KINGMAN - When Ashley Graham and her college teammates came up with the idea of creating a short film based on a Mexican holiday celebrating death, they had no idea it would actually open the door to a new life for them.
Graham, 26, of Kingman and her teammates Lindsey St. Pierre and Kate Reynolds from Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., were awarded a gold medal Saturday at the 40th annual Student Academy Awards in California for their film "Dia de los Muertos," or Day of the Dead.
Each year, more than 500 college and university film students from across the U.S. submit short films in the four categories of documentary, narrative and alternative, hoping to win the coveted award. Graham's team won in the animation category.
The three-minute film tells the story of a little girl who, after her mother dies, is taken to the land of the dead to learn the true meaning of the annual holiday, celebrated Nov. 1-2 in Mexico. The festive event includes gathering to remember and pray for the departed as well as erecting elaborate altars complete with sugar skulls, marigolds and the favorite foods of the deceased. Relatives often visit cemeteries to decorate the graves of their loved ones.
"I'm quite excited because our team worked very hard on this film," said Graham. "It's a heartwarming story about a little girl who can't accept the festive holiday because she misses her mom so much.
"The film isn't a tearjerker. It has a happy ending. We wanted people to embrace what happens and enjoy both life and death instead of mourning those who have gone on. That's what the Mexican holiday is about. Instead of being morbid, it's very much alive."
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented the honor, which brings awards and cash grants to the winners, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif.
One-time award winner Bob Saget hosted the event and presenters included writer-director Kimberly Peirce and actors Clark Gregg and Jason Schwartzman.
Past winners have gone on to receive eight Oscars and 46 Oscar nominations. They include Spike Lee, Trey Parker, John Lasseter and Robert Zemeckis.
As the gold-medal winner, "Dia de los Muertos" will be submitted by the Academy in future competitions with big names such as Pixar and Disney.
Graham is currently completing an internship with Falcon's Treehouse in Orlando, a company that creates 3D shows in amusement park domes. Her family lives in Kingman.
Graham has always been interested in film, moving to California during high school to broaden her options of getting a job in the field.
She received a four-year scholarship to Ringling and majored in computer animation in hopes of working on the types of animated films created by bigger companies.
There, she honed her drawing skills in 2D animation, which calls for 24 drawings for each second of film produced.
As she moved through her studies, Graham said she learned the 3D computer animation program used in the industry, as well as how to become a good storyteller.
During her third year, she teamed up with St. Pierre and Reynolds to begin composing a short film.
Her final year focused on creating the characters for it, as well as the environment, lighting, texture, props and special effects needed to make it work. The completed work was shown to underclassmen, who offered their opinions on it.
Graham said "Dia de los Muertos" was entered into a competition for the best films at Ringling and it was chosen as one of the 10 best out of 35 entries.
Then it was entered into the regional competition for the Student Academy Awards, where it was one of three chosen for consideration in California.
On May 10, the girls found out they were one of the top three animation finalists in the nation. And Saturday, they snagged the top honor.
"Making the film was a lot of tears and stress, but when I look at it, I'm so proud of it," said Graham, noting three minutes of film took a year and a half of hard work. "How many people can say they actually created a film?
"I was talking to my family about the film when I was a year away from graduation, and they remembered how I would watch cartoons when I was 4 years old and tell them I was going to make them. This is where I belong. It has always been here in my heart."
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