A group of UW-Stout students, including two from Washington County, are off to Hollywood to pitch their ideas for the next animated TV series.
MENOMONIE, Wis. – For a group of college students, a trip to Hollywood might seem the perfect getaway from the grind of studies and the bleak midwinter, a chance to soak up some glamour, sun and relaxation.
But for members of one class from the University of Wisconsin-Stout — including students from Stillwater and Oakdale — who have spent the past week in the mecca of movie-making, it's been all business, the whirlwind culmination of weeks of intensive classroom work which some day could give life to their creative career aspirations.
The students have spent most of the past month developing proposals for animated children's television programs and pitching their ideas to representatives of one of the biggest names in the entertainment industry: the Jim Henson Company. It's part of a course in digital puppetry, and is designed to emulate the experience of working with a top-shelf entertainment company in an actual customer-client relationship, said Dave Beck, assistant professor in UW-Stout's School of Art and Design.
Along with exploring the studios where the Muppets, Sesame Street characters like Big Bird and Elmo and current popular kids programs like "Sid the Science Kid" are created, the group also planned to tour Disney's DreamWorks Studios, Riot Games, CBS Studios, the studios where the "Family Guy" animated TV series is created and UCLA. The students will also meet with UW-Stout alumni in Los Angeles who have found careers working in animation, cinematic art and creative storytelling. About half the class is majoring in entertainment design — creating animation, films and comics — and the other half in game art — designing the vivid graphics of video games.
"The hope is that this will allow them to not only just get that experience, but there's a professional practice component to this, too," Beck said. "So that they can actually see what it's like to walk through DreamWorks Studios and they can hopefully imagine themselves in that seat someday — if they want to."
Beck said he proposed the idea to a producer at Henson last summer. Neither the company nor the studio had tried such a collaboration before. At the beginning of January, the company directed the students to come up with four or five show ideas aimed at preschool- to middle-school-aged kids. The shows not only had to be entertaining but, like typical Henson productions, had to have an educational and creative component using the studio's unique digital puppetry system, which creates three-dimensional characters brought to life by blending the skills of traditional puppetry with computer animation.
January is "Winterm" at UW-Stout, when for several weeks between the fall and spring semesters, students have a chance to delve more deeply into one subject. Breaking into groups, students in Beck's class have been working nearly full-time developing their ideas.
"That involves story, that involves themes, that involves characters, that involves environments — the whole nine yards," Beck said. "So they've been working all day, every day — and nights, in some cases — to create that."
Art, in this case, is imitating the working life in an animation studio.
"That's why I developed this class to happen over this term," he said. "With Winterm, I love it. It's just the nature of the beast. It's just like working in the industry."
For Ian Pommer, of Stillwater, and Sarah Moua, of Oakdale, it was crunch time on the Friday before their departure for Hollywood. They were part of a four-member group creating a show called "Geared Up."
As Pommer explained, it is a show for 8- to 10-year-olds that aims to instill social and personal values, including using logic and problem skills, through the friendship of a girl named Tera and a robot named Axel. Their antagonist is a mad scientist named Dr. Myster.
"He wants to capture and take Axel for his own needs because he sees something special about Axel because he's not like all the other robots," said Pommer, a gaming art major. "But he also lacks a lot of the character traits that we want the show to portray."
Pommer said he was looking forward to interacting with professionals and getting their feedback on their project. The trip to Hollywood had him both excited and nervous.
"It's a little stressful. There's some mornings where I just want to sleep in," he said. "But for the most part, it's been the kind of stress that's pushing you, not the kind of stress that's overwhelming."
Moua was spending much of her time preparing the "pitch Bible," a printed portfolio outlining in detail their show's characters, its premise and design. She was also outlining how the 15-minute presentation to about half a dozen Henson executives would unfold. It's the kind of real-life pre-production work she hopes to do one day in the film industry, possibly in documentary work. "For me, I like to tell people's stories," she said.
It's been a challenge, she said, but it's also been rewarding.
"The most important part is the growth," she said. "When I think about where I started, I've come a long way."