What does an Oscar-winner, a Dora the Explorer game-creator, and a Visual Effects Compositor have in common? They all began their path to creative discovery in the Electronic Arts Program at Missouri State University. The Electronic Arts (EA) Program, spearheaded by three distinct academic departments – Music; Art + Design; and Media, Journalism, and Film – produces students who are successful collaborators, experimenters, investigators, communicators, and storytellers. The program began as a proposed wish from “folks in Branson who expressed an interest in students having advanced technical skills for the Branson area,” says Mark Biggs, recently retired Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Associate Professor in the EA Program. Years passed, and it has transformed from an audio-centered program to a rare, interdisciplinary hub of advanced technical and creative skills with one centralized goal: storytelling.
“Students in the program are getting a skillset that draws on four areas (audio, computer animation, interactive new media, and video studies) and beyond,” says Twibell, it’s “not training you to do one specific thing.” With collaboration at the forefront of nearly every assignment and project, students must have skills beyond a single, selected discipline as well as the marriage between motivation and passion to learn beyond what they’re comfortable studying. Joy Millana, Assistant Professor in the EA program, with fifteen years prior experience producing and directing, cites the collaborative aspect to be one of the most important things incoming and/or current students should know about the program. Millana also states that “understanding and having first-hand experience with the hierarchy of the work pipeline, while collaborating between disciplines of all departments and stages of executing a successful project” is one of the main features students gain from the program.
The individuals who make up this faculty are also unique in that they are gleaned from multiple departments. Not only are they dedicated to mentoring students, but they’re also professionals in their respective fields. According to the Missouri State’s website on the program, the “EA faculty are professionals – they’ve worked and continue to work as filmmakers, screenwriters, animators, audio engineers, new media design artists, and music composers.” The professors are teaching from experience, not only past experience, but also present; therefore, they remain extremely aware of the current, ever-changing status of the fields they teach.
One of the most valuable elements of the EA Program is the senior thesis project completed over students’ last year in the program, which is designed to produce professional-level work using the skills honed in their studies. The process of the senior thesis is also helpful to students. “In other similar programs,” says Millana, “Students who collaborate on other students’ projects are most-likely unable to count it as their own senior thesis.”
By allowing all students involved to collaborate, they are more apt to fully contribute to alongside their peers seeing as they don’t have to create another external senior thesis individually. Students complete continuous, collaboration-centered projects with their classmates to determine who they would like to work with and at the end of junior year, “everyone pitches at least one potential thesis project, and teams are formed and cemented” for the next academic year, says Twibell. This original work is presented at the Electronic Arts Showcase the final semester before graduation, used for portfolios for job applications, as well as submitted to film festivals nationally and internationally. The overarching goal of these senior projects is for students to tell a story that they care about and be able to share with audiences in hopes of emotional, thoughtful engagement. These projects range from animations, interactive websites, apps, music videos, concept albums, dramatic films, interactive installations, or – for the first time ever, this year – a podcast.
This past year, the EA Showcase presented six very different projects to the Missouri State and Springfield communities. Cult for a Day was a short dramatic comedy, Fractal: What if It’s Poison was an experimental narrative film, Emotion Machine was a psychedelic concept album – the first of its kind in the EA Program, Regional Rhythms was an audio project showcasing music from the Midwest, Ouroborus explored artificial intelligence therapy and was the first narrative podcast that had been produced in the EA Program’s history, and Recoiled was a short animation showing the beauty of sisters and the value of being yourself in a world where you are told to constantly conform. The students worked incredibly hard to bring these projects to completion and share the stories most valuable to them to an audience beyond the classroom.
The list of successful alumni is rather extensive and speaks for itself regarding not only the impact of the EA Program, but also its success. Students are accomplishing things; “all the way from winning an Oscar to being gainfully employed,” says Biggs, but the true accomplishment is in telling stories that truly mean something.
To see the complete list of awards received and festivals attended by EA students, visit here.
EA alumni have helped produce two student Emmy Award winning series, presented screen work at SIGGRAPH and Cannes (and over 100 other) national and international film festivals, and twice won the Best of Fest video award at the Broadcast Education Association’s Festival of Media Arts in Las Vegas. Altogether, since 2001, they have “won over 400 international, national and regional awards for their work,” according to Biggs. The work created by Missouri State EA students is seen worldwide.
