New film shines light on Clemson University’s connection to Hollywood
One jellyfish fires projectiles from a sunken airplane, and another retaliates with a blast from a ship’s canon.
What caused all the fuss?
A jar of peanut butter that had fallen off a boat and drifted to the coral reef below.
The animated short, “Peanut Butter Jelly,” showcases the increasing sophistication coming out of a Clemson University program that mimics a real-world animation studio. It also shines a light on the School of Computing’s growing influence in the movie industry.
Graduates are winning top honors, including an Academy Award as recently as February. They are learning from professors who have worked their computer magic on feature films ranging from “Happy Feet” to “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
“Peanut Butter Jelly” takes about one minute to watch, but it’s the result of a year’s work by 26 students, said Alex Beaty, the student writer and director.
“I’m really proud of it,” he said. “I really appreciate all the work that people have put into it.”
The film’s producer, Jerry Tessendorf, racked up credits in several movies, including “Happy Feet” and “Superman Returns,” before becoming a professor of visual computing at Clemson.
While Tessendorf provided some guidance on “Peanut Butter Jelly,” he described it as “all-student production.”
“This is very close to what is done in feature films,” he said. “The ability to do this kind of work is rare in academics.”
“Peanut Butter Jelly” illustrates the growing technical ability of students in Digital Production Arts, a program in Clemson’s School of Computing. Students learn the skills needed to work in the animation, visual-effects and electronic-games industries.
Beaty, who recently received his Master of Fine Arts in the program, said 14 graduate students worked on the film in artistic roles and 12 undergraduates worked in supporting roles. Tessendorf and Joshua Tomlinson, who is also a faculty member, supported their efforts.
“What excites me most is the number of people who came together to make this,” Beaty said. “We’re not paying them, and they’re putting in large amounts of time. It all came from passion, and that represents why we’re all here in the DPA program– not to be on screen but because we all love making movies. ”
Making the movie gave students a taste of just how difficult– and rewarding– it can be to make high-quality animated films.
“It takes hundreds of hours per second to finish animation,” Tessendorf said. “Students in the program are capable of doing this.”
Clemson began offering Digital Production Arts in 1999, and alumni have worked on more than 150 feature films, Tessendorf said.
Eileen Kraemer, the C. Tycho Howle director of the School of Computing, said “Peanut Butter Jelly” shows why leading companies are snapping up the program’s graduates.
“I am impressed with the quality of the film and the passion our students put into it,” she said. “It’s a great example of the skills students learn in our Digital Production Arts program. Those skills are why our graduates are having so much impact in industries that demand high-quality visual effects.””
While movie stars are the ones shown walking the red carpet, Clemson alumni have also been winning Academy Awards.
Last month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Clemson graduate Karl Rasche a Scientific Achievement Award for his role in the development of the HP DreamColor LP2480zx Professional Display.
Rasche, who has a Ph.D. in computer science, is now a DreamWorks software engineer and shared in the award with other winners from Hewlett-Packard.
One of the strongest ties between Clemson and Hollywood is Tessendorf.
He shared in a 2008 Technical Achievement Award from the Academy with Dr. Jeroen Molemaker and Michael Kowalski while at Rhythm & Hues Studios. They developed a system that is still used in film and allows artists to create realistic animation of liquids and gases.
Beaty, who aspires to direct movies, said he decided to write and direct “Peanut Butter Jelly” after participating in an intensive summer program at Clemson with professionals from DreamWorks.
“They said if you’re interested in layout you need to have some sort of film that you direct,” Beaty said. “That’s the role of layout– it’s really close to a directorial role. As soon as I heard that, I said, ‘Ok, I’ve got to make my own film.’”
The DreamWorks program was a success and will be back this summer, Tessendorf said.
“It’s a very intense 10 weeks during the summer,” he said. “We choose a few students. They are volunteers because they have to commit to working 100 hours a week in the studio with DreamWorks mentors. The goal is to produce professional-quality work, not just student quality films.”
The School of Computing’s Digital Production Arts program offers both an undergraduate minor and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA). Currently, 30 graduate students are enrolled in the MFA program.
Two School of Computing alumni were recognized last year for their work on the Academy Award-winning film, “Frozen.”
Jay Steele, who received a Ph.D. in computer graphics, received a film credit in the in the area of animation technology. Marc Bryant, a Digital Production Arts graduate, was part of the animation team that received an award from the Visual Effects Society for outstanding FX in the segment called “Elsa’s Storm”.
Digital Production Arts’ co-founder, Robert Geist, who had a credit in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” remains a professor in the School of Computing and currently serves as Interim Director of the DPA program.
“Our graduates are doing some of the highest-level visual effects in the world,” Geist said. “For them, the sky is the limit.”