His early movies focused on his toys.

Soon, the young Sam Ekren graduated to making videos of his friends that he posted with some regularity on YouTube.

There was the infamous "Cake Fight" video, documenting the playful mayhem that erupted one night at a birthday sleepover.

But his work took a serious turn when he enrolled at the Perpich Center for Arts Education, a fine-arts high school in Golden Valley.

Today, Ekren is getting major buzz at film festivals from coast to coast for his four-minute animated short titled "By My Side."

The piece, made up of more than 3,600 still images, is a whimsical take on the boy-meets-girl story.

Ekren, who graduated from the Perpich Center on Friday, is bound for the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University this fall.

We caught up with him to learn more about his art.

Q Where did you grow up?

A Nevis, Minn. Population 364. My parents owned a resort until I was in kindergarten. They sold that and we moved to Nevis. Everybody knows everybody there.

Q Where do you get your ideas?

A One of my consistent themes is comparing urban and rural environments. That's definitely been a huge influence on me. I was [going] from living out in the woods to living in Nevis and then to Golden Valley. This summer I'm going to sublease an apartment in Minneapolis.

Q What are your favorite films?

A The type of movies that really inspire me are ones about awkward, real-life situations. What comes to mind are films like "The Savages" or "Garden State" or "(500) Days of Summer." Those are the mainstream movies that inspire me.

This first semester at Perpich, I took a class, and it was all foreign films. That was eye-opening about the variety of cinema there is and the depth. It pushed me and I'm more interested now in going into the independent side of things instead of the Hollywood side.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488