Working at DreamWorks Animation studios in sunny Glendale, Calif., or remotely from their homes in the Hollywood hills, four University of Wisconsin-Stout alumni help to create some of the highest profile animated films and shows on the planet.
The School of Art and Design "Dream Team,” as game design and development-art Program Director Andrew Williams calls them, is Chris Grun, graphic design, 1995; Benjamin Pease, GDD, 2015; Margaret Rigotti, GDD, 2018; and Hue Vang, master’s in design, 2018.
“These were some of the most dedicated, talented and hard-working students from their cohorts,” Williams said. “They were a pleasure to work with and we are incredibly proud to see their names in the credits of so many DreamWorks projects.”
Chris Grun: Falling into the dream
As the field of animation surged in the early 1990s, with studios creating multimillion-dollar box office hits like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Whisper of the Heart,” graphic artists were in high demand, and Grun wanted to be part of it.
Growing up in Minnetonka, Minn., Grun drew x-wings and stormtroopers after seeing “Star Wars” in the theater. He attended Minneapolis College of Arts and Design for one year but needed something more affordable. He’d heard about UW-Stout, regarded as one of the best art schools in the Midwest, so he transferred to the graphic design program.
During his undergrad, Grun spent two summers at Sheridan College International School of Animation near Toronto. The experience pushed his drawing skills. “It opened my eyes to what was possible in entertainment. Animation was booming in those years and there were many jobs available all over the country,” he said.
Grun, who received an Outstanding Alumni award in 2016, enjoyed the camaraderie with other artists at UW-Stout, an experience he didn’t have at the other schools. His ability to forge lifelong friendships would serve him well, and he was hired soon after graduation. Unfortunately, the entertainment companies he worked for when starting his career went bankrupt.
“It’s a part of the industry they don’t really tell you about in school. Having the rug pulled out from under you can be daunting,” he said. “Keeping in contact with your school and work friends is the best way to keep a lifeline when things get rough. Those are the people who can lead you to another job or another industry.”
Grun joined DreamWorks as a matte painter in 2013, creating environments like the Capitol City in “The Hunger Games” and computer-generated dinosaurs in “Land of the Lost.” Now, as head of locations, he facilitates communication, environments and props through the studio departments. His favorite project so far is “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” released this past June.
“The director and production designer have given me a lot of leeway to fulfill my role as I see fit. It’s really given me the room to stretch my wings creatively at the studio,” said Grun, who received UW-Stout’s Outstanding Alumni Award in 2016.
He’s also thankful for his team and knows that having a dependable team is his means to success in the industry. “Your ability to get along with people will help more than you know,” he said.
With so many box office hits, Grun thinks what makes DreamWorks special is its sense of humor. Even during a pandemic, it helps people feel connected. “That always goes a long way in times of need. Nothing like a good belly laugh to bring your spirits up,” he said.
“Chris has been UW-Stout's number one advocate at DreamWorks,” Williams said. “He helped build our presence there and is an incredible resource for information on the animation industry. We are so appreciative he's kept us on his mind during his stellar career.”
Benjamin Pease: No two days are the same
Pease and his siblings loved the work of Aardman Animations, like the “Wallace and Gromit” shorts that inspired them to try their hand at stop-motion. When searching for colleges, his interests led him to UW-Stout’s GDD program, concentrating in art and minoring in computer science.
Pease’s interactive experiences in the program, especially his 3D Modeling course, helped prepare him for his career. “Our group projects required a decent amount of programming, and that helped to strengthen my skills and push me further toward my career,” he said.
Upon graduation, Pease, of Rochester, Minn., was focused on finding an art career in the game industry. But when a friend from high school reached out to let him know DreamWorks was hiring, he applied for an opening as technical director, supporting artists by developing and updating tools and troubleshooting software.
“I like that no two days are the same,” Pease said. “While we encounter some recurring tasks or problems in programming, most days bring fresh ones for us to tackle. Involving co-workers in discussions is helpful for both motivation and inspiration.”
Pease hopes incoming art and design students strive to excel in their major but take the time to diversify their skillset. “While you may love your major and want to do that for the rest of your life, you never know where life will take you, so be flexible,” he said.
Margaret Rigotti and Hue Vang: A ‘flash’ of inspiration
In 2013, Margaret Rigotti and Hue Vang were searching for a good game design program. When UW-Stout was named co-champion at E3 College Games Competition for the student-designed game Flash Frozen, they knew exactly where they wanted to earn their degrees.
Rigotti, of Sheboygan, and Vang, of Two Rivers, both graduated in 2018. And having grown up only 40 miles from each other, soon joined the DreamWorks team in Glendale.
Vang grew up appreciating the works of comic book artist Jim Lee, and filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki and Mokoto Shinkai. He would develop his own animations, comics and games to build his skillset in 2D and 3D art and dreamed of working on animated feature films.
“I really enjoy Shinkai’s personal story. After I saw his animated films, I followed in his steps to move on from a mundane day-job to pursue my dream as a professional artist,” Vang said. “The challenge was executing the plan to reach my goals because life is unpredictable.”
While showcasing his capstone game Everend at the SOAD Senior Show, Vang experienced one of those unpredictable moments that launched his career. He met Grun, who reached out to Vang when DreamWorks was seeking a matte painter, and his dream of being a professional artist came true.
As a matte painter, he creates 2D assets like skies, clouds, mountains, rocks and vegetation in films like “The Croods: A New Age” and “Spirit Riding Free.” He also created Barb’s map in “Trolls World Tour.”
“3D animation is a digitally and financially expensive process. So, instead of rendering the entire environment in 3D, areas that extend into the background are created to match the artistic style and overall feel for the sequence,” Vang said.
Rigotti’s introduction to DreamWorks was similar to Vang’s. Former SOAD Director Dave Beck connected her with Pease, and they talked about an open position for a technical director.
She grew up watching DreamWorks films like “How to Train Your Dragon” and had it in the back of her mind how amazing it would be to work there. “I liked the stories and the characters, but I was also interested in how computer animation worked. Then I realized that making these films was someone's job, and that sounded pretty fun.
“Ben was able to answer a lot of my questions and encouraged me to apply. It felt like a longshot at the time, but it wound up being a great fit for me,” she said.
As a technical director for movies like “Abominable,” Rigotti is the intermediary between artists and the research and design teams, designs artistic workflows, maintains studio tools and supports artists.
“The intersection of art and technology has always been interesting to me,” Rigotti added. “There's always new technology to learn and integrate. I enjoy the constant collaboration with artists and the fact that I get to do something different almost every day.”
The School of Art and Design offers seven fine arts programs and a Pre-Bachelor of Fine Arts program, which is the gateway for first-year students to a BFA degree and a way to discover if it’s right for them.