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Fall 2002

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Animators turn fantasy into virtual reality

by Mieke H. Bomann

This fall, in between stuffing the turkey and stringing holiday lights, stop by the video store for a copy of the animated movie Ice Age, due out on DVD in November. You’ll not only find the story and characters witty and engaging, but you’ll see the work of the half-dozen or so Skidmore alumni who had a hand in creating it.

Sid, Manfred, and Diego react to their latest crisis.
Blue Sky Studios, the animation arm of Twentieth Century Fox that released the movie, is thick with Skidmore art and music graduates. Some have since moved on to other companies and projects, but Danielle Cambridge ’96, Christopher Burrows ’96, Jesse Hollander ’94, Alexander Adell ’98, and Colin Thompson ’00 all worked on Ice Age, a humorous chronicle of three prehistoric creatures and their adventurous effort to return a human baby to its parents.
     As animation technology has advanced, artists have been freed from the labor-intensive process of hand-drawing on celluloid. Now, film critics note, animators can realize their creative visions more fully and richly. The process is no less complex—witness the staggering number of credits at the end of Ice Age—but the latest computer graphics offer more opportunity to develop character and color and movement, as well as depth and quirkiness in the characters’ personalities.
     “Creatively, it’s been great,” says Thompson, who now works for Pixar Animation Studios, the California-based company that created Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. “You get to do the technical as well as the artistic stuff. I like that aspect in this field.” His job on Ice Age was to help generate the texture or “feel” of various objects and backgrounds in the film. Part computer programming, part painting, the work drew on his Skidmore studies of texture perception, electronic music, and psychology. Thompson says a blend of practical experience and the analytical tools of a liberal education has proven essential in an intensely competitive industry that expects its employees to hit the ground running. Neophytes need not apply.
     Danielle Cambridge, the original Skidmore alum at Blue Sky, has found her calling on the managerial side of things. “As a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist. But I later discovered that I was good at copying, not original work. I deviated a little from the art side and became more managerial. I enjoy it.” As a supervising technical assistant, she sees to it that her group makes the lives of technical directors easier. It was Cambridge who brought in Jesse Hollander (now at Pixar), who in turn recruited Chris Burrows. “Networking is major in this business,” Cambridge says.
     Computer animation is not generally associated with liberal-arts colleges, but the personal interest of faculty member Maureen Kinsella and computing staffer John Danison led Skidmore to begin offering classes in the then-nascent technology fifteen years ago. Kinsella later left the college, but Danison stayed and is now the assistant director of Skidmore’s information technology services and also a lecturer in art, teaching two computer-imaging classes. “It’s an unheralded fact, but we were the first liberal-arts college to get into computer animation,” says Danison. “It seemed strange, but it’s worked out to be a very good fit. Computer animation is tied into artistic sensibility, knowledge of the classics, math, and science.”
Sid the sloth plays the comedian.
Danison says Ice Age brings a whole new look and feel to animation. Characterizations are celebrated, personalities well developed—and the lighting, he says, was an important coup. “You really have to watch it twice,” he notes. He’s seen it three times, once with his animation class.
     Animation is a young industry, in more ways than one. At thirty, Chris Burrows says he’s one of the oldest in the studio. He got his feet wet at a small company that created animated commercials. At Blue Sky, he worked with Thompson on backgrounds for Ice Age and developed the technique used to generate the creatures’ footprints in the snow. Now he’s busy working on a short subject for the DVD. “My interest in animation started from watching Star Wars as a kid and thinking that it would be cool to work on movies. At Skidmore, I was painting and then was introduced to the animation program.”
     Out in the real world, animators’ job security can be dicey: after Ice Age wrapped up, 120 people were laid off. Thompson was among them, but he quickly found a new job at Pixar and is working on a movie about fish (that’s all he could say) slated for release in 2003. When there’s work to be had, the pay is decent and the atmosphere casual—tailor-made for those with an artistic bent. Burrows sums it up this way: “For right now, I’m having a blast. I get to come to work in a T-shirt and shorts. And I’m really proud of the way Ice Age came out and how well it was received. I feel artistically satisfied in the work.”

Freelance writer Mieke Bomann lives in the high-tech haven of Seattle, Wash.


© 2002 Skidmore College