Ferris 'Animates' West Michigan

January 21, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — During the recent holiday break, two officials of Ferris State University of Grand Rapids treated the Business Journal to an afternoon of animation in one of the AppliedTechnologyCenter's (ATC) then-empty classrooms.

Strutting several FSU students' digital stuff were Don Green, vice chancellor and academic dean, and Marty Lier, program advisor and lead instructor of the school's digital animation and game design program.

"This here is a student's final project," said Lier as the projection screen lit up with a digitally animated dandelion. The music was soft and ethereal. "There were three parts to the project. Here is a photo-realistic rendering. Then she graphs it …"

The flower abruptly changed, retaining its shape, but only as a series of purple lines tracing its structure.

"Then they have to design a character," Lier explained, as the flower was replaced on screen by an armored knight treading through a cemetery. The knight walked across the screen, then crouched to examine a gravestone.

"And the third one is your pick," he added, as the image of the knight left the screen, replaced by a winged dragon with small legs, whose flight was a snakelike slither across the screen.

"This is an example of what a student can do after one semester."

Starting the third week of its third semester today, the new FSU-GR program is unique to the area's higher education market. Centered upon the high-profile fields of video game design and digital animation, the program is the first of its kind in the Midwest, teaching skills otherwise available only at a handful of art schools.

As projects, a great many students have chosen racecars or tanks, medieval battles, robots, spacecraft and skateboarders. Most of the soundtracks are hard rock, punk or rap music.

Green laughed to himself as one sophomore-level animation began. He has seen this one before. A green Gumby-like character with an oversized head walks across the white screen. Its hips swing back and forth in rhythm with its giant bald head.

"Remember the title," Green prompts. "Bait and Squish."

The character comes upon a large black ball and is promptly flattened by it, leaving a green impression on the ground with two large, surprised eyes in the middle.

The next animation is a shirtless character that finds itself atop a rocket en route to outer space. The character curses loudly, then implodes.

"After this, we changed the syllabus," Lier said. "No more foul language."

Next is a large piece of machinery moving across sloped terrain. There is no rock music or hip-hop anthem, only the loud, realistic sound of its moving treads. The machine stops, loudly performs its function, and the clip is over.

This last example actually was not a class project. A local company needed a simulation to show how its prototype machine would function and contracted the FSU-GR student for the task.

The student, having just finished his freshman year, earned several thousand dollars for his work.

"We could try to sell to people by giving them a hard copy, a picture," Green explained. "But simulation is so much more powerful for so many industries. You can sell machinery by showing them how that machinery works."

Lier brings another image on screen. This is his own free-lance work.

"This is a condominium that doesn't exist," he said. "People were coming to this contractor saying, 'You build it and maybe I'll buy one.' He was saying, 'No, you put money down and I'll build one.'

"He'd give them a two-foot drawing and no one would buy unless they could see everything."

So Lier built a condominium.

Modeling the structure brick by brick, he created each shingle, piece of furniture and fixture. When finished, the interior designer didn't like the stainless steel countertop. Lier replaced it, and with each customer he could change the position of the sink, rotate the couch and move the sun to represent a different time of day.

"What you see outside the window is the real thing; you can walk around outside the house, pull the couch out," Green said. "We can do flythroughs of something that doesn't exist yet."

"We've got a partnership with a downtown developer," he added. "They want us to create a 3D flythrough of everything that will be available as part of this development: Variety of uses, retail and homes and everything."

Lier plays a student's project. A flythrough of an animated house set to music, the colors are bolder and furniture less proportional, but the concept is no different from that of the proposed condominium.

The next project is a similar house with realistic furniture and a pool table where a game is taking place with no players. As an extra touch, the images on the posters are also animated.

"The video game industry is a billion-dollar industry; it's not going away," Lier said.

"But when we developed this program, we wanted to make sure that they could find work in town." He said he has students with ACT scores of 35 (out of a possible 36).

"These students could go anywhere," he said. "We want to help them find jobs locally."

