The Book Of Life, New Knowledge

November 13th, 2014

Recently I had the pleasure of watching The Book of Life with my family. I’ll be perfectly honest, I didn’t know about the movie until a few days before Halloween. An animator who wasn’t aware of such an original movie? My word! But I saw it, and I’m glad I did. The Book of Life is brought to us by Mexican Director Jorge R. Gutierrez, co-creator of the cartoon series “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera”. After spending years trying to get somebody to believe in the project, Guillermo Del Toro signed on as producer.

Presented in a beautiful and original style, the main characters in The Book of Life are animated wooden sculptures bursting with life and emotion. There’s no shortage of appealing facial expressions and great character animation, each character moves and behaves in her or her own unique way. Color is a main focus of the art direction as well, each scene practically glows, with set pieces so intricate and detailed you swear you could reach out and touch them. The story is wholesome as well, having a little bit of everything. Family, friendship, love, growing up and more. I definitely recommend the movie if you haven’t already seen it.

Watching the movie reminded me of my current classes at Cogswell College and what is being taught in them. Most recently, I’ve been learning about the importance of lighting when it comes to character definition and scene composition. Both elements are used quite successfully in the movie. In the past, I had trouble establishing multiple layers of depth in a scene using contrast, or value; my art would look flat. What I’ve learned in my classes is that by using a simple gray scale, you can compose a scene or render a character in black and white and then make a value scale with colors, if you wish to color it all. I never knew! Perhaps someday when my skills are up to par, or better than industry standards, you will see my name in the long list of movie credits or posters around your hometown. Until then, I’m learning, getting better, hopeful and excited for what the future may bring.

Thanks for reading.

Juan Rubio, Digital Art & Animation Student

IGDA (International Game Developers Association) Meeting

November 12th, 2014

Cogswell Presents: IGDA (International Game Developers Association) Meeting
Wednesday, November 12th
7:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Dragon’s Den

The Silicon Valley chapter of the IGDA (International Game Developers Association) will be meeting on-campus at Cogswell on 11/12 in the Dragon’s Den at 7 pm. PlayPhone will demo integration of the Android SDK into a game and discuss why PlayPhone’s carrier gaming network is the essential addition to traditional publishing channels to maximize discovery, engagement and revenue.

More on PlayPhone:

PlayPhone is the world’s premier mobile social gaming network. Our social gaming platform enables mobile carriers to easily offer their customers a leading edge, personalized gaming experience with the most advanced social gaming features available today. PlayPhone reaches more than a billion mobile subscribers worldwide via game stores live on Verizon, Sprint, SingTel, Telkomsel, Vivo, Claro, TIM, Virgin Mobile, Mobily and Boost Mobile ­ with more carriers coming soon. In addition, PlayPhone lets game developers launch games globally and access carrier billing for all game stores plus a complete toolbox of social and monetization features using a single integration SDK. PlayPhone’s Android, Unity and HTML5 SDK is less than 100KB and takes about an hour to integrate into games.

Additional sponsors: Five Leaf Clover, Mary-Margaret Network.
http://www.playphone.com/

Day of the Devs

November 10th, 2014

Day of the Devs - Double Fine convention - in San Francisco, California

It was a video game enthusiast’s paradise. Screens and consoles decked every wall of (nearly) every room of the two story Old Mint building in San Francisco, all displaying demos of games to be released within the next year. There was a crowd gathered around each display, each person eager to get a chance at playing the game. I was attending with a few other friends from Cogswell, whose brains I could audibly hear exploding as they took in scenery and games around them.

The turnout of indie game developers was amazing. Day of the Devs was hosted by Double Fine, so they had a room full of their own soon-to-be-released games such as Costume Quest 2 and even a remastered version of Grim Fandango, but the rest of the building was filled with small studio games like Night In The Woods and Knight Squad (my personal favorites), Classroom Aquatic, Push Me Pull You, Spy Party, Ikarus, and Please Don’t, Spacedog. A few of the games were played with an Oculus Rift headset. There was even a swag shop full of t-shirts and books related to the games. Outside in the courtyard was a bar and a stage where live DJ’s played music, and games were actively played on a large screen by their developers.

