Speechwriter William Safire ponders what to write in a scene from DAC's Forever Mankind

The Digital 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, including the Hiroshima Film Festival in August. If the film wins there, it becomes eligible for entry into the Academy Awards. Because many of the film festivals require a level of exclusivity, the film isn’t yet available for public viewing online. Cook said if anyone wants to watch it, they can email him at [email protected] and he will pass along the Vimeo password.

Cook 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.

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