Opportunity of a Lifetime
Issue: Volume 33 Issue 6: (June 2010)

Opportunity of a Lifetime

One of the biggest challenges to freshly-minted graduates of animation and visual effects programs is getting their work seen by the right people–people who understand the artistry, the technique, the innovation demonstrated in truly stellar creative work. People who recognize their talent. And more practically, people who can help them start their careers.

The Visual Effects Society (VES) and Autodesk offer just such an opportunity with the VES Student Award. First presented in 2009, the award recognizes outstanding achievement for visual effects in a student project.

“The idea for a student award had been bubbling through our Awards Committee for a number of years,” says VES executive director Eric Roth. Things started to move quickly when Autodesk, a long-standing supporter of entertainment and design education, proposed sponsoring a VES student award in 2007. When director Steven Spielberg encouraged the VES to acknowledge student achievement in his 2008 acceptance speech for a VES Lifetime Achievement Award, all the efforts came together. “Autodesk was right there to support it,” Roth notes. “They have been a tremendous supporter of the VES, and of the craft.”

“This award is a wonderful opportunity for us to help inspire the next generation of entertainers and designers,” says Jennifer Goldfinch, Autodesk Media & Entertainment marketing manager for education. “We’re proud to partner with the VES on this program encouraging students to excel, acknowledge their achievement, and help them prepare for their careers.”

Roth notes, “The visual effects craft is changing not year to year, but day to day, because of advances in technology and the way those advances affect and enhance our ability to go forward with a creative vision. We provide opportunities to get the next generation exposed to all that’s occurring in the industry. The Student Award is a way to enable them, in turn, to expose their work to the industry. It gives them a chance to be critiqued not only by their peers and instructors, but by the best in the field. It’s the ultimate stage upon which they can show their work, the ultimate resume-builder.”

While being a finalist or winning the award is a spectacular honor on its own, the platform the award presents is the opportunity of a lifetime. Student project submissions are reviewed alongside the best professional work of the year by voting members of the VES—more than 2000 pros worldwide, including visual effects artists, animators, supervisors, and studio heads at all levels in the industry.

And the student winner’s work is shown at the swanky Hollywood VES awards ceremony attended by more than a thousand members, guests, and honorees, which have included Steven Spielberg, Ed Catmull, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Phil Tippett, and James Cameron, as well as longtime VES members, such as John Knoll, Richard Edlund, Joe Letteri, and other VFX luminaries. Talk about an ideal audience.

On the Fast Track
“It’s crazy,” says Thilo Ewers, the 2010 VES Student Award winner. “When you submit for the award, you know that the VES includes the top people in the industry. You know their names, and maybe you have had one of them as a guest lecturer, but as a student, you don’t ever expect to see or meet these people, or imagine that they would be looking at your work.”

Ewers, who hails from Filmakademie in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, earned the Student Award honor with “They Will Come to Town,” a stunning photoreal CG short imagining a post-global-warming New York City.  At the time he submitted his project, Ewers had already landed at Pixomondo in Santa Monica, California, and was working on matte paintings for Roland Emmerich’s 2012. He pulled the submission materials together in less than a week with the help of Filmakademie supporters in Germany, and crossed his fingers.

At that point, Ewers’ work entered the pool of submissions that were screened initially by a group of VES and Autodesk execs and narrowed down to a short list. That list was judged by VES members in their daylong review session to determine nominees for all categories. Ultimately, four nominated projects (in 2010 they included Ewers’ fellow alumnae Tina Ohnmacht for “Motherland” and Moritz Mayerhofer for “Urs–Cliff,” and Jeffrey DeVore of the Netherlands Film and TV Academy for “The Full Moon Mystery”) were posted online for the entire VES membership to review (along with the full list of nominees in 23 categories). The winner, Ewers, was determined by vote.

While at the awards ceremony, VES and Autodesk execs introduced Ewers to James Cameron, who was being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Ewers says, “I was really nervous. We talked about Avatar, and I told him it was so good that when I saw it, I wasn’t sure if I could ever achieve anything close to that. He said, ‘You can do it!  I’m the old guy, and you’re the new guy.’ He was really cool—a normal guy.”

The 2009 Student Award winners, Sandy Widyanata and Courtney Wise from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, had a similar experience when they took home the inaugural award for a transformation sequence from “Plastic,” their live-action short about obsession for the perfect body image, employing sophisticated animation and effects.

As part of the award, Autodesk sponsored the winners’ travel to the Los Angeles awards ceremony, took them to visit local Los Angeles visual effects companies, and made personal introductions to professional artists and studio heads. The award also includes a complimentary copy of the Autodesk 3D animation software of the winner’s choice: Maya, 3ds Max, or Softimage.

Thomas Haegele, director of Filmakademie, encouraged his former student, Ewers, to submit his final project to the awards—as he has done with his students since the VES Student Award was founded. “The VES Award is a wonderful opportunity for our students. It brings them right in front of the industry, to be seen, to be visible, and to make people aware of them and what they can do.”

On the flip side, the Student Award injects a fresh perspective, new energy, and new skills into the VES universe. Says Autodesk’s Goldfinch, “During the awards ceremony when the first student recipients took the stage, the energy and excitement they brought with them was incredible. They were so inspired by the company in that room, and they, in turn, inspired. They brought back that feeling of awe about the visual effects craft and profession.”

VES’s Roth notes, “The VES is about the creation of entertainment and the world of tomorrow. Visual effects represent the possibility of an idea not yet put forward, and the marriage of art and technology. Students represent that. This award program is about harnessing the hopeful resources to create a new way to put imagination on the screen. Students aren’t tainted by previous thinking and can come forward with a fresh take on every sort of process.” 

Roth adds, “We want the next generation to aspire to be members of the VES. Submitting a student award brings them into the inner sanctum of the best in the VFX industry.”