Drawn to Campus
Role: Writer, Director, Animator
Drawn to Campus is a mockumentary about a university's "first animated student" and his life on campus. It is the first short film I've directed. 2020.
Festivals & Accolades
November 13th, 2020, Fairhope, AL (Fairhope Film Festival)
The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
Written & Directed By
Director of Photography
Director of Animation
Voice of Ollie J. Thomas
Sexy Girl..........Patricia Girondi
Guitar Player...William LeCroy
Doug Finster....Nicholas Coker
Jerry Lawrence III
Adobe Premiere Pro
Story & Director's Notes
The year was 2018. I was in my second semester of my sophomore year at the University of Alabama, and I was almost convinced that I was going to transfer to a different school. I rushed into Garland Hall, determined to find the right people who could tell me how I could change my major and study Character Animation at the university—despite there not being a Character Animation degree program. After several disappointing conversations with several faculty members, I came to the conclusion that there was simply no way I could. But I didn't end up leaving Bama. Instead, I set my sights on being the first student in the Telecommunication & Film program to direct an animated film.
I only knew two other students interested in character animation: Caleb Sokol, whom I had met through the university Theatre department, and Meredith Parks, whom I had met through the university Art Club. With them and myself as the only team I figured I could have, I started brainstorming. With the limited crew and resources, it would have to be small. With the expected turnaround time for student films, we would have to work fast. I gave myself two parameters to make it doable: make it a live-action hybrid to cut out the need for background drawing, and only have one animated character. With those boundaries in hand, the brainchild that emerged was a mockumentary that would follow the university's "first animated student." It could work.
That fall, after the greatest and most inspiring summer of my life, I began my first course in Screenwriting. We would write four scripts for the class: a comedy, a drama, a silent film, and a horror film. The comedy was the first assigned, and I knew exactly what I would be writing. Taking the idea I had had earlier that year, the first draft of Drawn to Campus was born. As I walked into the classroom for the next class after turning in the script, our professor Maya Champion caught me as soon as I walked through the door.
"Pull up your script," she said. "We're reading it."
After class, Prof. Champion pulled me aside again and told me, "You need to direct this in my Directing class."
"Am I allowed to direct an animated film?" I asked (a stupid question, in retrospect).
"You can direct whatever you want. But boy, I just hope you know how to animate…"
With that, it was official—Drawn to Campus was happening.
It wouldn't be another year until I actually began directing Drawn to Campus. But in that time, I began to assemble my crew. The first people I reached out to were, naturally, the animators. Caleb Sokol knew more about character animation than anyone else I knew, and since my knowledge of its technicalities was lacking, I proposed he be our Animation Director. Meredith Parks was the most eager animator I knew, and once I told her about the project, she asked me about it every time she saw me.
The next crew member I would bring on was Seth Farmer. Seth and I had met in a Multi-Camera Video Production class and had bonded over our shared love for cinema, animation, and games. When he knew I would be directing the project, he told me he wanted to be involved in any way he could. Seth had previously directed what was my favorite student film up to that point: a satirical comedy called The Death of Breakfast. So I knew he had talent. He also worked for the university's Center for Public Television, where he regularly made documentaries. With that in mind, I knew Seth would be the perfect Director of Photography for the project.
The last major crew member I brought on was our producer, Shelby Billman. Shelby and I had been in the aforementioned Screenwriting class together, as well as a Directing for Theatre class. For the former, Shelby had written a charming comedy called Detective Oliver, which she later directed herself, and for the latter, she directed a scene from Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park. Considering what I had seen her create, I knew Shelby would be a perfect fit for the lighthearted content of Drawn to Campus, which is unusual for student films. I also knew that she would be open-minded in working the process of animation, which is quite different from live-action—unlike other student producers whom I was sure would iron fist my animators and me around with their knowledge of producing for live-action. Shelby was eager to commit and vastly exceeded my expectations.