It was enough to make any self-declared nerd hyperventilate. Being as there were a thousand in attendance, the excitement in the air was palpable. Within the first ten minutes, I was thrown a controller and fighting in an arena with five or six other well-seasoned game players. My first thought was along the line of panic, as I was sure I was going to get my butt kicked by people who definitely played more often than I did, but by the first game I was hooked and throwing other players to their deaths.

In the game Classroom Aquatic, one player wore Oculus Rift headgear and was plunged into an underwater school for dolphins. The character they played was a student diver who hadn’t studied for a test. As a result, the player is forced to cheat off of the neighboring students in the room. The trick was to avoid being caught by the teacher. The game effectively gave the player knots in their stomach, and was especially nerve-wracking when players were caught and scolded by the teacher.

Day of the Devs was amazing for one huge reason; EVERYONE there was in love with games, whether they were fans or developers. As a result, there was a feeling of common purpose and enthusiasm. We were all there for the same thing, and it was exciting to be in a place where people from inside the industry and out of it mixed together in a gaming paradise.

During the course of the evening, we got to talk to Double Fine creators, several other indie game makers, and even managed some networking with other people in the game industry! It was absolutely a beneficial experience, and it made the prospect of graduation and getting to work in the industry more tangible. I’m looking forward to next year with Day of the Devs!

SIGGRAPH Selects Cogswell College Dean Jerome Solomon as 2017 Conference Chair

November 8th, 2014

Jerome Solomon selected=

ACM SIGGRAPH is pleased to announce the selection of Jerome Solomon, Dean of the College at Cogswell College, as the SIGGRAPH 2017 Conference Chair. Solomon has been previously involved within the ACM SIGGRAPH community and will undoubtedly bring his knowledge and experience to his new role. “His superb skills, grasp of the industry, and professionalism will tremendously benefit SIGGRAPH,” said Rebecca Strzelec, SIGGRAPH Conference Advisory Group Chair. “I am confident that Jerome will take SIGGRAPH 2017 to the next level.”

Jerome Solomon has 17 years of industry experience in Hollywood. He has worked at Industrial Light and Magic, DreamWorks Animation, Electronic Arts and Rhythm & Hues Studios. During his career, he received film credits on “Avatar,” “Madagascar,” “Shrek 2,” “Babe,” “Ace Ventura II,” and “Batman & Robin.” In addition, he has shipped 3 AAA game titles: “Star Wars: Force Unleashed,” “Tiger Woods 07″ and “The Godfather Game.”

Solomon holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Computer Engineering from UCLA and a Masters of Science Degree from Georgia Institute of Technology in Computer Animation. SIGGRAPH 2017 takes place from July 30 to August 3, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. Solomon will follow SIGGRAPH 2015 Conference Chair Marc Barr from Middle Tennessee State University and SIGGRAPH 2016 Conference Chair Mona Kasra from University of Texas at Dallas.

For further information on this announcement, please contact media@siggraph.org.

Watch Solomon’s interview with Steve Waskul here:
Jerome Solomon interview with Steve Waskul

About SIGGRAPH 2015

The annual SIGGRAPH conference is a five-day interdisciplinary educational experience in the latest computer graphics and interactive techniques, including a three-day commercial exhibition that attracts hundreds of exhibitors from around the world. The conference also hosts the international SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival, showcasing works from the world’s most innovative and accomplished digital film and video creators. Juried and curated content includes outstanding achievements in time-based art, scientific visualization, visual effects, real-time graphics, and narrative shorts. SIGGRAPH 2015 will take place from August 9-15, 2015, in Los Angeles, California. Visit the SIGGRAPH 2015 website or follow SIGGRAPH on Facebook and Twitter for more detailed information.

- See more on the Siggraph website

Feature Spotlight: Modeling Toolkit

November 7th, 2014
Autodesk Maya 2014 Modeling Toolkit

Autodesk Maya 2014 Modeling Toolkit

Before Autodesk’s 2014 version of Maya, trying to find the mesh editing tools you needed within Maya was a bother. You had to go through a cluttered UI (user interface) just to find that one tool that always seemed important enough to have its own tab. You were also limited to having one component tool active at a time: face selection, vertex selection or edge selection. Often times I’ve wondered why Maya couldn’t have cleaner functionality like its counterpart, 3DSMax. After all, both programs are made by Autodesk and 3DSMax is far less technical and more forgiving.

