Ira Fulton Feeds the Digital Imagination

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1999

Ira Fulton’s mother taught him to give generously from the time he was a child in Arizona. Her hamburger stand never turned anyone away, even if customers couldn’t pay. “They’re hungry,” his mother explained simply.

Fulton didn’t have much money himself growing up, nor in his first years of marriage. What he did have was a tremendous work ethic and a lively imagination. Diligently working one job after another, he eventually struck out on his own. He started a computer company. He helped remake a dying clothing retailer into a big moneymaker. He got into homebuilding.


A Mormon and lifelong tither, Fulton put extra focus on helping others after he became wealthy. In 1999 he donated a supercomputer to Brigham Young University. A couple years later some students used the big machine to create an animated film that was good enough to win both a student Academy Award and a student Emmy. That was the first in a string of brilliant student-made animated films out of BYU that soon had collected 5 Oscars and 16 Emmys. An excited Ira Fulton started donating more supercomputers, BYU strung them together, and in short order the college had the big-league processing power to sustain Pixar and Disney levels of animation.

Before long, Fulton had helped BYU create the curriculum and facilities for a freestanding Center for Animation, and it was turning out star animators involved in films like I, Robot and Star Wars. One of the unique features of BYU’s curriculum is that it doesn’t just teach the students how to create the art, it trains them in the business environment of movie studios, and how to work selflessly in strong teams to create commercial films. BYU’s predominantly Mormon students also take the university’s core classes in literature and history and religion.

And soon, animation studios like Sony, Pixar, and Disney, as well as top computer-game makers like Blizzard, and television cartoon companies like Nickelodeon, were snatching up graduates. The BYU-trained students were prized equally for bringing creative talent, strong work ethics, and wholesome values to animated filmmaking, where themes of good and evil, and family-friendly approaches, are important.

Ira Fulton eventually donated close to $100 million to Brigham Young University. His generosity made it possible for this upstart in Utah to rise to the top of a super-competitive industry in less than 15 years. Today, BYU’s Center for Animation is considered one of the best programs of its sort in the world, and sends about 25 new practitioners per year into the heart of the digital animation business—which has become a powerful influence on culture in the U.S. and around the globe.