With a team of leaders in place, it was time for me to find the folks who would truly bring Drawn to Campus to life: animators and a voice for Ollie J. Thomas, the film's sole animated character. I had a student actor in mind to voice the character, but he had since graduated and moved to Florida, and he wouldn't be able to travel to Alabama to work with us. One morning, as I was sitting in a cafeteria wondering who would voice Ollie, Christian Bender walked in. I had taken an Acting class with Christian, and I knew he was incredibly talented—he could straddle the line between comedy and drama better than anyone else in the class. As I watched him walk through the door, I knew he would be our Ollie.
With animated films, there are two production options: use a lot of animators and get it done quickly, or use a smaller number of animators and be patient. Like the foolish student I was, I went into Drawn to Campus with the former strategy in mind. To stock our animation arsenal, I reached out to every single person I knew who could draw. I also printed out flyers and posted them all around campus:
After scouting all around, I wound up with a team of eleven animators, not including myself. I'll get to how that worked out later…
We shot the film's live-action footage in a single beautiful autumn day. We started at Alabama's iconic quad. William LeCroy, whom I had met at church, met up with us to play the film's "Guitar Player." We used a cardboard stand-in for Ollie as reference in each shot. With William and cardboard Ollie in place and Seth poised with the Canon C-200, the first shot was ready to go. I marched out into the shot with the slate.
"Scene 7A, Take One!"
I hustled back over to Seth and settled in behind the camera.
"OK, so…I wasn't rolling," he told me. "You've got to call 'Camera,' I'll say 'Speed,' and then get your AD to slate it."
I knew better than that…
But luckily my brain fart was the only hiccup of the day. William rocked the house as the Guitar Player. Patricia Girondi made us all blush with her wink as the Sexy Girl. Grips Jason Anthony and Savannah Colbert proved they were the surprise MVP's of the shoot. Assistant Director Jerry Lawrence III struck cardboard Ollie out of the shot about a hundred times. We wrapped early. It was an incredible day.
After shooting around campus, we made our way to the university studio in Reese-Phifer Hall, where we met Christian Bender. Instead of merely recording audio for Christian's performance as Ollie, we recorded it on video as well. This would serve as reference for the animators later. Additionally, instead of just having Christian record his lines individually, I wrote up a script depicting the interview of Ollie by the documentary's fictitious director, and Christian and I read through it together. I couldn't have been prouder of his performance. Some of the Director's lines made it into the final cut of the film as well.
The next step was for the film to be edited. Nathan Stephenson was a friend I had met through Seth, when we had attempted a podcast that would cover Disney animated films. Therefore, I knew he had good knowledge of animation, and since he also worked at the Center for Public Television with Seth, he too would have that perfect animator-documentarian balance that became the film's essence. Nathan did exactly what I wanted as editor—he brought to the film moments I never would have thought of myself. He didn't just follow the Drawn to Campus script—he improved it.
While Nathan was editing the film, I got Caleb Sokol started on the character design and cleanup of Ollie J. Thomas. Prior to this point, I had only a couple concept drawings of the character. I handed those off to Caleb, and he got started creating models for Ollie. The work he created was excellent. He took Ollie from a couple of drawings to a complete character. And I was touched by how eager he was to work on the character: it seemed every time I saw him, he had a new drawing to show me that he had done just for fun. Some of his model drawings are featured above.
Then the animation process began. Up to this point, everything had been smooth as butter. But it was about to hit the fan. As I mentioned, I made the rookie mistake of trying to assemble a team of many animators to get Drawn to Campus done fast. Big mistake. (Reminder that Alabama had no Animation degree program of any kind at this point.)
Caleb and I planned to co-host an animation "crash course" for our team. During this session, we would go over the story of the film, break down Ollie's character, refresh them on the animation process, go over the style guide for the film, and answer any questions they may have had. It was during this course that I quickly realized who would stay and who would go. The questionable bunch were on their phones the whole time. They never asked questions. One didn't even show up.
Not to my surprise, those who couldn't care less at the animation "crash course" didn't stay on the crew for long. Some I had to let go due to the unacceptable quality of their work. Some pulled out themselves, knowing they could never get it done. Some just never finished. This was my first lesson: you've got to make tough decisions in picking your crew. Ironically, I didn't follow what I touted as my #1 rule at the time: Only hire people more talented than yourself.
