Carson Center students network in Los Angeles

Students and faculty from the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts had the opportunity to tour Disney Imagineering with Mikhael Tara Garver as part of their trip to Los Angeles to attend the Infinity Festival-Hollywood. Courtesy photo.
Students and faculty from the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts had the opportunity to tour Disney Imagineering with Mikhael Tara Garver as part of their trip to Los Angeles to attend the Infinity Festival-Hollywood. Courtesy photo.

Carson Center students network in Los Angeles

calendar icon18 Nov 2022    

Emerging Media Arts students find Johnny Carson's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Courtesy photo.
Emerging Media Arts students find Johnny Carson's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Courtesy photo.

Lincoln, Neb.--Twenty-one students and three faculty and staff in the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts, along with Johnny Carson Endowed Director in Emerging Media Arts Megan Elliott, and Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts Dean Andy Belser, attended the Infinity Festival-Hollywood Nov. 2-5.

Described as the place where Hollywood meets Silicon Valley, the Infinity Festival celebrates story enabled by technology. The festival featured panels, exhibitions, screenings and a virtual production workshop with Erik Weaver, all driven by today’s top innovators, creators and thought leaders.

The trip to Los Angeles was made possible with support from the new endowed directorship for the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts created by a $2.5 million gift from the Johnny Carson Foundation.

“Overall, this was an eye-opening experience for the 21 students who went to Los Angeles,” said Jenna Brende, who is formerly the Academic & Internship Advisor for the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts. “We got to meet and learn from industry professionals from across the board—from tech in AR and VR, virtual production and experience design. Our students got to connect and chat 1-1 with so many talented people in a variety of industries. Our students also got to show off their work at a table where they represented the Carson Center, and many of them made connections that could lead to potential internships, full-time jobs and even investments to start their own companies.”

The week of workshops, tours and networking opportunities also included a tour and lunch at Disney Imagineering with Mikhael Tara Garver, an immersive and experiential creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering and a lecturer in the Carson Center; a tour of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures; and a virtual production workshop with Nonny de la Peña, the founding director of Arizona State’s Narrative and Emerging Media program who is often acknowledged as the “godmother of virtual reality” and a member of the Carson Center Advisory Council; among other activities.

“We got to see this amazing immersive theatre piece by Alterea, Inc. called ‘Stardust,’” said Olli Jenkins, a junior emerging media arts major from Lincoln. “It was so refreshing and empathetic. I got to connect with their CEO a day later at the Infinity Festival, and talking about the process was incredibly inspiring. I loved networking and engaging alongside my EMA peers. Being in an environment full of professionals and students in our field reminded me of how talented and ahead of the curve we all are.”

She also enjoyed the Disney Imagineering tour with Garver.

“I’m currently in the Themed Entertainment class taught by Mikhael Tara Garver, our Disney connect, and her philosophy and work has changed me deeply,” Jenkins said. “Getting to see who she works with and how much they all value what they do was incredible. Selfishly, my favorite moment at Disney was when I introduced myself as an empathy-based experience designers, and one of the creative directors cheered. It felt like I was around my people.”

Brende said the Disney Imagineering tour was her favorite part of the trip.

“Students got to ask questions to a group of Disney Imagineers who are responsible for writing stories, building interactive environments, curating experiences and coding animatronics for various Disney theme parks and experiences,” she said. “We got a tour of their studio and got to see where so much of the magic we know of Disney is created. It was an emotional and exciting experience for our students that I think will stick with them.”

Hannah Pedersen, a junior emerging media arts major from Phillips, Nebraska, enjoyed seeing a screening of “Signs of Life” at the Griffith Observatory.

“The show was spectacular, and it was cool to be in the same place ‘La La Land’ was filmed,” she said.

Attending the Infinity Festival gave students an idea of what emerging media are being explored currently in the industry.

“My favorite session held at the Infinity Festival presented on AI-generated art and its potential uses in concept design, photo and video,” Pedersen said. “While I don’t have much experience in AI-generation, I think it is an innovative medium I’d like to explore in the future.”

Kicking off the week was a special L.A. Connectors Dinner, organized by the Nebraska Coast Connection and Nebraska Alumni Association. Students were matched one-on-one with Hollywood professionals and alumni from the area.

“The event was great because it was purposeful in matching students with professional alumni working in the same fields the students are studying,” said Kirstin Wilder, senior director of publications for the Nebraska Alumni Association, who helped organize the dinner. “Students were matched ahead of time and given bios on who their dinner companion would be and vice versa. The guests came to the event having some idea of who they would be dining with. It was also small—54 guests total in a room that only sat 60, so the setting was intimate. The professionals were so excited to be in a room with students from Nebraska and to share their wisdom and tips.”

Andrew Stewart, vice president of strategic communications at 42West, had dinner with emerging media arts senior Abby Hall.

