TYLER, TX (News Release) - When Steven Spielberg's new sci-fi adventure "Ready Player One" hits movie theaters this weekend, TJC computer-animation professor Justin Sullivan and his family will not only be there to enjoy the show, they'll be watching for some of Sullivan's artwork to appear on screen.
"I was a huge fan of the book by Ernest Cline and read it as soon as it came out in 2012," Sullivan said. "Then later, a friend in California told me Warner Bros. was looking for people to create digital extras for the movie, so of course I wanted to be a part of it."
He said TJC 2D art instructor Casey Callender is also active in the animation art industry, having worked with Marvel, Blizzard and other major studios on games such as Overwatch, which was the 2016 Game of the Year.
Digital extras are similar to background actors in live-action movies. They don't have speaking parts or any other role than to fill in the background of a scene.
Besides some technical specifications, Sullivan's only real rule for creating a digital extra for "Ready Player One" was that it couldn't be a character from the book. It had to be original.
Since the story pays homage to 1980s and '90s video games, he imagined his character in that genre.
"I have no idea where she will actually appear in the film; but in my mind, there was a scene where there was a dance party that she would fit into," he said. "OASIS is an entirely digital world where the film takes place, so you could be a monkey or a robot or anything. So, I thought about either someone who was older and wanted to be young again or someone who's young but is a fan of the '80s, and what would she do?"
So, he imagined this character and created a backstory for her.
He points out the details of the character on his computer screen, "Hearts are her thing; plus she has brightly colored high-top sneakers, heart-shaped kneepads, a Walkman and headphones, a backpack that doubles as a jetpack, speakers that can blast, Ray-Ban sunglasses, a Swatch watch and Punky Brewster-style bracelets. I just had fun creating her."
Sullivan has been a 3D modeling and animation professor in Tyler Junior College's game development and simulation program since 2012, but the road from his hometown of Longview to landing a job TJC was a bit longer and more traveled.
"When I was young, we lived all over East Texas and then we moved to the west coast," he said. "I spent a very long time out on the west coast and got into technology."
Like many kids who came of age in the early days of personal computers, he spent a lot of time creating digital characters.
"When I was really little, I made games and little wizards on my Apple II, and it was really difficult because you had to write code to create them," he said. As he grew up, animation technology advanced and writing code was replaced by a mouse, colors, paintbrushes and other functions that allowed for more creativity.
His interest in computer animation continued to grow as he headed to college. He attended Snow College and Glendale Community College before transferring to Arizona State University.
"When I was in college, there was no degree for game simulation like we have here at TJC," he said. "I started out in engineering for my first semester and took a computer class and loved it, so I switched to computer science."
One of his computer science professors immediately picked up on his talent for artwork.
"We were creating and programming a card game and my professor was telling me things like 'Your coding and computer card game is terrible, but your artwork is really good.' My playing cards actually looked like playing cards," he remembered.
With that, the professor encouraged Sullivan toward what turned out to be his degree program, which was a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, with concentrations on digital sound, video editing, computer graphics and interactive design/performances, all of which put him on track to his career in computer animation.
After college, he immediately got a job as a certified instructor and consultant at Autodesk, a 3D design, engineering and entertainment software company.
"I was at Autodesk from 1999 to 2007, and the great thing about that job was the variety of the work," he said. "I could be working at Learjet for two weeks, and then at Iostar doing space transport recovery for two weeks, and then pool filter animations, architectural simulations, and so forth. It was great because it kept it interesting and fresh, plus I was able to stay current on the latest software."
Along the way, technology advanced again and he recognized early on that Apple's touch-screen iPhone was the wave of the future. He became one of the first iPhone app developers, creating Preschool Adventure, a game for small children.
"When I first pitched the idea of a game for kids for iPhone, the woman at Apple asked me why, since kids didn't have phones," he said. "Then I explained that, as a dad of small kids, it would be a great way to keep them entertained in the waiting room at doctor's offices, in line at the grocery store and things like that. Then, she said, 'You're going to make a lot of money.'"
She was right. Sales of Preschool Adventure and his second app, Bumblebee Touchbook, were so strong that Sullivan became a full-time freelance app developer.
The change also allowed him to work from anywhere, so he and his family moved back to East Texas to be closer to his parents.
He still had a passion for learning and wanted to teach; so, when he moved to Tyler, he visited TJC and there happened to be a job open in the game development and simulation department.
"It's been a great fit," he said. "If I could just be a student forever, I would; but as a teacher, you still kind of get to do that. I get to stay on the forefront of technology and teach students about it.
"We're one of the newer programs at TJC and it's one of the more difficult degrees. Students hear 'game development' and think it's an easy major, but they quickly learn that playing video games and creating video games are two completely different things.
"To make a video game, you have to be creative and a writer and know grammar, and you have to know programming and math and visual/spatial awareness. And you have to be able to build 3D worlds and see things in three dimensions and also do 2D art. It's an insane culmination of so many skills."
The TJC program offers two separate tracks for an Associate of Applied Science in graphics or programming, but he said, "In the first semester, we give a broad spectrum so students can get a good idea of where their talents lie.
"I like that because when I was in school, I didn't know. Now, at least there's a degree and a plan they can follow and I'm glad to be able to help them find their way the same way my professors helped me when I was in college."