In the Land of Special Effects
Who's the Wizard Behind The Curtain?
By Angela Wampler | October 01, 2006East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City has one of the top digital media programs in the nation. The program is housed in the Niswonger Digital Media Center next to The Centre at Millennium Park and the Carnegie Hotel, across State of Franklin Road from the main campus. Four years ago ETSU decided that two full-time faculty members were not enough for 400 students and increased the staff to seven full-time and one adjunct. All are from the digital media industry, with professional training in the field as well as teaching experience.
In addition, ETSU "took a big risk and ditched [the curriculum] we didn't need and added a lot of new courses. For example, previously we had no portfolio classes, which help students prepare for prospective employers," explains program director Cher Cornett. The current program is modeled along guidelines published by SIGGRAPH, the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques.
"Since then we have tested the program and seen steady improvement in the overall quality of students' work," Cornett continues. "For example, over the last four years we've never had less than three students make it into the SIGGRAPH poster competition, which receives as many as 400 entries and usually only accepts 18-20. Recently, a team of our students entered Microsoft's international software challenge, in which hundreds of teams competed. They took third place for their idea to develop software for the public good, a portable way to monitor vital signs."
Cornett says, "Our program straddles the line between technology and art. Students are not just artists, they're not just technical computer operators, they have to be able to do both, to access both sides of their brains." The Digital Media programs of study — both undergraduate and graduate — lead students through problem, project, and process-based learning experiences that teach them how to define, design, and develop digital media content, computer graphics, and interactive media.
Go on-line: Students' work may be viewed at http://digm.etsu.edu. Among the examples is "Chasing the Future," an award-winning commercial about ETSU developed by students.
A Dream Come True
It sounded like a dream come true. During a phone interview with A! Magazine for the Arts, Tim Matney talked about his career as a visual effects artist in the Hollywood film industry — while standing on the balcony of his Santa Monica, Calif. studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As waves crashed in the background, however, Matney dashed water on that vision. Yes, he's been working in digital media for 10 years, but he said it's very tough "making it" in the industry. Especially since work is going overseas where it can be done "cheaper, but maybe not better. You face competition not just here, but from other countries, too."
Originally from Hayter's Gap, Va., Matney was one of the original inductees when ETSU's digital media program was in its infancy. Of the 10 students from that first class, Matney is the only one still working in the industry. Nationwide, he says only 10-15% of digital media students are successful. "I'm not speaking just of ETSU, but of all VFX/Digital schools, from collegiate programs like ETSU in small-town Tennessee, to high-profile private schools like Gnomon Workshop in Los Angeles," he notes.
"This industry is extremely competitive (you have to be good at what you do), long-houred (a minimum 55-hour week) and high-stressed on top of it (almost impossible deadlines). So, while 60 percent of a class might actually enter the industry, after five years, perhaps only 10 percent will still be there. But that figure doesn't depend on the schools or training, but rather on the individual."
He continues, "Students must work hard and apply themselves. You only get out of your education what you put into it. [Then, in the workforce] you have to be malleable and open to change. You are not in control of the final output. That's the nature of the business." And that's the message Matney conveys when he returns to the ETSU campus to meet with students in portfolio classes.
His message is realistic, but for Matney, it has been a dream come true. He says, "My strange journey towards a career in visual effects began in 1977 when I saw the film Star Wars. I was also obsessed with medieval high adventure as a child, courtesy of a couple of well-worn tomes of old Prince Valiant comic strips. So, my imagination was turned at an early stage towards movie magic and illustration."
After earning a degree in engineering design graphics at ETSU, he found it difficult to get a job as a draftsman and ended up as a salesman at Holston Glass Company in Kingsport, where he could "at least read blueprints," he laughs. He leaped at the chance to study 3D graphics (pre-Maya Alias 6 software) in an emerging program at his alma mater. He says, "The phrase 'Like a duck to water' easily comes to mind. I happened to fall into a field that enabled me to marry left-brain technical training, with perhaps more intrinsic right-brain artistic abilities — a match made in heaven!"