“I loved it. In any industry, but especially in the entertainment business, so much of what you know is who you know,” he said. “Being able to make real-world connections with people from across disciplines is invaluable—and especially with people with whom you have a common link such as the University of Nebraska.”

Stewart said he got a lot out of the dinner, which was a great networking opportunity. And he was able to talk about his journey with Hall.

“Mostly, we talked about what it means to be intentional in your choices, how to be and think strategically about your own career path, but also the importance of embracing your mistakes,” Stewart said. “We talked about what it’s like to live in L.A, what my own journey was like, what the LGBTQ experience is like in L.A. and how that differs from Nebraska, and how to succeed in a big city by taking the good and the bad and embracing—while not necessarily loving—both.”

Jenkins was paired at the dinner with Ted Schilowitz, a futurist at Paramount and a member of the Carson Center’s Advisory Council.

“He’s basically the coolest man alive. We spoke about the fundamentals of story and what virtual reality can open us up to experiencing, and it was incredibly honest,” she said. “My dream career is creative direction and worldbuilding, and I felt like I saw a clearer pathway to success after talking with him. Plus, meeting someone so high-profile, yet so down-to-earth reassured me that putting the work in and being authentic are the qualities that matter most.”

Pedersen was paired with musical theatre writer, director and producer Ryan Bergmann.

“We had a fabulous time discussing the potential of 3D projections to be used within an interactive theatre space,” she said. “During the dinner, I also got to network with other professionals connected to Nebraska. I met Craig Albrecht, an executive producer, and Alexis Dvorak, a second assistant director. As an aspiring producer, I am glad I got the opportunity to speak with producers of both films and emerging media. These interactions gave me insight to how to get started in the industry and resources to reach out to in the future.”

Erica Larsen-Dockray, an experimental artist and entrepreneur who co-founded the Calibraska Arts Initiative and is a member of the Carson Center Advisory Council, was paired with emerging media arts senior AmunRa Jordan at the dinner.

“The dinner was very special for me because it brought together some of my favorite groups of people: the emerging media arts students, educators and director, as well as the new Dean, the Nebraska Coast Connection, and UNL Alumni,” she said. “I primarily engage with these groups separately and quite often the conversations are about how can we combine efforts. This dinner was honestly something I have been hoping would happen for quite some time. It was just so cool to have everyone together connecting. The energy was solid gold.”

Jordan, who is from Atlanta, Georgia, said it was an amazing experience.

“She asked me about how I’m liking the major and classes, who my favorite staff were, and what I’m specializing in,” he said. “It was really nice because I’m so used to changing the way I talk about my major because most people outside of it don’t really understand it. It was nice to talk with someone who understands. I asked her about her experience, and it really changed my perspective on my own journey as an artist. I also made several other amazing connections at the dinner. Overall, it was a very fun and useful experience.”

Larsen-Dockray said community is one of the most important resources one can have, especially in the arts and entertainment industries.

“Taking it a step further, Nebraskans, especially those of us who have struck out on our own, repeatedly offer the most heartfelt support and encouragement,” she said. “We really want to help others and dodge barriers we may have experienced. This same type of community building and skill sharing is why I started the Calibraska Arts Initiative. This dinner was an extension of that same work and solidified how necessary a supportive community can be. Knowing people who can guide, support and advocate you is SO important.”

Wilder said everyone benefitted from attending the dinner.

“I think students were impressed to meet working professionals in Hollywood who had similar backgrounds to them—be that a degree from Nebraska or an upbringing in Nebraska,” Wilder said. “The professionals benefited by getting connected to one another (lots of business and future lunch dates were being set up amongst them), to the Carson Center professors (I think many will end up as future guest speakers). The professionals also just love to be around Nebraskans—they all took their gift bags home and proudly put on the alumni pins on their placecards.”

Overall, the trip provided invaluable networking for the students and faculty.

“It’s key that Nebraska-based emerging media artists have connections on the coasts,” Jenkins said. “One of my goals is making the Midwest famous for the multimedia work my cohort is putting out there, but it can be isolating and discouraging to not physically be in a space filled with similar tech and art. If we’re going to make it here, we need to know what the best of the best looks like everywhere else, so we can take it further than ever ourselves.”

Pedersen said making connections with the Nebraska Coast Connection professionals, seeing the concept and design work at Disney Imagineering and by Infinity Festival speakers was all beneficial.

“It was reassuring to see that we are working on similar projects as actual professionals in the film, virtual production and themed entertainment industries,” she said.

Jordan said the experience was not only valuable for the connections he made, but also for expanding his ideas of what is actually possible for his career.

“There are so many more ways to be successful in the industry than I thought there were,” he said. “These experiences remind me not to limit myself and to keep imagining and thinking outside the box.”