[UTA Magazine]


Creative genius
Academy rewards Keith Alcorn's animation work on Jimmy Neutron with Oscar nomination
by Sherry Wodraska Neaves

Keith AlcornKeith Alcorn, creator of cartoon character Jimmy Neutron, made his first animated films while a student at UTA in the late 1970s.

Jimmy Neutron smiled and waved when his name was announced as a nominee in the Academy Award's new Best Animated Feature category. Up against an ogre (Shrek) and a one-eyed ball (Monsters Inc.), Jimmy and his robo-dog Goddard didn't bring home the Oscar, but they applauded winner Shrek and kept their smiles pasted on.
Of course, as animation buffs know, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius didn't actually do anything by himself. It was his man-genius creator, UTA alumnus Keith Alcorn, who brought Jimmy to life.

"It's so weird to be in that room. You look up and there's Will Smith or there's Denzel Washington. You just try not to act like a complete hillbilly."
—alumnus Keith Alcorn

Alcorn made his first animated films while a student at UTA in the late 1970s. Working with Andy Anderson, now chair of the Department of Art and Art History, he started with conventional animation, using painted cells. Later he moved into claymation and eventually to computer animation.

"The gears in Keith's head never stop turning," Anderson said. "He was a great student and was always there to help work on other people's films."

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius

In the Oscar-nominated animated feature Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Jimmy saves the world from aliens who have abducted everybody's parents.

Anderson was thrilled that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Alcorn's work with Jimmy Neutron. Anderson sees in Jimmy the wickedly clever humor characteristic of his former student.

"As an undergrad, he did one of the funniest films I've ever seen," Anderson said. "It was called 'STUFF—Superior Talented Undergraduate Feature Filmmakers.' "

"I know he takes the business seriously and he takes the art seriously, but at the same time he's one of the funniest people I've ever been around."

The names Alcorn created for his most famous characters—James "Jimmy" Isaac Neutron (after physicist Isaac Newton) and Goddard (after rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard)—reveal a hint of his wit.

Beating the bushes

After college, Alcorn worked for several area film production studios. At one stop he met his eventual business partner, John Davis. Today the duo are the creative forces behind Jimmy, Goddard and all the characters at DNA Productions, an animation studio they founded in 1987.

"I know he takes the business seriously and he takes art seriously, but at the same time he's one of the funniest people I've ever been around."
—Art Department Chairman Andy Anderson

And although fame touched them in 2002 (Alcorn sat next to Nicole Kidman at the Oscar nominees luncheon), their beginnings were much less flashy.

"We just got out the phone book and started calling people," Alcorn explained. "We'd ask, 'Do you need any cartoons?' We weren't business majors, you know."

They began making live-action and animated training videos—things like "How to Wrap Produce" for a local grocery chain. Corporate commercials and industrial films followed, and in between Alcorn and Davis made short animated films.

"Back then we had lots of time, so we would do things just for fun," Alcorn recalled. After entering several films in touring animation festivals, their work began appearing on Comedy Central and MTV. The big break came when comedian and producer Steve Oedekerk saw a broadcast of "Johnny Quasar," the immediate predecessor to Jimmy Neutron.

"He loves 3-D animation," Alcorn said of Oedekerk. "And he had the industry connections." Soon Davis and Alcorn were working on "steveoedekerk.com," a comedy special for NBC, followed by "Santa vs. the Snowman," a Christmas special for ABC. A second Christmas show, "Olive, the Other Reindeer," received an Emmy nomination.

Neutron doesn't bomb

Then came Jimmy Neutron, chronicling the adventures of a boy genius whose inventions save the world from aliens who have abducted everyone's parents. Alcorn designed about 95 percent of the 153 characters in the film and even included cameo roles for cartoon versions of himself and his two children, as well as Davis and other DNA animators.

He also did a little voice work in the film.

"A lot of us will voice some of the minor characters," he said. "It's easier and cheaper than hiring someone else. Actually, the lower the budget, the more voices I do."

Alcorn appreciates the Oscar buzz and Hollywood attention, but Anderson says the acclaim hasn't gone to his head. In 2001 Alcorn was named the UTA Distinguished Alumnus for the College of Liberal Arts. At the dinner afterward he remarked, "The food here is better than at the Emmys."

And although Anderson says that "Keith is Jimmy Neutron," the animator demurs.

"I'm not nearly as bright. I think of him as more like my partner, John."

Under Academy rules, only the names John Davis and Steve Oedekerk appeared on the Jimmy Neutron Oscar nomination. But Alcorn and his wife also attended the gala awards presentation.

"You go walking down the red carpet, the cameras flash, and you can just hear people whispering, 'Who are they?' " he said.

Still, nothing could compare to the excitement of Feb. 12 when the nominees were announced on live television.

"I heard, 'And now our new category, animated feature,' and I thought that if we just get nominated that will be enough for me," Alcorn said. "I was waiting to hear Monsters Inc. and Shrek, and then we'd see what the third one was. I didn't know they announced it in alphabetical order. We were first. My wife was standing there in her robe screaming, my son was jumping up and down, and all I could do for a while was just stand there and say, 'Uh ... '

"It just floored me."

Alcorn immediately tried calling his partner, Davis, but the phone line was already busy. "I felt all along that we had a good chance at a nomination," he said, "but still it was a big surprise."

A few weeks later at the nominees luncheon, Alcorn got up close and personal with the industry elites.

"It's so weird to be in that room. You look up and there's Will Smith or there's Denzel Washington. You just try not to act like a complete hillbilly."

Now that they've been to the Oscars, what's next for Alcorn and Jimmy? A television series! This fall, Jimmy, Goddard and the gang will have their own show on the Nickelodeon cable network.

With a domestic gross of more than $80 million in his debut, Jimmy will soon appear in another big-screen extravaganza. And there's more to come.

"A nomination like this definitely opens doors," Alcorn said. "We've gotten calls from a lot of people. Mel Gibson's company has called, Tom Hanks' production company, Dreamworks, Disney. We're developing some projects to pitch.

"I never knew I could do this for a living. I've just been very fortunate. I took the right path at the right time and ended up in a pretty good place."

With a little more help from the boy genius, Alcorn may find himself in even better places.


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