Action-packed events: More than 350 students featured at Stout Game Expo May 1, SOAD Senior Show May 5

Animation seniors premiere short film, spy-thriller ‘The Castle Durchdenwald’ at Senior Show
"The Castle Durchdenwald" will be featured at the School of Art and Design Senior Show from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday, May 5. Scene shot contributed by Michael Heagle.
Abbey Goers | April 25, 2023

Secret agents, soldiers, sword fights, a castle infiltration – what more does one need in a four-minute animated short?

A group of four entertainment design and animation and digital media students at UW-Stout used cutting-edge technology in their senior animation capstone course to bring to life “The Castle Durchdenwald.”

The group’s short will be featured at the School of Art and Design Senior Show from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday, May 5. Capstone projects by nearly 120 graduating seniors will be on display throughout the Applied Arts Building and Micheels Hall.

'The Castle Durchdenwald' sword fight scene
"The Castle Durchdenwald" was created by John Leibbrandt, Ian Loos, Grace Swearingen and AJ Wampole. Scene shot contributed by Michael Heagle

Works include graphic design and interactive media; industrial and product design; interior design; a studio art exhibition in Gallery 209; and select animations by video production students, including “The Castel Durchdenweld” will be screened in Applied Arts room 210, on the biggest screen on campus. Screening will loop throughout the evening.

Stout Game Expo

Earlier in the week, about 250 students will display their games at western Wisconsin's largest game developers’ event. The Stout Game Expo, in its 13th year, will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. on Monday, May 1, in the Memorial Student Great Hall and ballrooms.

A tour of games, virtual reality and interactive experiences created by first-year to senior students in UW-Stout's two game design programs – B.F.A. in game design and development-art and B.S. in computer science game design concentration, as well as M.F.A. design games – will be on display.


The Stout Game Expo (SGX) invites you to our end of the semester game exhibition.
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“One of the biggest things that makes SGX unique is the presence of students of all levels,” said Associate Professor Seth Berrier. “Students that are early in their education can see and interact with the projects from a higher level and get inspired. There is a kind of implied mentorship in having all these games in the same place at the same time and the energy from that is exciting.”

Several awards will be presented at SGX, including an audience favorite and those recognized by a panel of professors for their unique qualities in gameplay as well as polish and visuals.

“The student games this year are some of the most ambitious projects we've seen and are an indication of how our students have bounced back from the effects of the pandemic. We are incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such talented students,” said game design interim Program Director Andrew Williams.

SGX has grown from a handful of students showing their games to their friends, to a biannual event which is eagerly anticipated by both the university and local community. The students dazzle the attendees with fresh ideas and new challenges in their games,” added computer science Program Director Diane Christie.

Infiltrating ‘The Castle Durchdenwald’

Like a James Bond movie, “The Castle Durchdenwald” starts right at the action and ends on a cliffhanger, said animation Program Director Michael Heagle.

“This group was really ambitious. They could have settled for something half the length, with a much easier story, but were dead set on producing the kind of imagery that could net them jobs as cinematic artists for the game industry or other animation and visual effects related work,” Heagle said.

School of Art & Design Senior Show

Capstone projects by approximately 100 graduating seniors will be on display, providing a chance to talk with the artists and designers.
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“The Castle Durchdenwald” co-creators are:

  • John Leibbrandt: entertainment design, Saukville
  • Ian Loos: animation and digital media, Winona, Minn.
  • Grace Swearingen: entertainment design, Andover, Minn.
  • AJ Wampole: animation and digital media, Mount Pleasant

“We wanted to tell an action-packed story by creating a semirealistic animation short,” Loos said. “Our short is a spoof/homage to James Bond and other spy films. It is meant to feel like a cold open of a spy action thriller with the main character sneaking past obstacles and unsuspecting enemies to gain critical intel in the hopes to stop the threat of global domination. It’s a simple job on its surface, but things are never as easy as they seem, and our hero soon finds himself in deep trouble.”