Suddenly, from what seemed like out of nowhere, Autodesk introduced the Modeling Toolkit with their 2014 release of Maya. It is a 3D modelers dream! All of the most commonly used tools are now set up right in front of you, in one click of a button. Gone are the days of rummaging through the 3D modeling program, just to find one primary tool.

Need to have all component tools active at once? No problem, just click multi-component.

Need to work on two sides of a model at once? It’s as simple as selecting a center edge, and clicking symmetry.

Thank you Maya for making this modeler’s life easier!

Peter Gazallo

Cogswell Presents: Nye Warburton

November 6th, 2014
Cogswell College Presents: Nye Warburton
Cogswell Presents: Nye Warburton
Tuesday, November 11th
12:45 – 1:30
Dragon’s Den

Students!
Do you find yourself starting projects that never get finished, or find yourself swimming in awesome ideas and never do anything with them? Come see Nye on Tuesday to learn how to…

Finish it! How to take your creative ideas and finish the project.
Tips from the industry. How to go from idea to final film, or final game, or whatever you are building. A little bit of project management, a little bit of creative advice and a little bit about the business and how to get your work out there.

About Nye:
Nye Warburton is an animator, cartoonist, game designer and artist. His graduate thesis film, Magnetism, landed him in the Los Angeles animation industry in 2004. He spent a decade at studios like Electronic Arts, Sony Imageworks, Fox, Blur, Proof, Digital Domain and  The Third Floor. He has worked on 30+ high budget films including Monster House, Thor, Battleship, Men in Black III and Oblivion. He has had development deals with Fox Animation and Comedy Central, as well working on several independently funded animation and game projects.

Nye currently works as a creative director for start ups, out of his office space in downtown Los Angeles. Visit him online at http://nyewarburton.com

Concept Art Process for Award-Winning Short Animated Films

November 5th, 2014

Kong Vang, Cogswell alumni and Art Director of two short animated films

Kong Vang, Cogswell alumni and Art Director of the two short animated films “Driven” and “Worlds Apart” – both created in Cogswell College’s Project X class – shares his process of creating character concept designs and more.

While working on the films created in the Project X class, I learned that it takes a very dedicated team to make a short film in four semesters or less. Many of the students on this team are attending classes full-time in addition to contributing their talents towards making an awesome film.

Here’s an overview of what happens during the production process of a short animated film: First the script and storyboards are completed and approved, within the first semester. Meanwhile, the concept team begins creating concepts for characters and environments.  Approved concepts are sent into the modeling pipeline as soon as they are approved where our artists create 3d models. As each model is approved by the Director, they are sent into the texturing and rigging pipeline. Technical artists create animation rigs for each model and prepare them for animation testing.  Animation is a long process so it is important to get the rigged 3D models to the animators as soon as possible. Animation takes almost a year to get all of the shots approved.  After the animation is polished, the first test of the film timing is created, approved, and sent off to the sound effects and music score team.  Also during the process of animation, approved shots are sent to the lighting team for light set and test render. When the finalized lit shots are rendered out, they are sent to the compositing team for the final clean up. After the composite shots are cleaned up and finalized, they are sent off to the film editor who creates the final cut of the film and music score.

On the latest film ‘Driven’, each member of the team wore different hats depending on which stage of the production pipeline the film was in.  For instance, initially I started out in the concept design pipeline, then moved to the animation pipeline and finally to matte painting for the final stage of the film.

One of my jobs as a concept designer was to collect the approved designs from the other artists and finalize them. Because most approved designs are from different artists, each with their own distinct style, the finalization process ensures a consistent look and feel. After finalizing the look and stylization of the characters, I would render each character in 2D using Adobe Photoshop so that it would represent its 3d counterpart.  This allows the Director to easily visualize how each character will look before it gets passed along to the modeling team.

