Isaiah Powers, Jeremy Casper and Stuart Bury were just excited their Kansas City college offered an animation program. They never really expected they'd come to Hollywood to meet with their filmmaking idols, much less to do it as Student Academy Award winners.
But that's what happened to the Kansas City Art Institute graduates, who won a silver medal and a $3,000 grant Saturday for their six-minute, stop-motion film, "Dried Up."
They were among 13 students from across the country who were treated to a week full of meetings and fancy meals with some of the film industry's finest as guests of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and winners of the 37th annual Student Academy Awards.
"This opens up so many more opportunities," said Casper, 27, who graduated last year and is working as a freelance artist in Kansas City. "I feel like we have some weight to knock on some doors."
"It's almost like you're accredited," added Bury, 22, who has been making animated e-cards as an intern at Hallmark since he graduated last month.
The Student Academy Awards recognize films in documentary, narrative, animation and alternative categories with medals and grants.
Spike Lee, Robert Zemeckis, Pixar chief John Lasseter, "Up" director Pete Docter and "South Park" creator Trey Parker all won the honor at the start of their careers. Winners of Student Academy Awards have gone on to earn 40 Oscar nominations and seven statuettes, including the won Docter won for "Up" in March.
This year's winners came from as far as the United Kingdom and as close as the University of Southern California. All stayed at a Hollywood hotel and were shuttled to meetings at the Writers Guild, Directors Guild and the American Society of Cinematographers. They dined with the academy's governors and watched each other's work at its famous theater.
Casper said meeting successful filmmakers helped demystify the profession.
"They go through the same struggles that we do when we make a film. They're talking about the same things," he said. "(Now) we don't have to put them up on this untouchable pedestal."
Academy president Tom Sherak told the students the film community welcomes them.
"We're excited for the work you've done," he said. "We're excited for your futures. You are the next generation."
After three days of meetings, the students learned whether they'd won gold, silver or bronze medals, and the corresponding $5,000, $3,000 or $2,000 grants, at Saturday's ceremony. Directors Penelope Spheeris and Henry Selick, and actor Jeremy Renner presented the prizes.
"I would like to thank the academy - and I've always wanted to thank the academy," said Tanel Toom of the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England, as he accepted the honorary foreign film award for his 25-minute narrative film, "The Confession."
Ruth Fertig, who won the gold medal for her documentary, "Yizkor," said the award gave her faith to move forward as a filmmaker.
"I graduated feeling very uncertain as to whether I could continue to make my own films or whether I would go back to working on other people's films," she said. "What this does is make me feel very empowered in my own right as an independent documentary filmmaker, that I can, I should go on to find projects that I want to direct and produce and I should try to get them produced.
"This award makes that, I think, more possible."
Casper, Powers and Bury say they ultimately hope to make animated movies together. For now, though, they're excited about the next step.
"It's still a ton of work ahead, but this is definitely a good stepping stone," Powers said.
Added Casper: "We've got to go home and think about this for a while."
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