Former DAC student shares Academy Award


Former DAC student shares Oscar for "Frozen"

by Vicki Hildner | University Communications

One year ago, Jeff Gipson watched the Academy Awards 2013 and thought to himself, “Wouldn’t it be great to work on a film that actually won one of those awards?”

Jeff GipsonThis month, Gipson is posing for photographs with the Oscar for Animated Feature Film won by Walt Disney Animation for “Frozen.” It was the first film that Gipson, a former student in the College of Arts & Media 3D Graphics and Digital Animation program, had worked on since he arrived at Disney 12 months ago. But even though success came quickly for him, the long and winding journey to his current position could make a good plot for—well, a Disney animated feature film.

From Trinidad, Colo. to San Diego, CA

The son of a gunsmith father and musician mother, Gipson started as an aspiring artist and avid bicycle motocross (BMX) freestyle rider in Trinidad, Colo. He picked up two associate degrees at Trinidad State Junior College—one in civil engineering technology and one in science. Then, he headed north to CU-Boulder, where he completed an undergraduate degree in architecture—the Bachelor of Environmental Design—in 2008.

Gipson’s interest in architecture started in Trinidad, where, as a high school student, he combined his love of art with his interest in skateboarding and BMX to design and build a skateboard park. Now, with an architecture degree under his belt, he moved to San Diego for a three-year stint with a company that designed and built skateboard parks, including parks across the United States, the largest skate park in northern Europe (in Denmark) and the skate plaza in the reality show “Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory.”

From architecture to digital animation

Jeff GipsonBy 2011, Gipson decided that he wanted to own his own company.  He returned to CU Denver for Colorado’s only graduate architecture program. It wasn’t long before he realized he had made a mistake.

“I liked creating pictures better than I liked designing,” he said. “When I first saw a movie like ‘Toy Story,’ I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”

Gipson credits two professors for helping him make a transition from studying architecture to digital animation. He first spoke with Fred Andreas, assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Planning. “He told me, ‘You have to trust your gut,’” Gipson said. “’You have to do what will make you happy.’”

Gipson then consulted with Howard Cook, MFA, director and assistant professor in theDigital Animation Center in the College of Arts & Media. “Howard is awesome,” Gipson said. “He reassured me that if I worked at it, I could be successful in animation. I wouldn’t have switched if he had not been so supportive.”

In digital animation, Gipson found his true love. “The labs and facilities at CU Denver are top notch,” Gipson said. “The environment is supportive. You are constantly encouraged.”

From trainee to teacher

While studying digital animation, Gipson snared several highly competitive internships at both Pixar Animation Studies, creator of blockbusters such as “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters, Inc.,” and Laika Entertainment, in Portland, Ore.  In fall 2012, he headed to The Ohio State University to teach digital animation, but his true ambition was to make films. “I decided to float my resume, just for the heck of it,” he said.Jeff Gipson

Gipson still remembers opening the email from Disney telling him he had been accepted into their trainee program. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, am I reading this right? Is this happening?’”

Today, Gipson is no longer a trainee. In fact, he is supervising and mentoring new trainees at the studio. His job on “Frozen” involved lighting. “We move and place lights in a 3-D scene,” he said. “We focus your eye, highlight the animation and make the final image. And we do it with computers.”

Students in the CU Denver digital animation program sometimes send him their demo reels. “I give them feedback,” Gipson said, “because so many people helped me by giving me feedback along the way.”

The 2014 DAC Senior Short


Capstone senior project will transform award-winning children's book into 8-minute animated film

DENVER - Animation students at the University of Colorado Denver are "jazzed" by the rare chance to work with a renowned illustrator as they bring his drawings to life in an animated film.

British artist Howard McWilliam is visiting CU Denver's Digital Animation Center this week to give feedback to the students, and even learn some new skills on DAC's state-of-the-art animation computer software.

McWilliam has already spent months collaborating, via social media, with the students as they transform the award-winning children's book he illustrated, "I Need My Monster," into a short film. The students, who are working on their three-semester senior capstone project, are producing an eight-minute film short for "I Need My Monster," based on an adapted screenplay written by DAC Director Howard Cook.

Howard McWilliam looks on as 3rd year DAC student Jay Flores pitches the final scene to I Need My Monster.

McWilliam, who has illustrated five children's books, has never had one of the books transformed into film. "I've always approached (illustrating) with a cinematic view in mind, so for me it was a natural fit," he said. "I'm really excited to hear there are people willing to take it on and do it. We've had some Facebook discussions about certain problems that have come up, so it's good to see (the students) face to face."

The 15 students in the capstone cohort are equally excited by the project, and the chance to work with someone of McWilliam's caliber.


"This is just a unique opportunity to meet the man behind all those amazing pieces of art that we get to translate into 3D," said Michael Launder, who, like the other students in the cohort, is working toward a bachelor of fine arts degree with an emphasis in visual animation. "We're so jazzed ... At first he was this guy behind a Facebook picture and how he's right here."

