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A magazine from California State University, Chico -- On-line Edition  
Fall 2005
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Rick Vertolli (center) with students Kenny DiGiordano (left) and Travis Yee. Photo by Thomas Del Brase.

Chico State Gets Animated

Animation students regularly win awards, including four Best in Shows

Working Stiffs is an award-winning animated film, produced by students from CSU, Chico’s Applied Computer Graphics program, in which two zombie-like targets in a computer-arcade game lament what lousy shots the players are. On a smoke break, one zombie says, “Man, this guy sucks,” to which his partner answers, “Yup. This is gonna take awhile”—that is, before the player can move to the next level of the game and the “working stiffs” can go home. Meanwhile, despite the poor shooting, the zombies continue to get bloodier and bloodier and more and more dismembered, until their shift is over and they call it a day, one hopping along and dragging what’s left of his body behind him, presumably heading home to his family—and probably a cold one.

Gruesome? No doubt. But its ghoulishness is largely offset by the humor—not only by the absurdity of the concept itself (zombie computer-game targets have lives?) but also by the hilarious dialogue and the charmingly engaging characters, as well as by the three-minute film’s overall quality.

Which was obviously the opinion of the judges at the 15th annual California State University Media Arts Festival, held last November at CSU, Channel Islands, where the film won first place in the Animation category—and where three other CSU, Chico films won awards, from 56 entries representing all 23 CSU campuses.

In fact, you might call it a sweep: While CSU, Chico traditionally does well at the festival, having won “Best Animation” a total of nine times and the coveted “Best in Show,” selected from all eight categories (Animation, Documentary, Experimental, Interactive Media, Music Video, Narrative, and Television), four times, this year the judges awarded the first four places in Animation to CSU, Chico films. All were products of Rick Vertolli’s fall 2006 advanced animation production class.

A cartoon connoisseur

Rick Vertolli is sitting in his office in the basement of Meriam Library. His desk is cluttered with drawings, roll sheets, books on animation, and brochures for animation festivals. Characters from Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. cavort in huge framed posters on the wall. “When I was a kid,” says Vertolli, “you couldn’t get me out of bed on the weekdays, but on Saturday morning I’d be up at dawn to watch cartoons. I loved The Flintstones, Bugs Bunny.” The professor’s favorites? 101 Dalmatians, Pinocchio, and more recently, The Incredibles.

Vertolli moved to Sacramento in the late 1970s armed with a BFA in painting and sculpture from Ohio’s Kent State University and quickly found work—as a bricklayer. In 1981, he began taking classes at Sacramento State, where an instructor told him about a “new field”—computer graphics. To get access to graphics computers, Vertolli signed up for engineering and programming classes, telling an instructor he wanted to create art on computers. Nobody does that, his instructor said. When Vertolli insisted, his instructor suggested he go to Chico, saying “They’re doing all kinds of strange things up there.”

Arriving in Chico in 1982, Vertolli met with Professor Grace Hertlein, an artist using computers in her work. A perfect match. Vertolli ended up working with Hertlein on his master’s degree in computer graphics (“She taught me how to write,” he says), which he finished in 1984. The same year he was hired as an animator in CSU, Chico’s Instructional Media Center and to teach computer-assisted art in the Department of Computer Science, first offering the computer animation class in 1992 and the advanced animation production class in 1997. Today, along with professors Frank Pereira, John Pozzi, and Clarke Steinback, Vertolli teaches in the Applied Computer Graphics program (graphics.ecst.csuchico.edu), officially approved as a major in 2002. He was a key player in creating the major.

Today, there are just over 100 students in the major, which offers a production and a technical option, each with the same core requirements, including computer-assisted art, computer modeling, and computer animation. The technical option requires 15 units of computer science, while students in the production option take only one computer science class but must choose from other courses, including communication criticism and industry internships. Students in both the production and technical options select electives such as video game design, digital lighting and texturing, 3D character animation, biomechanical analysis, and acting for non-majors.

Recently, Applied Computer Graphics interns worked with CSU, Chico’s Academic Technologies on the DVD A Spirit of Place and Purpose. Narrated by University President Paul Zingg, the disk examines the school’s Master Plan, with three-dimensional computer graphics portraying the future of the buildings and grounds.

Applied Computer Graphics graduates typically go on to work for private animation or video game companies, while some do freelance Web page design and other similar work. Former student Mike Wellins (attended fall ’83 to fall ’89) has worked with Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Nickelodeon, and Warner Brothers; has published an animation textbook; and is currently making a documentary film about CSU, Chico art professor emeritus Ira Latour. Among the 50 employees of Luma Pictures, which has created special effects on numerous major films including Apocalypto and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, five are graduates of the Applied Computer Graphics program.

Going out on its own

Originally part of the computer science department, Applied Computer Graphics separated this spring in order to have its own identity, giving the program a chance to offer more of its own classes. Among them are 2D digital animation and Vertolli’s advanced animation production class, in which most of the films that end up at the California State University Media Arts Festival are developed.