Some of the places EA alumni are currently working:
- Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago in film
- San Francisco, Chicago, and Kansas City in multimedia and web design
- St. Louis in game design
- Nashville and Austin in recording studios
- Los Angeles and Tallahassee in television production
- Singapore, North Carolina, and San Francisco in 3-D animation
- Los Angeles and Beijing in sound design for film
One of the most notable alumni coming out of the EA Program is Gloria Cohen Shomo, who first came to Missouri State to study audio and found her passion in producing. “At MSU I learned that regardless of my background,” says Shomo in a previous Missouri State blog, “I would get where I wanted to go if I was willing to work hard to grow and learn.” The motivation to learn, the challenging program she was involved in, and her knowledgeable professors would come to fruition in her many, impressive accolades. Following graduation, she then moved to LA, “interned on Alice in Wonderland, was offered a job with Rhythm and Hues (the biggest visual effects house in America at the time), worked on Moneyball and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters among other films, and was the Oscar-winning visual effects coordinator for Life of Pi,” says Biggs.
The EA Program is where students discover the love they have for their field and determine how to channel that love into creating emotion-driven stories that can be communicated to audiences. “It was in college that I found my love for technology and film,” says Shomo, “And I grew by leaps and bounds because of a well-rounded program and professors who encourage creativity.” When students take full advantage of the rich, collaborative opportunities the EA Program has to offer, there is no dream that is beyond their abilities.
Desmond Dornak is yet another accomplished alumnus of the EA Program, currently freelancing as a content creator. He works in the fields of animation, video, photography, and/or a combination of the three promoting local businesses and more. He also communicates the value of electronic arts to younger generations by teaching animation to fifth and sixth graders in the Nixa School District.
Apart from valuable technical skills, the EA Program is also a place where friendships begin and thrive. “The team members I worked so closely with during my EA projects are now the absolute best friends I made in college,” says Dornak, “And we still keep in touch on a regular basis.” These friendships have even led to employment opportunities. “One friendship has led to some great work with Reckless Abandonment Pictures,” says Dornak, “I had the opportunity to do some animation for Thomas the Train and DreamWorks’ Trolls.” Get a behind the scenes look at the making of the Trolls animation here. Dornak attributes the personal growth and professional success of the EA program to be the fact that it’s designed to nudge students beyond their predetermined comfort zones. Deadlines are tough and teams “don’t always have the ‘right people’ for the job,” says Dornak, “Animators are forced to run a camera or film majors have to record a song.” Through these fast-paced learning curves, students quickly discover the value of creative problem-solving, great communication skills, and inevitably, trial and error. Students uncover intuitive skills they didn’t know they had and gain appreciation for fellow classmates who have different talents. Dornak agrees, “I believe we emerge from EA as more adept, well-rounded, and understanding individuals.”
Josh Pfaff is a hometown hero who kept his talents in Springfield upon graduating from the EA Program. His senior thesis project, the short film Counting to 1,000, won a Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Award, an Award of Excellence at the Best Shorts Competition, and has also been screened at numerous film festivals. The leading actress in his film would go on to star in Pacific Rim 2 and contributed to the hype of Counting to 1,000 by mentioning the film in her interview with Variety, a leader in entertainment news. Pfaff has since joined Lock + Stache, a video production company founded by fellow Missouri State Alumni, Austin Elliot and Chris Olson.
Matt Raithel has made big waves in the field of game development since graduating from the EA Program. Also staying in Springfield upon graduation, “he was one of eight original employees at Black Lantern Studios,” according to a previous Missouri State blog, “A game development company that has had continued success.” Just two years after its start, Nickelodeon approached them to create a Dora the Explorer game. They executed it in a nearly impossible timeframe – “among the fastest builds ever heard of in the industry.” Raithel has also created and produced educational games and apps for Disney and Hasbro. Upon returning to St. Louis, Raithel, still connected to Black Lantern, opened Graphite Lab, another game development company. Notably, he developed an app, “My Little Pony: Party of One,” “which reached the No.1 ranking in 73 countries and sold more than one million downloads” in one week.