They’re compiling and rendering their animation in Unreal Engine 5, a cutting-edge game development platform, that offers real-time feedback, in tandem with Metahuman and performance capture animation, Heagle explained.

Students in the Motion Capture Studio
Loos, Leibbrandt and Wampole in the Motion Capture Studio / Michael Heagle

“Using this technology makes their project unique. Often, the final weeks of the semester are a rush to complete these projects, and what real-time rendering has done is to give them back their last couple of weeks of production. The entire four-minute project can be exported in full resolution in a couple of hours instead of a few days,” he said.

The challenge has been in developing their pipeline from script to screen, added Loos. “A lot goes into creating solid animation, and the unfortunate side of being on the cutting-edge of technology is that there isn’t a lot of documentation for how to achieve the goals in our project and figuring out how the heck can we harness this new tool and present our story on screen.”

Metahuman is a flexible platform of game-ready, realistic human characters that can be customized. The group used the Live Link Face app on their iPhones to record a 3D scan of their own facial animations and the likenesses of classmates to use directly as characters in the film. They used the app to load facial movements directly to their Metahumans, while simultaneously recording audio.

“We really had to overexaggerate our mouth movements while saying our lines to get our Metahumans to look like we were talking normally,” Leibbrandt said. “We spent many hours having to redo lines in order to get the best-looking animation and delivery.”

'The Castle Durchdenwald,' John and 'John'
Leibbrandt works on his Metahuman, ‘John,’ the hero of the story / Michael Heagle

Leibbrandt and Loos are both 3D animators and motion caption actors for the film. Their favorite part of the process was practicing and performing choreography for the sword fight, which acts as the climax of the short. They dueled with wooden dowels as people watched in the Sports and Fitness Center Multipurpose room.

With rehearsal over, it was then time to suit up for their character performance in UW-Stout's Motion Capture Studio. Using the Vicon system, keyframe animation and facial capture, they recorded the duel and other character sequences for animation. Loos thought this was the most rewarding part of the project.

“By the time Ian and I recorded the final take in the Motion Capture Studio, we had already broken six dowels,” Leibbrandt said, referring to their makeshift swords.

Leibbrandt gained more knowledge of animation workflows, how to clean up mocap data and apply it to rigs, setting up the Motion Capture Studio and acting in the mocap suits, he said.

“It's wild to see the students, albeit a little altered, in the computer performing in the scene,” Heagle added.

For 3D props, the group custom-designed much of their own and used stock assets from the Unreal Marketplace. Swearingen designed the spy gadgets used by the agent and modeled, textured and rigged two other gadgets.

“In Unreal Marketplace, we were able to find high quality assets to populate our sets that otherwise would have taken months to model ourselves and were able to focus our efforts on the more prominent props,” she said.

'The Castle Durchdenwald,' Grace in the computer lab
Swearingen works on the crest that holds the swords that figure into the final battle / Michael Heagle

Wampole was challenged when creating and animating a functioning grappling hook. “The animation wasn't that challenging; however, the skin weighting and rigging was both challenging and time consuming,” he said. “I like that I can do what I enjoy while getting my degree. I enjoy the creative process and the work that I'm creating.”

“When they want something more custom to show off on their portfolio, they scratch model things,” Heagle added. “Everything from ornate framed paintings to the secret agent's technological tools, such as a grappling hook, dart gun, safe-cracker and more.”

In addition to his cameo as an old soldier, Heagle created a spy-flavored soundtrack for the film. “Over the years of independent filmmaking, I got pretty good at churning out low-budget electronic scores,” he said. “This one takes a few cues from the 1960s James Bond scores by John Barry, including a fun spaghetti-western/surf guitar line typical of that genre.”

Loos enjoys collaborating to tell “compelling stories and create beautiful art. I certainly enjoy our story, and we hope that the spectators at the Senior Show feel the same,” he said.

The group will graduate on Saturday, May 6. They are looking for careers in the film and animation industry.

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