Give a man a fish, and you’ve given him a meal. But teach a man to draw a fish, and you may just help create the next Finding Nemo.
Or so went the reasoning that inspired Ira A. Fulton. Fulton is the founder of a privately owned, Arizona-based homebuilding company. Over the years, he has used his wealth to support a range of charities. Among his latest, and proudest, achievements is the establishment of the Center for Animation at Brigham Young University.
The Center for Animation has quickly scrambled to a prominent place in the high-tech, high-profit world of digital animation. More like a mini–Hollywood studio than a hive of classrooms, the program offers a bachelor’s degree in animation and is a collaborative effort among BYU’s College of Fine Arts and Communications, its College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and its Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology.
Perhaps most impressively, its 25 or so annual graduates are eagerly sought by the top video game designers and Hollywood animation studios—Sony (The Smurfs), DreamWorks (Kung Fu Panda and Shrek), Blue Sky (Rio, Ice Age, and its sequels), and Pixar, which today is preparing its 13th feature, Brave, a story of a Scottish princess due in theaters next summer.
The Big Kid
Few of the shrieking small fry attending Up or Cars 2 know the name Ira Fulton, but if they ever met him they’d recognize a kindred spirit—a big kid forever romping from one playing field to another, excited and laughing, always eager to share his new toys.
Born in Tempe, Arizona, in 1931, Fulton grew up in the Great Depression. His father, David, was a miner, and his mother, who went by Myrtie, was a kind and generous woman. “I never had anything growing up,” he recalls of being the youngest in a large clan, “but my mother gave me a great gift. She always had me look the other way. As a young boy, if I was complaining about something, she’d say, ‘Look—there’s a man with one leg.’”
In her front yard in Tempe, Myrtie opened a hamburger stand she dubbed “Mom’s Cafe.” “She’d never turn anyone away, even if they couldn’t pay,” says Fulton. “I must have been about eight then and I didn’t understand why. She’d say, ‘Son, but they’re hungry.’ If a relative came by and didn’t have a place to stay, I’d give up my bed and sleep on the floor because I was the youngest. I didn’t know it, but she was teaching me how to give.”
Fulton soon discovered he inherited another gift from Mom: sales. He built the Arizona Republic’s number-one paper route before heading off to Arizona State University. Once there, Fulton charged full speed ahead. He worked and studied at the same time. His then-girlfriend, Mary Lou Henson, noticed he didn’t have time to spare for the niceties. “When my mother met him, he accidentally slammed the screen door,” recalls Mary Lou. “My mother said, ‘I don’t ever want you to ever see him again,’” she adds with a laugh. Of course, Mrs. Henson forgave Ira.
“He was always late for our dates,” Mary Lou remembers. “One day, I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to stay in my bedroom and he’s just going to have to wait half an hour.’ So I waited 20 minutes and then I came out and my mother and father said Shhhh. Ira was sleeping. He slept the whole time he waited for me to come out. It was because he was always such a hard worker. He just tried to sleep whenever he could.” What really impressed Mary Lou, however, was his devotion to Myrtie. “He was very kind to his mother,” she says. “I remember how good he was to her. That was very important to me.”
When Ira proposed, Mary Lou accepted. “He wasn’t really serious about getting married,” she sighs. “He was a Delta Sig and going out to parties and things. Someone saw the ring and said, ‘Who are you engaged to?’ And I said, ‘Ira Fulton.’” And she said, ‘Oh.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘Well, he was at that party and I didn’t see you.’ I was mad. So I went to see him and gave him his ring back. He decided I was okay then. He begged me to take his ring back.” The two married in 1954 and went on to have three children together: Lorie, Greg, and Doug.
At the time, money wasn’t much more plentiful than Arizona rain. Mary Lou remembers feeding all three children on just a dollar a day. “We’d have tuna salad and macaroni and cheese. We had a little garden so we’d use our own lettuce. The kids didn’t know any different. Every weekend we would have steak and that was very special.”
“I was pregnant with Lorie when he was running all over Guadalupe [Arizona] and Tempe delivering the paper,” Mary Lou says. “He’d talk them all into taking the paper. He’d say their neighbor was taking it, so they needed to take it.”