Digital media is the fastest way to work and Photoshop offers the perfect tools and work flow for this demanding field. With infinite tool presets, custom brushes, and limitless iterations, it allows me to work more quickly and easily compared to traditional mediums like paint or ink.

To block out the initial character’s silhouette, I like to use a standard round brush, which I adjust into an ellipse shape, then angle it 45 degrees. This style of brush setup creates a line weight that flows much more nicely than the standard round brushes. Once the silhouettes and internal shapes look good, I create a new layer in Photoshop and start to block out the forms with one color value. At this early stage, I prefer to work in black and white.  It makes it easier to focus just on values and form rather than getting caught up about the colors. My preference in digital painting is to work from dark to light values, or shadows to highlights. It has been my experience to get results much faster using this method than trying to paint from light to dark.  I push and pull (lighten and darken) the values until the character forms are clear.  During this process, I maintain a wide range of values to create depth and realism.

Once the characters have been sketched out, it’s time to experiment with color palettes. I like give a slight color tint to the values before painting on top of the black and white image. The tint layer acts as a color wash so none of the black and gray value show through later. I create a new layer and set the Layer Mode to “Color”. I start by painting over the character with the color palette that the team agrees on. By using multiple layers, I don’t lose my original black and white image – and I can test out different color schemes.  Once I’ve added general color blocks to the characters, I use a new layer to start painting in details. For the final detail stage, I use textures and custom brushes to polish the look of the characters.

The development stages from concept to finished product vary from character to character; it all depends on what the Director is looking for. For example, secondary characters may be approved before main characters. Main characters are often challenging as they have to be visually pleasing and have the right visual attitude. On the other hand secondary characters have far less restrictions, allowing flexibility for designers to explore their creativity.

The concept team spent almost an entire semester designing characters. After four months and multiple iterations, all nine characters were finally approved. Once approved, I took the concepts and started finalizing each character’s look. It took me roughly four or five hours to render out the first pass of each character to show the Director.  One character in particular – the adult Biff cop – took almost ten hours to design.  After multiple small changes, the final designs were approved.

One of the most surprising and challenging characters to design was the Jet Bike that the main character rides.  Its importance in the film is equal to the character that rides it. Although there were many great concept designs shown to the Director, none of them were approved. That’s when I was given the tough task of designing the bike. After fifty designs, we started to narrow down the concept. Once the main silhouette was chosen, I mixed elements from the best three designs together to get the final jet bike concept. The process for this single ‘character’ took three or four weeks, from start to finish, working with traditional mediums like graphite and paper.

This is just the front-end of the production pipeline for a short animated film. It takes a strong team and lots of man hours to complete the film. In the end many people had come and gone, and lots of talented people contributed to the film. We were all so glad that the film was finally finished. It took the PX team about four semesters and two summers of hard work to accomplish the short film, Driven. The Project X class has given me the best hands-on experience possible. It has definitely changed my future and life for the better. Thanks Project X!

Kong Vang

Thoughts from Inside the Star Thief Studio Project Class

November 3rd, 2014

Star Thief Studio Logo - Animated Short Film Project

For two semesters, I was part of Star Thief Studio (formerly Studio E) – a project-based class that creates an animated short in an on-campus environment that mirrors an industry studio production pipeline. When I first started out, I had a very general idea of what I’d be doing, but in truth I was heading into the project pretty much blind, and hoping that I’d be able to perform on the same level as the other artists. During the first week, we were separated into different groups: pre-visualization (pre-vis), production, and post-production. The pre-vis group had duties including concept art, color keys, layout, and animation blocking— mostly preliminary planning and design. Members of the production group started on animation, character modeling and painting backgrounds. The post-production group was tasked with polishing, texturing, lighting, and general effects that would make the project visually appealing.

As a general painter and designer, I helped out in several different areas. My first group did design and layout, followed by texturing and painting.  I moved onto several other areas as well, helping out wherever needed, as phases of the production cycle started and ended.

