An original animated film that features the Mall of America’s 25-year history as a backdrop relies on the talents of artists who were not yet born when the Bloomington retail behemoth opened in 1992.

Forty art students at three area colleges collaborated to produce a five-minute animated film set at Minnesota’s largest tourist attraction.

“MOA 25 Years — A Love Story” will premiere there on Thursday, playing on the video wall in the mall’s rotunda.

“We broke the story into pieces so it could be told in parts,” said Bill Kruse, chief creative officer at Microgigantic. “The narrative is simple: A couple meets at the Mall of America around the time it opens, then marries and has a daughter who grows up and gains independence. All the scenes take place at the mall.”

The Minneapolis agency initiated and coordinated the 2017 AniJam North project. (Anijam is the term for a collaborative animation produced by multiple artists.)

Last fall, the agency reached out to animation instructors at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), the Art Institutes International Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin-Stout, who parceled out segments of the story to their students.

The assignment was more than an academic exercise; the work offered a practical application for students seeking careers as animators, illustrators or designers.

“The studio production model uses multiple artists handing off scenes to one another to iterate,” Kruse said. “This prepares students to understand something resembling a studio workflow.”

It also required teamwork.

“Even when done on a screen instead of by hand, animation is produced by a highly creative assembly line,” said Tom Schroeder, a professor at MCAD. “This project demanded collaboration, with each student performing a specialized role to contribute to the bigger picture.”

Students, working in groups of three or four, got a terse description of a scene; one group got “They fall in love,” and another’s read “Their daughter grows up.” Each group then conceived a 15-second animated sequence to advance that element of the plot.

The entire story is told without dialogue, relying instead on action, expression and a bouncy original score.

Cory Schroedl, a senior at the Art Institutes, received a prompt that read, “The couple is sad when their grown daughter leaves home.” He and the three students in his group decided to set the scene at Sea Life, the mall’s aquarium.

“We showed two fish watching another one swim away to emphasize what the parents were experiencing,” he said.

The students had 10 weeks to build their scenes, and they needed it. Each sequence required hours invested in storyboarding, creating concepts and characters and drawing the scenic backgrounds.

“It was a laborious process, but this was more than just an assignment,” Schroedl said. “We put a lot of free time into it because we wanted to.”

Horsing around

The Mall of America, which offered to host the screening and help the students as needed, but was not directly involved, is familiar territory to Sarah Steiner, a 21-year-old senior at MCAD. Her Mahtomedi family’s traditions include an annual Black Friday marathon at the mall.

“Most years we set the alarm for 3 a.m.,” she said. “One time we got a hotel. The year the mall opened on Thanksgiving, we got there at 8 at night and shopped ’til 8 the next morning.”

But her most sentimental memory revolves around the carousel. “It was Camp Snoopy when I was little,” she said. “I loved horses, and I rode it many, many times.”

Steiner’s assignment was to animate the marriage proposal. Working with three classmates, she pitched the ride as the setting for the scene.

“They’re holding hands and walking; there’s a kiss and their bodies transform into an engagement ring. The guy puts it on her finger, she jumps with excitement and he spins her around,” she said. “An amusement park is a romantic cliché, but it worked.”

After graduation, Steiner said, she hopes to work in advertising, and she thinks her work on the film might help her crack into the job market.

“This will be definitely be part of my portfolio,” she said. “It shows how concisely I can tell a story and, stylewise, what my work can look like.”

Colleen Murphy, who teaches animation at UW-Stout, expects other students who worked on the project to do the same.

“Every segment is eye-catching,” she said. “If I was reviewing résumés for hiring and I saw a candidate who had worked on such a well-known brand as the Mall of America, I would be impressed. To be portfolio-worthy, projects need to be polished and presentable, and this is work that stands apart.”

Participating in the film may help some students show off their work to Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks, but the team behind the project has its own reasons for wanting to keep some of them in town.

“A lot of film or art school students have ambitions to land at animation studios on the coasts, and we would never discourage that,” Kruse said. “But we want to show students who aren’t focused on that dream that they can stay in Minnesota, practice their craft and have real careers. Lots of people don’t want the lifestyle of New York or L.A. and prefer to live here.”

Microgigantic CEO and founder Mark Bennett stressed that not all opportunities for animators and illustrators involve the big screen. The local commercial creative sector is thriving, he said, but its continued strength will depend on retaining a skilled workforce.

“We depend on a deep pool of artistic talent,” he said. “Building that creative pipeline is everything so we can continue to compete.”


Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.