A friendly dragon earns Brigham Young University animators a student ‘Oscar’

A friendly dragon, created out of pixels and a lot of work, could lead a group of Brigham Young University students and graduates to the Academy Awards.

“Grendel,” an 8-minute computer-animated tale created by students at BYU, is one of 16 films to receive a Student Academy Award, which were announced last week by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. With the honor comes eligibility for the academy’s better-known prize, the Oscars.

“Grendel” began, as the yearlong student projects at BYU’s Center for Animation do, with a “pitch night” where any student can propose an idea for a film the whole class can make.

(Image courtesy BYU Center for Animation) Grendel lives a quiet life, for now, in a scene from "Grendel," a computer-animated short produced by students at Brigham Young University.

One of the criteria for a successful pitch is “Is it going to be fun to work on for a year?” R. Brent Adams, the center’s director, said in a phone interview this week.

“There was a lot of humor in the original pitch, and a lot of heart,” Austin Rodriguez, the producer of “Grendel,” said over the phone.

The short, Adams said, was loosely inspired by the epic poem “Beowulf.” Instead of the poem’s fierce man-creature, BYU’s Grendel is a happy dragon, living a quiet life on a peaceful island, drinking his tea and mowing his lawn — until a horde of Vikings lands nearby, pestering him with arrows and swords. When a huge, mean dragon attacks the Vikings’ lodge, Grendel must decide whose side he’s on.

Students not only vote on what pitch will move forward, but also who the director and producer will be. Kalee McCollaum, Rodriguez said, was an obvious choice to direct.

“The whole team knew and recognizes Kalee’s artistic ability,” Rodriguez said. “We all trusted her and we all knew that she’d do great.”

And she said Rodriguez was, likewise, the clear pick to produce. “Austin was the most excited about it,” McCollaum said over the phone.

As the team began to develop “Grendel,” McCollaum said, “the size and scope of the story was a huge challenge. ... We tend to like a difficult challenge, and the scope of it was exciting to us, rather than scary. Once we got into it, though, we were, like, ‘This is so much work.’”

Students divvied up the duties, Adams said. Some took on animating the characters. Others focused on creating textures, such as the grass of Grendel’s lawn and the wood of the Viking lodge. Others handled the tricky special effects, like fire and water.

Jobs sometimes overlap, and students learn to work together, Adams said. “We do it like a studio, but also keep an educational element to it,” he said. “So many artists are taught, ‘This is your art.’ In a studio, you do your part and you hand it over to somebody else.”

Making “Grendel” took about a year and a half, longer than most BYU student projects. The schedule was extended, in part, because McCollaum landed an internship at Walt Disney Animation Studios and Rodriguez got an internship at Pixar Animation Studios.

Both said their work at BYU, where everyone collaborates on a single project, served them well in their internships.

“They say, ‘[This internship] will give you collaborative experience,’” McCollaum said. “I said, ‘This is great, and I love it here, but I already have that.’”

On his internship, Rodriguez said, “They were always happy to have a BYU student in the group, because they always have that experience.”

Adams is proud of that reputation, boasting that a high percentage of graduates of his program get hired by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony and other major animation studios. As just one example, Erik Hansen, who made the original pitch for “Grendel,” now works at Disney.

McCollaum, who graduated from BYU in 2018, and Rodriguez, who got his diploma this spring, are still working in Utah. Both landed internships at Avalanche Software, a Salt Lake City-based game studio Warner Bros. acquired in 2017, after Disney’s game division shut down the Disney Infinity line in 2016. McCollaum stayed on as a contract hire, and Rodriguez lives in Provo and works on freelance projects.

McCollaum said she and Rodriguez have been invited to submit “Grendel” to a couple of film festivals, and it’s available to screen online.

The filmmakers will get to attend a week of industry activities organized by the motion-picture academy in Los Angeles in October, culminating in the Student Academy Awards ceremony on Oct. 17. There they will learn if “Grendel” will get a gold, silver or bronze medal, in competition with the two other finalists in their category.

At BYU, the Center for Animation’s next short film — tentatively titled “Salt,” about an African mother and daughter discovering music while they harvest salt — is in production, and should be done this winter. Adams said “pitch night” for next year’s student project is set for October.