BYU animation student wins Student Academy Award

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    By Barbara DeSoto

    BYU animation student Thomas Leavitt recently won a Student Academy Award for his short, computer-animated film, “Turtles,” but finding out he won was hardly ceremonious.

    “I was walking back from the gym with my fianc?e, and a student said congratulations to me,” Leavitt said. “I said ”What for?” He said, ”I think you won an award.””

    This prestigious recognition launched other filmmakers, such as Robert Zemeckis and Spike Lee, to successful directing careers since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences founded the Student Academy Awards in 1974 to encourage student film production.

    Leavitt”s project is one of several BYU-produced animations, some of which professors enter into competitions without students knowing it.

    “We”re too busy having fun in the lab,” Leavitt said.

    He said “Turtles” is about three fishing turtles, one of which keeps pulling up trash while the others are catching fish. Leavitt wrote the story for a storyboarding class his first year at BYU and finished the whole project with only a few animators and voice talents.

    “It”s been kind of a dream [to study animation] because I kind of had to fight to get into BYU,” Leavitt said.

    His dream developed from idea to storyboard to character drawings.

    The next step, Leavitt said, is putting the drawings into the computer, after which bones are added to make the characters like digital puppets. After characters are structured, animators add textures, colors and lighting to create the final rendering of the digital animation.

    Nick Leech, who created the texture of the turtles” shells, said he was surprised to see “Turtles” win the award, but not for lack of quality.

    “”Turtles” was really a small operation, and for the most part it was Thomas” [Leavitt”s] vision,” said Leech, a BYU graduate in animation. Leech now creates visual effects at Digital Domain in Venice, Calif., and has worked on larger BYU animation productions such as “Petshop” and “Noggin.”

    Since its creation in 2001, the BYU program has won five Emmys for student projects. “Turtles” also won a Student Emmy, along with the caveman tale, “Noggin.”

    Leech said although “Turtles” is “a fun little animation,” he is used to seeing larger productions catch national attention, like senior projects that everyone works on.

    “With ”Noggin,” we easily put in 100 times the work.” Leech said. “So to see one student”s project get that far is pretty amazing.”

    Graduating from an award-winning program greatly adds to a BYU animation graduate”s value professionally.

    “Honestly, there”s no other program in the world that”s like it,” Leech said. “It”s very, very unique. The visual effects industry is a really hard industry to get into. I wonder how I even got here. Most people have to spend years and years and get advanced degrees,” but BYU students enter the industry right out of school, he said.

    Students in the program also learn how to collaborate with peers.

    “We create these animations really without the help of professors,” Leech said. “It”s such a real-world process, so when you go to a studio, it”s not a shock. That”s what separates BYU from the rest.”

    Leavitt hopes to someday work at Pixar Animation Studios, which produced “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and, its most recent release, “Cars.”

    “That”s my goal,” Leavitt said. “I want to do a children”s feature film and direct it.”

    Leech would also like to direct films in the future, but his current work is in post-production, which has little to do with storytelling. Leech said he has always known he wanted to do something “partly artistic and partly technical.”

    “I just didn”t know it was animation,” he said.

    BYU interns have been so well prepared for their internships at Pixar that the studio organized an event last semester celebrating the continuation of a relationship with BYU”s animation program, said Kelly Loosli, a BYU animation professor, in an e-mail.

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