But despite the sad reality of the disappointing animators, the rest of the group was beyond satisfactory. One young woman was the antithesis of the slackers at our crash course. She asked great questions, seemed genuinely interested in the project, and appeared to have a dedication to quality. Her name was Joycelyn Fitts. She had reached out to me in response to one of the flyers I had hung. Her shots on the film included many of Ollie's interview shots.
Two animators weren't at the crash course at all, not because of their own negligence, but because they hadn't yet been brought on. One of them I still have yet to meet in person, as she worked completely remotely with us. Her name was Alyson Smith, and she had been recommended to me by a fellow Directing class student, Audrey Stephens (who had also recommended to me Patricia Girondi to play "Sexy Girl"). Alyson had sent me some impressive samples of her own animation work, and what stuck out to me the most about them was how good she was at animating expression. Therefore, I gave her many of Ollie's interview shots as well.
The other animator who wasn't at the crash course was my good friend Ethan Murray. Ethan is an extremely talented artist and animator, whom I had met through Seth. He's one of those people whose humble presence masks his immense talent. Ethan had been interested in the project, but we hadn't yet talked about it. Seth informed me of his interest, and I was happy to bring him onboard. Ethan's shots are some of my favorite of the film, including the scene where Ollie is too short to get the attention of a librarian, and the scene where Ollie can't get a professor's attention in a busy classroom.
But the true MVP of the film was Meredith Parks. As I mentioned, no one was more eager for the project than Meredith. Since I knew she was one of our most advanced animators, I first gave her all the shots where Ollie walks, including the scene where he's on the Quad, and the penultimate shot where he walks through the stunning campus building. As other animators dropped out or were let go, Meredith picked up the slack. She reached out to me frequently, asking if there was more work she could do. I was happy to give it to her, as I knew she would exceed my expectations. She did so every time. Her other shots include the scene where Ollie grooves with the Guitar Player on the Quad, and what is my absolute favorite shot in the film: where Ollie blushes after Sexy Girl winks at him.
The rest of the shots in the film I animated myself. We began with a team of eleven animators, not including myself, and finished with a team of five, including myself. I planned to have the film done by the end of the semester for my Directing class. Then, once I realized I'd have to be more patient, I planned on the end of the next semester. Animation wrapped in March of 2020, about the time when our campus was hit with a COVID-19-based lockdown. The film was being edited at the Center for Public Television on campus. When the lockdown hit, the film was "stuck" in the CPT, and Nathan had already moved back home. Luckily though, Seth was able to get the file from CPT for me, and I composited all the animation myself.
The number one thing I learned from Drawn to Campus was perseverance. As the number of animators dwindled and it felt like the project would never be completed, I wanted to give up. "It's only my first attempt," I would tell myself. "It can be a failure." But I kept reminding myself of all the people who had made Drawn to Campus. I thought of how excited Caleb was to have an Animation Director credit on his resume. I thought of how much faith Seth had had in the film at every stage of its production. I thought of Nathan's hours spent editing it at CPT. I thought of Shelby's leap of faith in taking on an animated project, when everything she had done before had been live-action. "I may hate the result," I said, "but these people deserve a finished film."
But ultimately I was not disappointed with Drawn to Campus. Instead, I was delighted by the finished product. The whole thing came together nicely, and I'm so glad I followed through. The film premiered on Novemeber 13th, 2020, in Fairhope, Alabama, as a part of Farihope Film Festival. Since then, it has shown at several festivals across the south and has won the Yellowhammer Award at Yellowhammer Film Festival.
The goal with Drawn to Campus, as with everything I create, is to make people happy. This world is filled with too much unpleasantness, and even film festivals, with hours upon hours of depressing or cynical content, can become difficult. Drawn to Campus is meant to be a break—where viewers can enjoy a sweet and simple film that tells an honest story well. Above all else, I hope it makes you smile.