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From M&Ms to ‘Jimmy Neutron,’ Union grad credits his profs

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–Kirby Atkins, a computer animator and 1991 graduate of Union University, once spent late nights in a van concentrating on making 3-D circles and basic images. A far cry from his humble beginnings as an art student, Atkins is responsible for giving life to the characters of the current box-office hit “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.”

Atkins is one of the chief computer animators for the movie that tells the story of Jimmy, a young genius who has to go to outer space to save all of the parents on planet Earth. A group of aliens, the Yokians, has abducted them, and it is up to Jimmy to rescue them. Dealing strictly with character animation, Atkins had the specific responsibility of matching audio to the mouths and movements of the characters. His finished product: a sci-fi cartoon family that critics give three stars.

Atkins made a big bang in the film industry right at the start with his work on M&M commercials and his animation for Fox’s TV cartoon family, “The P.J.’s.”

“I had fun working for Will Vinton Studios,” Atkins said. “Working with clay animation was an interesting learning experience.”

Although Atkins’ national recognition has been fairly recent with the opening of Jimmy Neutron, he showed potential for success during his early years on Union’s campus in Jackson, Tenn.

“Kirby had such a passion for computer animation and 3-D imaging,” said Cam Tracy, a 1993 Union graduate and currently the university’s web development agent. “I remember him staying up all hours of the night trying to figure out the Video Toaster, and his persistence paid off.”

One of only two art majors at the time in a program that was just beginning to grow, Atkins was mentored under David Burke, director of theatre and associate professor of communication arts, and Michael Mallard, department chair of art and associate professor of art. For a long time, Atkins said, he had been under the impression that art and Christianity could not work together, but Burke and Mallard believed the exact opposite and consequently showed Atkins that Christianity and art can be combined — a theory that was eagerly accepted by Atkins.

“Burke and Mallard have been my two biggest cheerleaders throughout my career,” Atkins said. “God used them to get me where I am today, and I am so thankful for that. They are committed to making fine art and honoring Christ in all they do.”

Atkins eventually mastered the Video Toaster and created a couple of films that helped him land his first job. With the support of Burke and Mallard, he and his wife, Priscilla, sold everything and moved to California with high hopes of success. In 1999, Atkins received the “Best Animated Shot” award at the Hollywood Film Festival for his short film, “MUTT.”

“I was so excited and proud for Kirby when he received that award,” Tracy said. “He shows incredible craftsmanship and passion in what he does.”

As a Christian in the film industry, Atkins said he prefers working in the secular field and using it as a ministry. The challenge for Christian artists, he said, is to get past making “junk.”

“We need to put out a better product,” Atkins said. “A Christian shouldn’t make art with the sole purpose to convert. The agenda should be to make art, not propaganda.” It’s only when Christians can compete on the highest level with the highest quality of work that their message will be heard, he said.

Atkins believes he demonstrates Christ to his fellow workers through his work ethic and lifestyle. However, Atkins noted there are more people who love Jesus who are in the industry than Christians outside the industry might think. He mentors a co-worker and fellow Christian every Tuesday morning before work.

“It’s nice to have a couple of Christian co-workers to share with,” Atkins said. He is also excited to have influenced one co-worker to move to Jackson and attend Union this fall.

Atkins currently resides in Dallas, Texas, with Priscilla and their two children, Leah, 4, and Caleb, 1. He hopes to move to Jackson, the place he calls home, in the near future. Until then, Atkins will continue to write screenplays and animate. He is currently writing a screenplay for Miramax titled, “Spooks.” The film will be a cartoon version of the all-time children’s favorite, “The Goonies.”

“Do your job and do it well,” Atkins said. “That’s one way that I can show Christ.”
Ginger Rowlett is a junior digital media studies major at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: ANIMATION GENIUS.

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  • Ginger Rowlett