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The Development of the Digital Animator

39th Student Academy Awards Celebrates Bright Young Talent

Each year the Student Academy Awards brings together a diverse, creative group of student filmmakers to honor their achievements, and this year was no different for the unforgettable ceremony held on Saturday, June, 2012, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Four Hollywood stars, a group of resourceful directors, and a very enthusiastic audience all combined to truly make it a night to remember.

The ceremony also capped off a very busy week for the winners, who spent their time in Los Angeles visiting the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, the American Society of Cinematographers and DreamWorks Animation, as well as meeting Academy Branch Governors and members.

Academy President Tom Sherak welcomed the packed house in the Goldwyn Theater, with many of the crew members, actors, and parents involved in the productions also in attendance. First to present was actress Mena Suvari (“American Beauty”), who gave the Gold Medal Award in the Alternative category to “The Reality Clock,” a visually rich 3D exploration of an elderly watchmaker grappling with his declining sense of time and memory. Its director, Amanda Tasse from the University of Southern California, was the only winner in the category this year and called the award “the most encouraging support I can imagine.” A former hospice volunteer worker, she also spoke of her father who, though not the direct subject for the film, inspired her throughout its making.

Suvari continued to present the next category, Animation, in which the Bronze Medal went to “My Little Friend” and Eric Prah from the Ringling College of Art and Design. This short and sweet story of a dumpster-diving hobo named Hubert engaged in a food battle with a ravenous pigeon won the crowd over, and Prah was quick to thank everyone involved in its creation: “You’ve been awesome!”

 “The Jockstrap Raiders,” by Mark Nelson from the University of California, Los Angeles, received the Silver Medal Award. Completed over a five-year period, this thesis film takes place during World War I in Leeds, England, where a football team comprised of misfits rejected from the military finds itself charged with staving off a German invasion by bridge. Nelson also thanked everyone who persevered with him throughout the lengthy process of the film, whose razor-sharp visual and verbal wit promise great things to come.  

Finally the Gold Medal was presented to “Eyrie,” by David Wolter from the California Institute of the Arts. His short set in the American frontier follows a young boy’s efforts to protect his flock of sheep from a persistent eagle, leading to a surprise twist ending. Wolter also won as the tallest of all this year’s winners at 6’10”, standing so high above the podium he had to ask, “Is there a taller microphone?” His deeply emotional speech was one of the evening’s highlights, but he also provided comic relief by producing the rock his sound designer cracked against his head to create the film’s sounds of sheep’s hooves.

You never know what kind of films you’ll run into with the Documentary category, and once again real life proved to be just as surprising and colorful as fiction. Cuba Gooding Jr., an Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor in “Jerry Maguire,” took to the microphone after a playful hug with Sherak and delivered a hilarious opener about how delighted he was to be among winners who presented “an opportunity to grease up some of my future employers!”

“I will hire you any day of the week!” replied the Bronze Medal Award winner, Heather Burky from the Art Institute of Jacksonville. Her film, “Lost Country,” is a project she saw to completion by herself – including all the sound, editing and lighting. The film itself charts the true stories of three men in Miami involved with the Bay of Pigs, a snapshot of turbulent history still relevant today. She gave a heartfelt thanks to her fiancé and remarked, “I was born to tell stories, and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

The Silver Medal Award was next given to “Dying Green” and Ellen Tripler from American University. A former projectionist and fifteen-year European resident, she wanted to come up with a documentary short about the environment and found a singularly different subject: the process of natural burials in a town in South Carolina. She offered special thanks to her family “for believing in my dream” to become a documentarian, moving back with her to America to pursue this project.   

The deeply personal “Hiro: A Story of Japanese Internment,” the Gold Medal Award winner by Keiko Wright from New York University, chronicles the experience of her Japanese-American grandfather, who was forcibly sent to an internment camp in Wyoming during World War II.  She felt that the story was too important to leave untold and found the past week to be “like a kid in a candy store” as a filmmaker meeting so many people upon arriving in Los Angeles.

The diversity of subject matter represented throughout the evening continued with the Narrative category, which was presented by Academy Award nominee Greg Kinnear (Best Supporting Actor, “As Good as It Gets”). Deeply impressed by the quality of the winning films from this year, he began by giving the Bronze Medal Award to “Nani” and its director, Justin Tipping from the American Film Institute. Tipping became visibly choked up during his speech and was also a bit stunned to be thanking the Academy, something he’d rehearsed in private for years but now understanding what it really meant. His film depicts the unusual, touching and hilarious bond between a young graffiti artist named Oscar and an 84-year-old, wheelchair-bound woman he meets while doing community service in a nursing home.

The American Film Institute’s Ryan Prows next accepted the Silver Medal Award for his film “Narcocorrido,” the dynamic story of a corrupt border cop who attempts to hijack a drug cartel vehicle near the Mexican border. Shot in the desert with an 80-person crew and now in the process of being expanded into a feature script, the film contains a dynamic mixture of drama and action. In addition to his crew, Prows memorably thanked his mother: “Who doesn’t love moms? But mine’s better than everyone else’s!”

The Gold Medal Award was finally presented to “Under” by Columbia University’s Mark Raso, a Toronto native who’s been a natural-born filmmaker since the age of eight. An ambitious depiction of a former addict and her boyfriend trapped in an unexpected icy situation, the film uses a roster of cinematic tricks to bring its startling scenario to life. “I am freaking out!” Raso proclaimed on the stage, thanking the Academy for these important awards for aspiring filmmakers: “You don’t know how much this means to us.”  

To see a truly unparalleled variety of films, look no further than the Foreign category and its spotlight on filmmaking voices from around the globe. The evening’s final presenter, Best Actress nominee Laura Dern (“Rambling Rose”), grew up in a Hollywood family and cited seeing foreign films since childhood in this same theater as a major factor in her decision to become an actress. The films submitted in this category, which has existed for the past 32 years, do not compete with the American student films and are arranged in conjunction with The International Association of Film and Television School (CILECT). The Bronze Medal Award winner, “The Swing of the Coffin Maker,” was directed by Elmar Imanov, who hails from the International Film School Cologne in Germany. An uplifting drama about a father whose treatment towards his young son changes dramatically with some major medical news, the film also had some dedicated crew who made the journey to the theater for the big night. In one of the funniest speech moments, Imanov thanked his biology teacher—who simply said “Don’t do it!” when the director thought of pursuing a scientific career.

Next the Silver Medal Award was next presented to “Of Dogs and Horses” by Thomas Stuber from the Film Academy Baden-Wüerttemberg in Germany. The widescreen, black-and-white tale of a man named Rolf, who goes to drastic lengths at a horse-racing track to save his old dog Pete, also proved to be the first and final screen appearance by Stuber’s beloved real-life pet.

For the last award of the evening, David Winstone from the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom accepted the Gold Medal Award for his film “For Elsie,” in which a piano teacher must teach Beethoven’s “Für Elise” to a Russian gangster’s daughter in a single day. The director, a huge “Jurassic Park” fan, had a sweet confession to make upon reaching the stage: “I’ve been in love with Laura Dern since I was five years old.” His sincere thanks to his crew and those who helped him proved to be a poignant and memorable moment, closing out a tremendous night for these new voices whose talents will no doubt continue to flourish for years to come.

Read more about the winners and watch clips from their films & all acceptance speeches here.

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