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Brigham Young’s Computer Animation Program Profiled in “NY Times”

Last weekend, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a proile of the computer animation program at Brigham Young University. The school has gained a reputation in the last decade for its student films which are typically produced as group projects by the entire class, and thus exhibit high production values. (Some of these films have been featured on Cartoon Brew in the past.)

The focus of the article is the creative tension that exists between the students who attend the school and their Hollywood aspirations because Brigham Young is a Mormon-owned university run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

Students must regularly attend church services. No sex outside of marriage. (“Live a chaste and virtuous life.”) No alcohol or coffee. (There aren’t even caffeinated sodas in the vending machines.) No swearing. No deviations from the university’s meticulous grooming standards. (“If a yearly beard exception is granted, a new Student ID will be issued after the beard has been fully grown and must be renewed every year by repeating the process.”)

The director of B.Y.U.’s animation program, R. Brent Adams, says that the students who come out of the program have a different approach to filmmaking and life in general than the average fresh-out-of-school film industry pro: “Without being preachy about it, if we can add something to the culture that makes people think about being better human beings—more productive, more kind, more forgiving—that’s what we want to do.”

Curiously, the write-up mentions praise for the school from Disney Animation and Pixar president Ed Catmull, the highest-profile Mormon working in animation, but neglects to mention that he is a Mormon, too. The films that Catmull oversees, such as Wreck-It Ralph, get an ethical pass from at least one student interviewed for the piece:

It wasn’t simply a matter of avoiding sex and violence. (A few times, I heard even Shrek described disapprovingly: too many fart jokes, too much cynicism.) There was, instead, a fixation on whether you walked away from the movie feeling uplifted. That question superseded everything, even the usual genre and age-demographic lines. A senior, Megan Lloyd, told me: “I just saw The Dark Knight. It was wonderful, but it’s just so dark. I didn’t feel better about myself after I saw it. Instead, I felt like, I’m a horrible human being—like all human beings are. Now,” she went on, nearly in the same breath, “contrast that with a film like Wreck-It Ralph. That teaches you: Hey, you can be a better person. Here’s how!”

  • Evan English

    I wonder where Bluth fits into this equation.

    • He attended BYU before they had an animation program.

  • Christina Skyles

    Hey, so I posted a comment on the NY Times correcting a bunch of people who were misled by the article, and I’m going to do it again here.

    The article frames my pitch as if everyone was in an moral uproar about this kooky liberal lady DARING to pitch something dark and disturbing… when in reality it was the complete opposite. Everyone was on-board, a TON of people immediately asked to help animate, and I’ve had no problem making my film with my vision. In fact, before the pitch I wanted someone else direct the film because I wasn’t sure I would do a good job, but after everyone watched the animatic, my professors insisted that I direct it as a 2D short. Even my 3D professor Brent, who I thought only wanted traditional Pixar-y shorts, was in love with the idea and supports me to this day. It’s just pretty unfortunate that the only reactions quoted were from two people with some *very* half-hearted concerns and a computer science professor who I’d never met until that night.

    The article also both quotes from people who actually have far more conservative values than most people in the animation program, and plucks quotes out-of-context to make the person seem more conservative than they are. For the record, Megan is a very good friend of mine, and she has NO PROBLEM with dark stories. In fact she really liked The Dark Knight! A lot of us do, actually! She was merely talking about the objective difference in the conveyance in message between both films. Take a closer look at that quote: notice how she didn’t actually say which film was better?

    So yeah, the article is good, but a little misleading. As a good friend said, “This article paints us as bland and nice, when we’re actually diverse and horrible.”

  • I wonder if there’s any under-the-table coffee drinking around there.

    • Coffee really doesn’t mean anything to us. If anything, some of us use a bit of Mountain Dew, though I know someone has mentioned caffeinated gum. Personally, I’ve been able to pull off an occasional all-nighter without even using caffeine. Outside of tea and coffee, it’s really more of personal choice.