Brandon McCaulley, another student, said, "Being able to have his feedback and input on developing our concepts and collaborating with him is just a rare opportunity -- very rare -- especially with him coming from the U.K."

DAC Productions Senior Short Films have been highly acclaimed, selected as “Official Selections” in more than 80 national and international film festivals. Of those, the DAC films "A Complex Villanelle" (2010), "8 Second Dance" (2011), and "Forever Mankind" (2012)received 15 Best Animated Shorts in non-student categories. The film version of "I Need My Monster" "has really huge potential," Cook said, noting that the book's publisher envisions potentially packaging the book with the film.

The students on Wednesday showed McWilliam the story boards of their film and some early computerized renderings of his illustrated characters. "The big thing is the exposure (they get) to a working artist and actually having to translate somebody else's ideas into something 3D," Cook said. "It's something they would do in the real world. This is the first time we've done that. We've never had a premade version of the story, so this is really mimics even further that studio environment that we're trying to have them engage in."


3rd year DAC student Archie Dalton pitches the opening sequence.

McWilliam said he was excited to try his hand at some of DAC's software, such as the 3D sculpting program. He's excited to see the final film product -- which will be completed by May 2014 -- with the potential of having it packaged as a DVD with his book. "I've loved seeing the work they've done so far," he said. "It's some great stuff. I'm optimistic."

DAC, part of the College of Arts & Media, is one of only three programs in the world that has students complete a three-semester capstone film project. It's because of that experience that many DAC graduates are working as artists in studios such as PIXAR, Disney, LucasFilm, and Dreamworks. DAC graduates also have worked on high-rated video games and TV programs.

Cook said if this book-adaptation is successful, future senior short film capstone classes -- next year's cohort has 25 students -- will likely do similar projects.

Launder is already thrilled to be getting the "I Need My Monster" project to put in his demo reels. If the film ends up in the marketplace as a DVD-book package, that would be a major bonus.

"That would be cool," he said. "I'm not going to lie, it would be awesome."


DIgital Animation Center Lowers Tuition

University of Colorado Denver's Digital Animation Center lowers tuition

The Digital Animation Center announces a significant drop in tuition cost for a 4-year degree in animation

February 20, 2013

 Denver Colorado— Today, the University of Colorado’s Digital Animation Center (DAC) announced a significant drop in tuition cost for animation program. The overall success of the program has led to a just over 25% reduction in tuition for the animation program. This reduction represents a $12,300 savings over the 4-year program.

 “We are pleased that we can offer a reduction in the cost of attending the DAC. It is exciting to be able to help our students in any way we can obtain their long-range educational goals,” says Howard Cook, Director of the highly regarded program.

 “In a time when tuition and the cost of education is on the rise, it is rare and exciting when we can help out,” Cook said. “We are talking about just over a $12,000 savings. That is significant”.

 “It is just awesome that the University is able to lower tuition for us. Getting to be an animator just got that much easier,” says DAC 3rd year student Michael Launder.

 The Digital Animation Center’s 4-year degree in Digital Animation is regarded as one of the top programs in the country. CU Denver graduates of the animation program have had a hand in making a number of the top animated films in recent history, working as artist the big studios including PIXAR, Disney, LucasFilm, ILM, Dreamworks, Sony, ReelFX, Electronic Arts and Bioware. DAC Graduates also worked on some of the highest rated games and TV offerings. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, DAC graduates work for Los Angeles based Stargate Studios, won the Emmy’s for their special effects work on NBC’s Heroes and AMC’s The Walking Dead.

 “DAC Graduates work hard throughout their educational journey. The result is they are getting internships and jobs in a wide range of industries that use animation.” Cook stated.  “From legal forensics to working on the big features we see at the local Cineplex, to some of the top rated games like Star Wars Unleashed, DAC graduates are in the mix.”

 “If you are going to learn animation and CG, the DAC is one of the best,” states Ken Maruyama, VP of Recruiting & Academic Relations/Animation Artist Management at Sony Pictures Imageworks. “I am impressed with the DAC’s production courses. These kids are doing some great things, really learning what it means to work on a production. It is the real deal."

At the core of the DAC’s program is the 3-semester capstone course series in which students form an in-house studio to work on and complete a high-production value short film. The DAC Productions Senior Short Films have been highly acclaimed, selected as “Official Selections” in over 80 national and international film festivals. Of those, the DAC films A Complex Villanelle (2010), 8 Second Dance (2011), and Forever Mankind (2012) received 15 Best Animated Shorts in non-student categories. 

“If you want to learn animation and do so in an urban environment and an awesome place to live and learn, Denver, then you won’t go wrong by choosing the DAC.” states Cook.


More about the Digital Animation Center at CU Denver can be viewed here


The DAC in the National spotlight.

This video was shot last spring for HP by the talented team at the Los Angeles based Imageworks. HP is highlighting the DAC in a series of commercials for TV and in theaters nationwide.

