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IUPUI alum waiting to see his latest 'Pixar' works: the forests of Scotland

Frank Tai is photographed on January 20, 2012 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)
Frank Tai is photographed on January 20, 2012 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar) (Left to right) Brave Sets Technical Directors Peter Roe, Annee Jonjai, Tom Wichitsripornkul and Frank Tai have a meeting in the main building atrium on May 21, 2012 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)
(Left to right) Brave Sets Technical Directors Peter Roe, Annee Jonjai, Tom Wichitsripornkul and Frank Tai have a meeting in the main building atrium on May 21, 2012 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

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June 18, 2012

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When the movie "Brave" opens in theaters nationwide Friday, June 22, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis alumnus Frank Tai will get his second look at the animated family film.
His first look at the Disney-Pixar 3-D production came during a private party on his job in California.

"Brave," set in Scotland, is the tale of the “heroic journey of Merida, a skilled archer and headstrong” princess who learns the true meaning of bravery after she “inadvertently unleashes chaos and fury in the kingdom ... forcing Merida to harness all her skills and resources ... to undo a beastly curse,” according to movie’s website.

As a sets modeler and dresser in Pixar's sets department, Tai's focus has been the movie's trees and forests. He and his co-workers at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif., about 11.5 miles from San Francisco, saw the completed work -- sets, sound, animation -- for the first time during the private company party.

“The movie turned out really good,” said Tai, whose mother, Wei Shiuan, happened to be visiting her son and was able to attend the company screening.

Tai is looking forward to seeing the new Pixar movie in a public theater.

"It is a different experience to watch a film with the general public," said Tai, a native of Taiwan who studied animation at IUPUI. “You get different feedback."

Tai, who came to the United States specifically to attend the School of Informatics at IUPUI, chose informatics as a career because it allows him to combine his computer skills and artistic abilities. He has been with Pixar for four years, joining the company after earning both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in media arts and science from the School of Informatics.

“I submitted my resume and demo reel while I was in graduate school in 2008," Tai said. "After a few phone interviews, I got a phone call from Pixar, and they told me that I was accepted into their 2008 Technical Director Resident program.

“Right after I graduated from school, I packed everything and drove all the way from Indiana to California. I remember I felt I was like entering Charlie’s Chocolate Factory when I first arrived at Pixar.”

Using 3-D computer software for the process he described as “digital sculpting,” Tai mostly worked on the exterior sets in the movie, creating the Scotland forest lands and exteriors of the castle.

Working from the numerous photos and videos taken by the movie’s art directors, producers and supervisors during visits to Scotland, Tai and Pixar’s other sets workers modeled a lot of trees, bushes and vegetation to create a digital set that looks like a forest.

“We tried to make people believe when they are watching the film that they are in Scotland as much as possible,” Tai said.

Tai’s work on his first Pixar assignment, creating sets for “Toy Story 3,” gave him a boost when the time for “Brave” came.

“I was very focused on vegetation modeling and set dressing on 'Toy Story 3.' The sets supervisor on 'Brave' like my work on 'Toy Story 3' and thought I would have a good eye for vegetation set dressing on 'Brave,'” he said.

"Frank’s work at Pixar is a continuing inspiration to all of the students in the School of Informatics," said Albert William, a research associate in Media Arts and Science in the school. "His work ethic combined with his talents helps students understand what it takes to succeed in the industry at a very high level. I continue to show his graduate stereoscopic animation project 'Paco' to students, and use it to let them know that they, too, can aspire to these levels of achievement.

"Frank takes time to provide direction and feedback to student portfolios, and we are all very proud to have Frank as an alumnus. I am very happy that Frank has worked on such groundbreaking animations, and I congratulate him on his many successes with Pixar.”

At IUPUI, Tai took all the 3-D computer animation courses offered in the School of Informatics, learning modeling, shading and lighting, and then how to animate. His graduate school studies and research focused on animation.

While he advises aspiring animators to develop  their computer skills, Tai also encourages them not to forget the importance of studying art as well,  pointing to the art classes he took at the IU Herron School of Art and Design. "Both computer science and art are equally important," Tai said.

Since a typical computer-animated film takes about four years to make, the job requires a great deal of passion, Tai said.

“You really have to be passionate about what you do, because people often feel quite frustrated when they don’t see any results in a short period of time," Tai said. "Filmmaking, especially computer-animated film, is an extremely slow process, and it (requires) a lot of determination and time.

"I think people have to really enjoy and understand the working process even more than the final results. Also we are working with computer technology every day, so it is very important that you keep up with the techniques.”

Tai is now at work on his third movie with Pixar, a prequel to "Monsters, Inc." The storyline traces the lives of the movie's monster characters before they get hired by Monsters, Inc.

“I can’t tell you what the story is about, but the title is already out: ‘Monster University,'" Tai said.