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July 2001, Vol. 26 No. 2
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Classic training meets high technology when

Art goes digital

by Stacy Yuen Hernandez

When UH Manoa student Catherine Mitsunaga (AA ’97 Kapi'olani) decided to follow her dreams, switching her major from nursing to art, her heart sang as she discovered the expanded arts program at UH Manoa. Still, she wasn’t optimistic about her future in the field often described as “new media”—a broad range of electronic-based arts, including animation, electronic music and video.

computer-drawn centipede-like creature

At the time, Hawai'i job prospects in this high-tech field looked bleak, if not non-existent.

She found her dream job with a Tokyo-based company that has planted roots firmly in downtown Honolulu. Square USA, a subsidiary of Square Co., produces software for interactive entertainment. Internationally known for its Final Fantasy role-playing video games, Square employs approximately 250 people in its Harbor Court studios, including 150 of the world’s top computer graphic artists who worked on a full-length feature film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Mitsunaga began as a student intern at Square, then was hired to work on the film as a render wrangler (or render tech support—RTS, for short). “Wrangling is a movie industry term,” she explains. “It is part of the end line in production.” An artist works on a computer image—a ball, for example—that appears as a rounded grid on the computer screen. Wranglers work off UNIX interface, sending the frames to a computer, which figures out the geometry, lighting, textures and shading to render out the image. A five-minute shot could consist of more than a thousand frames. Wranglers check each frame for consistency and accuracy. It’s an entry-level job, but Mitsunaga feels fortunate to have worked alongside the best in the business.

“There are people here who worked on the special effects for Titanic, The Matrix, X-Men and other major productions,” she says. “Now that digital animation is such a big thing in movies, it brings different job possibilities.” She’ll pursue those possibilities after completing her bachelor of fine arts at Manoa.

Square USA President Hironobu Sakaguchi has repeatedly voiced his intent to recruit and hire local talent, and he’s been true to his word. Mitsunaga and nine other UH students worked in Square’s rendering department. More work in other areas of the company. Anthony Higa, (BS ’01 Manoa), started as a wrangler and now writes production software to help manage the more than 1,500 computers at the Square USA studio. “I’m able to apply my double major (electrical engineering and information and computer science) to the tasks they have available for me,” he says.

Square invests in future employees. In 1998, the company donated a generous amount of professional-quality animation equipment to the UH system; both Manoa and Kapi'olani CC offer 3D animation classes in the resulting art lab, located in the UHM Art Building.

“The donation put UH into an elite group of institutions that offer cutting-edge 3D digital animation education,” says Robert Rodeck, UHM associate professor of art. The computers and software that comprised the gift were at the high end of the technology—the same as that used for Hollywood productions such as Toy Story. Manoa and Kap'iolani students using the Silicon Graphics workstations are learning to implement the same tools used in the most sophisticated productions. Electronically oriented labs marry creative ideas, art principles and design theory with technological know-how.

Students need both aspects to cope with and be leaders in tomorrow’s world, emphasizes department Chair John Wisnosky. UHM graduates are being accepted into the most prestigious graduate programs in motion picture arts, including the University of Southern California, and graphic arts, such as the University of New Mexico.

Two female students stand next to a computer monitor

Kapi'olani instructors insist that students obtain a sound grounding in the principles of art before incorporating the gee-whiz wonders of technology. Their program, launched in 1997, offers an associate in technical science (ATS) with concentrations in graphical interface design, computer animation or content development. Coordinator Jan McWilliams, a Kapi'olani CC associate professor of art, says students participate in group projects emulating the collaborative environment of the workplace. An internship is also required. The approach works—five Kapi'olani students have been hired as animators, modelers and sound designers by Konami Computer Entertainment of America, the latest Japanese-based company to open a studio in Honolulu.

Okjoo Chang, (ATS ’01 Kapi'olani) didn’t hesitate to sign up when a friend told her about the Kapi'olani program. She sings its praises despite long hours spent working on projects. “When I started the program, I didn’t know the software at all so I had to learn the software (while) I was creating the image,” she recalls. Classmate Kaori Saga (ATS ’01 Kapi'olani) had planned to study social work. When a course she wanted wasn’t available, Kapi'olani CC Art Gallery Director David Behlke encouraged her to continue studying art along with psychology and sociology. Eventually she changed her major.

Behlke praises the students’ work, both as individual artists and as coordinators of the gallery’s first ever digital art exhibition last fall. Among Chang’s work was a “self-portrait” of flowers that gradually grows abstract. The persona she displays is always smiling, holding in sadness and stress, Chang explains.

“All artists use tools to express themselves,” says McWilliams. Digital media is another medium through which artists communicate their visions. It is not competing with traditional media, such as painting and sculpture, but is simply another tool, she says. The new media arts program allows students the option of using their artistic talents to enter the high-tech world. Many already have degrees in art, architecture, English, economics and other fields and want to refine and reorient their careers.

A new associate of science degree will expand student options beginning this fall, adding a more credit-intensive course of study that supports multimedia career choices.

The fantasy begins

Among moviegoers anxiously awaiting this month’s release of the first computer-generated, animated feature film with photo-real human characters are some UH graduates who worked on the project. Scheduled to debut in theatres July 13, 2001, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was produced in Honolulu by Square USA and distributed by Columbia Pictures.