Animators and game designers recognized as top artists in regional competition

School of Art and Design students, faculty, alumni showcase talents at annual Minnesota Electronic Theater
"Turnout," by alum Michael Van Swearingen, won Best Independent Animation at Minnesota Electronic Theater 2021.
Abbey Goers | December 16, 2021

Among a group of 90 entrants, including professionals from Gasket Studios, MAKE Visual and Motion 504, artists from UW-Stout were recognized recently at the annual Minnesota Electronic Theater for their talents.

For almost 30 years, MET has served as the premiere showcase for regional visual effects, motion graphics and animation. At this year’s event, held on Dec. 2, UW-Stout students, alumni and faculty entries won in several categories.

UW-Stout award recipients were:

Other UW-Stout entrants shown in the competition were:

  • Abyss, by alum Morgan Brantner
  • “Glow: Animation Teaser,” by Aurora Bell Tower Studios, a team of alum and faculty
  • Dawn of the Falkonir, a team senior capstone project
Andrew Williams
GDD-Art Program Director Andrew Williams / UW-Stout

“The level of involvement from our School of Art and Design community was so energizing,” said BFA GDD-Art Program Director Andrew Williams.

“Even though we've all been remote and virtual to varying degrees for nearly two years, there was definitely a feeling of community in seeing each other's work. Everyone's talents were on full display,” he added.


This year’s event was held virtually, hosted by Nice Moves MN and featured a post-show Q&A with the winners. Nice Moves works to connect, promote and educate the region’s animation, motion design and visual effects industry.

The School of Art and Design has participated in MET since at least 2013.

‘The freedom to tell stories’

Van Swearingen, a motion designer based in Minneapolis, likes animation because it gives him “the freedom to tell stories.”

The story of “Turnout” follows Tobin and Sven, two street artist buddies who stand at a crossroads and are forced to make a split decision that could change their lives forever.

 

Entertainment design alum Michael Van Swearingen.
Entertainment design alum Michael Van Swearingen / Michael Van Swearingen

“My inspiration came from conversations with peers who doubt their own abilities before they even give themselves a chance,” Van Swearingen said. “They find their lane and stay in it. It's the response of watching people close to you squander their own potential.”

Van Swearingen concepted many short films with fellow alum Jacob Huffcutt and friend Dan Forke. When Foreign Fauna presented him with the opportunity to produce “Turnout,” he was able to work on the film full time and completed it in three months.

Then the pandemic hit, and film festivals were limited. So, he took the opportunity to refine the “Turnout” and completed it last April.

“It was rejected from about every major film festival, so I don't mind enjoying some recognition from my hometown,” he said about his MET award.

Van Swearingen graduated in entertainment design, now animation and digital media, in 2016. He currently runs Hellavision Television Network, a biannual animation show that accepts all submissions that follow an episode's theme. Submissions for the next episode will be accepted in the spring.

‘Words’ have meaning

 

Ellie Nikoo, design assistant professor
Assistant Professor Ellie Nikoo / UW-Stout

In January 2021, Nikoo was invited to participate in the Words Project, a collaboration to animate a music video for “Words,” a children’s song composed by acclaimed kindie artist Danny Weinkauf.

Co-directed by Eric Kreidler and Mike Owens, the music video is a collaboration of 25 artists across six countries, many of whom chose to donate their time to support charities.

“I was stuck at home at that time and felt isolated like many others,” Nikoo said. “This was exactly what I needed to have my spirit lifted.”

“Words,” featuring the vocals of Tina Kenny Jones, has an uplifting, memorable tune and shows children the power behind their voices to make the world a better place for everyone. The music video reflects this message through its wide range of illustrative styles.

Using Discord, a digital communication platform, the directors gave animators a storyboard and story reel synched to the song to pick which section they wanted to animate. Nikoo’s animation is featured from 1:41 to 1:50 in the music video.

 

Ellie Nikoo's animation for the music video "Words."
Ellie Nikoo's animation for the music video "Words." / Eillie Nikoo

“I started with character design and a style frame to communicate the visual aesthetic of the scene, such as colors, textures and outline,” she said. “Once these were approved, I did the rough animation to get feedback on the animating style and acting.”

