Tim McLaughlin ’90 ’94 speaks at a panel of successful Viz Lab graduates at SXSW 2019.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
The Viz Lab was established in 1988 to produce leaders in areas where art and science merge, with its corresponding academic program starting a year later. According to McLaughlin, the release of the digital effects-heavy “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “Toy Story” (1995) created a boon for the program.
“‘Toy Story’ was the first entirely computer-animated feature film,” McLaughlin said. “Both of those films demonstrated that the use of computer graphics in media—particularly high-profile, high-dollar media—was viable.” This created a massive demand in Hollywood for workers who felt comfortable navigating both the art and computing worlds—a demand that Viz Lab students were eager to meet.
The College of Architecture has recognized many of its notable alumni as Outstanding Former Students. But when asked about the Viz Lab’s crowning achievement, McLaughlin puts forward the space that enabled their creativity at Texas A&M. “The studio environment of our curriculum is the real success story,” he said.
Viz faculty encourage students to give and receive feedback on each others' projects, a habit that will be useful in any professional studio environment.
From their introductory courses to graduation, viz students must work together, communicate ideas, give constructive feedback and muster the drive to go back to the drawing board when their project’s first, second or 10th attempt fails. “Those are the most important things our students learn,” McLaughlin said. “Everything else is important, too, but those are the skills that get them through their careers and life.”
Walking the Line
The Viz Lab curriculum still emphasizes a tightrope balance between technical mastery and visual literacy. “There’s often a need for someone in the middle,” McLaughlin said. For students, learning how to tell stories through images is just as important as understanding the ins and outs of a 3D modeling program.
This hybrid focus on art and technology sets the Viz Lab apart from similar programs throughout the country, which tend to prepare students for specialized roles, such as character modeling, animating or rigging. Within the program’s philosophy, honing specific strengths is important, but knowing how to adopt changes in technology to effectively collaborate and lead a team is paramount.
A viz student interacts with a digital world using a virtual reality headset.
More than 136 Aggies have entered the film industry across more than 20 production studios; these individuals have been credited in more than 400 films. Those numbers don’t include the myriad viz grads who have found careers in areas outside of film, such as game design, graphic design, advertising and architecture.
Some of those former students have felt inspired to give back. Gracie Arenas Strittmatter ’04 ’08, who has used the skills she refined in the Viz Lab to work on titles for Electronic Arts, recently created an endowed scholarship for viz students with her husband, Willem ’02. Aggies at select studios, such as Disney, Pixar, Blue Sky and Electronic Arts, have also regularly funded annual pass-through scholarships for the next generation of Viz Kid leaders.
To learn how you can support the Department of Visualization and future "Viz Kids," contact Larry Zuber using the form below. You can also give to the department online.