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CMU professor wins prize for five-year-long animation project

A portrait of CMU animation professor Steve Leeper.

The animation program at Central Michigan University is still young, but growing fast with the help of professors like Steve Leeper. 

With a background in animation both in teaching and creating, Leeper likes to incorporate a studio production style of animation into his classrooms. It was this style of teaching which led to the creation of his most recent project Fire Flower, which debuted at several animation festivals and even won a first place award. 

Leeper attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and it was there that he went from painting and drawing into animation work, specifically stop-motion. 

After graduating, Leeper began working as a freelancer in Chicago in 1990. Over eight years he worked several jobs for brands like Captain Crunch and Fruit of the Loom, building models and creating stop-motion in advertisements. 

“I really hit my stride in my commercial work through stop-motion and animating,” Leeper said. “There was a small market in Chicago for that.”

Most of his work as a freelancer was done with companies such as Sinnot and Associates, Star Toons, Cioni Artworks and Calabash Animation. 

In 1991, Leeper started working at Columbia where he wrote and designed a storyboard class with another professor in addition to his normal freelance work. This was not his first experience with teaching though. While he was still a student he taught a few night classes at Cambridge in Boston. But it wasn’t until Columbia when his teaching career really began.

Leeper worked at Columbia for seven years, mainly in storyboarding classes, teaching students the first steps to creating any story in animation. 

In 1998, Leeper left Columbia and freelance work to take a full time job at Big Idea Productions, where his main task was to organize workflow and keep production running smoothly. It wasn’t long before he began working on the animation, this time not as a stop-motion producer but as a 3D layout designer. 

In order to make the 3D models work properly, an animator first must design the layout from every perspective. Leeper both helped create and then implement the 3D Layout Department. The 3D Layout Department was first used on “Larryboy and the Rumor Weed” and after three years more of development was implemented in a full-length feature production, “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.”

Leeper worked at Big Picture Productions for five years, working mostly in 3D layout on various VeggieTales projects. 

Leeper left Big Picture Productions in 2003 and focused his career back onto teaching again. He helped to build the media department at Huntington University in Indiana, where he taught animation classes, including storyboarding.

It was at Huntington that the idea for Fire Flower was created, not by Leeper or any of his colleagues, but by a student. In a storyboard class in 2013, aimed at teaching students to brainstorm new ideas, a student named Kayla Mitchell presented Fire Flower, a dark but humorous one-minute story reel about four orphans, a nun and a defective robot. 

Leeper saw potential in the Fire Flower story, and with Mitchell he created classes focused on creating this stop-motion film. Leeper already preferred teaching his classes in a context that mirrors actual animation studios. 

“I like to think, how can we run this like a studio instead of a class?” Leeper said. “You only learn by doing.” 

The first class to tackle the project had 12 students in an advanced production studio, and they worked to finish the storyboard and created models for the stop motion. 

After that first class ended, the next class took its place in production, much like a real studio. Nearly 50 students have worked on the project, as well as other professors, alumni and Leeper's daughter Nikki, who is a puppet designer and model maker. 

Combining traditional stop-motion, computer graphics and hand-drawn effects, Fire Flower became a difficult and ambitious project. In five years, the teams produced six minutes of footage.

Among the more than 20 festivals Fire Flower appeared at were the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts festival in Grand Rapids, where Fire Flower won second place; the Oaxaca FilmFest in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it was a finalist and the Los Angeles Animation Festival, where it won first place.

“I’m making the classes that I wanted and didn’t get to take,” Leeper said. "I hope we can do something like this project here.”

Full class animation productions will begin at CMU in spring 2021.