Tuesday, September 19

UCLA alumnus finds artistic success with animated film

"˜9' is set to open in September and showcase Shane Acker's innovative style


Just a few years ago, Shane Acker was animating the Eye of Sauron, sending its gaze after Elijah Wood’s Frodo Baggins in the “Lord of the Rings” films.

These days, he and Wood are sharing a stage.

In fact, Acker’s been spending time with a whole host of Hollywood’s finest lately. His directorial debut, the animated fantasy epic “9,” opening Sept. 9, features the voices of Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer and Crispin Glover, with Wood voicing the title character. Among the list of producers are Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, director of “Wanted.”

But the original version of “9″ didn’t have any voices at all. It was an 11-minute silent short film about a group of tiny stitched-up creatures at war with a metallic beast, Acker’s final project for his master of fine arts degree at UCLA’s Animation Workshop.

The film took about five years to complete, including the time Acker spent in New Zealand working on “Lord of the Rings.” The sizeable list of accolades the “9″ short film received includes the Best Animated Film award at the 2005 Comic-Con and the Gold Medal from the Student Academy Awards, which granted the film a nomination at the regular Academy Awards.

The recognition “9″ garnered as a short film led to the Hollywood production of Acker’s student project.

Jim Lemley, producer of “Wanted,” was the first to lend his services to help Acker expand his vision into a feature-length work, and Burton and Bekmambetov signed on soon after. Then came the A-list actors, screenwriter Pamela Pettler (“Corpse Bride”) and Danny Elfman to provide the score.

But after years at UCLA, Acker wasn’t about to leave his classmates behind. He enlisted a number of other UCLA students to work on the film, many of whom had contributed to the short, including animation director Joe Ksander and animation supervisor Kristin Solid.

“It’s important to notice that the people you’re in school with, they are going to be your peers as you move through your life and your career, especially in an industry as small as the animation industry,” Acker said. “So I kept in touch with them all, and I was really respectful for them putting their time and their effort into the short, and they’re all really amazingly talented, so when it came time to make the feature, and I had the opportunity, I brought them back to work on the film.”

He said he did not forget the students he worked with at UCLA, and the professors who sent him on his way haven’t forgotten him.

Professor emeritus Dan McLaughlin served as Acker’s thesis adviser before he retired.

“He’s mostly self-motivated, so you just stand back and let him go. He has a vision of the world, he creates his own world, and he takes the myth of hero worship and goes with it,” McLaughlin said.

Doug Ward, the school’s academic administrator for animation, had similar memories of Acker, recalling that his “animation style is fantastic.”

In addition to possessing talent and vision, Acker is also remembered for welcoming constructive criticism in a world that is often insulated.

“(Acker was) very much interested in getting audience input to get a better, stronger film,” Ward said.

Acker has fond recollections of his own. He cited his time spent as a teaching assistant as an early introduction to the life of a director, requiring him to lead a group of people toward creative solutions to problems.

When he first came to UCLA, though, Acker wasn’t even thinking about a career in animation; he was pursuing a master’s degree in architecture, which he completed in 1998. He didn’t change paths until he had to fill electives at the end of the architecture program, and took an introduction to animation class.

“I just literally fell in love with it,” Acker said. “The animation brings a lot of my interests to bear, whether it’s sculpture, painting, architecture, cinema, performance, storytelling, all rolled into one environment and one medium. It became a place where I could fully express myself as an artist.”

From architecture he brought the experience of building three-dimensional worlds and imagining how people might occupy that space. From his childhood he brought an interest in animators like the Brothers Quay and in comic books, especially Moebius, a French artist who sent his character Arzach on brief adventures without using dialogue, a style that Acker kept in mind while making the silent “9″ short.

And from here, the possibilities are nearly endless. Acker has thought about directing live-action films, heading down a career path modeled after a man he now knows well, Tim Burton. The doors are open for him to do it, thanks to one gem of a student project.

Ward, for one, said he is proud to have Acker representing the UCLA Animation Workshop in Hollywood. “It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Shane was a culmination of everything we stand for,” he said.

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