to problems and find solutions to the same quickly on their feet.

And as with any real-world project, deadlines are always going to be a cause of stress and pressure. Suddenly, they had to work double-time because their deadline was shortened by as much as a half and a month. 

It was certainly a situation that was less than ideal and, as compositing lead Courtney Cheesman described, “a definitely stressful time.” 

“We were scrambling to make sure every shot was done. It was right around midterms season, too, so we were all juggling a lot.”

To them, though, it was all par for the course. “I think the thing that separates Studio X from other classes is that there’s someone else—it’s not necessarily all about you learning—it’s about someone else getting what they need, so their film can proceed,” said fellow compositing lead Ron Marelli. 

An Online Solution for a Remote Collaboration

Adding to the stress of the shortened deadlines was the fact that everything had to be done remotely, with the students only taking classes virtually, and scattered across the country.

Cifuentes, for example, was in Florida while working on Strawberry Mansion. Instead of looking at the situation as problematic, however, she saw this as an opportunity. “It was actually great because I could wake up at 8AM and start working, and it would still be 5AM in California, so I got this big jump start.” 

Helping it all hold and come together was Studio X Head of Production Sasha Korellis. “That’s where she shines—she knows how to redirect and get things done,” said Tate. “She was able to accelerate the schedule and let go of things that we didn’t need to do, so we could focus on the work in front of us and complete it at the highest level possible.”

For her part, Lead Producer Melissa Spearman made sure to provide the necessary support to the rest of the team members so that they don’t feel burned out. To do this, streamlining the process was a crucial element. 

“Encouraging the artists to stay positive and persevere through creative challenges was another important responsibility that my producer-student friends and I strove to fulfill every week. I couldn’t be more proud of my team and the effort that they put into it every week from all corners of the world.”

Reaping What They Sow

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At the end of it all, the hard work, long hours, and especially the stress and pressure paid off. Strawberry Mansion premiered at the 2021 Sundance Festival, on January 29. 

“It’s quite a dance. It’s an amazing feat that we can actually make this work,” said Tate.

 To celebrate this feat, the Studio X and School of Animation & Visual Effects team will be holding a panel discussion on February 25 at 6PM (PST) with the filmmakers, faculty, and students. To join the event, register here.

Article originally published in ArtU News.

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