Looking for Diamonds
While in his twenties, Fulton read Acres of Diamonds, Russell H. Conwell’s slender 1890 book about success. Conwell, the founder of Temple University, developed the concept in a popular lecture tour in which he held forth about opportunities all around us. There may even be an acre of diamonds right under your feet, Conwell declared. “If you just slow down a little bit and take a few deep breaths,” says Fulton, “there are things around you all day long that you can be successful at.”
Fulton left the Arizona Republic and started looking for diamonds. He worked at National Cash Register in the 1950s, becoming salesman of the year. In the late ’50s, he ran a string of milk depots that offered drive-through milk pickup. He rose to the level of regional operations manager at Dana Brothers Signal Oil and Gas. In the 1960s, he thought he smelled a hint of an opportunity in the computer industry. He built two consulting services for businesses: National Retailer’s Corporation and Computer Audit. “Within 5 or 6 years,” he notes, “I was in 26 states assisting companies with their processing.”
In 1974, he noticed a little clothing retailer called Eagleson’s Big & Tall. There were two stores, both about to go into bankruptcy. Fulton was hired as a consultant. Within two years, he bought the company, put it in the black, and expanded it to 35 stores. By the time he sold the chain in 1995, the retailer was doing $250 million in annual wholesale.
Around the same time, Fulton got into homebuilding—almost by accident. He bought a company called Aston Construction from his nephews, intending to wind it down. But he quickly discovered the potential market for well-built homes in the exploding Arizona market. With the cashflow from his retail empire, he founded Fulton Homes in 1975. “People said, ‘What do you know about housing?’’’ Fulton recounts. “I said, ‘Nothing! It’s like if you make a pattern for a suit or a dress. That’s like having a blueprint.’” During the next three decades, Fulton Homes would make him a millionaire hundreds of times over.
“Seeing Other People Succeed”
“There’s a lot of people who have their own faith,” says Fulton “and I respect them for it. But my faith is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s where I get my power, where I get my basic structure.” Fulton’s earliest philanthropy was naturally directed toward his church, and he helped fund young Saints as they embarked on their missions. As his business prospered, however, Fulton began to think more broadly about what he would leave to the world.
“Why not give it away while you’re alive so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor?” Fulton asks.
Perhaps his largest gifts have been to higher education. Since 2003, Fulton has been making large gifts to ASU, altogether totaling some $162 million. He estimates that he has given BYU somewhere between $80 and $90 million. Both universities named their schools of engineering for him, as well as the Fulton Center at ASU (which houses the school’s administration and fundraisers) and a series of endowed chairs. At both ASU and BYU, the Fultons try to attend commencement exercises each year. Students line up for a chance to meet them. The Fultons enjoy seeing their generosity smiling back at them.
Fulton continues to aid individuals by the flock: Thousands of students earn Fulton Scholarships. Each year thousands more owe their swimming lessons to Fulton. He serves on the board of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, a leader in neurology. He is also in the early stages of endowing a clinic for those afflicted with the incurable degenerative malady ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a subject especially close to him. About four years ago, his son Greg began to have difficulty operating his motorcycle. The diagnosis was ALS.
Greg, who is in his early 50s, is now confined to a wheelchair. “It’s tough on a father,” says the senior Fulton, “to see your son die a little every week. I’m not going to be able to save my son’s life, but I’m going to help save other people’s lives, and that’s what it’s all about.” Mary Lou says Greg is the rare ALS sufferer who smiles. (She herself endured a bout with uterine cancer in her 20s; it cost her the ability to have more children.) “He knows exactly where he’s going when he dies,” she says calmly.
Ira picks up the theme. “To friends who have a little hard time giving money—I say, ‘When’s the last time you saw a Brinks truck in a funeral procession?’” Fulton encourages reluctant potential benefactors to speed up their thinking. “Why not give it away while you’re alive so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor?” he asks. “Our excitement in life is seeing other people succeed.”
Animation: Art and Science
Fulton knows firsthand that a microprocessor is a tool to help people succeed; after all, he started two early-generation computer companies. In 1999, he donated an SGI Onyx2 Origin 2000 supercomputer—named Mary Lou—to BYU. Since then, he has added four more supercomputers—named Mary Lou 1, Mary Lou 2, Mary Lou 10, and Mary Lou X—to the collection. When working together, the five computers can process about two teraflops, or two trillion calculations per second.
