When Hollywood wants good, clean fun, it goes to BYU

Friday, May 24, 2013

It was a Tuesday evening at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, and the school’s computer-animation program had assembled its 70-odd students to choose their next project — the one film they would be producing over the next three semesters. Ostergar, a junior from Southern California, was up first.

A panning shot across the ship’s deck, he explained, would introduce the thuggish crew: two pirates take turns slugging each other in the gut. Another stands around eating habanero peppers and blowing fire. “One idea I had,” Ostergar said, “was one guy could be bench-pressing a cannon. And then it zooms out a little bit, and then there’s a bigger guy that’s bench-pressing thatguy!”

Eventually the camera would zero in on the main character, Off-White Dakin. Ostergar had done an animated sequence showing the lantern-jawed pirate sitting behind a barrel — hiding. He was knitting a sweater, using his hook-hand and a rusty nail for needles. The sweater was pink and had a rainbow on it. This was Off-White’s secret shame: “He only knits really cute things,” Ostergar said. “It’s his way to decompress.”

The film’s premise sounded fun and wry and a little hokey. It was aiming for that Pixar-ish sweet spot, which is typical of the animated shorts that B.Y.U. students have made every year since the program started in 2000. (See, for example, ‘‘Las Piñatas,” about two anthropomorphic piñatas who, having been hoisted up at a child’s birthday party, panic and reconsider their careers.) Those films have consistently racked up student Emmys and student Academy Awards. They’ve played at Cannes and Sundance. Most important, they’ve impressed recruiters. Out of nowhere, B.Y.U. — a Mormon university owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — has become a farm team for the country’s top animation studios and effects companies. Unlikely as it sounds, young Mormons are being sucked out of the middle of Utah and into the very centers of American pop-culture manufacturing.

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