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Volume 24, Number 10 — October 2017

Former Johnson City Resident Contributed Animation Work to Oscar Winner 'Happy Feet'

Johnson City native and ETSU graduate Adam Ely with a digital dinosaur. (Photo Contributed / Adam Ely)
Johnson City native and ETSU graduate Adam Ely with a digital dinosaur. (Photo Contributed / Adam Ely)

By Sam Watson | May 12, 2007

Editor's Note: Reprinted by permission of the Johnson City Press, which published this story on March 12, 2007.

When the musical cartoon "Happy Feet" won this year's Academy Award for best animated feature, former Johnson City resident Adam Ely had some happy feet of his own.

A 1998 Science Hill High School graduate who completed a digital media degree at East Tennessee State University in 2002, Ely was among the animators who contributed to the movie about a tap-dancing penguin.

"It's surreal," Ely said of the movie's Oscar win. "It's really surreal."

A son of Sissy Ely and Paris Ely, both of Johnson City, the 27-year-old artist is working for Giant Killer Robots, a San Francisco visual effects company with Oscar and Emmy awards to its credit, while he wraps up his master's thesis at the Academy of Art University.

For as long as he can remember, Ely has been fascinated with animation and computer-generated effects. He became especially interested in the art after seeing Steven Spielberg's dinosaur blockbuster, "Jurassic Park," in 1993.

"It was almost like a hobby watching the movies and 'Movie Magic' on television," he said, adding that he also read all the movie effects magazines he could get his hands on. "I just enjoyed reading about how they did the stuff and learning all I could about it."

At Science Hill, Ely enrolled in art classes. He started looking for colleges where he could learn computer graphics when his mother brought ETSU's digital media program to his attention. He could stay in Johnson City while studying in one of the country's premier graphics programs.

After graduating from ETSU in 2002, he moved to Nashville, where he worked in advertising and Web design for about a year, providing graphics for such organizations as the Tennessee Titans football team and the Grand Ole Opry.

Meanwhile, fellow ETSU alumni Dan Cox and Jason Fleming, both of Kingsport, had relocated to San Francisco, home to such major players in the animation field as George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic and Pixar Animation Studios.

Cox and Fleming encouraged Ely to check out the Academy of Art, and after a visit, he moved to California in September 2003, joining a slew of ETSU digital media graduates working in the area.

For the past year, Ely has been employed at Giant Killer Robots, doing concept art, 3-D modeling and texturing for digital media projects. He landed the job at just the right time, he said, for the company was generating a lot of respect in the industry.

His first film credit with Giant Killer Robots was on Oliver Stone's 9-11 drama, "World Trade Center." He contributed concept drawings for the collapse of Tower 2 from the point of view of the Port Authority officers who were the focus of the film.

He outlined the flow of air, dust and debris that, once approved by Stone and the film's special effects supervisor, would be added to footage of the actors.

On the wholly animated "Happy Feet," Giant Killer Robots was tapped to complete two sequences, including a two-minute action scene in which penguins bobsled down a glacier, culminating in an avalanche. Ely was responsible for the icy environment on the slope, completing environmental map painting for the sequence.

Since his company's role was limited to a few scenes, Ely and others at Giant Killer Robots were not aware of how their work would fit into the overall product.

Once they screened "Happy Feet" with director George Miller, however, the animators thought the film might have a shot at an Academy Award nomination.

They were right, but after perennial favorite Disney/Pixar won the Golden Globe Award for "Cars" in January, Ely thought the odds would be in the other film's favor on Oscar night.

So, when Miller picked up the golden statuette Feb. 25, Ely and friends who gathered to watch the telecast were stunned.

"We were like, 'Oh my God, this is crazy,' " he said.

Ely's latest film work can be seen on the Human Torch's flying sequences in the trailer for "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." He also contributed environmental work for the fight sequences in "Spider-Man 3," due in theaters in May.