Star Thief Studio Character Model

Star Thief Studio Character Model

Our studio’s pipeline used a structure where we tackled one shot at a time. First the storyboards were completed and handed off to a layout artist, who created a 3D scene in Autodesk Maya, based off of the storyboard. In addition, rough color keys were created to determine an artistic direction for the background elements. Preliminary animations were blocked out, based on initial layouts, and later replaced by polished animations with the finalized characters and completed backgrounds. The process concluded with a combination of polishing, re-assembling, and finalizing texturing and lighting. Because of our unique process, each group within the studio was constantly involved.

My day-to-day process started with talking with the team to find out what was needed and then picking up tasks to help complete a scene. Often, I took 3D models that our artists created, imported them into Mudbox or Photoshop and painted them.  I would then re-import everything back into Maya. The models were then placed into a scene to create the background.

Star Thief Studio - Oak Tree Model with Animated Leaves

Star Thief Studio - Oak Tree Model with Animated Leaves

By the end of my time at Star Thief Studio, I had experienced modeling, rigging, and background animation in addition to the painting that I was already doing. Working within the studio has shown me that you get a broader experience when working on a large-scale project.  I found myself juggling tasks I didn’t expect, and it was an interesting experience. It pushed me to grow my skills in certain areas which have helped me to become a more roundly-developed artist.

Whether or not I will actively use the skills I’ve gained on this project once I start my career, I do not know.  But, as a once very traditionally-based artist, I’ve definitely become more technically nerdy. What I do know is that by doing a little bit of everything, I understand more about the roles that comprise a studio.  This will help me in the future to understand the needs of everyone within a studio and allow the pipeline to run more smoothly.

I hope that everyone will enjoy our film when it is released, and perhaps will have an opportunity to understand and appreciate the multi-layered process of creating an animated short. This team has truly created something extraordinary.

Sierra Gaston

Animation Show of Shows – The Student Perspective

October 6th, 2014

On Thursday evening, the 25th of September 2014, Cogswell College was given the privilege of once again being host to the Animation Show of Shows. A collection of the most intriguing (and at times perplexing) animated shorts of the year from all over the world, the 16th Annual Show of Shows demonstrated a diverse number of contributors, ranging from studios like Disney and Pixar to small indie production teams.
Prior to the show, the two shorts that were easily the most anticipated by students were titled LAVA and Feast, from the studios of Pixar and Disney respectively. Feast followed the technique of an earlier short by Disney called Paperman, using 3D animation with the appearance of a 2D medium. With Feast, more concentration was placed on the language of shape and color in contrast to each other.

Feast by Disney

The story follows a stray puppy that is saved from the streets and given a home. The puppy is very lucky indeed, because his new owner is the kind of person who enjoys cooking for their pet on a daily basis. Consequently,

the pup is showered with bacon, eggs, spaghetti and meatballs. (At this point, I was feeling rather envious and really wishing I was the dog instead of a college student who doesn’t have time to cook.) Suddenly things change for the dog when his owner finds himself a girlfriend! *Gasp* Much to the dog’s horror (and to mine, being raised in an especially carnivorous family where meat takes up the top three food groups), his meaty, greasy diet is replaced by sprigs of parsley and brussel sprouts due to the girlfriend’s health-conscious influence. I won’t detail out what happens next, as the ending should be saved, but the resolution was pretty satisfying and it was easily one of my favorite shorts in the whole collection.

Other shorts in the program were more figurative instead of having an obvious plot (at the end of one, a friend turned around to me and whispered “What the hell did we just watch?”) and some in particular were on the depressing side and made the audience question life in general. One distinctive short was titled We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, which was simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking as it followed the story of two astronauts who were as close as brothers.

The biggest impact of all was made by the short titled Hipopotamy which the show’s curator, Ron Diamond, saved for last because – in his words – we wouldn’t be able to concentrate on any other shorts after we’d seen it.
Hipopotamy, by Piotr Durnala, framed humans in a light as if we behaved like hippos—the reverse of the concept of anthropomorphism. What we didn’t expect was that every character in the short was pretty darn naked in the most blatant sense. It was also disturbing as we found out that the humans behaved with extremely animistic instincts—children were not spared from violence, and women were subjugated to open force. It was a raw outlook on perhaps how similar humans’ behavior really is comparable to that of animals like the hippopotamus, and could be interpreted as a statement about things that desperately need to be changed about society.

