On the heels of “Toy Story” and its first sequel, computer-animated films still were something of a novelty when Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures combined to release “Monsters Inc.” in 2001.
Five-year-old Casey Kirwan was suitably intrigued.
“I would watch the behind-the-scenes of it all, and that made me really interested in computer animation,” she recalled. “But when I was younger, that just seemed to be so technologically out there, I figured I wouldn’t actually be able to do that.”
Now 22 and a senior at Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design, Kirwan is taking that interest to another dimension, so to speak: In May, she is scheduled to earn her bachelor’s degree in animation, with a focus on 3-D character animation.
If all goes well, the 2014 Peters Township High School graduate eventually will be working on projects along the lines of Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet.” Showcasing the latest advancements in animation technology, the movie has grossed some $350 million worldwide since its November release.
To help Kirwan complete her scholastic career, she is recipient of the first scholarship by the Winslow Mortimer Trust for Artists, which memorializes one of the major illustrators of DC Comics’ Superman following World War II. Peters Township resident Jim Mortimer, Win’s son, manages the trust.
He also is a past president of the McMurray Rotary Club, which awarded Kirwan a scholarship when she graduated from high school and enrolled at Point Park University.
Her original concentration was in storyboarding, setting up still pictures to representing key moments of a film. Then she had the opportunity to try some 3-D animation software.
“I kind of realized, oh, this is something that’s in my reach. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s something that I can see myself really doing,” she said. “So I went from drawing, more like traditional animation, to doing more on the computer.”
She moved to Savannah to attend what is recognized as one of the world’s top animation schools, where she has learned a variety of aspects about honing her art. For example, she and her colleagues often act out what will turn out to be animated sequences.
“We set up a camera, and we record ourselves doing the action that we want the character to be doing,” she explained. “We have to get really comfortable with watching ourselves being really goofy and silly.”
She primarily works as part of a team, with others taking the roles of modeling – “It’s like digital sculpting, basically” – and rigging. The latter involves creating a figurative skeleton for the model so that it’s able to portray movement, and then it’s on to the animator.
“I’m the person who makes it come to life,” Kirwan said.
Project assignments allow plenty of room for creativity.
“You have a lot of freedom with it, at least the classes that I take. Sometimes our professor will tell us, ‘OK, I want an action shot,’ so then you have to do something that’s super body-oriented,” Kirwan explained. “And then sometimes it’s like, oh, find some little line of dialogue and have the character lip sync to it. It’s really funny, because you’ll see everyone with mirrors out, making faces into the mirrors to get the mouth shapes right.”
A project might involve two weeks of work for perhaps five seconds of animation, which poses the question: What are the logistics of something like 112 minutes of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” making it to the big screen?
“They’ll basically break down the whole film into individual shots, and then they assign shots to different people on the team. And then everyone just works in little bits, pretty much,” Kirwan said. “So if you ever watch the credits in the animation section, you’ll see like a hundred and some names.
“That’s what I always say now: My dream is to be at the bottom of the credits in the animation section, after everyone’s left the theater. That’s exciting to me.”