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Also In This Issue

Did You Know

…that Texas A&M visualization graduates are taking over Hollywood?

Aggies contributed to the production of "Toy Story 4" as technical directors, effects supervisors and art production coordinators, among other roles.

“And the Oscar goes to…Toy Story 4!” The crowd at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, cheered as producers and directors from Pixar Animation Studios took the stage to receive the 2020 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Among those celebrating outside the auditorium were 16 former students of the Texas A&M University Department of Visualization, also known as the “Viz Lab,” who contributed to the film in various technical roles.

Current Viz Lab students and faculty celebrated, too, even if they weren’t very surprised. Aggies working on award-winning blockbuster animated films has become the norm. “Toy Story 4” was the 16th winner in the Best Animated Feature category to include Aggie visualization graduates in its credits—an impressive feat, considering there have only been 19 winning films since the category was introduced in 2001. Aggies have worked on every winning film since 2005.

Tim McLaughlin ’90 ’94, head of the Department of Visualization since 2008, has reason to believe that the impact of “Viz Kids” on Hollywood isn’t going away anytime soon.
 

Tim McLaughlin ’90 ’94 speaks at a panel of successful Viz Lab graduates at SXSW 2019.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

The Viz Lab was established in 1988 to produce leaders in areas where art and science merge, with its corresponding academic program starting a year later. According to McLaughlin, the release of the digital effects-heavy “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “Toy Story” (1995) created a boon for the program.

“‘Toy Story’ was the first entirely computer-animated feature film,” McLaughlin said. “Both of those films demonstrated that the use of computer graphics in media—particularly high-profile, high-dollar media—was viable.” This created a massive demand in Hollywood for workers who felt comfortable navigating both the art and computing worlds—a demand that Viz Lab students were eager to meet.

Fearlessly Creative

The College of Architecture has recognized many of its notable alumni as Outstanding Former Students. But when asked about the Viz Lab’s crowning achievement, McLaughlin puts forward the space that enabled their creativity at Texas A&M. “The studio environment of our curriculum is the real success story,” he said.

Viz faculty encourage students to give and receive feedback on each others' projects, a habit that will be useful in any professional studio environment.

From their introductory courses to graduation, viz students must work together, communicate ideas, give constructive feedback and muster the drive to go back to the drawing board when their project’s first, second or 10th attempt fails. “Those are the most important things our students learn,” McLaughlin said. “Everything else is important, too, but those are the skills that get them through their careers and life.”

Walking the Line

The Viz Lab curriculum still emphasizes a tightrope balance between technical mastery and visual literacy. “There’s often a need for someone in the middle,” McLaughlin said. For students, learning how to tell stories through images is just as important as understanding the ins and outs of a 3D modeling program.

This hybrid focus on art and technology sets the Viz Lab apart from similar programs throughout the country, which tend to prepare students for specialized roles, such as character modeling, animating or rigging. Within the program’s philosophy, honing specific strengths is important, but knowing how to adopt changes in technology to effectively collaborate and lead a team is paramount.

A viz student interacts with a digital world using a virtual reality headset.

STUDIO SUPPORT

More than 136 Aggies have entered the film industry across more than 20 production studios; these individuals have been credited in more than 400 films. Those numbers don’t include the myriad viz grads who have found careers in areas outside of film, such as game design, graphic design, advertising and architecture.

Some of those former students have felt inspired to give back. Gracie Arenas Strittmatter ’04 ’08, who has used the skills she refined in the Viz Lab to work on titles for Electronic Arts, recently created an endowed scholarship for viz students with her husband, Willem ’02. Aggies at select studios, such as Disney, Pixar, Blue Sky and Electronic Arts, have also regularly funded annual pass-through scholarships for the next generation of Viz Kid leaders.

To learn how you can support the Department of Visualization and future "Viz Kids," contact Larry Zuber using the form below. You can also give to the department online.

Stars Behind the Scenes

Check out a few visualization graduates who have enjoyed successful careers thanks to their Texas A&M education.

Michelle Robinson ’91

Michelle Robinson ’91 was among the first students in the Viz Lab’s graduate program. Robinson currently works as a look development supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios, where she manages artists who paint digital textures, hair and fur on some of Disney’s most beloved new characters. Her credits include projects such as “Meet the Robinsons,” “Bolt,” “Tangled,” “Frozen,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “Zootopia.”

Jean-Claude Kalache ’93 ’97

Jean-Claude Kalache ’93 ’97 earned his master’s degree in visualization in 1997 and took a position at Pixar Animation Studios. Kalache became an integral part of Pixar’s technical leadership as a director of photography on “Cars,” “Up,” “Monsters University” and “Toy Story 4.” He became a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2014.

Dave Walvoord II ’93 ’96

Dave Walvoord II ’93 ’96 worked at Blue Sky Studios as a supervising technical director on the hit 2002 film “Ice Age” and as a visual effects artist on movies like “Fight Club” and “Star Trek: Insurrection” before taking a position at DreamWorks Animation. There, he has worked on projects such as “Kung Fu Panda,” “Shark Tale,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and its successor, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.”

Kirk Kelley ’82 ’89 ’94

Growing up on a farm, Kirk Kelley ’82 ’89 ’94 took a special interest in learning how to build and fix things using his intuition and curiosity. At first, he applied his skills to chemical engineering, but a nine-month trip to Europe after his Texas A&M graduation inspired a new career path. Italy’s architecture and art scene prompted Kelley to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas A&M in environmental design and visual science, respectively. He has since produced animated commercials for brands such as Chipotle, Apple, Adidas, LEGO and M&M’s.

Contact:

Larry Zuber

Assistant Vice President for Development
College of Architecture