  • Christina Skyles

    We usually make do with Mountain Dew.

    • Scott550

      But mountain dew is LOADED with caffeine. One of the highest content in all of soda-dom.

      • Christina Skyles

        There’s actually nothing against drinking caffeine–it’s coffee and tea specifically. Though BYU doesn’t sell caffeinated sodas or energy drinks, most of the student population still openly drink caffeinated sodas with little-to-no stigma. Also, the caffeine in Mountain Dew is minuscule compared to most coffee, but whatever.

        I personally don’t drink Mountain Dew because the combination of high sugar and moderate caffeine doesn’t mix well with my anxiety issues, and I end up slumped over the Cintiq tweaking out rather than getting anything done.

        • jonhanson

          They changed the rules again? Surge is kosher but coffee and tea are out? Wow!

  • sasha

    “The animation program is probably one of the most diverse and we have people in it of all mindsets” well yes, relative to your ultra conservative LDS surroundings. I talked to a mormon graduate of the program who told me the school was more ‘forgiving’ of the animation/art students but only relative to the schools ridiculously strict code. I have talked to several successful artists and they all tell me how one of the most important aspects for their creativity/art was life experience and being surrounded by other artists. How influencing each other A.K.A competitiveness, going out, drinking, and having fun, pushed them to become better artists. one guy told me he never did any of the work at school just partied,but his work is fantastic, and he is very successful. Mormons tend to be very clique-Y (but what group isn’t i suppose) and the majority of my friends have been Mormon. I was part of friend’s church activities/volley ball teams, I even went to Mormon camp with a friend who did not want to go alone, and I am just stating from personal experience they all have had very conservative and black and white views on the world. the school is so conservative, Their models are not even allowed to be completely naked in the figure studies class. I do not wish group millions or people as being the same, but this is based on the moral code of the church and the church is a huge influence, not only to its followers, but the school which it owns and operates. I still would not recommend the school to outsiders, that did not mean I would tell every one to stay out, just that most people would not enjoy this sort of environment. for a lot of college students the environment is a HUGE deal, and such a restrictive one is not pleasant for most people. you may say ” there are also those who do not (hold more traditional LDS views on politics).” but on the scale of the entire university, that is a very small minority. I wish you well with your studies, hope you make some awesome animations we might get to see on Cartoon Brew.

    best of luck,


  • slowtiger

    Any school/university demanding their students to attend church and refrain from sex and coffee should be avoided. It’s not their business to mingle in the private life of their students.

    “But you don’t have to go there!” Really? I bet there are lots of people who don’t have a better choice, or can’t afford it. And I don’t see any fundamental difference to similar muslim institutions elsewhere in the world. Everytime there’s the offer of knowledge only in exchange for a conformist behaviour obeying some religion I see an unfair deal. This is how religion still gets new followers – we should set up more alternatives, with free knowledge, and a culture of share and support to everybody.

    (And this has nothing to do with animation.)

    • fish

      Well, when you consider that BYU is a private school, they really can do whatever they want regarding honor code, dress code, or any type of “code of conduct” that pleases them. They are a church owned school, and as a private institution they have the ability to dictate how people will conduct themselves when studying there. That’s not a crazy concept, its how all private post secondary educational institutions around this country operate.

      Feel free to avoid them and attend school elsewhere. There really are other alternatives, even in Utah county, let alone the rest of the state, or heaven forbid … out of state.

    • I’m pretty sure the abstinence of sex and coffee aren’t the only variables that count when it comes to being a conformist.

    • juanv

      Your comment has nothing to do with common sense either. If you don’t a school’s guidelines and rules, don’t go there. It’s pretty simple. By the way, BYU is a private school and that normally means it’s more expensive. So your comment “I bet there are lots of people who don’t have a better choice, or can’t afford it” doesn’t make sense. There are plenty of other options to go to college. Hell, you can do it online. Don’t attack or spew nonsense about someone’s religion or anyone’s belief because you disagree.

