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December 4, 2019

A Conversation with Emre Okten, 2019 Student Academy Award Winner 

By Jesus Alejandro Nuñez


Emre Okten is a cinematographer and animator working towards his MFA in Film and Television Production.On October 17th, Okten’s animated sci-fi short, Two, which tracks a robot named ‘2’ on an abandoned spaceship, was awarded the bronze medal for animation at the Student Academy Awards. Okten was born and raised in Turkey. His work merges his interests in technology and art, and his love of science fiction. 

How did you go about submitting “Two”, and what was the process like?
I never had a purpose to go to festivals with it or anything. I just wanted to make it. Throughout the semester I was just hoping to make something watchable because it was going to get screened at the minor thesis screening.I knew about the Student Academy Awards. Its free and it’s very easy to submit anyway. I submitted to a bunch of festivals. 

When you found out about the Student Academy Award, did you call friends first?
Yes, [because] my family is in Turkey. They were sleeping.


At your acceptance speech, you mentioned tight scheduling with your collaborators. 
Was this the biggest challenge in getting this project done?

Yeah, biggest challenge was time. Definitely time. I’m a production student, not an animation student. This was a side sort of a project for me, sort of low on priority throughout the semester. For production I do cinematography, so I was always shooting short films and thesis films and prepping for other stuff. And then when I had time, I was working on this, on the weekends. And then when the end of semester was close, that’s when I had to lock picture, give it to composers, and give it to sound design and just everything was late. I was late at giving it to them. They were late in doing their thing. But yeah, it all came together. 

What got you into animation? You studied computer science, was that the beginning?
Not really. In undergrad I did computer science and that’s where I sort of learned about the game engines, which is the software I used to make this animation. But I had never really done a film on it before. My undergrad thesis was a small videogame. So, I did that, then I came here. Here I took some animation classes as electives. I took two motion capture classes. I took a VR class, then I knew enough to make this movie.

Previous winners from Student Academy Awards in the animation category includes people like Pete Docter and Trey Parker. How does it feel to be named next to them? Does it feel a bit surreal?
I try to take it in stride because for all those names that we know there are hundreds of names that we don’t know. They also won the awards but it maybe helped them, maybe it didn’t help them. So, yeah it feels great but also, I know I’m not… it’s not a guarantee that it will do anything. Its always up to the filmmaker to follow up and do more things. But it is definitely helpful in a lot of things. Thanks to the Academy events you get to meet a lot of people. It’s a good step forward.

Did you look up to any previous winners?
Sure, I mean, I love Monster’s Inc. and whatever else Pete Docter has done. And I love South Park. And I got the award from Phil Lord and Chris Miller (directors of Cloudy with a Chance of MeatballsThe Lego MovieSpiderman: Into the Spider-Verse) and they’re pretty amazing.

Was that a bit surreal also? 
Yeah, sure. Chris Miller told me he loved the movie when giving me the award and yeah that’s a high point.

Do you have any other animation plans lined up or do you want to concentrate on cinematography?
I want to do both. Now we’re working on turning this short film to a series in the future. And I also have some live action cinematography that I have lined up.

On your website, your cinematography seems more prominent than animation. 
Do you find there is a lot of overlap between the two disciplines?

Absolutely, there is overlap. Animation movies also have cinematographers. It works a little bit differently in that they usually have two cinematographers, one for camera and one for lighting, because camera happens at the beginning of the movie and lighting happens at the end o the pipeline. But they are still directors of photography. They do amazing stuff with the camera and lighting. For this movie specifically, I used the technology they used in Lion King(2019) and Jungle Book(2016), with the motion capture and virtual camera. So, it also adds that bit of realism to the movie, where half of the movie the camera was animated and the second half of the movie, I was operating a camera.

So, it was more hands on?
Yeah, with the handheld stuff which we recorded off the motion capture stage. I really approached this movie using my cinematography background. I always thought of how I could tell it with the camera and lighting. 

Did you learn something new while making this movie? Something you didn’t expect? 
It feels like it would be easier in animation to tell the story because you have incredible amount of freedom and you can do really whatever you want.  But that’s also not a very good thing. Limitations are very useful. When you can put the camera absolutely anywhere and put your lights absolutely anywhere and design your sets however you like, it [can] make it harder. In live action, let’s say we are shooting in a motel room. That motel room gives you your limitations and really dictates how you would approach a scene. But in animation, in my workflow at least, because I was doing everything myself, I had absolutely a lot of freedom. And that sort of made things a little harder to put the movie into a structure visually and from a storytelling perspective. 

With this experience you’ve gathered and the recognition you’ve received, do you have any advice for people that want to get into animation or cinematography for animation?
Not that I’m incredibly accomplished in this area, but I feel like there are a lot of new technologies that are emerging, with live action and animation. I feel like live action cinematography will help a lot of cinematographers get into animation. And that’s something worth pursuing at the live action part. Just to be aware of these new technologies and how they will affect cinematography. That’s very important. So, just do your research.