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‘Solstice’ uses mix of animation software to tell story set in Alaskan wilderness

Animator Matt Groening (left) poses alongside graduate student in fine arts student Justin Vu (right) for his 3D animated short film “Solstice.” (Courtesy of Valerie Lettera-Spletzer)

By Emma Hardymon

June 3, 2022 6:24 p.m.

Justin Vu’s “Solstice” explores the rustic wonders of Alaska.

The computer-animated adventure short film will be the animation graduate student’s third and final production done through the UCLA Animation Workshop, Vu said. He said “Solstice” follows a young woman, Jessie (Kira Buckland), and her husky dog, Connor, during their journey through the Alaskan wilderness. The film has a personal significance to Vu, as he said he grew up in Alaska and wants the film to honor the forested landscape of his childhood in a medium as versatile as animation.

“While I enjoy living in California, I’ve been asking myself, would I or can I ever move back to Alaska?” Vu said. “‘Solstice’ is a reflection of that because the story (is told) from Jessie’s perspective where she is looking at her current struggles against brighter, happier childhood memories. Every single one of her childhood memories is something that I personally experienced.”

[Related: Film review: Playful animation elements color adolescent experience in Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’]

Vu said that throughout his time at UCLA, he was able to hone his skills in cutting-edge animation software such as Unreal Engine and Autodesk Maya. While his previous films have featured both 2D and 3D animation using these programs, he said “Solstice” represents his first time creating an entirely 3D animated film. Almost all animations for the movie were completed mostly by himself and a part-time assistant, Vu said, and he considers finishing such a technically complex film to be one of his greatest achievements.

Vu said he admired filmmaker Makoto Shinkai for his grounded, authentic camerawork and Brad Bird for his fluid editing and cutting techniques, inspiring his animation style. In describing his own visual style, Vu said he tries to maintain a balance between classic Disney animation and contemporary Japanese anime.

As the composer of “Solstice,” alumnus Michael Stein said he was drawn to the project because of its rich themes of nature and nostalgia. He said he was also intrigued by Vu’s desire to incorporate a heavy amount of percussion, which Stein had never experimented with before. He said he considered the film’s composition to be different from other jobs because he treated the long-form composition as a short-form mainstream song instead.

(Courtesy of Justin Vu)
Protagonist Jessie, alongside her husky Connor, overlooks the Alaskan scenery. Paying homage to his childhood, Vu's film follows the pair on their expedition throughout the state's wilderness. (Courtesy of Justin Vu)

With respect to the composition itself, Stein said Vu wanted the music to honor classic rock ‘n’ roll and contemporary artists such as OneRepublic and Keane, which further interested him in the film. As a result, Stein said he structured the score like that of a traditional pop rock song, with narrative verses and hooks and choruses that deliver a well-rounded plot within the span of a short film.

Voicing the main character Jessie is actress Kira Buckland, who found “Solstice” to be a refreshing project because, unlike many of her larger-scale projects where she had little creative autonomy, she said she got to spend time working with Vu to perfect Jessie as a character. For instance, she said she perfected the script alongside Vu prior to recording by exploring Jessie’s deeper psyche.

[Related: Alumnus’s film ‘w(HO)’ showcase personal journey through mixed-media animation]

With graduation in his near future, Vu said he hopes that his time in the world of “Solstice” will not end but is rather the beginning of his work delving deeper into the Alaskan terrain. Vu said he also wants to expand on the movie’s more sinister parallels to Joseph Conrad’s colonial critique novella “Heart of Darkness,” whether that be with a point-and-click video game or an animated series.

Ultimately, he said he is grateful that the software he learned while producing “Solstice” is helping his career prospects outside of UCLA. He is currently working for a Los Angeles-based studio called Visual Creatures.

“Even if I don’t get to those next chapters of Solstice’ soon, I’ll still be very busy using the tools I used to create it,” Vu said. “When the time comes, when I’m able to work on ‘Solstice’ again, I’ll be miles ahead in terms of where I started on skills, and I’ll be able to pull off a next chapter that looks much better and will be one that I have more creative control over.”

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Emma Hardymon
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