When alumnus Devon Manney stepped onstage to accept his student Academy Award in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, the gratitude poured out of him.
“No one makes a film in a vacuum,” Manney said. “And ‘Cradle’ is indebted to so many beautiful souls and talented artists that it really just makes me dizzy to think about it.”
He went on to thank over a dozen people — his mentors, other artists and of course, the staff at USC’s Panda Express. That encounter encapsulates Manney as a student and a filmmaker — ferociously humble, gracious, with a profound appreciation for the menial.
It’s almost as if he doesn’t recognize his own genius that culminated in a silver medal in Animation at the Student Academy Awards, the world’s most prestigious international film festival for college students that received over 1,500 entries and named just 15 winners. With his medal, Manney joins the ranks of previous Student Academy Award winners Spike Lee, Bob Saget and Robert Zemeckis.
Manney is fidgety: that much is clear from not just his acceptance speech, but from spending just 10 minutes with him. He has so much on his mind that he physically can’t sit still, even just for a moment.
It’s funny, then, that his 14-minute Student Academy Award-winning animated film, “Cradle,” moves so slowly. Set in a post-9/11 landscape, the film details an amputee’s return from the Iraq War in its early stages. Like many other veterans, he struggles to adjust to civilian life. He attempts to rekindle his relationship with his wife and learns how to parent his daughter. But on top of the typical barriers that amputees face, as a double amputee, he is afflicted with phantom limb pain. The film beautifully animates — in every sense of the word — the intense physical and emotional obstacles he faces as he fights for post-war normalcy.
Manney latched onto the idea of phantom limbs in a high school psychology class. Something about the phenomenon stuck with him — the post-war metaphor of having the sensation that something is still attached, even if it is forever gone. That eventually made its way to a vague idea for “Cradle,” but it’s not until he started conducting research and interviewing amputees that he felt a duty to tell the story of phantom limb pain, because it was a story that hadn’t yet been told.
“Phantom limb pain, which affects a large percentage of amputees, is almost completely uncovered by any media representation,” Manney said. “I wanted to address the real kind of difficulty of what amputees have to go through on a day-to-day basis — on an emotional level, on a physical level and on a neurological level with the phantom limbs.”
That goal has guided the past few years of his life. It started with his first semester at USC — Manney took an introduction to animation class with Professor Sheila Sofian, which showed him the possibilities of animation.
“It really forces you to hit the ground running in a way to say — there are so many things you can do with this medium, there is no limit to what you can do with animation and to what you can do with film,” Manney said. “The only limits are what you fail to imagine.”
Manney started developing the ideas for “Cradle” in his sophomore year. During his next year, he started writing and rewriting scripts, starting with one long enough for a feature film.
“He started with a much longer script,” said Sofian, who mentored Manney during his filmmaking process.
Sofian, alongside her husband David Fain, also a faculty member in the School of Cinematic Arts, helped Manney focus his script — to a whopping 14 minutes of animation in a single year. It’s a project that took a great deal of courage.
“And stupidity,” Manney laughed. “There’s a lot of stupidity.”
And so, at the beginning of his senior year in 2016, working alongside a team of colorists, a sound designer and a composer, he started the diligent process of animating 14 minutes of film.
“I spent somewhere between 12 and 16 hours on average at my cubicle, every day making small incremental progress — day in and day out, trying to tell this story and trying to keep focused on what this character was feeling,” Manney said. “For nine months, that was my life.”
Throughout the grueling process, Manney credits his friends, family and mentors for cheering him on along the way. USC’s animation faculty, in particular, provided him invaluable advice and support.
“Almost every faculty member inside the animation program at some point helped me out on a huge level with this film,” Manney said. “It owes an insane amount of gratitude to them for sticking with me and this project throughout that process — just constantly telling me that just keep going, keep going, keep going.”
Manney’s many thanks don’t end with the animation faculty. “Cradle,” he maintains, could not have been done in any other school besides the School of Cinematic Arts, which provided him crucial opportunity.
“They just wouldn’t have given you the creative freedom and support to do a project this crazy, and short-sighted at times, and long, and ambitious, and different,” Manney said.
Now that the project is over, there’s a sense that he almost misses the three-year process of bringing Cradle to life — the painstaking, second-by-second animation, the composition of a harmonious score and the realization of a grand vision.
“‘Cradle’ was my life, and it was my world, and then the film … you know,” Manney’s voice trailed off.
It’s the hallmark of every brilliant filmmaker — someone who is so in love with their craft that the process of creation becomes a part of them. And so, coming off the heels of graduation in May, Manney is looking for his next big, creative project.
“It’s kind of a deep, wide ocean that I’m slowly diving back into, but for me that’s really exciting,” Manney said. “I like being in the middle of nowhere and having to try to find something to just grab onto and hang on for dear life — for a couple months, a couple years.”
There’s no telling what Manney will do next. Because at 22 years old, he won an Oscar.
Manney laughed. He didn’t want to inflate his ego, “A student Oscar.”