Hillary Huong Vu found her ideal career path through the EA Program, receiving inspiration and experience via the short film, Liven, she and her classmates produced as their senior thesis. “It was my first short film and I was in charge of producing the VFX (visual effects),” says Huong Vu, “It motivated me to get into the VFX industry.” Currently, she is a Visual Effects Compositor, working with feature films and TV series, as well as an independent motion designer. “These two jobs are quite different, but I like them both,” says Huong Vu, “I take ownership of and execute projects, outlining the initial creative vision, creating storyboards, and providing revisions after receiving client’s briefs.” Using special effects and CGI skills initially homed in the EA Program, Huong Vu has worked with impressive clients such as BBC, Ihop, Enactus, and Andy’s Frozen Custard.
Apart from these vital technical skills, Huong Vu cites the relationships she was able to foster from the collaborative nature of the program as well as the emphasis put upon storytelling as what truly prepared her for life after college. “The opportunity to work with other classmates who were specializing in different areas gave me a hint of real industry work,” she says, “Working in a big group can be frustrating, but I remember feeling excited to work with my classmates who brought to the table their unique strengths and talents.” Learning how to give and take through communication and active listening is not perfected overnight, and the EA Program makes a point to begin this process of healthy collaboration as soon as students enter. The collaboration stemming from the four different departments portrays how the industry normally works. EA students graduate valuing teamwork, storytelling, hard work, and of course their respective creative and technical endeavors.
Huong Vu also learned the necessity of storytelling through her years in the EA Program. “Before I joined the program, I didn’t have any idea of what storytelling was and its importance,” she says, “But after joining the program, I understood that creating something cool isn’t enough. From animation to live action, no matter what project you are working on storytelling is the key. Everyone can be a storyteller.” Each student collaborating – whether it be on a senior thesis or a simple in-class project – has their own story to tell and the privilege to be able to use their technical skills to tell it.
The Electronic Arts Program celebrates the unique marriage between audio, filmmaking, interactive media, and animation, a rare interdisciplinary feat to experience in a collegiate setting. The program “is still unique even though its 20-years-old,” agrees Biggs. Learning and working in the EA Program allows students the freedom to use their voices to tell their own stories, all the while experiencing the creative collaboration that comes with sharing these stories with classmates and professors. Upon graduation, EA students are multifaceted individuals with a wide variety of technical and creative skills who know the value of working with others to create something that transcends storytelling. “The work they are doing is so innovative and inspiring,” agrees Twibell. Despite the prominent awards, the abundant film festival admissions, and the star-studded list of alumni, the most notable merit the EA Program has to offer is a community of artists, professors, and thinkers who desire to push themselves beyond the norm and create something that matters.
Awards and prestigious recognition from recent EA senior thesis projects are as follows:
- From the Missouri Broadcast Education Association Student Competition:
- Best of Festival in student screenwriting
- 2nd Place for a dramatic script
- Finalist, Carolina Film Festival
- Shortlist (Top 50 short films), Short Film Festival on Cultural Diversity and Peace (Dhaka University Film Society/ActionAid Bangladesh)
- Official Selection at:
- Silicon Valley African Film Festival
- Breckenridge Film Festival
- Supernova Digital Animation Festival
- John’s International Women’s Film Festival
- Animation Chico Film Festival
- Louis International Film Festival (Academy Award-qualifier)
- Anim!Arte: The International Animation Festival of Brazil
- Naples International Film Festival
- Best Diaspora Animation, Silicon Valley African Film Festival
Cult for a Day (2019)
- 3rd Place for short script from the Broadcast Education Association National Festival of Media Arts
- Official Selection at:
- European Cinefest Golden Nika
- Key West Film Festival
- Semi-Finalist, Los Angeles Cinefest
Fractal: What if It’s Poison? (2019)
- Official Selection, European Cinefest Golden Nika
- From the Broadcast Education Association National Festival of Media Arts:
- Best of Festival in student audio competition and multimedia sound design
- Award of Excellence in a narrative film
- From the Missouri Broadcast Education Association Student Competition
- 1st Place for an intermediate film
- 2nd Place for a commercial
- Platinum Remi Award for college level cinematography from the 52nd Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film & Video Festival
- Official Selection at:
- Hollywood Verse Film Awards
- Golden Door International Film Festival
- Orlando Film Festival
- Focus International Film Festival
- Award of Excellence for a narrative film from the Broadcast Education Association National Festival of Media Arts
- 2nd Place for an intermediate film from the Missouri Broadcast Education Association Student Competition