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Scene and Be Seen: Collin Graduate Works on Free Birds
Collin Graduate Works on Free Birds
Julie Schmalzreid Barrett
Julie Schmalzreid Barrett is a member of the in crowd. Long before the animated movie “Free Birds” hit the theatres, she watched each scene unfold, frame by frame. A production service technician for Reel FX, she was privy to every detail, while the rest of the world waited. The best part for Barrett is that the closing credits of this recent film mark a bright beginning.

“Working on the movie was awesome. It was one of my dreams. My name is now on the credits for life. I can cross it off my bucket list. Not everyone can say that,” Barrett said.

Barrett describes the Dallas premiere of “Free Birds” as surreal. There was a red carpet and the whole Dallas-based company attended. The film also had an L.A. premiere attended by actors Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, the voices of two of the main characters of the film, Reggie and Jake, respectively.

“Owen and Woody were at the studio. If they talked to us, we were allowed to talk to them. I never saw Owen, but he was here sometimes. One day, Woody was in the office. I passed him in the hallway, and we exchanged hellos. I worked every Saturday up to that point. Usually it was the lighters and me, but that Saturday everybody was there,” she said, laughing.

Behind the Scenes

Barrett is part of Reel FX’s in-house render farm team. According to Barrett, artists submit frames to be rendered, converting computer data into images.

“Think of a camera,” Barrett explains. “In animation, every single image you see is a render. Typically, there are 24-30 frames per second. It goes by so fast that it looks like it is moving, but we see it one by one by one,” Barrett said.

She goes on to clarify that images are rendered in a process called layering.

“First you have the background, then trees, then a shack and finally characters. When I look at a render I just see a shack or the trees. I never see the shots together,” she said.

Bursting onto the Scene

Barrett has been creating things for as long as she can remember. When other children were reading fiction, she was turning the pages of drawing and animation books. As a young girl, she enjoyed making her own toys from recycled objects. Much to her father’s chagrin, she entertained herself by drawing and painting on the good boxes at his tuxedo store, but her creativity paid off in college.

Barrett earned an associate degree in animation from Collin College in 2008 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in arts and technology from The University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) in 2012.

“I was challenged at Collin. One of the cool things about Collin was learning from professors Tom Ottinger and Marshall Pittman. They have experience and are passionate about helping students grow. I learned animation and modeling, so when I started at UT Dallas I was already at an advanced level,” she said.

At Collin, Barrett’s first big project was an animated, three-minute short film, called “Weepules” about cotton balls with feet that were trying to get off the top of a computer monitor. She took a modeling class but did not know how to light, render or animate yet. Her professor, Marshall Pittman, asked the students to present storyboards about their ideas.

“He didn’t tell us how he wanted us to present our storyboards. I started drawing and ended up with about 150 note cards. People were pulling out notebook paper, and I cringed, but he told me the note cards were awesome. He rearranged them and showed different options. It made me feel good. I completed the project in four months.”

To accomplish the task, Barrett worked many long hours. She laughs as she recalls one of her most frustrating challenges—keeping the fur on her characters. The computer continually rendered the fur in one place and her characters’ bodies in another place.

As a Collin student, Barrett had many networking opportunities. She joined A Bunch of Short Guys and was a volunteer for Industry Giants for two consecutive years. She makes a point to stay in touch with the people she met years ago.

Julie Schmalzreid Barrett
Setting the Scene for the Future

Barrett says her favorite scene in “Free Birds” is the vortex scene, complete with lightning, when the main characters go into an egg time machine run by artificial intelligence software with the voice of Star Trek’s George Takei.

“It is a great scene that shows the amazing talent of all departments from animation to lighting to visual effects. One of the things I love about this industry is the people. They are amazing to work with and so talented,” she said.

It is unmistakable. When Barrett arrives on the scene, things happen. She commands the elements, and the shots line up in order. With her current situation under control, this animation professional can envision a promising future in which she will continue to hone her skills and learn new things.

“You have to grow. This industry is always changing. I like that because it is exciting. It is never the same job. You are always energized and doing something different,” she said.

For more information about communication design and animation, visit www.collin.edu/academics/programs/CommDesign_Animation.html .