  • fish

    Sasha, for someone who lives in Utah, your understanding of other people who live in Utah isn’t very comprehensive, I’m sorry to say. You make too many assumptions about what Mormons generally believe based on what you’ve heard, and/or how simplistically you are interpreting what you’ve seen.

    BYU does not want their students to see the world as “black and white”. You are painting a picture that everyone studying there is willingly oblivious to the world around them, and frankly that is just nonsense. To think that an educational institute as highly acclaimed in so many disciplines as BYU is, overtly tries to blind the adults who study there into thinking that the world in which they will enter upon graduating is something less than what it actually is, is just totally absurd. The school’s ultimate goal is to prepare and train people to enter the real world and be successful and make a difference in the world around them. Its crazy to think that that is even remotely possible if those students are being conditioned to see the world as something other than it truly is. Of course sex and violence exist, of course its not going away … in Utah or anywhere. Since when is it a policy at BYU to act like those things don’t exist, and to hope it will all “go away”?

    And as far as the animation program is concerned, its not the main aim of the program to offer a great, artistic experience for the students involved (the term “artistic experience” being totally subjective anyway). I didn’t study in that program, so don’t go thinking I’m some BYU animation homer. I’m not. But from what I do know regarding it, their main aim is to provide a LEARNING experience that offers the students as close to a successful real world animation studio environment as possible. And guess what, the proof is in the pudding. Every year they win the awards that every animation student wants to win. Every year their graduates leave and get hired at the top animation studios, or start their own successful studios. Mission accomplished. I work with a bunch of them here in Glendale, CA at one of the biggest, most successful animation studios in the world. They’re a pleasure to work with, they work hard, they’re creative, they’re hygienic, they know how to play well in a group environment, and the have a perfectly realistic view of what the world is and how to succeed in it.

    In short, I think you’ve done yourself a big disservice if you live there in Utah, considered applying to the program, but decided against it because of what you think you know about the kind of “artistic experience” you’d end up having at BYU.

  • Larry Lauria

    All I know is that the BYU program is really good and produces more than it’s fair share of animation artists. It is considered ne of the best in country!

  • The Church actually announced last year that they don’t have an official stance on caffeinated soft drinks. Tea and coffee could be thought of the Mormon version of pork or beef that other religions abstain from.

    My personal opinion of Don Bluth is that Secret of NIMH was his best film, and then it was a gradual decline from there. I’ve only heard one faculty member mention him, and they were critical over his business practices as a director.


    I walk away feeling uplifted when a movie is of high quality, regardless of it’s tone or point of view.

    We see the world through our own eyes all day. The movies is where we get to experience it through someone else’s.

    • johnV

      First – I love your name. Second – I’m Mormon and I have no problem with dark stories or films. Some of my favorites are dark.


        Darkness can be illuminating.

  • Rufus

    Mormons gain this special “innocence” in approach and softness for life, which as much as it works toward their moral advantage, it makes them often unready for the real world. Unless they fit the very small margin or opportunity, they will not be able to identify existing trends and adapt to popular culture’s standards. Popular culture isn’t perfect, but we shouldn’t shy from either the light or the dark. They’re both here to stay.

    • Randy

      As a Mormon, I disagree. My faith prepared me for the world better than my non religeous friends who have without exception struggled in their personal and professional life more than I have. Good religion prepares us for the world by teaching us about he good and the bad of the world and how to cope with both. On the subject of uplifting verses dark, I don’t think a film has to be naive to be uplifting, but I certainly prefer stories about character overcoming challenges (darkness), than those about characters succumbing to them. That, by the way, has nothing to do with religion, it’s just a personal preference.

  • Randy

    Besides the fact that Ed Catmull hasn’t been a practicing Mormon since he was in college. I don’t even think he identifies himself as “Mormon”.