Vertolli is also active in the California State University Summer Arts program, two weeks of intensive workshops (many running 12 to 14 hours a day) in theatre, dance, music, visual arts, creative writing, new media, and arts education, which has been held on various CSU campuses for the past 22 years, the last eight at CSU, Fresno. Vertolli, coordinator of the course in character development for animation, regularly includes in his workshops presentations by guest artists such as Rusty Mills (Animaniacs and An American Tail) and Chuck Harvey (The Fox and the Hound, Robin Hood, and The Little Mermaid). Another Summer Arts regular is Andrew Gordon, who has been at Pixar for 10 years and has worked on A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Monsters, Inc., and is currently working on Ratatouille (due out this summer). Gordon, who has been teaching at Summer Arts for the past seven years, got his start in the industry with a student film at the 1990 CSU Media Arts Festival. He was also a recent guest lecturer at CSU, Chico. “Rick really makes the Chico program work,” says Gordon. “And he brings incredible energy to Summer Arts. He’s dedicated, committed, and does great work. Everyone wants to go back after they work with him.”

Gordon agrees that it takes more than computer knowledge to be a good animator. “ ‘To animate’ means ‘to bring to life,’ ” he says. “It’s not just moving objects around on a computer.” In fact, he says, to be successful, an animator needs a good foundation in traditional skills: “life drawing, gesture drawing, painting, color theory. Then after that, it’s the story.”

“We’re always trying to find a story,” says Vertolli, leaning away from his desk and crossing his arms. “That’s the hard part for a lot of the students. They’re great with the technical aspect, but we really emphasize story.”

All about the story

Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Museo del Prado in Madrid is about as disturbing a painting as you’re likely to see. A nightmarish landscape cluttered with fantastically grotesque monsters and fruit and birds and fish and humans, the three-panel altarpiece by the early 16th-century Dutch master is frequently described by critics as depicting humankind’s descent into hell as a result of a lustfully sinful lifestyle. A large print of the famous painting hangs prominently in the east Chico apartment living room of Working Stiffs director Kenny DiGiordano. Across the room, next to the television, is DiGiordano’s neatly arranged collection of DVDs, which includes all his favorites, among them The Incredibles, Toy Story, Antz, and Monsters, Inc.

DiGiordano, who grew up in Sacramento, was always interested in art. “When I was a kid,” he says, “I’d sit in my room for hours on end, just drawing.” A semester away from his associate’s degree in Applied Art and Design at Sierra College in Rocklin, DiGiordano one day saw an icon of a hand on a computer screen, and when he clicked on it, he saw the hand from all 360 degrees. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow! How did they do that?’ and decided that’s what I wanted to do.” DiGiordano immediately signed up for Mike Cosper’s 3D art class, then followed Cosper to Sacramento City College, where he took three more of his classes. Cosper recommended CSU, Chico, so DiGiordano contacted Vertolli and enrolled in spring of 2005, attending the Summer Arts Festival that summer.

“Rick pushes us really hard to work on the stories,” says DiGiordano. “Other schools have good computer animation programs as well, but Chico State emphasizes storyboarding and the stories themselves—beginnings, middles, and ends—so that it’s not just production work.” Indeed, Vertolli stresses preproduction, which begins with a “treatment,” or written summary of the story. The students then move to storyboards—hand-drawn blueprints for the action and dialogue—and then “animatics,” which combine dialogue and still images to determine shot timing. At the same time, they are working to develop interesting and believable characters. Preproduction typically takes a semester.

Finally, in the second semester, students turn to their computers and begin the production process—and most students then fine-tune their films with yet another semester of independent study. “I don’t think money is the driving force for these students,” says Vertolli. “This is a way for them to express themselves, but you have to be dedicated, because it’s very hard work, very labor intensive.”

To get a sense of just how labor intensive making an animated student film is, consider Vertolli’s equation: 40 hours of production work equals 10 seconds of screen time (and frequently a lot less). The Working Stiffs team of five students spent eight months on their three-minute film, DiGiordano himself working four to eight hours a day on the film throughout. (To view the award-winning films, as well as other work of the program, log on to imc.csuchico.edu/portfolio/animation.)

It’s in the details

Tracy Hamer is a 23-year-old senior from Auburn who will graduate in May in Applied Computer Graphics with an art minor. Hamer was an animator on the team that produced the 2006 CSU Media Arts Festival’s second-place film, Trash Landing, about a poor, lonely trailer-dwelling old man who finds a winning lottery ticket, loses it in a Wizard of Oz-like tornado, and finds it again once the storm has passed—and then, as he holds the ticket up in celebration, watches lightning strike it and reduce it to ashes. In roughly three minutes, the single character goes from sadly resigned to cheerful, terrified, jubilant, and finally, hopelessly defeated—each emotion completely realistic and convincing.

