Graduates from Los Angeles-area animation powerhouse CalArts have collectively directed $32 billion worth of blockbusters, picked up a 2015 Oscar for Big Hero 6, migrated north with staggering regularity to produce hits for Pixar, created TV game changer SpongeBob Square Pants and co-directed Disney’s Frozen, the top-grossing animation feature in history.
Given that track record, Hollywood power brokers show up in force at the school’s annual Producer’s Show to check out new work by CalArts character animation students. On Wednesday, the showcase featured pieces ranging from Aron Bothman’s somber sci-fi drama The Red Witch to John Cody Kim’s Goonies-flavored live action comedy Battle Deadline.
Co.Create checked in with three of this year’s standout CalArts animators to dig into their ingenious short films, embedded below, featuring misfit cats, lonely rocks, and gay Aquarium visitors.
21-year-old Vancouver native Erin Kim crafted a candy-colored short that fuses rom-com conventions with a peppy cocktail jazz score to dramatize her sly commentary: don’t judge a creature by its headgear.
Origin Story: Ear Fear took root in Kim’s sketch book. “I was randomly doodling animal characters and decided not to put any ears on one of them,” she says. “I realized my generic looking animal face had the potential to be any type of animal so I started building up a story that could apply to me and my friends. Everyone seems to have their insecurities that they hide from other people because they are afraid of being judged. For the main character in Ear Fear, someone just had to encourage him to take off his ears.”
Tool Box: Kim used Post-it notes as the building blocks for her storyline. “I thumb-nailed little ideas onto sticky notes and slowly added more shots. Then I did super-rough layouts in Flash, timed everything out in Premiere, and colored all the backgrounds.”
Primal Influence: Kim grew up on Disney classics like The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, and The Lion King but cites Wes Anderson and Japanese TV shows as her biggest influences. “I watched Crayon Shin-chan every day because it’s visually unique and the story is told through the point of view of this really appealing child,” she says. “I’ve always been more attracted to flat, simple, and symmetrical images, and Wes Anderson’s films proved to me that simplicity could be a powerful tool.”
First Try: During her senior year in high school, Kim made a stop-motion film called Button Torture. “It was about a button being tortured in a mysterious science lab by a giant hand with surgical tools,” she says. “Back then I thought I made a really good short film, but when I watch it again it looks really bad.”
Future Specs: JibJab seems like it would be a fun place to work at,” Kim says. Long-term goal? “I want to make art for children that hopefully will influence them in a positive way.”
Seth Boyden, 22, created an epic journey of a rock that survives dinosaurs and the Ice Age only to be tossed, turned, and crushed at the hands of modern civilization.
Origin Story: Boyden, who graduates this month with a bachelor’s degree in character design, literally stumbled upon the inspiration for An Object at Rest last summer while taking a walk with his father near their hometown of Huntertown, Indiana. “We were on a gravel road by the county line talking about how rocks endure millions of years of wear, pressure, and erosion, yet it probably took only a few days in a quarry for those stones to be ground into fragments and spread across the road,” he recalls. “That’s when I began to form a story around a single rock as it travels through time, weaving in scientific and historical ideas based on places in the Midwest where I grew up.”
Tool Box: Boyden painted backgrounds of An Object at Rest the old fashioned way–with watercolors. “Then I drew the animation digitally and covered it with a watercolor texture to integrate with the backgrounds,” he explains. “Because the story has these organic overtones, I wanted to use an equally organic artistic style to make the film feel as natural as possible.”
Primal Influence: Boyden takes aesthetic cues from illustrators Bill Watterson. Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter and especially Disney storyboard artist Bill Peet, “His super clear drawings and ideas combined with his purely appealing style directly influenced every scene of this film,” says Boyden. “Hayao Miyazaki‘s brilliant work inspired the film’s nature-based animation.”
First Try: Boyden started creating cartoons in sixth grade. “My friends and I messed around with a cheap stop-motion camera and had a blast making little animated shorts in my family’s basement,” he recalls. “We looked at Aardman animation and Nick Park’s witty Wallace and Gromit cartoons, which I still study at CalArts.”
Future Specs: Boyden says “I love creating new characters and worlds. Some day in the future I hope to present them in a film or TV show.”
Yonatan Tal, a 24-year old character animation student from Israel, fused traditional style and provocative substance to craft a dramatic vignette in which gay characters try to sort out their relationship.
Origin Story: “Basically, I created a film I thought would have helped me when I was 19,” says Tal. “The only way to do justice to the story was to draw from my own life experience.” The pieces fell into place after Tal visited the California Academy of Sciences aquarium in San Francisco. “The location could be romantic and relaxing but also claustrophobic and strange,” Tal recalls. Its inhabitants are captured and tamed by a greater force, and this also describes the relationship between a closeted person and society. The essence of the story never changed for me, but once I settled on the location, everything made more sense.”
Tool Box: Tal produced the short with desktop programs including TVpaint and Adobe Photoshop, while the fish were CG animated in Autodesk Maya and composited together in Adobe After Effects. Tal says, “I wanted the film to feel accessible to the broadest audience possible so I intentionally aimed for a mainstream animation style to lead the viewer toward a different kind of content.”
Primal Influence: Tal, a self-described “Looney Tunes freak” and Space Jam fanatic during his early years, cites British live-action director Edgar Wright as a major inspiration. “I’m intrigued by his great visual comedy, especially Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” Tal says. “I also really like Uwe Heidschötter, a German illustrator and designer who deals with gay relationships in a very gentle and subtle way.
First Try: Tal did not have access to proper animation gear in his teens so he took a DIY approach. “In middle school, I spent a lot of time making animations in PowerPoint,” Tal says. “I figured out that if you set the transition between slides to 0 seconds, it flips pretty fast.”
Future Specs: “Working on a personal story this year made me want to find new places within me that I can expand into stories communicate to the world,” Tal says. “Independent shorts and TV shows are coming up with different content and visual styles that I’d love to see in feature films so I see myself directing a creative team that develops fresh ideas. Animation is still a young art form.”