Brent Adams, director of the Center for Animation and a member of the faculty at the university’s engineering school, was amazed to crunch more data than ever before seemed crunchable. “I had originally pitched the idea of a supercomputer because we were going to do high-end visuals for car design,” Adams explains. “Ira liked the idea.” Graphics became animation and “we used the supercomputer to create an animated short called Lemmings in 2002,” Adams continues. “That won a student Emmy and a student Academy Award in 2004.”
The program quickly discovered the market’s demand for students who study animation. “A bunch of students who contributed to those projects were hired to go work on [the Will Smith blockbuster ] I, Robot,” says Adams, “and one of the students went to work at Disney Interactive. One went to work for EA [Electronic Arts, which makes The Sims and Medal of Honor video games], and one of the students went to work for one of the Star Wars episodes. So it worked right out of the chute.”
Today, the program graduates about 25 students each year, virtually all of whom go on to get jobs in the animation industry. By 2008, Pixar president Ed Catmull realized just what BYU had done—and was left as astonished as Wall-E when he discovered he wasn’t alone on Earth. “In the last few years,” he said, “we found that BYU has risen to the top. BYU has an extraordinary program here.”
Yet “without the supercomputer and the donations from Ira there’s basically no way we could have run this program within the university,” Adams says. “It’s just so miraculous.” (Fulton passes the compliment upstairs.) Graduates say BYU’s dry campus and strict code of ethics kept them focused on their studies. That so many students have gone on to create sterling family entertainment followed naturally.
“They want to go out and make a difference in the world,” Fulton adds. “They don’t like to do the violent video games. Why would they? They just create more violence. Besides, they know that you have to carry your faith seven days a week. Faith isn’t just on Sunday or Saturday. You have to practice your faith all the time.”
Digital animation is light years from Mom’s Cafe and Ira Fulton’s paper route, and yet—not really. The program shares with its most important benefactor a clear eye for the practical. Instead of asking each student to make his own film, as most schools do, it gets them to team up for a single project, just like they would in a studio. Each student takes on a specialty and masters it. DreamWorks is so impressed it is assigning employees as mentors to review the ongoing process and provide coaching via video-conferencing. Pixar does the same.
Adams is convinced that he has stumbled on a critical advance in teaching. Too many university students are dumped out on the job market without training for any field in particular. Even if they are trained in a field, their education may be so broad that they essentially begin to learn their first jobs on the job. As a student, Adams recalls, “I sat in classes, took notes, designed things myself—then got hired and realized now I’d have to work on a team of 40 people and I’d look around and say, ‘Wait a minute, I have no idea how to fit in on this team.’”
Former student Glenn Harmon, who now works in the story department of Sony Pictures Animation, where he is working on the upcoming monster comedy feature Hotel Transylvania, says the BYU approach worked so well that as his team was preparing the 2008 student film Pajama Gladiator his colleagues kept getting hired away by the studios. The program “taught me a lot about how hard it is to finish something,” Harmon says. “It’s easy to start it, because there’s a honeymoon, but at a certain point it becomes work. You have to learn to stick with something that you know is good and finish it.”
Fellow BYU alum Emron Grover, who calls himself a “digital tailor”—he did the clothes for the Pixar classic Up—got his reward when, after 18 months of work on it, he saw it with an audience back home in Colorado. “I had a bunch of my friends and family come in. My dad forced me to get up and do a little spiel about what I worked on. It’s an incredibly rewarding job because not only do I enjoy what I do, I get to share that with the world.”
Like their benefactor, then, Grover and Harmon and the other animators creating some of the world’s most beloved family films are limited only by their industriousness and their imagination. “Making money is a God-given talent,” Fulton says. “But it’s only a tool for helping people get their dreams to move from one level to the next. I’ve never felt that there was anything I couldn’t do if I had time to do it. But first you’ve got to have a dream or vision.”
Shepherding a generation of professionals in the dream game—the vision business—is especially dear to Fulton. “Everything I do is my favorite,” he says of the animation school, smiling. “But this is my favorite favorite.”
Kyle Smith is a film critic for the New York Post.