The Shrunkenheadman club immediately stands out from the others at San Jose State University (SJSU): spend any amount of time walking around downtown and you’re bound to spot their eye-catching logo—a warped human skull—on T-shirts, backpacks, and the bottom of skate decks. At nearly 500 members, Shrunkenheadman is the largest student-run club on campus. The most remarkable thing about the club is the passion, boldness, and dedication of its members. These artists and storytellers know that the animation industry is a difficult one to break into, yet they’ve banded together to pursue their dreams and help each other along the way.
The club was formed in 1995 to support the animation and illustration degree program and provide students with support and networking opportunities. The name, Shrunkenheadman, was inspired by a sketch from one of its early members, Dave Gustlin, but the logo was born when paint spilled on a stool and dried into an odd skull shape. “We still have that stool,” says Megan Jacobi, the club’s librarian.
“Everybody wants it.”
In addition to standing out and being creative, the name holds a lot of meaning for the group. “It reminds us all to stay humble. This is a small industry, and your reputation is everything. We never want to let success get to our heads,” explains club president Raymundo Mendoza Landa.
Shrunkenheadman has plenty of success stories to brag about: several of its past members have gone on to work for companies like Pixar, Disney, Nickelodeon, and Warner Brothers. No matter how impressive the company, though, alumni members hold true to the club’s values and pay respect to their humble roots by sneaking Easter eggs into feature films. Marie Dal Porto, the club’s social media coordinator, shares a few examples, “You’ll see the number 218 show up in movies a lot; that’s the classroom the club started in. The track in The Incredibles is the Spartan track. There are Easter eggs and secret messages about Shrunkenheadman in some of our favorite movies.”
Animation has grown tremendously over the last few decades, with feature films now costing millions of dollars to create and involving the talents of hundreds of individuals. “Most people don’t realize how difficult it is to create an animated film. It’s harder than it looks. The skills needed have grown so specialized, and it’s nearly impossible for one person to learn how to do everything on their own,” says Landa. Students in the animation and illustration program at SJSU study things one might expect, like figure drawing and 3D animation, but also some that are more surprising, like physics.
“You need to understand how things really move,” says Jacobi. “But ironically, you also need to know how and what to exaggerate to make it look more natural.” This understanding of movement and emotion has protected animators from technological advances like motion capture, where the performances of real human actors are mapped onto computer-generated characters. Even though every movement and facial expression is rendered onto the character, animators are still brought in afterward to touch up the character’s movements and
add more feeling.
Despite the rapid growth of the animation industry, job opportunities are rare and the competition is intense. The club’s members are not naive or overly optimistic; they’re well aware of the challenges that await them once they graduate, but they remain undeterred. Shrunkenheadman brings in artists from companies like Disney, Pixar, Blizzard, Playstation, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon each month to share their experiences, give advice, and provide insight into the industry. “I’ve learned a lot from my classes and the experts we’ve brought in, but I’ve also learned a lot by being a club officer,” recounts Landa. “This industry is all about communication and collaboration, and we practice that every day.”
With virtual reality, augmented reality, holograms, and other technologies on the horizon, animation will continue to evolve, and animators will need to adapt to survive. While the formats may change, animation at its essence is storytelling. And while humans have been narrating through images for thousands of years, stories continue to captivate and inspire us. It’s safe to say that the storyteller will always have a special place in our society—as long as they don’t let it go to their head.
Written by Daniel Codella
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 10.3 “Profiles”
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