A spokesman for ETSU says Matney is perhaps their most "illustrious" digital media grad, working with computer graphics for videogames, commercials, and film. His first job was with SouthPeak Interactive in North Carolina where he worked on full-motion videogames. He transitioned with the company into Alternate Route Studios where he worked on national commercials. He got his start in film visual effects at Luma Pictures in California, working on multiple feature films, and is now employed at R!OT Digital Pictures.
Examples of Matney's special effects artwork may be viewed on his website www.TimMatney.com. Visit Matney's "Gallery" and click on images to see the original "green screen" or matte paintings he used as well as the final versions. They include:
? Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow starring Angelina Jolie, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. Matney textured and model-detailed the falling cruise liner ship and the cave grate in the highly-praised underwater battle scene, one of the film's most extensive and creatively challenging special effects sequences where a squadron of amphibious planes engages in combat with giant robots at the bottom of the ocean. On Matney's website, you may view the movie trailer as a teaser originally released by Paramount Pictures, including extended footage culled from the final edit.
? "Still shots" from the feature film Underworld: Evolution (2006) showing the island cliffs that Matney created for the ruined fortress environment.
? An image from the film The Cave (2005). As a modeler and texture artist, Matney created the underground "Titan Hall" airshaft which the explorers rappel down. This show was Matney's indoctrination as a digital matte painter, where he translated his 2D (two-dimensional) photo and paint skills into "moving shots" via compositing and 2.5D projection techniques.
? Concept illustrations that Matney created for independent film and animation. He used Photoshop to combine pencil/pen drawings with photographs and images to obtain a certain look and textural feel.
? The Firefly Man, an award-winning independent animated short film nationally broadcast on The Sundance Channel in January 2006. Matney performed multiple tasks, including all layout, animation, effects animation, plants/trees modeling and texturing, matte painting, lighting, rendering and compositing. He says, "To get creative juices running in pre-production, I created concept art for the exterior cabin set and ultimately the opening sequence of the film."
This emotional story centers on a dying man who is haunted, and then transformed, by light. He relives a past nightmare and reunites with lost loved ones in this unique short that combines sophisticated puppetry and special effects to tell.
According to an article on www.AnimWatch.com, "The Firefly Man is a wonderful film, inspired by director Todd Fjelsted's personal experience. The small army of artisans he and his partner Tim Matney assembled [Graveyard Productions] have put together a film of beauty, which speaks eloquently on the subject of what it means to live and to die. At the same time, it presents a cornucopia of animation styles. It is as much a feast for the eyes as it is a stimulation for the mind...The film has been well-received in Festivals around the country, including Telluride (which is notoriously difficult to get into) where it was screened alongside The Triplets of Belleville and the Disney/Dali short Destino. The film has also been accepted into a couple more international festivals and included on the DVD release SHORTS! Best of Festivals 2003."
In the article, Fjelsted explained, "Tim and I both had an artistic background in storybooks and fairytales — Tim as a digital animator and myself as a visual artist exhibiting in galleries. We started to think along the lines of creating a cycle of life and death parable where all of the differing animation forms could be used to tell the story of life reanimating itself. What we were trying to accomplish was a sort of 'history of' animation wherein wind-animated whirligigs, bunraku puppetry, animatronics, 2D hand drawn and 3D digital animation were all combined. It makes the film a little harder to categorize."
He continued, "We spent about a year researching the possibilities, doing various tests with puppets and digital animation, models and wind-animated whirligigs. Finally, we storyboarded it. While Tim recruited digital animators in the region, I started building the sets and working with an animatronics designer on the puppets. By the time most of the digital models were designed and built, we had finished shooting the puppets against large-scale matte paintings in the miniature set. I would bring footage to Tim at the end of the day and we'd determine placement of digital characters and objects, then pass these plans off to the other animators. The word 'collaborative' doesn't really begin to convey the way we worked on the film — there were often 10 or more people involved in getting a single shot together, counting the puppeteers who 'animated' the human characters. To complete the short, a crew of more than 50 artists (in addition to the animators) was brought onboard to sculpt, paint, sew, draw, and write the score. It became, in essence, a community arts project." For the full story, click here.
