Mihai Cernusca and Greg Puzniak had seven hours to reconstruct the human digestive system. The pressure was on. They stretched their fingers and snapped their heads from side to side — a quick release before setting to work.
On the operating table before them were keyboards and mice.
And their patient, well, it still had to be created.
This was the scene in June at the Kansas City Convention Center. There, Cernusca and Puzniak took on 21 teams from across the nation in a contest to crown Skill USA’s best 3-D animators. But for the two computer animators from Rock Bridge High School, it was a do-or-die operation. If they wanted to win big, it would be now or never.
No one understood this better than Puzniak, who, heavy of heart, was counting down the hours until he left U.S. soil. His belongings were packed, waiting for him in Columbia. Polish-born, the 17-year-old Puzniak was moving to Canada with his parents to beat visa deadlines and the prospect — for him, a grim one — of returning to Poland. It would ease his departure if he took along a national prize.
“I would have to win if I planned on ever winning (the contest) at all,” recalled Puzniak.
Cernusca, 19, and Puzniak had met a few months before the competition in a 3-D animation class at the Columbia Career Center next to Rock Bridge. The class was a good deal: They got high school credit, access to amazing equipment and the chance to shine in a national contest. The center had been trying for a while to win a national 3-D animation competition.
Last year, Cernusca, originally from Sibiu, Romania, failed to make it to nationals, falling short at the state level. The Missouri team eventually finished third. This year, enrolled in his last class at the center, Cernusca was determined to make it all the way.
The 3-D animation contest is part of gigantic array of competitions for students taking vocational classes
in high schools or colleges. For a membership fee of $10 a year, students can compete under the organization’s umbrella.
Last fall, Puzniak began his first year of animation classes and Cernusca started his second. In the first year, the class teaches mechanical drafting, architectural drafting and 3-D animation. In the second year, students pick a type of design to master.
Cernusca knew it was animation the day he launched the software. He just couldn’t bring himself to hit the “X” and exit. After all, at its highest level, this is the design that gave birth to the lovable green ogre, “Shrek,” and the “Monsters Inc.” crew. Puzniak had always wanted to re-create characters from his favorite computer games and, realizing the tools were there, he didn’t waste much time.
The two Eastern Europeans began their journey to the nationals in February at the Columbia face-off, where they battled each other and other classmates for a place in the state competition. It was a one-on-one design slugfest with six animators clicking, dragging and drawing for three painful hours. Their challenge was to create a “Spider-Man” chopper. All they had to work with was a picture file and some terse guidelines given by instructor Robert Allee.
Puzniak had never competed in such a contest before – but “Spidey” needed a ride so Puzniak gave the angst-ridden superhero the best vehicle he could muster. It proved enough for the win. Cernusca pulled up second. After the Columbia contest, Allee paired them for future competition.
The two had seen each other’s work yet never really interacted in class. They pooled their skills for the state competition in March, which turned out to be a smaller deal than the class battle. Only one other team came from Jefferson City to square off against Columbia’s digital artists — Cernusca and Puzniak and another team.
“It was pathetic,” Cernusca said.
After that win and with the national contest a couple of months down the road, the pair met often to build and polish a team approach.
Cernusca was used to a more messy approach to working – just draw the figure and adjust the measurements as you go along. Puzniak was methodical about getting details right the first time. Cernusca built his figures out of polygons, which allowed him to craft the figure, which Puzniak built from lines. They learned to compromise: Cernusca slowly became methodical and Puzniak started employing polygons.
“If one of us ran out of ideas, we’d switch chairs and the other would take over,” Cernusca said.
“The main strength, as well as the main weakness of our team, was that we both had a similar skill level in the same area,” Puzniak said.
They trained seriously — computing, animating and designing with the vigor of athletes in training. They animated a car driving down the street, a school of fish fleeing from a predator in a “Chasing Nemo” skit and a crazy pencil falling over exhausted after dancing lines on a blank page.
As they moved forward, they got to thinking of how they would fare on the national stage. Cernusca, running on the experience of last year, told the younger Puzniak there’ll be another time if something goes wrong.
“No, there’s not,” Puzniak replied.
Puzniak told Cernusca his visa was about to expire and he would have to leave the country. He came here in 1992, when his father hada scholarship to MU. Now, with no degrees left to earn, his parents had to leave.
“I’ve known for a while that I would have to leave, though I had always been naïve and hopeful that I would be able to stay,” Puzniak said.
When they walked inside the Kansas City Convention Center, with an unknown field of almost two dozen teams before them, they wished for a top-10 finish. To boost their confidence, they applied computer intimidation tactics. They pulled out state-of-the-art equipment — two custom-built computers with two flat screen monitors each — enough to intimidate contestants who rolled in with a laptop.
“It’s an advantage as a first impression,” Cernusca said. “It doesn’t really matter when you get to work. If you are not good, it doesn’t matter what machine you own.”
The Columbia duo had their own reason to be intimidated. They had scored poorly on a written exam on software definitions, and that would pull their final score down.
As they started working on their animation assignment — illustrating how food journeys from the mouth to the stomach — Cernusca and Puzniak couldn’t help thinking how gigantic the difference was between this and the much tamer state contest. And as the hours rolled on, they relaxed. The team next to them was doing some awful designing – always a boost in morale.
Feeding on their opponents’ lack of creativity, they worked calmly until about four hours into the contest, when Cernusca spotted some astounding performances from a team seated right behind them. Those guys are amazing, they thought. But when Puzniak peeked at their work, he spotted their badges. They were in the college-level competition.
At the end of the seven hours, Cernusca and Puzniak’s movie showed a crying, grumpy baby not willing to trust the spoonful of food fed to him. As the food made its way into the character’s mouth and he swallowed, the chewed ball started rolling rapidly along a reddish digestive tract.
As they wrapped up their project with photo-edited stills of their 42-second movie, they felt enough confidence to think they were in the top five. Turns out, though, that they did a little better than that.
When they heard the news the next night at the awards ceremony, Cernusca and Puzniak couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed. Months of work had come to fruition. Their time and effort were justified.
And even as he left a country he had come to call his home, Puzniak could take something special along for the ride to Canada: a national prize.