Hamer notes that the more “humanlike” a character is, the more difficult it is to make the character look believable. “We spend all our lives studying human movement,” she says, “so when a character doesn’t move like you’d expect him to, you pick up on it instantly.” Hamer emphasizes that Trash Landing was a team effort. “Our roles were all pretty equal,” she says.

Working Stiffs team member Peter Mazen is a third-generation Chicoan, son and grandson of Walter Mazen Jr. and Sr., two highly regarded North State physicians (Dr. Mazen Sr. passed away last December). “I started out as a biology major,” says Mazen, “but just didn’t like it, so I changed to computer science but realized that it was pretty much all programming, and I didn’t want to do that either.” Turns out, Applied Computer Graphics was in the same building, “and one day I saw a flyer in the hall about the major, and that sounded way more interesting.”

Mazen says that an Applied Computer Graphics student must be creative, dedicated, and able to work well in groups. It also really helps to have an artistic eye, he says, although the less artistically inclined can become better animators by taking art classes. “Figure drawing really helped me,” he says. “It forces you to look closely at the human body, to see how it’s put together and how it moves.”

Mazen’s roommate, 24-year-old senior and Sacramento native Travis Yee, was also on the Working Stiffs team. Like DiGiordano, Yee was referred to CSU, Chico’s animation program by Sacramento City College instructor Mike Cosper. Yee also stresses the importance of being able to work in groups. “Everyone has a different skill level, different ideas. It’s hard, but it’s so rewarding when you finally see that finished product.” Yee says that the story with which they were working set their film apart from much of the rest of the competition. “CSU, Chico alum Mike Wellins came up with the idea and wrote the script,” he says. “We just pretty much worked with what he gave us, sending him drafts along the way.” He also particularly acknowledges DiGiordano’s direction. “He did a great job shooting,” says Yee, referring to the software’s interior camera and its ability to “move around in the 3D world.”

Unlike many of the other animation students, whose principal influences include recent feature films such as Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, Yee professes to come from “the old school,” citing cartoons such as Steamboat Willie and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit as his influences. “I like cartoony animation more than realism,” he says. “Cartoons are about exaggeration. Like if a character’s going to throw a ball, his whole body winds up. You get to go over the top.”

What does it take to succeed as an animation student, according to Yee? “You have to be willing to spend a lot of time outside of class,” he says. “If you just go to the labs and think you’re going to produce something great, it’s not gonna happen. You’ve got to be dedicated.”

A new generation of animators

This spring, Vertolli’s Advanced Animation Production class meets late on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. The first day, the students rolled into the lecture hall, found seats, and quickly became engrossed in Bass Ackwards, a previous semester’s film that Vertolli was projecting onto the large screen in front of the classroom. When the film was over, Vertolli stepped out from behind his computer monitor and stood in front of the screen. “This is what we’re going to be doing in class this semester,” he said simply, turning once more to the screen to watch the credits roll.

But the students knew that. It’s why they were there. In fact, many of them had already begun work on their semester projects and were planning to enter next fall’s California State University Media Arts Festival.

And if history is any indication, more than a few of those students will be winning awards.

About the author

Stephen Metzger (BA, English, 78; MA, English, 81) teaches in the American Studies, English, and Journalism departments at CSU, Chico. Growing up, he had a major crush on Judy Jetson.


2006 Media Arts Festival Winners

First Place: Working Stiffs

Written by alum Mike Wellins and developed by Kenny DiGiordano (director), Jerry Zigounakis (technical director), Luke Machado, Travis Yee, and Peter Mazen. Music by David Cates. Two video game zombies take turns getting shot at. They get tired of the player continually missing his targets and discuss strategies during their breaks on how to get him to hit them so they can finish their workday.

Second Place: Trash Landing

Rusty Robbins (director), Chris DeStefano, Eugene Chung, Tracy Hamer, Andrew Davis, and Steve Liebenberg. Music and sound by Brendon Harry and Sid Lewis. The rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of a man who lives in a trailer and finds a lottery scratcher by his mailbox, wins the jackpot, and then is swept by a tornado into the air, along with his scratcher.

Third Place: Dungeon Seed

Josiah Munsey (director), Dylan Smith (technical director), Matt Berglund, and Kurt Feudale. This character gets thrown into a dungeon cell, where a flower starts to grow and he tends to it through the winter and even gives it his last drop of water. Just as he is about to give up all hope of ever getting out of the dungeon, a mystical turn of events shows why tending the flower was the right thing to do—in more than one way.

Fourth Place: The Janitor: Bud

André Nguyen (director), Vince Yamamoto, Dave Cross, and Chris Maggitti. Original score and sound effects by Dustin McLean. A funny little man with a giant mustache, Bud the janitor sweeps up after a theatre production and starts imagining himself in all sorts of parts on the stage, including as a pirate and Romeo. Bud doesn’t know that the director is still in the theatre, watching him the entire time.