Other Success Stories
? Lee Gillenwater and Collin Waldron (both '05) recently had their video, Terra Firma: The Law of Gravity, accepted in the prestigious New York Film and Video Festival. The documentary highlights the dusty origins of downhill mountain biking and focuses on the sport's progress into urban riding. Gillenwater and Waldron worked on the project during their junior and senior years at ETSU. To view the video, go to: www.morphixmedia.com.
? Donald Poole ('97) lives in Los Angeles where he is employed by Naughty Dog Inc., a subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment. Poole worked as a production artist on the "Jak and Daxter" trilogy for Playstation 2, as well as continuing his work as a studio artist in the areas of photography and painting.
? Cornett says the largest percentage of ETSU digital media students are going into the videogame industry, with the majority hired by Sony Interactive. Several ETSU grads who spun off from Sony started BottleRocket Entertainment in California. Defining themselves as "art-centric," Team BottleRocket strives to create videogames from the inside-out, as an art form unto itself by using every tool available — be it design, music, lighting, animation or technology. The studio was formed in 2002 by 10 members of the team who developed "The Mark of Kri" and and its sequel "Rise of the Kasai." Cinescape described "Kri" as "one of the best PlayStation 2 titles to be released this year." GameNow said, "We've never seen a game so brazenly re-invent the setup for controlling a character in 3-D spaces." According to Newsweek, "The combat system is a terrific innovation: easy to learn, difficult to master, and makes for fluid and cinematic combat." "Kasai" was nominated for two Outstanding Achievement Awards (Animation and Original Music Composition) at the 9th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards. Hollywood Reporter said, "Following in the successful footsteps of 'The Mark of Kri,' 'Rise of the Kasai' blends the best of both worlds by combining top Hollywood animators with innovative game makers for a memorable videogame experience."
Digital Media Summer Camps
In summer months, ETSU hosts digital media activities and classes for students in grades 8-12, giving youth hands-on college experience at a school that is on the same level of major art institutions across the country.
Will Haynes of Abingdon, Va. has participated in the camp for three years and is now a sophomore at ETSU, with plans to graduate from the digital media program and find a job doing special effects for the film industry. Haynes says, "The teachers [at summer camps] have been helpful and patient. They break concepts down into simple, fun projects. It's been a great learning experience and it sold me on attending ETSU."
At the first camp Haynes attended, participants made a two-minute music video — working together to write, film and edit their work using the song "Eye of the Tiger" and learning to add special effects, titles and credits. In the second year, students developed 30-second public service announcements; Haynes' was about safe driving. Haynes was a work study student during his third summer camp which involved both 3D and live animation — videotaping people in front of a "green screen," then compositing that person into a 3D modeling environment. One student incorporated an animated shark and whale with a live person and real underwater photography. Another depicted a 3D Smurf and a live person throwing a ball back and forth.
Believe it or not, these projects were completed during four days of instruction. Cornett explains, "The camps teach basic skills and give students a taste of what our curriculum offers."
About the Program Director
Cornett has been working professionally as a graphic designer and illustrator for more than 25 years and has been involved in developing interactive multimedia products for more than 15 years, including pioneering work in interactive instructional product design at Florida State University. Prior to coming to ETSU, she owned and operated CC Design, a mid-sized design and multimedia studio in Tallahassee, Fla.; chaired the Graphic Arts Technology program at State Tech at Memphis where she built one of the first interactive multimedia programs in a two-year college; and coordinated and taught in the Interactive Multimedia Masters Degree Program at Southern Illinois University.
Tim Matney has created special visual effects for several films and commercials. On his computer screen is a scene from The Firefly Man, an independent film.
Above are still shots from Tim Matney's portfolio of The Firefly Man, the tale of a dying man who reunites with lost loved ones in a film that combines sophisticated puppetry and special effects to tell an emotional story.