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CalArts gets its close-up

A series at MoMA holds up to the light the student works of the great and may-be-great.

May 21, 2006|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

New York — BEFORE he dreamed up "SpongeBob SquarePants," his character who would tickle the fancy of the nation's toddlers, Stephen Hillenburg was ruminating about Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

Hillenburg did that with animated figures also -- he imagined a fly on the steering wheel of a car whizzing down a surreal highway, the insect pondering a leap onto the driver's wristwatch, a play on Einstein's attempts to illustrate for average minds his pioneering understanding of how great speed would alter time and perception.

It's a safe bet that film and TV viewers of today would never guess that the seven-minute film on the bug-eyed fly in the speeding car, with actual physics formulas shooting across the screen, emerged from the same mind that produced the walking, talking "sponge unlike any other" who lives undersea in a pineapple and whose antics have gained an audience of 50 million since "SpongeBob's" debut on the Nickelodeon network in 1999.

That was six years after Hillenburg came up with his short film inspired by Einstein's theory -- called "Wormholes," though it has no worms -- as his master's thesis at the California Institute of the Arts. Hillenburg had entered the school as a marine biology teacher seeking a new career, one who "never really imagined running a TV show, certainly not a phenomenon like 'SpongeBob.' " He also could not have imagined that his 1993 student film would wind up being shown at the Museum of Modern Art here, something that will happen Thursday on the opening night of a MoMA film series spotlighting the early works of graduates of CalArts, the Valencia, Calif., school founded 45 years ago by Walt Disney.

Running through midAugust, the film series "Tomorrowland: CalArts in Moving Pictures" was organized by Joshua Siegel, the museum's assistant curator of film and media. He says he "read the resumes of filmmakers I respected and found they had something in common," namely links to the college for creative types north of Los Angeles.

Siegel became intrigued by the possibility of showing the student work of some of the figures who helped mold the visual popular culture of our times, whether it was Hillenburg or the founders of Pixar, the animation storytelling factory that had its own show at MoMA last year. Pixar visionary John Lasseter was the second student accepted into CalArts' animation program and began toying, while there, with bringing a desk lamp to life, an image that eventually was to become the symbol of the company behind "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc." "The Incredibles" and other hits.

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Pixar prominence

NOT surprisingly, entire nights of the MoMA series will be devoted to the "School of Pixar," with showings of the student films of Lasseter, Pete Docter and more than a dozen of their colleagues. Other programs are devoted to the early film experiments of future studio artists who studied at CalArts under John Baldessari, such as painter David Salle and Tony Oursler, who videotaped an ongoing "psychosexual soap opera" he staged with puppets in the CalArts cafeteria. CalArts alumni who went on to produce special effects for the "Star Wars" and "Spider-Man" movies also have their student films in the MoMA screenings, as do a couple of students destined for very different careers -- actors Ed Harris and Paul Reubens (then Paul Rubenfeld).

Part of the intrigue in those cases is seeing whether it's possible to draw a line from A to B, whether the student work foreshadowed the well-known films or other art each went on to produce. While Hillenburg's "SpongeBob" future may have been hard to predict, "Lasseter and the Pixar animators' talent at storytelling was quite evident," Siegel says.

But for others, their student films remain, to date, their claims to fame.

Brooke Keesling can boast of having both of her CalArts projects on the MoMA schedule. They are an oeuvre with a consistent worldview, each contrasting her girlhood fantasies with truths she learned later on. Her first student film was the two-minute "Meatclown," about her "love/hate relationship" with the mascot of the nation's most prominent hamburger chain. Produced by positioning puppets and shooting them one frame at a time, it uses a bouncy song to re-create Keesling's belief as a girl that hamburgers grew on trees, only to have the reality graphically present itself when Ronald McDonald's head spins around and turns into a meat grinder.

"I was traumatized by the truth of McDonald's," quips the ebullient dark comedienne, "but I still like cheeseburgers."

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Life lessons

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