Viz Kids

From the aliens of Mars Attacks to the flying debris of Twister, today’s hottest special effects are created by graduates of Texas A&M’s Visualization Lab.

CHILLINGLY REALISTIC ALIENS, scenes of mass destruction, dazzling visual effects: Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks,  which hits theaters this month, has all the makings of a holiday blockbuster. The science fiction farce based on the Topps trading cards of the sixties also features some well-known earthlings, among them Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Danny DeVito, Michael J. Fox, and Tom Jones. And don’t miss Aggie exes Tim McLaughlin and Mary Beth Haggerty in key supporting roles—though you won’t see their names lit up on any marquee.

McLaughlin and Haggerty (who received their master’s degrees from Texas A&M University in 1994 and 1995, respectively) get some of the credit for bringing the movie’s computer-generated Martians to life. They work as technical directors at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), a top special-effects company based in San Rafael, California, that has won Academy awards for its work on such films as Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, and Terminator 2. For Mars Attacks,  the Aggie alums helped create the aliens digitally; McLaughlin’s job was to make sure the sophisticated computer models used to construct, color, and light them were technically correct, while Haggerty focused on the positioning and brightness of the lights and the shadows.

McLaughlin and Haggerty aren’t the only recent A&M grads to make the unlikely leap from Aggieland—famous for cranking out farmers and veterinarians—to the fantasyland of Hollywood. In just the past four years, more than thirty students in an unusual graduate program in visualization sciences at A&M’s College of Architecture have been snapped up by special-effects and animation companies. Clusters of students who learned the ropes at A&M’s Visualization Laboratory (known as the Viz Lab) now work at Walt Disney’s CGI Group; Rhythm and Hues, which created the talking animals in Babe; Pacific Data Images, which is partly owned by Dreamworks SKG, the studio formed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen; and Pixar Animation Studios, best known for its work on Disney’s Toy Story. Other groups of ex-students work at Blue Sky Studios in New York (which did the animated cockroaches in Joe’s Apartment ) and at Will Vinton Studios in Portland, Oregon, a company whose California raisin commercials set the standard for clay animation. Recent credits for Viz Labbers include computer-generated special effects in films such as Twister and Jumanji, animated projects such as Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame,  and commercials featuring the Coca-Cola polar bears and the talking M&M’s.

For all their success, however, few of the Viz Lab veterans planned careers in the entertainment industry. “I never thought about a job in the film business,” says McLaughlin, an environmental design major who grew up in Longview. “Those were for people out in California.” And certainly not for people from a school not traditionally identified with the creative arts. “Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find something like this program at A&M,” says Matthew Brunner, a 1993 grad who is the director of digital production at Will Vinton Studios.

The A&M architecture professors who conceived the Viz Lab didn’t expect it to become a hot training ground for Hollywood special-effects whizzes either. They started the two-year program in 1989 to give architecture students hands-on experience in design, video, and computer graphics. McLaughlin and Gayle Ayers, for example, entered the Viz Lab to design “virtual walk-throughs” of buildings for would-be clients. “You build up the design [in a computer] and fly a camera through it,” says Ayers, a Lubbock native who is now a director at Will Vinton Studios. “It wasn’t very interesting or challenging.” But around the time the first students were graduating from the Viz Lab, Hollywood was cranking out movies that relied more and more on computerized effects. In particular, 1993’s Jurassic Park  demonstrated the potential of computer-generated imagery. “The ability to depict so realistically dinosaurs that don’t exist anymore really opened people’s eyes,” says Donald H. House, the Viz Lab’s academic program coordinator.

It made sense, really, that recruiters from the entertainment industry would come calling at A&M: Few schools offer advanced programs that combine design and computer science. As a result, Viz Lab students have had a 100 percent job-placement rate. “You pretty much get hired as soon as you hit the streets,” says Brunner. About half the students leave before they even write a thesis, lured by starting show biz salaries of up to $50,000 a year. “We can’t get everyone graduated—not because they’re flunking out, but because they’re getting these jobs,” House says. It has also become harder for students to get into the program; this year, only 14 students were chosen out of 45 applicants. Enrollment is tight so that each student can have access to the lab’s equipment, which includes $10,000 to $100,000 Silicon Graphics workstations, a studio for capturing video images, and a roomful of production and editing machines.

The sudden clamoring for special-effects talent is the product of a fundamental change in the way movies are made. Once upon a time, studios shot movies, developed and edited the film, and delivered it to theaters. But film production today is increasingly done with bits and bytes rather than a movie camera. While in the old days film relied on location scouts to figure out where to shoot, digital production allows backgrounds or entire scenes to be generated wholly or partly by a computer. A real person or set can be photographed and the image electronically pasted into a computer-generated background or into older footage, as was done in Forrest Gump.  And while traditional animation used to rely on a progression of sketches, which were photographed frame by frame and then run through a projector to create motion, in digital animation those sketches are more simply—and cheaply—scanned into a computer and colorized.

The secret of the Viz Lab’s success is an array of powerful software tools. At the start of a project, a designer might use a computer to build a “rough render,” a basic form without much detail, and then apply a texture map,

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