ATEC Alumni Put Animation Skills to Work on Feature Film ‘Free Birds’


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Fifteen UT Dallas alumni worked on the recently released film Free Birds. The alumni are employed at Dallas-based Reel FX Creative Studios.

The new feature film Free Birds is a digital showcase for the finely detailed work of local animators, including 15 UT Dallas alumni who contributed to the project.

Sing Khamnouane BA’05, MFA’08; Kenneth Kanipe BA’09; Nicholas Shirsty BA’10, MFA’13; and Edward Whetstone BA’11 graduated from the Arts and Technology (ATEC) program and now work at Reel FX Creative Studios, a visual effects company in Dallas that animated the film.

“We’re responsible more or less for putting together the final image that ends up on screen,” said Whetstone, a lighting and compositing artist. 

The film opened Nov. 1 in theaters nationwide. It centers on two buddy turkeys, Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson) and Jake (Woody Harrelson), who travel back in time with feisty fellow turkey Jenny (Amy Poehler) to the first Thanksgiving, in an attempt to take turkey off the holiday menu.

It may sound simple, but animating a full-length feature is incredibly time-intensive and highly technical, said Eric Farrar, assistant professor of 3-D computer animation who taught some of the alumni.

Animation work is broken down into specialized phases, Farrar said. First, working from 2-D drawings, modelers, like Khamnouane, build 3-D static wireframe models on the computer. Khamnouane built Free Birds characters that included the president’s daughter, baby turkeys and Chief Broadbeak. 

Sing Khamnouane

Sing Khamnouane

“We produce an accurate translation of the 2-D concept art into the 3-D world. So basically everything you see on screen was built by a modeler,” Khamnouane said.

Then rigging artists, like Kanipe, take the models and create joints and bones and control handles, which allow the models “to move in an intuitive way,” Farrar said.

Kanipe said he and other rigging artists created a skeletal system for each piece of geometry used in the movie – characters, vehicles, props and environments.  

Next, character animators take the rig “and put it through its paces and really bring the character to life,” Farrar said.

Lighting and compositing artists, like Shirsty and Whetstone, then add nuance to each scene.

“We place digital lights on a digital set in a similar way in which a cinematographer would with real lights on a real set,” Whetstone said. “There are many settings you can adjust – how the shadows behave, how the light falls off and the color of the lights – but the main thing is to determine where the light is coming from.”

The next step is rendering, where the computer interprets the settings and colors the lighter has set up, as well as the textures and colors painted on the 3-D models of the characters and environments.

Nicholas Shirsty

Nicholas Shirsty

“All of these settings are run through an algorithm that calculates how the light, reflections and shadows behave,” Shirsty said. “This is an incredibly time-intensive process, so a lighter has to be efficient. How can I get the best-looking image in the least amount of time?”

It can take several hours per frame to render a single character, Shirsty said. And many shots might have hundreds of characters.

Free Birds was filmed in 24 frames per second and stereoscopic 3-D, Shirsty said. So for each second of footage on the screen, 48 different images had to be generated – 24 for the right eye and 24 for the left.

The last step of the process is called compositing, where the artist compiles an image from multiple layers – including the reflections and shadows – to create the final frame of the film. During this phase, color correction and final tweaks are done, Whetstone said.

Kenneth Kanipe

Kenneth Kanipe

Kanipe said that working with ATEC professors like Todd Fechter and Farrar helped prepare him for the animation industry. For example, he studied rigging with Farrar for a motion capture project at the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, in which speech therapists attached sensors to track the positions of the tongue to provide visual feedback that could improve a patient’s therapy.

He also learned the importance of working together on an animation project.

 “This is a rare industry where you need an entire team to work the many facets,” Kanipe said. “The projects we did making the digital shorts at UT Dallas were eye-opening in seeing how other people worked and got the job done.

“In art, unlike other professions, there is no one right way to get something done. There are many avenues one can take, and the more I learned from what other people did, the better a student and artist I became,” Kanipe said.

Shirsty said the animation production classes at UT Dallas and the quality of faculty equipped him to be able to put together a computer-generated project.

“The animation production classes were an especially good simulation, and having professors who have worked in the industry was a key factor in developing my skills to be able to work on a feature film,” Shirsty said.

The alumni agreed that their ATEC degrees have helped launch their careers. And having worked on a feature film is a thrilling accomplishment that speaks well of the program.

“It’s a big deal,” said Farrar about the film’s release. “We’re really excited. Our graduates are able to work on a Hollywood-level film without having to move out West.”

A private screening of the movie for UT Dallas alumni is planned as part of Homecoming 2013 festivities. The already sold out event at the Alamo Drafthouse will feature an appearance by the alumni who worked on the film.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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