It’s probably no coincidence that Chris Grun and Jason Sadler came to University of Wisconsin-Stout in the early 1990s. They wanted to study art, and UW-Stout was — and is — regarded as one of the best art schools in the Midwest.
Grun was from the Twin Cities suburb of Minnetonka, Minn., and Sadler from the Wisconsin community of Raymond, near Racine. The cities are about 320 miles apart.
What's unusual is that Grun and Sadler, who had never met each other, were interested in the same aspect of art, the cutting-edge field of animated movies.
With hits like "The Little Mermaid" in 1989, "Beauty and the Beast" in 1991 and "The Lion King" in 1994, movie animation had begun to explode. The genre depends heavily on artists to create the characters and environments.
Grun and Sadler saw a bright and exciting future for movie animation and wanted to be part of it.
More than 20 years later, it's clear they were on the right track. The former college roommates not only still are working in the industry as it has continued to expand but have had highly successful careers.
They work for two of the biggest animation studios in the world, Grun for DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, Calif., and Sadler for Blue Sky Studios, a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, in Greenwich, Conn.
The movies for which they've drawn characters or done other artwork is impressive. Grun has been art director or visual effects art director for films such as "Moneyball," "The Hunger Games," "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked," and "Land of the Lost."
Sadler's credits include "Rio," "Rio 2" due out in April, "Horton Hears a Who!", "Ice Age" and "Peanuts," to be released in 2015.
Sadler graduated from UW-Stout in 1994 and Grun in 1995, but by that time they already were fast friends. An art professor, Susan Hunt, learned about their common interest in animation and introduced them in 1992.
"People always say you should choose your friends wisely. Chris is one of the best friends I've ever had over the past 20 years, and I don't think I would've gotten as far with my career without his influence," Sadler said.
"From the very beginning we were brutally honest in critiquing each other's work, which helped us both grow. We pulled our share of all-nighters together studying," Sadler said.
Grun said his career also has benefited from his friendship with Sadler.
"Jason has always been very focused on his goal of landing a job in visual development for film. It's always been great to feed off of his positive energy when my own falters from time to time and use it toward my own career. I definitely would not be in the same field if I hadn't met him when I did," Grun said.
Because UW-Stout did not offer animation classes at that time — it does now to go along with an entertainment design major — Grun and Sadler went to Sheridan College in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, for summer classes in 1993 to enhance their education.
When they graduated from UW-Stout, they stuck together initially. Both landed jobs with Broderbund Software in Novato, Calif., where they helped animate the popular children's video game and TV series "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego." They again were roommates, from 1995 to 2001 in the San Francisco Bay area.
Soon after, they went their separate ways, Grun to southern California and Sadler, newly married, out East to eventually work for Blue Sky Studios beginning in 2005.
Since then, their careers have blossomed.
Grun worked on about two dozen films for Rhythm & Hues Studios before joining the DreamWorks artistic team early in 2013. He is lead matte painter for DreamWorks.
Grun creates environments and characters for movies, such as the Capital City for "Hunger Games," a completely fabricated computer-generated environment, and all of the computer-generated dinosaurs in "Land of the Lost."
"If you're doing a good job as a matte painter, nobody notices," he said. "You need to uphold the suspension of disbelief and make everything feel just real enough."
The work can be highly creative, exacting and deadline-driven, and sometimes the films turn out to be box-office flops. "Beautiful design work doesn't necessarily mean you'll have a successful film. You always try to do your best work under tight budgets and time limitations," Grun said.
Grun is a member of the UW-Stout School of Art and Design Professional Advisory Board. When the board met in September on campus, he took time to speak to students about design and matte painting used extensively in most films.
Using Adobe Photoshop on his computer, he quickly created a character to show the basic design process for students and also demonstrated some simple matte painting techniques in a test scene filmed for "Chipmunks." His work was digitally projected onto a movie screen, naturally, for students to see.
He told students that he spent six to seven months creating each "Land of the Lost" dinosaur.
"A lot of research went into making these creatures as lifelike as possible. I used as much real anatomy as I could, but there are always things the supervisors want to do that aren't anatomically correct.
"I studied a lot of anatomy in school. These are the building blocks of the design process," Grun said.
One key to designing a group of characters is contrast, he said. "The supporting cast of characters defines your lead characters. The main lead usually ends up blander than the rest so the audience can identify with the 'everyman' aspect of him or her.
"In live action your design has to have a lot of attention to detail to hold up and look good. It's going to be 10 feet tall on the film screen," he said.
Nothin' but Blue Sky
Sadler is an artist and creates characters and sets for Blue Sky that end up on the silver screen.
For example, he designed the two main human characters, Linda and Tulio, for the 2011 hit "Rio." For the 2008 blockbuster "Horton Hears a Who," Sadler's first job for Blue Sky, he designed the secondary character Dr. Mary Lou Larue, along with the mayor's 96 daughters and many of the animals in the Jungle of Nool. He created four macaws and did other work for "Rio 2."
Sadler believes his art training at UW-Stout was spot-on for his career, citing life drawing classes taught by former professor Doug Cumming that "were fantastic. He got down to brass tacks and really taught me how to draw."
Sadler's career went to another level at Blue Sky, with its high-end productions. Because it's a large company, he specializes in visual development-design and doesn't get to animate, but that's OK with him.
About 20 artists work in the visual development department at Blue Sky. Their work goes on to several other departments — modeling, rigging, materials, fur, cloth, assembly, animation, lighting and stereo — before it gets to the screen several years later.
The culmination of the work by Blue Sky is when employees get to see the movies they've created during a special company screening and party at Ziegfeld Theater in New York.
"Just seeing the voice married to the character is something special," Sadler said. "You sometimes see things you wish you'd done better, but it's always a great experience."
Nearly 20 years after graduating from UW-Stout, Sadler knows he made the correct career choice. He loves his work and work environment.
"You want to be around people who are better than you so it will hopefully rub off. There are lots of really talented people at Blue Sky. That makes work pretty fantastic. It's a lot of hard work, but I absolutely love it," he said.