Celebrating Excellence

“Not competitive, they’re collaborative,” said MPTV Executive Director Jana Memel of the night’s nominees at the first annual NXT UP Festival


Senior advertising student Joey Larson picked up three awards at the first-ever NXT UP Fest for Excellence in Commercial Creation & Production, Branded Content and Documentary Filmmaking. Photo by Bob Toy.

Students were dressed to the nines as they walked down the red carpet into 491 Post Street on May 5 for the Academy of Art University’s first NXT UP Festival, a “for students, by students” production that celebrates “excellence in the creation and production of moving images.” The nominees donned their best attire: A mixture of suits, dresses and even one nominee sporting the feathered costume featured in her submitted music video. 

The night’s host, Terrell “Big T” Butler, held the audience’s attention not just with his Academy-red blazer, but with his comedic wit, demeanor and poise that awarded him Excellence for On-Camera Talent – Male later that same evening. He sprinkled jokes into every aspect of his hosting, and carried himself with ease on stage, which was a true mark to the amount of hard work and talent the School of Communications & Media Technologies (COM) senior possesses and put in leading up to the show.

“This is my first time doing a live production of this magnitude,” Butler said. “Jan [Yanehiro] worked with me constantly all this week, going over script change after script change. Steve [Kotton, NXT UP Festival producer and COM associate director] wanted me to be the host for a long time and I’m just glad I was able to keep his vision and represent for him.” 

The vision for NXT UP Fest was to celebrate student work by empowering them to select whom among their peers exhibited creative excellence. Categories included Excellence in Motion Picture Creation and Production, Motion Design, Sound Design, Podcasting, Film Editing, Directing, Virtual Reality and more. 

“I am always glad we can recognize students because, as you saw from the work, it’s extraordinary,” said Jan Yanehiro, one of two NXT UP Fest organizers and COM director. “It’s animation, gaming, being on-camera, production; it’ll move your heart, it will move you sometimes to joy, to tears. Congratulations to all the nominees, my feeling is if you’re nominated, you’ve already won.”


NXT UP Fest preshow host D’Andrée Galipeau interviews nominees Maria Chiara Venturini and Austin Esposito outside of the venue. Photo by Bob Toy.


NXT UP Fest host Terrell Butler kicks off the night with a humorous monologue. Photo by Bob Toy.


School of Communications & Media Technologies students keep an eye on the NXT UP Fest live feed backstage. Photo by Bob Toy.

As the night went on, every person that took the stage – no matter if the individual was an instructor, a presenter, an award recipient – was met with whoops and hollers. Students and their families and friends in attendance cheered on their peers as the show cruised through the award presentations, many recipients often caught by surprise. 

Joey Larson, a senior advertising student, was the big winner of the evening, taking home three awards for Excellence in Documentary, Branded Content and Commercial categories. He said that winning came as a shock. 

“I didn’t realize I had so many friends at this school,” he laughed. “I didn’t expect to win any of them, and I was just grateful to be a part of this. To walk away with three is amazing.”

By the second award, Larson had run out of speeches. But after the award ceremony, he spoke about how his winning submissions – a branded content commercial for North Face (called Glory and Reason) and a conjoined documentary called High Hopes Fisherman – changed from being just a class project to a work that spoke for a forgotten livelihood.

“As an advertising student, I naturally wanted to make the film for Branded Content,” he explained. “But, [eventually], I wanted to make it bigger than that. So, I made it into a documentary because the people I was filming deserved something more than just a commercial. I wanted it to highlight the importance of blue collar workers and their lives.”


Excellence in On-Camera Talent – Female: D’Andrée Galipeau – On-Camera Talent


Excellence in Podcasting: Jazelle Prado – Rad Raza


Excellence in Concept Animation: Annika Schneider – Pink Elephant


Animated Short Film (3-D): Wishing Box (Award was accepted by director Wendi “Lizzie” Zhang)


Excellence in Game Design: Qiao Wang – Empty Bottle


Excellence in Original Screenplay Writing: Spenser Querry – UFO


Excellence in Music Video Creation & Production: Maria Chiara Venturing – "Bob in the Rain and the Lizard of Hope"


Excellence in Cinematography: Yuito Kimura – We’ll Glow in the Dark Forever

Though a few nominees weren’t in attendance to accept their award, many of their project teammates did so on their behalf. According to Jana Memel, the other NXT UP Fest organizer and School of Motion Pictures & Television executive director, the event shows off the high level of collaboration occurring within the Academy’s walls. 

“All the nominees here are not competitive, they’re collaborative,” she said. “In many of these categories, people have benefitted even if they might be majoring in different things or even going to different schools here—that we work together in teams to create this kind of work, which represents what the industry outside of school is like.”

She added: “I think what’s really great about [NXT UP] is that it shows the depth and breadth of the things we teach here. From graphics to virtual reality, you don’t get that opportunity at a lot of schools to have that broad a spectrum taught by people who work in the business.”  

For its first showing, the NXT UP Festival was a success in that it was all about the students and being able to recognize each other’s hard work and dedication to their disciplines. Prior to the event, Academy department heads had to review over 1,000 submissions of which four in each category were selected for students to vote upon. 

For red carpet host and recipient of the Excellence for On-Camera Talent – Female award D’Andrée Galipeau, being honored by faculty and peers was humbling.


Visual Effects: Goliath (Award was accepted by lead compositor Ethan Chang)


Animated Short Film (2-D): Kupala Night (Award was accepted by crew member Cedar-Rain Yellowmule)


Excellence in Music Scoring: Zoe Davis and Guanhua “Monica” Ge – Wishing Box


Excellence in Sound Design: Austin Esposito – My Creative Process


Excellence in Virtual Reality Experience: Hada Jang – VR Fishing Game


Excellence in Production Design: Savannah Yergeau (pictured right) – A Thousand Cranes

“Everyone at this award show put together so much hard work and they made some amazing productions and we just get to talk and interview them,” said the COM senior. “Everyone in our department that’s on-camera, especially the ones that we were nominated with, are completely amazing and we continue to learn from them all the time.” 

For School of Game Design student Hada Jang, receiving Excellence in Virtual Reality Production for her VR Fishing Game was validating and she was glad her family overseas got to watch her receive the award through the event’s livestream. 

After thanking her instructors and those who helped collaborate on the piece, she ended her speech with a little story that encompasses what an Academy event like NXT UP hopes to achieve and relay to the students. 

“I want to tell you a story about my name. In Korean, my name means ‘good job,’” she said to the in-house and live audience. “[After winning this award], I think I’m good job now."