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The Emmy Awards, the highest honor bestowed by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, annually recognize excellence in television production across various sectors of the industry, including entertainment, news, documentary and sports programming, as well as craft categories. Samar Shool, who holds an M.F.A. in computer animation from Academy of Art University, was among those honored on June 25, 2016, at the 58th National Capital Chesapeake Bay Regional Emmy Awards.

Together with Ricardo Andrade, president of Pixeldust Studios in Bethesda, Md., Shool received an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Arts on the PBS show The National Mall—America’s Front Yard. The hour-long show, which premiered April 21, 2015, combines contemporary and archival footage, state-of-the-art graphics, and exclusive aerial shots to illustrate the National Mall’s evolution from wilderness into a national stage.

In the late 18th century, the National Mall bore little resemblance to the sprawling, manicured urban park that millions of people visit each year. Back then, the land was not only devoid of monuments, memorials and museums—in some areas, it did not yet exist. Over time, the capital city filled in portions of various waterways to mold the landscape into its current state.

Through an in-depth historical examination of the nation’s grand promenade, America’s Front Yard illuminates the decades of planning and design that shaped the Mall. “It’s such a central hub, a meeting place,” said Shool. “We wanted to make users aware that it’s more than just open ground. There’s a lot of history and process behind the structure of the Mall. There’s a reason for all of it.” The show also spotlights some of the challenges encountered during construction, such as diseased cherry trees and a languishing, half-finished monument.

Shool and his team used a combination of tools to recreate HD-quality versions of low-resolution historical maps, images and documents, including Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 city plan and the McMillan Commission’s early 20th-century recommendations. “We used Maya, a standard 3-D animation software, combined with VUE, which is great for natural imagery,” he said.

“I love taking something that is so crude and giving life to it, adding complexity and making it look as real as possible,” said Shool. “My interest really lies in how real I can make the shots look.”

After a brief career in architecture, Shool entered the Academy to study computer animation. While interning in the art department for National Geographic magazine, he met Andrade, then director of art and animation for National Geographic, to which Shool returned to work full time following graduation. When Andrade established Pixeldust, “I joined as the first animator,” said Shool.

A decade into his tenure at Pixeldust, Shool now works as a computer graphics supervisor and technical director. Projects frequently involve high-profile clients such as the Smithsonian, Discovery Channel and National Geographic, in addition to in-house productions.

“The projects we get are very challenging, and every time there’s something new, from medical animations to natural disasters,” said Shool. “There are a lot of different kinds of deliverables.”

Academy of Art University alumnus and Emmy winner Samar Shool. Photo courtesy of Samar Shool.

Shool oversees a team of about 12 to 20, depending on the workload at the time. “We have multiple shows going on, so I may be supervising two to three shows at once,” said Shool. “I am a critical bridge between our visual effects coordinator and the team when it comes to assigning shots, picking artists and supervising what they’re doing. I tackle certain complex shots that need the most attention as well.”

After four previous nominations, Shool said it felt great to win the Emmy for America’s Front Yard, even though he couldn’t attend the ceremony to accept the award in person. “It was held in Baltimore, and even though it wasn’t that far away, we were so caught up in a project that was on a very strict deadline that we weren’t able to go.”

But the achievement wasn’t forgotten in the rush to make deadline. Andrade and Shool later took time to celebrate with the Pixeldust team.

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