After going to the Show of Shows last year, I was hooked and eager to see the presentations again this year. I definitely was not disappointed—I walked away inspired and feeling just a little bit different. It’s a refreshing perspective to see things from someone else’s eyes, and Ron Diamond’s collection achieved that for me once again.

by Sierra Gaston, Digital Art & Animation Student

Photos:
Feast by Disney
Ron Diamond (left), curator of Animation Show of Shows with Cogswell College Dean (right), Jerome Solomon

Industrial Strength Graduates and Commercially Viable Apps

October 3rd, 2014

Industrial Strength Graduates and Commercially Viable Apps

by John Duhring, Education Technology Specialist, Cogswell Polytechnical College

Introduction

To prepare students to enter today’s ecosystems, academic institutions are challenged to create environments in which students can learn not only what skills they need to acquire but also how to work as part of an ensemble of other talented individuals with the goal of producing something extraordinary. Learning as a group requires practice and the best practice is through the experience of making products together.  It is the assertion of the group described here that in addition to embracing what is called “collaborative learning,” colleges can graduate students who are ready to contribute to startup teams the moment they leave college with their experience enabling them to function at a high level.  In many cases, the curriculum for educating students for professions within startups and high–tech ventures draws heavily on the practice of publishing and the Cogswell approach we describe provides one approach.  While it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the learning objectives and assessments in place, the course described brings the process of publishing into a classroom experience in which the participating students earn credits towards their WASC accredited bachelor degrees.

For our purpose of examining how publishing processes can be experienced within an academic institution, we first extract the practice of publishing from the myths surrounding the publishing business.  The world of traditional publishing is filled with powerful narratives.  For instance, a publishing company is often called a “house.”  In it, a mythical editor diligently molds an author’s work into a “best–seller” while un–seen production planners and managers bring physical products to market.  Early electronic publishing ventures molded themselves on this model, particularly in the realm of gaming and animated films.  Hidden from view are the specialists and professionals who bring their talents to bear on each work.  It has been well understood: the only way to learn publishing is to work in publishing and that learning takes place over years of apprenticeship and mentoring.  Typically, students from colleges with liberal arts backgrounds are encouraged to give publishing a try.  They migrate to production or marketing, and they discover the roles of myriad specialties: cover design, publicity copywriting, developmental editing, ancillary rights management and royalty distribution.  Here’s a somewhat typical example.

With the current rise of mobile apps as a driving force in electronic publishing, the “house” model is migrating to a “studio” model in which the author team crafts its own works and sells directly to its own audience.  Double Fine Studios provides but one example. As small teams of college students embrace publishing, otherwise hidden facets of what makes the traditional publishing world work can be adapted into production pipelines tailored for each project.  The craft of turning inspiration into product is being embraced by organizations with no background in traditional publishing.  Innovative teams, often operating within larger organizations, look to hire professionals who understand their skillset, their place in production pipelines and the adaptability required to bring products to market.

Skills and Passion

Professor Thomas Applegate of Cogswell College in Sunnyvale, California organized a studio course within a college that is dedicated to bringing engineers and artists together in projects that reflect industry practice. “The students are learning another form of storytelling, from the inside.  They see what it takes to bring the story to life using modern tools to engage today’s audiences,” says Applegate.  The studio’s first work is about a seven year-old boy named Sebastian, his adventures and his personal transformation.  His experiences are delivered as a seven minute animated film bundled with an interactive book as an app for the iPad:   “Each of us is a Sebastian.  This project celebrates what it means to see the world through the eyes of a kid.  It’s for children of all ages and calls forward memories we sometimes salt away without much reflection.  The students are putting their skills to work as part of a collaboration, which means they themselves are in the process of transformation into professional roles even as they reflect on the story as it aligns with their own experiences.”

