Taijitu, the latest BYU animation film to be nominated for a College Television Award (widely referred to as a student Emmy), is primarily a coming-of-age story. A young boy, chosen for an important responsibility that he finds frightening and overwhelming, “needs to realize that there is beauty in growing up and beauty in experiencing new things,” said Emma Gillette, the film’s art director and a recent BYU grad.
Gillette worked with a team of more than 40 animation, illustration, computer science and music students for more than a year to create the film, which garnered BYU’s Center for Animation its 19th student Emmy nomination since 2004. And in the middle of navigating special effects, lighting, characters and more, she did something she had promised herself she’d never do.
“I had a personal rule that I was not going to date anyone in the program: I didn’t want to marry another artist,” she said. When Conner Gillette, the film’s director, whom she had been in classes with for years, showed interest, “I just kind of pushed it to the side.”
But after spending hour upon hour in meetings together, “I slowly began to see how good of a team we made, and I loved spending time with him,” she said.
So in the fall of 2016 the two planned a wedding while finishing their film. They grappled with color — far more in their animation than for their big day. Taijitu’s main character, Ten, is tasked with changing day to night and night to day with the turn of a medallion. For these scenes, the film’s team members “had to decide how blue we want the nighttime and how yellow we want the daytime, because that really affects the mood,” said Emma. “That was a huge challenge: making sure that when Ten is not so scared that the blues are soft and inviting, but when Ten is scared, the blues are more green.”
Conveying a weightier level of emotion than many of the animation program’s more comedic previous films presented another challenge. Emotion “only works if the animators can sell it well enough,” said Conner. “We were fortunate enough to have a team of awesome animators who did a really good job selling it.”
The approach was risky, said theatre and media arts professor Kelly Loosli, director of BYU’s animation program and one of the film’s executive producers. “This film was so different from things we have done in the past and is not a comedy, so we were a little concerned that it might get overlooked,” he said. When it didn’t? “We were thrilled.”
Added Emma, “To get that validation that what we put so many hours into was appreciated by people that are in the professional sphere made us feel that we did something amazing.”
Count submitting the project of your life on a wintry Tuesday in January and getting married four days later as something else amazing. “I was able to work on this film with an incredible group of people and have a product that we are really proud of,” said Conner. “Most importantly, I found my wife, and I couldn’t be happier with that.”
In addition to the Emmy nom, students who worked on Taijitu got mentoring and feedback along the way from professionals at Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony and Disney, and seven have since received jobs and internships with Disney, Blue Sky Studios and Pixar. It’s a continuation of a trend called out in 2013 by a reporter for the New York Times, who wrote, “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.”
The winners of the 2017 College Television Awards will be announced May 24. Taijitu won’t be available to watch online until later this year, but in the meantime, you can watch past BYU animation shorts here.