The video below, shows off how the DAC uses HP equipment in our "state-of-the-shelf" labs, to provide our students with a deep understanding of the animation process through a rigorous curriculum, a solid foundation in the tools and a real-world collaboration unlike any other school in the country. Highlighted is the senior short film production, a three-semester, intensive production in which the students, under the mentorship and direction of faculty produce a high-production value short film. The labs at the DAC are widely considered to be amongst the very best in the country.

Learn About the DAC

Our Awards

Some of the over 80 awards DAC films have received.


Forever Mankind: The 2012 Senior Short

The Story Behind Forever Mankind


Newest capstone film by DAC is based on historic 1969 lunar mission

DENVER - TheDigital Animation Center could have another hit on its hands with "Forever Mankind," a film about the words a grieving nation would have heard if the Apollo 11 mission ended in catastrophe.

The animated short is the latest senior capstone project by DAC students, who spend three semesters working on a film in an in-house studio.

"I think it's going to do well on the film circuit," said Howard Cook, director of DAC. "Our last two films have been in something like 70 national and international film festivals."

The 2010 DAC film, "A Complex Villainelle," won "best animated short" awards in 12 national and international film festivals, and the 2011 film, "Eight Second Dance" won five awards, including the recent "best animation" at the Honolulu Film Festival.

In July 1969 the nation was gripped in anticipation as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin blasted off for the moon. President Nixon's speechwriter, William Safire, was tasked with writing the "failure speech" the president would deliver in the event Aldrin and Armstrong would die on the mission.

Cook and Craig Volk, associate professor of theater, film and video production, co-wrote the story of "Forever Mankind" -- Cook was inspired after reading Safire's speech, which surfaced in the National Archives in 2004 -- and turned the 11 seniors in DAC loose on producing the film.

"What we're trying to simulate is work they would do in a studio," Cook said. In professional animation studios, such as Dreamworks, the animators are assigned a film to work on, rather than given the latitude to create the script. That's why DAC uses the same approach.

They spend 18 months creating the film from scratch -- doing everything from discovery to pre-production to the final credits.

"It's a really hard task. Making a short film is really hard," Cook said, noting the many hours of extra work put in by faculty and students. "It requires a commitment from the students that's far more than normal class work. But look what they get to walk away with. You can't really get a better example of what you did in your school work than that."

Cook tries to give the students a story that interests them. This year's class, led by top College of Arts & Media graduate Kelsey Brown, expressed an interest in history. Next year's DAC seniors, a large group of 20 students, are interested in gaming, so Cook's script is a backstory to a fictional video game.

Students in the program get a four-year scaffolding of knowledge into digital animation, Cook said. "And in this project over three semesters they bring all that together," he said. "Because it's a collaborative, creative workspace, they're able to get a level of soft skills, of people skills, that they couldn't get from a textbook or from any other way than through this kind of project."

Cook said the real-life training makes DAC graduates immediately competitive for positions in theater studios.

Cook said "Forever Mankind" will be entered into some of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. The DAC Director believes DAC's take on the historic lunar landing of 1969 could land some prestigious hardware in 2013, if not sooner. "I think it's good enough that it has a chance to make next year's Academy Awards," he said.

About Us

Learn Animation at Colorado's premier Animation School. The University of Colorado Denver's Digital Animation Center is committed to providing quality instruction in 3D theory and techniques intended to prepare its students to succeed. Students will be prepared to excel in a multitude of industries including feature film, broadcast, scientific visualization, medical imaging and engineering.

CU Denver's College of Arts & Media's DAC precisely focused curriculum prepares students for careers within a urban, 4-year university experience that is a well-rounded liberal arts education with the traditional components of a fine arts education, in state-of-the-art facilities and acquiring high-tech skills needed for this demanding curriculum. Learn competitive traditional and digital art-making skills using the industries top software packages and techniques in Maya, ZBrush, 3DSMax, VRay, Renderman, Fusion, Real Flow, Vue, After Effects, and more. We also have two motion capture systems including a 40' x 40' x 20' motion capture stage.

University of Colorado Denver, Downtown Denver Campus' College of Arts and Media 3D Graphics and Digital Animation program will strive to provide the highest level of university-level undergraduate instruction in the theory, practice and application of digital 3D media. The goal of the CU-Digital Animation Center is to bring together diverse scholars and practitioners who seek creative imaging and visualization solutions for evolving research and to set them in partnerships with artists of digital media. Such collaborations will provide the visual solutions for explaining and defining complex technical data.

CU Denver's DAC, is dedicated to producing productive competent animators that are problem solvers, critical thinkers and are prepared to enter the workforce as leaders and managers. As a Fine Art major at one of the nation's top Universities, you will receive a well rounded, quality University education and upon successful completion of all requirements will be awarded a Bachelor of Fine Art with an emphasis in 3D Graphics and Animation.


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