Drawing on his experience designing games for Sega, DreamWorks and others, along with his 16 years teaching at Cogswell, Applegate brought an original story to Cogswell and recruited students to join the team.  His example illustrates the academic and professional benefits surfaced through collaborative learning when the goal is to instill professional practices while developing a unique curriculum for students.  Participating students earn credit for the course and gain a rich portfolio to take with them into their professional careers.  Mirroring industry methods, the outcome of this project will be distributed through Apple’s App Store.  Such globally available publication vehicles enable Applegate to acknowledge the contributions of the participating students, much like the practice in publishing where a professor thanks those who helped in the production of his manuscript.

Video 1. Developing an inter–disciplinary project involves rethinking how traditional courses are taught.

The mix of skills students bring to the team are enhanced by the roles they take on during the project.  At one stage of production, physical sculpts are produced as reference models, storyboards rendered to document the arc of the narrative and color studies painted to orient the team.  At the same time, engineers build frameworks that will animate page turns, light scenes and bring sounds into the user experience. Since a seven minute animated film is rendered at 24 frames per second, literally thousands of versions of the film are produced as each character is rigged and their moves polished.  Students I’ve interviewed say the major value working on such an inter–disciplinary project comes from what they experience as part of a team.

Video 2. Students gravitate to the challenge of collaborating with talented peers.

Applegate interviews students who show potential as team members.  All Cogswell students are used to critique and presenting their work for class projects, but in order to function as part of his team, the personalities he finds must be complimentary to what is already in the collaboration. He looks for not only a deep–rooted skillset but also the ability to solve problems through critical thinking and to adapt as needs change.  He says, “At the front end, students are attracted to working on a project that is as sophisticated as what they aspire to work on in the industry.  While that is attractive to them, what holds their commitment to the project is what they bring to each other as a team.  Team members shift jobs as the work changes.  Team leaders become novice helpers and vice versa.  It’s a fiercely collaborative environment.”

Measurable Performance

Cogswell College has no varsity sports teams but project teams take on many of the characteristics of athletics with regards to teamwork, performance, roles and capacity.  Individuals in project teams such as described here are graded much like those within an athletic department at a major college.  Participation is not only essential it becomes the quality indicator.  People show up when they feel indispensable.  They challenge themselves to make the team work effectively and within that structure the creativity contributed by team members exceeds expectations.  Something transformational occurs as individual step beyond their own limitations and take on greater responsibility or embrace new challenges.  Cogswell’s faculty serves as “coaches” in this paradigm.  They establish norms and alignment with project goals and cheer on their team members to consider their opportunity to learn and develop their skills and value to the team.

As a WASC–accredited institution, Cogswell measures Learning Outcomes at a course, program and institutional level.  Proficiency in written and oral communications is required as part of every graduate’s performance.  Rubrics are structured to indicate whether a given student meets, exceeds, or goes above and beyond expectations in a variety of measures.  The rich communications fabric that develops between team members within projects provides ample opportunity to observe and measure proficiency and progress.

In the project we are examining here, which awards 3 credit units per term, Applegate requires a self–assessment from each student at the beginning and end of each semester.  The start point serves as a base–line and the end–point provides critical self–reflection on what has been accomplished in the period.  For each student to articulate their role and how it interacts with others forms one level of awareness.  To go beyond this to include how the pipeline or a production process adjusted based on participation moves the needle in a way that reflects professional practice and helps identify which students have the potential to take on greater mentoring or team leadership responsibilities.

As part of the project course, each student is required to write a paper that describes something they learned during the term.  This can be simply a description of some component of their skillset that they enhanced during the period or an observation about working with the team. When evaluating his students, Applegate also asks them to be teachers and to describe how they have helped their teammates to learn from their example or guidance.  He believes in shifting roles from student to teacher, and vice versa.  He says, “If the students have the opportunity to try teaching they get a completely different perspective.”

Better Together

Observing the course in action often takes the casual observer by surprise.   “This is what education should look like,” said one recent visitor, a corporate lawyer. The production goal is to evoke a single emotion around each scene in the animated film while at the same time to faithfully simulate that telling through the form of an interactive book.  For both the film and book sub–projects the work is broken out into animations and assets.  The storytelling takes on unseen sophistication by using the iPad to view the film and to interact with the book.  For instance, the sound track for the film is linear but for the book, sounds respond to user behaviors.  Likewise, animations throughout the book invite interaction.  For instance, users can pause in their reading of a nighttime scene in Sebastian’s back yard and trace stars in the sky to make up their own constellations.

