SVA First Person: Technology and the Future of Storytelling

March 17, 2016

SVA Close Up asked Angie Wojak (BFA 1990 Illustration), director of Career Development, to share her experience leading the SVA Destinations trip, SVA in San Francisco: Technology and the Future of Storytelling.

During spring break, I took an SVA Destinations class on a weeklong visit to San Francisco where we met with influential animators, directors, filmmakers, game designers and talent recruiters. Our class, Technology and the Future of Storytelling, focused on virtual reality technology and its potential to enhance the way we experience stories. Among the companies we visited were Google Spotlight Stories, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), Pixar and Oculus Rift.


SVA class at Industrial Light and Magic campus with original Star Wars costumes and models. Photo by Hsiang Chin Moe.

At ILM we met with the company’s virtual reality group, X-Lab, and got a demo of the new Star Wars VR project from Matt Furniss, model and texture supervisor. It was thrilling to explore how ILM is delving into different forms of storytelling in the Star Wars universe and students were give the opportunity to talk with both Matt and the talent recruitment team, who shared information on the company internship program. Hsiang Chin Moe (MFA 2008 Computer Art), director of operations of MFA Computer Art and co-faculty for the class, had this to say about the experience: “The demo ILM provided allowed students to get a glimpse first-hand at how VR not only changes perspectives in storytelling, but also changes the process of filmmaking itself.”

Another highlight of the week was a visit to Pixar animation studios where story artist Louis Gonzalez gave a talk about his creative process in developing the story of the Oscar-winning animated film, Brave. Students learned about the challenges of story development, and the importance of pre-production. In addition, students enjoyed a tour of Pixar’s beautiful campus and met university recruiters as well.

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Autodesk hosted our class for a series of talks on virtual reality, one featuring Jan Pinkava, creative director of Google Spotlight Stories. Jan is also the originator and co-director of Pixar’s Oscar-winning 2007 film Ratatouille. He spoke to SVA students about how Google Spotlight Stories provides tools and techniques for immersive, interactive storytelling on mobile and VR.

Jan spoke about how interactive techniques are helping directors “let go of the camera” and leave traditional film language behind. New techniques place the audience inside the story and require directors and filmmakers to rethink storytelling.


Students checking out Google Spotlight Stories VR work. Photo by Hsiang Chin Moe.

Yelena Rachitsky, creative producer and head of education at Oculus Rift’s Story Studio, gave another fascinating talk. She spoke about the history of VR and its development over the years. As one of the leading VR platforms, Oculus Rift has provided many opportunities for gamers and innovative thinkers alike. Students felt encouraged to explore VR as a new medium for their artwork.

The class also visited alumnus Andrew Dayton (BFA 1998 Computer Art) and his gaming company, Steel Wool Games, in Oakland. Andrew told students about his move from Pixar to the gaming industry where his company is pioneering the use of virtual reality in games. Students got to test out two VR projects and chat with both Andrew and his creative team about the challenges of moving into these new forms of storytelling and entertainment.

At Chronicle Books, students met with Michael Morris, design director, and Kevin Armstrong, junior production designer, to learn more about the publisher’s work in digital publishing and ebooks. Michael and Kevin showed students examples of books such as a Game of Thrones project that they took from hardcover, traditional book format to digital and spoke about the ongoing challenges of capturing the nuanced visuals and tactile experience of a traditional book when moving into tablet and mobile device formats.

Ben Cone, a BFA Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects student who participated in the trip, told me, “Imagining unseen worlds and bringing them to life is the goal of every artist. Virtual Reality, the ultimate immersive art form, is exploding right now all around the world. The SVA Destinations trip to San Francisco gave me a look into the inner workings of some of the leaders of innovation, from Google to Oculus to ILMxLAB and more. It was as though we were given the gift of seeing into the future.”


SVA alumni dinner with BFA Computer Art and MFA Computer Art graduates. Photo by Jeff Perkins.

In addition to visiting studios, Hsiang and I co-hosted an alumni dinner with Jeff Perkins, director of SVA Communication. We were joined by graduates working at Pixar and ILM. Attending the dinner were Pixar’s Ye Won Cho (MFA 2002 Computer Art ), lighting technical director; MontaQue Ruffin (BFA 2013 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects), crowd animator; Nancy Kato (MFA 1991 Computer Art), animator; Jessica Montiero (BFA 2010 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects), production support engineer (BFA 2010 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects); and ILM’s Tom Szenher (BFA 2013 Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects), associate pipeline technical director. The dinner was a great way to catch up with our alumni and learn about the Pixar artists’ work on Finding Dory, which they were just wrapping up final shots for on the day of our visit. And I especially enjoyed talking to Tom about his work on World of Warcraft and Captain America: Civil War.

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