Academy Award Dream

Former CAM student shares Oscar for "Frozen"

March 10, 2014

One year ago, Jeff Gipson watched the Academy Awards 2013 and thought to himself, “Wouldn’t it be great to work on a film that actually won one of those awards?”

This month, Gipson is posing for photographs with the Oscar for Animated Feature Film won by Walt Disney Animation for “Frozen.” It was the first film that Gipson, a former student in the College of Arts & Media  3D Graphics and Digital Animation program, had worked on since he arrived at Disney 12 months ago. But even though success came quickly for him, the long and winding journey to his current position could make a good plot for—well, a Disney animated feature film.

From Trinidad, Colo. to San Diego, CA

The son of a gunsmith father and musician mother, Gipson started as an aspiring artist and avid bicycle motocross (BMX) freestyle rider in Trinidad, Colo. He picked up two associate degrees at Trinidad State Junior College—one in civil engineering technology and one in science.  Then, he headed north to CU-Boulder, where he completed an undergraduate degree in architecture—the Bachelor of Environmental Design—in 2008.

Gipson’s interest in architecture started in Trinidad, where, as a high school student, he combined his love of art with his interest in skateboarding and BMX to design and build a skateboard park. Now, with an architecture degree under his belt, he moved to San Diego for a three-year stint with a company that designed and built skateboard parks, including parks across the United States, the largest skate park in northern Europe (in Denmark) and the skate plaza in the reality show “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory.”

From architecture to digital animation

By 2011, Gipson decided that he wanted to own his own company.  He returned to CU Denver for Colorado’s only graduate architecture program. It wasn’t long before he realized he had made a mistake.

“I liked creating pictures better than I liked designing,” he said. “When I first saw a movie like ‘Toy Story,’ I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”

Gipson credits two professors for helping him make a transition from studying architecture to digital animation. He first spoke with Fred Andreas, assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Planning. “He told me, ‘You have to trust your gut,’” Gipson said. “’You have to do what will make you happy.’”

Gipson then consulted with Howard Cook, MFA, director and assistant professor in the Digital Animation Center in the College of Arts & Media. “Howard is awesome,” Gipson said. “He reassured me that if I worked at it, I could be successful in animation. I wouldn’t have switched if he had not been so supportive.”

In digital animation, Gipson found his true love. “The labs and facilities at CU Denver are top notch,” Gipson said. “The environment is supportive. You are constantly encouraged.”

From trainee to teacher

While studying digital animation, Gipson snared several highly competitive internships at both Pixar Animation Studies, creator of blockbusters such as “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters, Inc.,” and Laika Entertainment, in Portland, Ore.  In fall 2012, he headed to The Ohio State University to teach digital animation, but his true ambition was to make films. “I decided to float my resume, just for the heck of it,” he said.

Gipson still remembers opening the email from Disney telling him he had been accepted into their trainee program. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, am I reading this right? Is this happening?’”

Today, Gipson is no longer a trainee. In fact, he is supervising and mentoring new trainees at the studio. His job on “Frozen” involved lighting. “We move and place lights in a 3-D scene,” he said. “We focus your eye, highlight the animation and make the final image. And we do it with computers.”

Students in the CU Denver digital animation program sometimes send him their demo reels. “I give them feedback,” Gipson said, “because so many people helped me by giving me feedback along the way.”