While West Michigan is not home to Pixar or Nintendo, Lier said that it is home to plenty of companies in need of animators. As examples, he said Siemens Dematic might need animations to show how its conveyors work in airports. Likewise, he said Steelcase and Herman Miller designers actually use the same programs, but they might want someone to make those chairs look more real.

He said local vendors are already requesting animations to sell their wares. One furniture dealer requested an animation that completely recreated a prospect's office, right down to the pictures of his kids — only with the dealer's furniture.

"They made the sale," Lier said. "We're so driven by vision. Here you can literally touch it."

He said that using animation, engineers can reconfigure a plant floor without moving a single machine. Legal teams can recreate a crime on screen. Products can be customized for ergonomics. And he believes the sales and marketing potential is staggering.

"That creates one challenge that we've been facing," Green said. "Our students take a CAD class as part of their curriculum. And some of the students ask, 'Why am I taking a CAD class?'

"We tell them it's because we want them to understand the mechanical side of it, for the same reason we require a class on contracts and business, because maybe they'll want to set up a studio locally. We want them to have that piece."

Lier said that he sees the FSU-GR program more as an education in engineering than as an art degree, adding that many students already realize the potential for animation outside of the entertainment field.

He demonstrated another application by showing the projects of a pair of doctors enrolled in the program: One is a cross-section of the human eye, the other shows how the drug Paxil works in the body.

"Then you get the video game companies saying we'd rather them spend more time on something else," Green said. "And the animators are going to say we should do more with acting and drama and user interaction. But right now we want to keep it general enough to give them all those career opportunities and choices.

"It's funny because I've got people in art schools coming to me," Lier added. "Ferris is very engineer-like and that's what they want. I don't want to teach them anything that doesn't get them a job."

At some point in the future, FSU-GR may split the program into three concentrations, but likely not until local employment is readily available in each.

"Talking a little bit about Ferris' tradition, we prepare people so that they can grow and really build an excellent career," Green said. "Saying that, we don't want people to go through this program, get out and have to go build relationships with the animation and video game industries" as the only option.

While the first year was spent fine-tuning the program, Green has spent much of the past year aggressively courting the nation's video game and animation companies. He has already made relationships through last year's Cineme International Animation Festival in Chicago, and has plans for a tour of Chicago's studios this month, meeting with Wideload Games, Electronic Arts, High Voltage Software Inc. and possibly Midway Games Inc. Next month, Green will lead a similar exhibition to San Francisco to meet with animators.

"We're midyear for sophomores right now, so we've got basically 2 1/2 years to continue to develop those relationships so that those folks are looking for our students by the time they are seniors."

Like other FSU programs, Green hopes to involve industry insiders in curriculum. He has invited established game designers and animators to speak and has solicited studios for feedback on the students' progress and industry needs.

While broadband Internet will allow many students to work for these companies from West Michigan (Lier himself has), Green's long-term plans are to eventually lure firms to open studios in the West Michigan area.

Some designers that have become familiar with the program, Green said, have been especially impressed with one aspect — its number of female and minority students.

"Minorities and women have been underrepresented in video game design and animation design," Green said. "They'd like to see more and more Latinos and African Americans in development, because that way you have a more realistic representation of society on the screen rather than the representation of one niche, which is primarily white males."

Designers are recognizing that a large portion of the American demographic has gone untapped by the video game industry. Lier added that the largest potential market is women between the ages of 40 and 50.

"The market has been driven by design and the designers are young white males," Green said.

"Go to Best Buy or one of those places, look at their stock of video games for young women. I've got an 8-year-old daughter — it was a struggle to find something for her this Christmas."

Green said that he is also working on a partnership with a local video rental shop to put advanced students' products on the shelf. Not only would this create a new revenue stream, but it would also provide instant feedback from the marketplace.

A major difference between the digital animation and game design program and the other programs offered at the school, Green said, are parents' interest in it.

"We see so many parents," he said. "If you come home and say you want to be pre-med, parents say, 'Okay. That's nice.' But if you say you want to study this, it's, 'Wait a minute, I want to see what this is all about.'"    

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