By Rose L. Thayer / Photos by Lawrence Peart
For most college students, there is that one class or project that changes the scope of their career goals. Whether they learn they love something, or maybe don’t love what they imagined they would, these experiences are what define aspirations and inspire lifelong dedication to a craft.
For costume technology graduate student Delena Bradley, that project was creating functioning velociraptor hands.
“My game plan has widened,” she said. “It’s the ability to make something from scratch and use new ways to do it. I still love the idea of building a character with material, but now I’m realizing this doesn’t have to be as traditional.”
Bradley was part of an independent studies course last fall that designed and built three raptors for the Department of Theatre and Dance’s spring production of the play Enron. Part robot, part costume, the raptors help tell the true story of the fall of the Houston-based Enron Corporation.
“I can’t imagine any other place where this thing could happen,” said Bradley, adding that part of the reason she chose the University of Texas for her master’s degree was because of these out-of-the-box opportunities.
The 15 students in the course were taught by Karen Maness, a Department of Theatre and Dance lecturer and Texas Performing Arts scenic art supervisor, and J.E. Johnson, also a lecturer with the Department of Theatre and Dance and scenic studio supervisor for Texas Performing Arts. The students were split into teams, with some students, like Bradley, focused on the hands while others worked on lighting, the body, the skin or the legs.
“We are trying to stay out of the position of expert and let them be the experts,” Johnson said. Because of that, the final products ended up different than he imagined. “Honestly, that’s the goal, because then we know we’ve achieved our goal in that the students have truly come up with the work and not just followed directions. We had no idea we would use the materials we used, and it’s been a great series of surprises.”
The course functioned more like a design lab than a traditional college course. Each week, the students met for class in a repurposed storage space in the backstage area of Bass Concert Hall known as “The Hatchery.” The walls were lined with tools, drawings and progress timelines, leading to the big reveal at the end of the semester. Students were required to document their progress in a blog and commit 10 hours every week (though most did more) to prepare for their latest prototype, due each Monday.
“It’s critical for students to speak effectively about their work, intention, research methods and process,” said Maness. “The blog was created to develop these skills and position our students as artists and makers in the wider community. Connecting them with industry leaders and future employment is paramount among our objectives.”
Most weeks, a guest artist visited to share their work to inform and grow students’ concepts and ideas to further progress on the raptors. Doreen Lorenzo, assistant dean of the School of Design and Creative Technologies and design industry leader, met with students to discuss how to take a prototype to final product. Guest artists included costume professional Zoë Morsette, puppet and materials expert Joe Rial and Ben Bays, lecturer in the Moody College of Communications’ Department of Radio-Television-Film (RTF). Bays' expertise is in animation, motion graphics, concept art and CG models for a variety of media, including television, feature films and video games.
“When Karen told me about the raptor project, she was using the same vocabulary, the same ideas of iteration and development we use for games, for animation, for visual effects, but it was all so...REAL,” said Bays. “It immediately created this new angle on understanding something I was already familiar with. I had to know more.”
Though he mostly works on creating CGI and digital characters, Bays said meeting the students and hearing them discuss concepts to apply skin, create joints and optimize functionality on the raptors was like “hearing a dialect of your own language.”
“The students had this level of technical understanding that I had come to through digital media,” he said.
While Bays brought in techniques from RTF, the students in the class also brought skills from majors outside the College of Fine Arts, inspiring a truly collaborative process. Johnson and Maness said the only prerequisite for the class was 100 percent commitment to the project and having the hours available to do it.
“We wanted to show that if you put a bunch of committed UT students together with coaching, they are capable of great work,” Johnson said.
As part of the application process for the course, students were asked to describe something they had made that they were proud of. While Bradley submitted a donkey’s head she’d made for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—something somewhat related to raptor-building—second-year electrical engineering student Allegra Thomas touted a game design project from an embedded systems class. These are systems that are designed to do a specific task, so she and a classmate created a version of Donkey Kong and wired together a screen and joystick specifically for playing it.