The poster for 'The Ninety Nines' senior capstone film produced by CU Denver students

Amelia Earhart’s aerial feats are well-documented. Students in the animated short senior capstone class now know something about feats. Just when the film they were making about the legendary aviator looked certain to fail, they managed to pull together and pilot the project to a superb landing.

Their final cut, “The Ninety Nines,” turned out to be the most ambitious, and technically advanced, of the capstone films produced by the Digital Animation Center, which is in the College of Arts and Media at CU Denver.

Howard Cook, director of DAC, never knows what will happen when he turns a group of seniors loose — 17 this year, one of the bigger classes — to create an animated short from scratch. This year, the group showed enthusiasm for the script, a fictional story Cook wrote about Earhart’s surprising fate, but then stalled out when the production pipeline broke down. In the 18-month-class, two-thirds of the film’s scenes weren’t completed until the last six weeks. “I didn’t think they were going to finish,” Cook said. “They sort of became plowhorses to get the work done.”

In down-to-the-wire fashion, several class members put final polish on the film just 30 minutes before it screened at the BFA Thesis show at RedLine gallery in early May. The project’s turning point came when, with the end of the semester closing in, Cook broke the class into smaller groups — known as agile management — to work on various parts of the film.

“Once we transitioned to these smaller units … we were able to really bust out a lot of work in a short period of time,” said student Josh Shapiro.

Students trimmed the film from 11 minutes to six-minute run time. Despite the shortening, “the professional quality really jumped,” Cook said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say they were organized as a team. But when we moved to this agile management style, they finally got it. They saw what putting the extra effort into something like this would potentially do for their careers.”

Because the capstone project simulates a real-life studio — complete with competing egos — the training makes DAC graduates immediately competitive for positions in animation studios. “The Ninety Nines” is an animated short of a video game backstory, commonly called an introduction cinematic. It was a perfect project for this group of students because most of them are gamers.

“A studio supervisor is going to look at this and say, they really made a film,” Cook said. “They worked together and made it as a team, and that’s what really sets us apart from other schools.”

“The Ninety Nines” tells the story of how Earhart didn’t die. She now fights as a member of a super-secret team of women, the 99s. Equipped with Tesla technology, the 99s lead the fight to stop Hitler’s army from overthrowing the free world.

The film’s motion-capture animation — especially the facial capture, led by Nico Montano — and other technical details are among the most sophisticated of any DAC-produced short.

“You could see individual hairs and things. Higher detail, higher fidelity,” Shapiro said. “All of that it was awesome form an artist’s standpoint. It’s almost like the creative ceiling was much higher, and that also gave us more rope to hang ourselves with.”

Also pivotal to the film’s completion was instructor Steve Baker’s contribution in the spring semester. “They were lost in the forest,” he said. “I said here’s one task and let’s succeed at that. Once they got that task it inspired them to go on.”

Students Russell Gotthoffer and Maxwell Nelson appreciated the added focus. “We took ownership,” Nelson said. Added Gotthoffer: “Hard deadlines made a big difference. It created more accountability. … For a while there I was definitely worried. Finally seeing the whole thing together was very cool.”

The students can take pride in “The Ninety Nines,” which will be entered into 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. Last year’s film, “Forever Mankind,” won the Diamond Award at the California Film Festival and has been in 11 festivals. All of the DAC films have been in 85 national and international festivals, winning 17 of those as best animated short.

Cook said a core group of dedicated and talented students drove this year’s film to completion, including a best-ever poster created by Remy Reynolds. “It was really a roller coast kind of thing. Enough of the students believed in the concept and the idea enough to pull it off. They nailed it.”

Other members in the class were Sean Blair, Ryan Cutter, Danielle Daniels, Charles Grubel, Chris Lemon, Jessica May, Gary Ogden, LeaTrisha Perkins, Rex Privratsky, Jonathan Rold, Rachel Stone and Stephen Wike. Other instructors on the project were Paul Conner and Tripp Vroman.

(Picture at top: Student Remy Reynolds produced the poster for this year’s animated film short, “The Ninety Nines.”)

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