A generous donation of high-end computer equipment by Blue Sky Studios, the award-winning creator of such popular animated feature films as the Ice Age series, has propelled the University’s digital media program into national prominence.
The high-speed digital animation processors – more commonly known as a “render farm” – greatly expand the University’s creative capabilities, expose students to cutting-edge technology, and help prepare a highly trained workforce to compete in today’s vibrant digital media industry, officials say.
“This gift is huge for us,” says Tim Hunter, interim head of the Department of Dramatic Arts and a professor of lighting and stage design. “It accelerates the work we are doing into a whole new realm.”
Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Theatre Gary English says the 104 central processing units donated by Blue Sky catapult the University’s digital media production capabilities into the top 1 percent among universities nationally.
“We’re competing with the best universities in the country right now,” says English, who is also the founding artistic director of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre located at UConn.
Blue Sky Studios donated two racks of processors – one to the University’s Department of Dramatic Arts and the other to the Department of Computer Science and Engineering – in June. The equipment recently went online, and students in the School of Fine Arts used the high-speed processors to develop key background sequences for the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s winter production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo running Dec. 3-12 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre.
Leaders from the School of Fine Arts demonstrated the equipment’s capabilities in the Harriet Jorgensen Theatre during a recent tour by state officials and representatives of Blue Sky.
With a wall-sized image of a brilliant star nebula slowly twirling in darkened space behind him, Hunter talked about the processors’ potential and how full-motion sequences that once took students eight hours or more to process now take mere minutes.
“Time for us is precious,” said Mark Novick, project designer for the Galileo production and a second-year graduate student. “We’re learning on the job. A lot of time we don’t know what something is going to do. This allows us to take risks and go places we wouldn’t be able to get to otherwise.”
During the recent demonstration, Novick oversaw more than a dozen students hunkered over banks of computer screens in the theater’s back rows. The students were responsible for coordinating dozens of digital images projected onto the stage during a brief snippet of Galileo that was performed for the visiting guests. Novick said the processors are crucial during rehearsal, in that they allow designers to make subtle changes quickly rather than wait hours or sometimes days to see new variations of their work.
“It’s very exciting,” Novick said. “I don’t know any program in the country that is doing what we’re doing … If you want to be a competitive designer, you need to be doing this now.”
Brian Keane, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Blue Sky Studios, said the equipment UConn received is the same equipment the studio used to create its Oscar-nominated film, Ice Age.
“We’re looking for it to create what the next generation of animation will look like, and we’re eager to see what it does for you,” Keane told students during a recent visit to Storrs. Blue Sky brought more than 350 jobs to Connecticut when the company located its new headquarters in Greenwich earlier this year. Keane said the studio was proud to donate its equipment to the state’s premier public university to help grow Connecticut’s digital media workforce.
“Blue Sky is a high-tech company, which brings high-paying creative jobs to Connecticut,” President Michael J. Hogan said. “It’s precisely the type of business the state needs to bring economic prosperity. We’re indebted to Blue Sky for this equipment, and thank them for their generosity.”
Hogan pointed out that two University alums are already working in prominent positions at Blue Sky. Jason Wasserman (MBA ’08) is the studio’s vice-president of finance, and Puru Patnekar (MBA ’07) is a member of Blue Sky’s financial team.
Provost Peter Nicholls noted that UConn’s growing digital media program incorporates interdisciplinary courses that are a key component of the University’s new Academic Plan.
“This is a tremendous gift, really a transformational gift, for the School of Fine Arts and indeed other areas of the University,” Nicholls said.
The School of Fine Arts – led by the Department of Dramatic Arts – anticipates developing relationships with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Department of Journalism and the School of Engineering as part of the digital media program. It is also working with the School of Business to include the Department of Marketing in a broader, campus-wide discussion of digital media studies.
The University’s digital media program is designed to reflect the demands of today’s advertising, marketing, and film industries, which call for proficiency in marketing, journalistic research and expression, and creative design and technology to create brand messages at the national and international levels.
Rep. Pamela Sawyer (R-Bolton) said she was pleased to see how interdisciplinary learning was being applied to the entertainment side of the University.
Sawyer, a former science teacher, is the ranking member of the Connecticut legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. With Connecticut struggling to create jobs and keep young professionals in state, Sawyer said, the Blue Sky donation to UConn is yet another way to create and maintain a viable workforce, adding, “It’s exciting to see the creativeness that is being enhanced by this donation to the state that is second to none.”