Clemson University Feature Stories

Making movies: When the credits roll on blockbuster animation films, you’ll see several Clemson alumni named

by Liz Newall
Clemson World Magazine

If you’ve seen an animated feature film in the last few years, chances are there’s a Clemson alumnus in the credits or at least behind the scenes.

Tangled, A Christmas Carol, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Kung Fu Panda, Hop, Harry Potter and theDeadly Hallows (visual effects) … you get the idea.

In fact, five Clemson digital artists were on the Rhythm & Hues team that won the 2008 Academy Award for Achievement in Visual Effects for The Golden Compass.

They are the products of Clemson’s Digital Production Arts (DPA) graduate program and, of course, of their own talent and determination.

The advent of dramatic visual effects in movies, TV and games has created an unprecedented demand for educational programs leading to careers in the field. To position students for this exciting field, Clemson began its DPA program just over a decade ago — a collaboration of departments and colleges across campus.

Since then, Clemson DPA has made a name for itself — through its graduates — across the country and throughout theaters.

DPA offers a unique blend of instruction from art, computer science, computer engineering, graphic communications, performing arts, philosophy and psychology, together with newly designed courses targeted at production techniques specific to the animation effects industry.

‘Eliminating nudity and baldness thru digital hair, cloth and fur’

Clemson DPA alumnus Martin Furness first earned a 2001 Clemson degree in design. A few years later, he switched his graduate studies to DPA, where he amassed experience in animated shorts and developed an expertise in cloth simulation.

That expertise earned a position with Sony Pictures Imageworks as a hair/cloth technical director on the feature animation Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. He also credits former classmate Ed Siomacco, who’s with Sony, for letting him and other DPAers know about the opportunity.

Furness also worked with ImageMovers Digital as a character effects director on Walt Disney’s A Christmas Carol feature film. His next feature film was with CafeFX as a simulation technical director on Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. From there, he served as character technical director on Tangled for Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Perhaps his most exciting work so far has been with Moving Picture Company as a technical animator for Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows. That project took him from his home in Culver City, Calif., to London, England, where he was able to collaborate with an array of international talent.

“The visual effects industry thrives in London just as in Los Angeles,” Furness said. “Many of the top studios in London collaborate with U.S. studios on films, or they may have U.S. offices. It was such an amazing experience and absolutely mind-blowing how talented my co-workers were. They were from all over the world.”

Clemson DPAers network

Furness says that Clemson has strong roots in Southern California with former DPA graduates and students scattered around the studios of Los Angeles.

“Clemson’s DPA program has definitely made a mark on the studios out here,” he said. “DPA students are now sought after during recruitment drives by the big name studios like DreamWorks Animation, Industrial Light & Magic, Rhythm & Hues, Sony Pictures Imageworks, ImageMovers Digital. I’m sure the studio list will continue to grow, which is proof of the Clemson talent that has already been recognized.”

Here are a few more of those talented folks and their recent projects.

Ed Siomacco, a 2005 DPA graduate, is with Sony Pictures Imageworks and currently working on Men in Black 3. Some of his jobs have been as a cloth and hair technical director on Alice in Wonderland, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Spider-man 3. He recently completed work on The Smurfs, set to come out this summer. ()

Kent Chan, a 2004 graphics communication and 2007 DPA graduate, is also with Sony Pictures Imageworks, where he’s working on Arthur Christmas. He previously was at Rhythm & Hues Studios where he worked on Hop and Yogi Bear. His duties have included massive crowds artist and hair and cloth technical director.

Rachel Drews has been with Rhythm and Hues Studios since she graduated from Clemson’s DPA program in 2006. She was among the group who won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects in The Golden Compass. She’s currently a pipeline supervisor for the movie Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman, where she assists with the design and implementation of the workflow from a technical perspective. Her next role will be in production management.

Kiel Pease is with Rhythm & Hues where he contributed computer graphic scenes for Hop. He’s at work now as a lighting technical director on the new Jim Carrey film Mr. Popper’s Penguins. He’s also working on his master’s thesis for his DPA degree using the My Little Wooden Robot short film project to bring his thesis research together.

Rupali Parekh, a 2007 DPA graduate, is a lighting artist with DreamWorks Animation. Some of his past projects include Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Monster vs. Aliens, Shrek Forever After and most recently Kung Fu Panda 2.

Chris Doehling, a 2006 DPA graduate, is a contract digital artist. He has created several animations for “Carolina Expeditions with Patrick McMillan.” He’s worked for New World Edutainment as a concept designer for in-game characters for an educational MMO (massively multiplayer online) for children.

For software solutions provider Total Immersion, he modeled and surfaced real-time assets for an augmented reality kiosk promoting Infiniti automobiles. He’s also worked with Warner Bros. Entertainment, Walt Disney Animation Studio and Magnetic Dreams Animation.

Mikki Rose, a current DPA student, joined Sony Pictures Imageworks last year as a cloth and hair technical director to help finish work on Alice in Wonderland. Her latest project is Arthur Christmas, due out for the 2011 Christmas season. Prior to Sony, she was with Rhythm & Hues where she worked on Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Golden Compass, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Aliens in the Attic and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakual.

Talent, expertise, experience

These and many more DPA alumni and current students have chosen Clemson’s program for careers in film, video and gaming industries because of the faculty’s excellence and experience.

DPA director Jerry Tessendorf is an Oscar winner himself. He and several colleagues earned an Academy Award for Technical Achievement in recognition of their development of custom fluid dynamics tools. The tools allow artists to create realistic animation of liquids and gases. The system also included a unique scripting language for working with volumetric data. His film credits include Titanic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the X-Men series, Waterworld and other major films.

As director, Tessendorf not only teaches visual computing, he continues to perform research in animation and rendering for visual effects production. He’s joined by faculty members whose expertise ranges from color gamut transformation to storyboard art to lighting to ceramics to virtual reality.

Because of such computing expertise, last year Clemson was designated a CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture) Research Center, part of a global network that explores challenging topics on the frontiers of visual, parallel and mobile computing.

“The visual effects production process has evolved into a massively complex and sophisticated technical environment, and DPA graduates have contributed greatly to its success at most of the largest VFX [visual effects] companies,” Tessendorf said. “We’re implementing a five-year plan to make Clemson a lead institution in the training of technical directors and technical artists for the film and electronic games industries.”

Want to see for yourself what students are creating in DPA? Check out “Goli” and other productions showcased at clemson.edu/dpa.

And next time you’re dazzled by a major animated film, sit through the credits. You might find a fellow Tiger.

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