Roughly speaking, the film animations focus on what is known as “character development.”  Each character in the work is examined at a level of detail that goes far beyond what is revealed in the story itself.  For instance, the only hint that Sebastian’s mother plays a major role in his life is revealed when a user discovers his sketchpad in the interactive app and flips through pages to see what he has written about her there. Technically, the images of the characters are sketched in a variety of situations and story–boarded before being constructed digitally.  This construction involves a complex structural design, or “rigging,” that creates a personality to the movements of the character.  The expressions, skin, hair and clothing are stretched and textured onto these structures and fine–tuned to the artistic demands of the project.

Alongside the characters, the props and objects that populate both the book and film require a team dedicated to their production.  Natsumi Nishi is a texture artist on the assets team.  She describes her job as not only designing everyday objects, like a clock that sits on a mantle, but as guiding and mentoring other students who like her have never been challenged to take on such a role that they might choose to pursue in their professional career.

Video 3. Roles in a digital production pipeline involve mentoring and learning new techniques.

From a management perspective, there is a weekly “all hands” meeting, in which the four major sub–teams come together to update their progress and describe their challenges.  These group meetings provide a level of problem solving that rarely happens in traditional academic settings.  The interplay between the sub–groups enables parallel production pipelines to result in orchestrated results and at the same time serves to keep everyone focused and on track.  The discussions lead to what ultimately appears on the upcoming schedule of jobs to be done.  They also serve to establish a common language about the project, for the entire team to gain a new perspective and appreciation for what they are accomplishing.

In addition, the sub–groups formally review their progress on a daily basis.  These “tracking meetings” provide a forum for timely suggestions and advice.  “There really is no place to hide,” says Applegate.  “It’s easy for students to micro vision the problem without seeing the big picture.”  Since the story is about childhood, stories from the students’ own narratives inevitably find their way into the work. In order for the work to be a good story, well told, the students are challenged to reset their perspectives regularly.

Present throughout the process is Applegate, who works with team leaders one–on–one to mentor and model the dynamics of team leadership.  He says, “Students will do what you say in many cases, but they will always do what you model. That’s what they pick up.”  He has created a laboratory that illustrates how teamwork, mentoring and ventures work together.

A Look Forward

As of this writing, the commercial possibilities for the story of Sebastian mirror the dynamics within this self-publishing venture.  No longer do the means to an audience reside exclusively in the promotional machinery of major publishing partners.  In very real terms, participation in a creative endeavor as described here involves communities that come together around what is produced.  The work will be made available through Apple’s ecosystem, but how the creators are able to engage with users directly is still to be seen.  As an academic exercise, the learning stands by itself, yet the meaningfulness of the work expands as audiences respond to the artifacts that are published and that story is yet to be told.

The learning outcomes of the approach described here might provide the strongest measure of their effect.  While we have described skill–building and team–oriented learning that comes into play, the profession–readiness aspects also deserve mention.  In the past year, two hires evolved from similar projects at Cogswell, one to Google and one to Industrial Light and Magic (Lucasfilm).  These Cogswell recent alumni now sit alongside the best and brightest in the world, working on projects with the potential to change lives.  Last year, another recent alum, Chris Evart, received an Academy Award in recognition for his contributions to the Disney film, Frozen.

Whether students matriculate into a studio, an enterprise, or a startup, preparing them to serve vital roles, contributing to the success of any venture, point to the skills and behaviors that they develop as a consequence of their involvement with their peers in producing commercial–grade media.  Typically, students graduating with a bachelor’s degree even from top–rated institutions rarely have the experience of managing multiple groups of people over extended periods of time, or over multiple projects.  Their ability to commit fully to a project or opportunity has been cited as a key reason for their hiring after all other factors have been taken into consideration.  Further studies into the educational value of “head–to–hand” and project–based learning would be well–served to adopt publishing frameworks for their model.


John Duhring (@duhring) is an Education Technology Specialist at Cogswell Polytechnical College.