UW–Stout animation students prove they will be giants

By: Billy Tuite

It takes a special group of storytellers to make audiences care about a friendship between an alien mantis and an armadillo creature, but last fall, a group of talented animators at the University of Wisconsin–Stout did just that. They even set it to a music video by legendary alternative rock band They Might Be Giants.

Animation Studio professor Ursula Husted collaborated with They Might Be Giants for the fall semester’s class project and assigned groups of students to make a music video for a song of their choosing from the band’s latest album “Nanobots.” To make matters more exciting, the band proposed a contest: the group with the best animation will have their work become the official music video for that song.

“Previously, we had just used creative commons music we found off the Internet,” said Entertainment Design senior Amanda Nordman, who directed the winning team’s video. “It was really cool to pull in an established band to work with.”

They Might Be Giants have two Grammy awards and the “Malcolm in the Middle” theme song under their belt, so they are nothing short of nationally renowned. This put plenty of pressure on the students, especially environment designer Taylor Hewitt, whose first animation experience was with this project.

“It was terrifying,” Hewitt said succinctly. “I thought ‘Oh God, I can’t do this! I’ll have to drop this class because there’s no way I can pass this!’”

Fortunately, Hewitt and Nordman stood proud above the competition and won the contest with teammates Samantha Belhumer as character designer, Matt Patten as lead animator and Ava Broscoff as lead storyboard artist.

This winning team created the video for the song “Sometimes a Lonely Way.” To say the least, the team went above and beyond to create an engaging animation for the song.

“We were given an entry prompt of ‘two beings separated and unable to meet.’ From there on, we created an entire world and civilization based on several different species,” Hewitt said.

The video follows two alien races resembling mantises and armadillos who escape their enslavement from glowing yellow bat creatures and develop a friendship through their oppression. In the end, the glowing bats catch the two creatures, leaving viewers to wonder if they’ll ever meet again.

“We took a lot of inspiration from animals and from other planets and eventually figured out how all these things would interact and move around,” Hewitt explained. “We’d find different bits of different animals and then mash them together to create the creatures in the video.”

Given these out-of-this-world influences, the team took an unorthodox approach in their visual style compared to others, a true testament to their unmatched creativity.

“The majority of the other people in our class were doing lighthearted animations with real people, while we were working with really weird creatures eating glowing worms and all this bizarre stuff,” Nordman said. “I hope the band doesn’t think we’re that weird!”

They Might Be Giants found the team to be far from weird. In fact, a recent Facebook post from the band referred to their animation as a “beautiful, original video.” Clearly the team’s work has paid off, and they can look back proudly on the fruits of their inventive labor.

“It was really cool to see it finished, especially with us starting out not knowing where to go with it,” Nordman said. “We started with a simple prompt and made an entire world from it.”

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