The project was very rewarding for Nikoo. “It's a heartwarming children's song, and I am filled with joy to see that it won the independent runner-up award,” she said.

“Words” has entered the Sirius XM Kids Place Live 13 under 13 top songs list.

Video game trailer awarded

Witness to the Revolution was a video game collaborative project between Williams and his colleagues Professors Austin Mason and Serena Zabin, historians at Carleton College. Williams served as co-director and co-producer, lead designer and lead programmer, while Mason and Zabin provided creative direction and developed a prototype for the game.

Williams developed the game trailer with a team of four UW-Stout students and alumni, who created the game’s art and animation, which plunges the viewer into an immersive and historically accurate recreation of Colonial Boston.

Witness to the Revolution tasks players to explore the city, collect evidence, play back witness accounts and investigate the roots of the American Revolution through the event and aftermath of the Boston Massacre.

"The Bloody Massacre," a clue within the video game Witness to the Revolution.
"The Bloody Massacre," a clue within the video game Witness to the Revolution. / Andrew Williams

A familiar engraved print from many American history textbooks, “The Bloody Massacre” by famed revolutionist Paul Revere, serves as a piece of evidence for players to consider the happenings of that fateful night. It was also the inspiration for the game’s distinct visuals.

Keenan Geib was the 3D modeler for environments and props, as well as the set dresser, recreating historical buildings and objects to show what daily life was like in Colonial Boston. They graduate this Saturday, Dec. 18, with their BFA degree in GDD-Art.

Geib loves to emphasize the stories told in a game through its environments and props.

“I think that being able to create immersive and engaging environments, whether they're stylized or realistic, can help tell stories in a way that's more fun for the people engaged, whether it's in a video game or other format,” they said. “Witness to the Revolution provided me a fantastic opportunity to get to do this.

“It feels amazing for all our hard work to be recognized. I really loved working on this project, and I learned so much. I'm thankful that UW-Stout and Carleton College gave me the opportunity to do so with such a unique project,” they added.

‘Never stop creating’

Brantner graduated in game design in 2017 and earned his Master of Fine Arts in design last spring. Abyss was his thesis project, for which he researched prosocial emotions and cooperative gameplay, gathering games and stories that resonated.

 

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Abyss, by Morgan Brantner / Morgan Brantner

“Somewhere during my time in college, I found myself understanding the process of developing a game and wanting more,” Brantner said. “It wasn't enough to be good at creating something. I wanted that creation to have purpose and to push issues in the game industry.”

Abyss is about two adventurers who are tasked with exploring a beautifully hazardous environment. The idea struck him one late night over a cup of coffee and some emotionally charged music.

“I remembered playing games with my family and friends and how it shaped my perception of them and strengthened our bonds,” he said. “That is the moment I knew what I wanted to make.”

Brantner wants to never stop creating and learning. For students or artists who might be struggling, he said, “Never stop moving forward. No matter how far away your goals seem, if you have passion for what you do, you will make it.”

Bringing different backgrounds together

Dawn of the Falkonir was a senior capstone project, released virtually last spring at the Stout Game Expo by a team of five computer science majors and six SOAD students.

 

Screenshot of title animation for video game Dawn of the Falkonir.
Dawn of the Falkonir, a team senior capstone project / Zack Olson

It is a two-player, online cooperative action-adventure game, where players must overcome a wraith-infested mountain using their specialized abilities as either Aella, the falkonir, or Horu, the falcon.

“It was an honor to have Dawn of the Falkonir selected for the MET awards,” said Zack Olson, who graduated in May with his game design degree.

“The amount of effort and work that the team put in was nothing shy of incredible, and I am proud of all that we accomplished. It’s a testament to what can be done when people of different skills and backgrounds come together,” he said.

The School of Art and Design offers seven fine arts programs, including a master’s in design and a B.S. in arts administration and entrepreneurship. First-year students in SOAD start their college career in the Pre-Bachelor of Fine Arts program, which is the gateway to a BFA degree and a way for students to discover if it’s right for them.


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