What I love about the university setting for film is that students truly have fun with the medium, bringing to their projects a playfulness and energy that transcends, often enough, the lack of polish in their early efforts. And when this is combined with first-class facilities (to the point that Pixar comes to recruit at BYU ahead of other places, I have heard), and is led by enthusiastic and accommodating faculty, then little pieces of magic start to happen.
Episode 210 of the First Look series on BYU-TV (one of two devoted to animated student films), includes four films that represent the evolution of animation at BYU into what is now a full-fledged program at the university garnering regular awards (See a list of all their films at their BYU website).
The 1992 three-minute Herman and Sally, crude line animation about a troubled crab-and-lobster romance, shows an early, non-computer-aided attempt (by BYU students Michael Jensen and Kathy Burton of the illustration progarm) to play with the medium. The classic line from the lyrics, "Crabs walk sideways and lobsters walk stright, and he won't let you take her for his mate." Nothing much here, but to see how quickly things moved forward from that work of love to its current successors is breathtaking.
The playful Rupert, a five-minute computer-generated film from 2000, features a Calvin and Hobbes type fantasy world regularly visited by the geeky Charlie Brown type kid who brings us along for the ride. My favorite line: "Wait a minute, this is my imagination--no one messes with my mama!" A voyage down a trash can becomes something akin to David Bowman's psychedelic trip down the monolith at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (with a lighter mood, to be sure, but nearly as fantastic).
The Brief Social Life of Charles Wickham, the product of two industrial design students, we are told reached a benchmark of quality that helped launch the animation major at BYU, though the brief 2 1/2 min. narrative (which includes cocktail party participants mysteriously lacking facial features) seemed hardly to set up a premise before it was over--hardly time to digest its strange stylization.
Gestures (2000), though not as celebrated as some of its more recent successors, is engaging on many levels. The silent central character--a slender, faceless, stylized figure that inhabits a bleak, line-drawn, black-and-white urban setting--progresses from this dreary state through a portal to a world of color and vibrancy. And while the Garden of Eden allegory may seem a little overstated, the new way of experiencing the concept of gaining experience makes the five minute film do the best animation can to approach the archetypal within a laudable simplicity. After so many lighter kinds of animation (think Toy Story or Ice Age), it's refreshing to see the "gestures" toward either an Everyman allegory or even a Latter-day Saint theology of progression. The film climaxes interestingly with both transcendence and apparent return to the mundane, but this two dimensional character seems to have taken on true dimension that makes him stand out colorfully against his dreary peers. I found it engaging, and believed director Donald Mustard's enthusiastic preface to the film as he explained his theme of yearning for the evolution of the soul. I think his film is allegorical of the animation program itself at BYU, which is clearly evolving, transcending its early, cruder beginnings, and ascending to innovation and professionalism. I only hope its very success will not cause future students to aim for the attractive but shallow Pixar-type shorts that Gestures ignores so well.