School of Animation and Visual Effects Celebrates 'Soar's' Success

Commitment and collaboration proved a winning combination for director Alyce Tzue


School of Animation & Visual Effects Graduate Director Tom Bertino, Academy alumna Alyce Tzue and Associate Director of Visual Effects Derek Flood. Photo by Bob Toy.

Spirits were flying at Academy of Art University’s Atelier Gallery on Nov. 12, when the School of Animation and Visual Effects celebrated Soar, a highly acclaimed short film by 2014 M.F.A. graduate Alyce Tzue.

“It feels amazing! We’ve rarely ever been in the same room together,” said Tzue, referring to the approximately 100 students and instructors who worked with her on the film over a two and a half year period. “There were so many stages in the pipeline and each student came in and did their part, but rarely did we have everyone come together. I’m really thankful to the Academy for hosting this party. Having an event just for Soar means a lot, and seeing all these familiar faces in one place is really rewarding.”

Racking up prestigious awards like the Gold Medal Student Academy Award and Best Student Animation at the 2015 Palm Springs International ShortFest, Soar has propelled Tzue into the upper echelon of promising young filmmakers. The film’s success got her an agent and compelled her to prepare a treatment to turn Soar, a six-minute short, into a full-length film, with the hopes that a studio might pick it up. In the meantime, she’s focusing on live action, directing music videos for the music social network Smule. It’s a new experience for the graduate, but Tzue, it seems, has an affinity for challenges.

“Alyce is the greatest,” said Tom Bertino, graduate director of the School of Animation and Visual Effects. “Every member of the faculty had the same impression on first contact with her and with this project—that it was a beautiful project that had heart and soul and deserved all the support the Academy could give it, and also, that she would not be deterred. She had a huge road ahead of her and it didn’t matter what the roadblocks were. We believed in her ability to jump over every obstacle because she was so determined to make this vision happen, and for all that we put into it, we just enabled the force of nature that was Alyce to do what was in her and what was going to come out one way or another.” 

Like the main character in her film, Mara, a little girl who wants to be an airplane designer when she grows up, Tzue dreams big. She always wanted to make a film, and when she realized M.F.A. students at the Academy produce a film as their thesis, she enrolled. “I thought it would be the perfect environment for me to do it as a first timer,” she said. 

She developed much of the early concept design, storyboarding and animation during her first year at the Academy with a team she put together with her producer Anson Yu. One member of that team was Miguel Diaz, a master’s student majoring in texture, lighting and compositing, who rigged dozens of little steampunk flying machines so they could be animated. Engulfed in his own thesis project, Diaz found time to help Tzue. “I thought her idea was amazing, I really wanted to contribute to that,” he said. “And the fact that she trusted me, because I had never rigged at that point, and she trusted me to assemble everything, it gave me something special, entrusting me with that.”

About midway through production, the film moved to Studio X—a set of classes within the School of Animation and Visual Effects that simulates a professional studio pipeline. Soar was placed into the Studio X CG texture and lighting class run by Associate Director of VFX Derek Flood, where students worked on the stunning visuals for Soar: texturing, lighting, compositing and effects. In Studio X classes, students work collaboratively on what the faculty has deemed to be the best student film ideas—not only from a content level, but from an education level as well. 

“The animatic for Soar was really good. That’s what got our attention,” Flood explained. “We find the students whose ideas are really good, and then we decide if it’s going to be a film that will lend itself well to educational purposes. I thought Soar would offer a beautiful opportunity for lighters to show really gorgeous stuff on their reels.”

Because Soar segues through different times of day, lighting was a crucial element in creating a specific mood, Flood explained. In the texture and lighting course, students like Yayu Chen created an atmosphere that fades through the pink skies of sunset to the brightness of a moonlit night. 

“It’s really cool to have a studio experience in the school,” Chen said. “Usually in school you just learn and do homework, but in this collaborative class we had the chance to work together like a studio. It’s a really good strategy for us for when we start working in the industry.”

Graduate student Ionna Mailli, who worked on dynamics, animating physically intense movements like leaves swept up with the wind, also enjoyed the collaborative experience. “It was nice because I could see so many different elements coming together in an actual short film,” Mailli said. “It was a lot of work but it was worth it. Alyce worked so hard. She was there during the whole process helping with everything. It wasn’t just ‘OK, I’m done with animation, you guys finish it, I’ll just be directing,’—no, she was involved with the whole thing. I’ve never seen someone so committed.”

Tzue’s commitment and drive undoubtedly played a big part in making Soarsuch a success, but the director said she always had an eye on the Oscars. “When you start a project like this, one of the things that keeps you maintaining that high bar is a very lofty goal. We wanted to dream high, we were like, our goal is the Oscars. Haha! We were laughing about it! But that lofty dream kept me thinking ‘Hey, if I want to get into the Oscars does this look good enough?’ The whole team tried to push for the highest bar that we knew we could reach.”