The Lab Trolls

Lab troll1
plural noun: lab trolls

1. A lab-dwelling MSUM student depicted as having little free time for anything that does not involve designing, 3D modeling or rendering projects on computers in Hagen Hall.

Once upon a time, there lived five graphic communications majors, all with an emphasis in 3D animation. They practically lived in MSUM’s Hagen Hall, the only place their necessary programs were available. Slumbering on the floor in sleeping bags, the friends often camped in the computer lab well into the morning hours to work on 3D models and animations. They even bought a mini fridge. Their countless hours spent as lab dwellers caught the attention of their classmates, and soon a nickname was born. Henceforth, they were to be known as “The Lab Trolls.”

For graphic communications majors Aaron Ree ‘15, Austin Swift ‘16, Omar Reyes ‘15, Colin Vaadeland ’15 and Julian Norby ‘15, there was no doubt they wanted to study 3D modeling and animation. Inspired by video games since childhood, they each went into the major with a mutual curiosity to learn how they were constructed.


Nearly four years after graduating from the hallowed halls of Hagen, the friends are still in communication. As often as they can amidst differing time zones, their jobs, marriages and other commitments, they long-distance game with each other online. Swift and Reyes, the only two classmates still in Fargo, even hang out every weekend.

“I was talking with Julian and Omar today,” Swift said. “Omar comes to my house almost every week for some sort of meetup. Everyone else has kind of left the immediate area, but we try to get online to play games as much as possible. I certainly believe we’ll all be friends for life.”

Flourishing with Friends

With many majors, students are provided more black-and-white methods of coming to a conclusion. Graphic communications requires thinking outside of the box and an ability to take an assignment and choose what you want to do with it, given an endless number of possibilities. Successful students must be comfortable with instruction and independent research. Receiving help from knowledgeable friends is an added bonus.

“Julian was always known as the guy who lived in the lab,” Reyes said. “He was constantly there, so every time we needed help we’d go to the lab and ask him.”

 Mid-Story-Images-Spring19-24 Images submitted by graphic communications graduate Aaron Ree of his student project based on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64.

The group often stretched each other’s drive to succeed with friendly competition, all while teaching each other more efficient ways of accomplishing their goals.

“When it comes to GComm, there are a million ways to achieve the same effect, and it’s up to you to find the way that works for you,” Swift said. “There’s always going to be a faster, better, more effective way of doing things. It’s finding better ways of going about things, not just taking the this-is-how-it’s-done mentality.”

With the help of their team, knowledge grew five times as quickly, though they never abused the wisdom of their friends and independently explored their own chosen methods.

Although each member of the Lab Trolls brought unique backgrounds and experiences with them to college, their common interests, curiosity, drive and patience formed not only a bond with each other but also a commitment to continually learn more about themselves and their chosen field of study. “The Lab Trolls were a big part of the reason I flourished so much in the first place,” Vaadeland said. “It was beyond amazing working next to them on projects and enduring the nights together. We all had the same passion of taking our ideas for projects and never meeting the bar for a grade, but instead setting the bar for ourselves and having fun while doing it.”


Aaron Ree
Hometown: Sartell, Minn.
Current location: Erie, Colo.
Job: Scale Replica Artist at Archetype3d

“I was always into miniatures, like model cars and stuff like that. So my hobby always had to do with small-scale, 3-dimensional things. That’s what got me into 3D modeling in the first place.”

Lessons learned: “I started at NDSU in the architecture program for two years. I got into the program and was doing really well, but I realized the engineering side of architecture wasn’t exactly for me. So I did a little research on what I could do on the design side and found MSUM’s GComm program with the 3D emphasis. That pretty much checked all the boxes.”


Austin Swift
Hometown: Wimbledon, N.D.
Current location: Fargo, N.D.
Job: Multimedia Developer at MultiTech Publications

“I went into the wrong field my first semester. I wanted graphic communications, but I thought it was graphic design, so I spent a year drawing and working on art, which was fun and I don’t regret it.”

Lessons learned: “You have to search for forums and figure out how to do something yourself. I think the thing I’m most proud of is just the new outlook it gave me to be more creative, to look at things differently and to find ways that may have been overlooked in the past. It gave me a better eye,” Swift said. “That self-dependency was one of the great things I learned.”


Omar Reyes
Hometown: Heron Lake, Minn.
Current location: Fargo, N.D.
Job: Graphic Coordinator, WDAY TV

“Immediately after graduating college, I started working at the MSUM dining center as the graphics and motion designer, and my brother Juan was my boss. There were a few projects we worked on together. We also took on some 3D projects together and made a 3D map of the MSUM campus.”

Lessons learned: “Really take into consideration all the time your project will take. Time management is really important. I think I was the last one to finish my senior project. I remember it was still rendering the night before my presentation. Immediately after the presentations were done, I went home and basically slept the whole day.”


Colin Vaadeland
Hometown: Park Rapids, Minn.
Current location: Issaquah, Wash.
Job: Internal Production Manager at Renton CDJR

“My goal is to work for a video game studio out here. It was more difficult than I even knew it would be, but persistence is key. The end goal would be to work for Microsoft.”

Lessons learned: “Mike Ruth was an inspiration for going out and getting what you want. He always encouraged us to go beyond what our capabilities were.”


Julian Norby
Hometown: Montevideo, Minn.
Current location: Maple Grove, Minn.
Job: 3D Animator and Content Creator, Anderson Windows

“My wife convinced me (to go to MSUM). I was originally going to be a teacher in computer science.”

Lessons learned: “I wish I would’ve taken more traditional art classes. That is so important. The film classes I took were way more helpful and important than I realized at the time. When you think you’re good or done enough, you’re not. Don’t quit until you physically can’t work on the project because it’s due.”

The Evolution of the 3D Emphasis

To stay relevant with the constantly changing demands of the workforce, it only makes sense a subject so closely tied to new technological developments has changed considerably over the years.

The Lab Trolls were some of the last GComm majors with an emphasis in 3D. The 3D emphasis that started around 2005 has morphed into what is now the animation major, which was effective Fall 2013. It concentrates on the creation of technical graphics, 3D modeling and techniques used in the animation industry, including game graphics, 3D simulations and traditional 2D animation.

MSUM is one of just a few universities in the Upper Midwest to offer a four-year degree in animation.


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