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Spot On: Andy Flessas (BA '90)

SpotOn-AndyFlessas.jpg
Photo: Josh Hawkins (BA ’02)

“I’m a computer animator who caught the robot wave.”

By Ann C. Logue

In 1980, when Mick Jagger wanted to get close to fans during Rolling Stones concerts, he climbed into a cherry picker. When Bon Jovi went on tour in 2010, Jon Bon Jovi opted for something a little more exciting to reach the crowds: robotically controlled video screens that would convert from a backdrop to steps and then to a lift, designed by Columbia College graduate Andy Flessas.

Flessas, also known as Andy Robot, owns Casino Arts, which creates specialty computer animation for shows and casinos in Las Vegas, and Robotic Arts, which designs patented robotically controlled video screens that move to add a new dimension to animation. Jon Bon Jovi was the first adopter of RoboScreen technology for the Bon Jovi Circle Tour, the top-grossing global concert draw in 2010. Flessas’ next step? Turn the technology into something the mass market can use.

Flessas has long been intrigued by robots. He had been asking himself how an animator would use robots when he hit on the idea of RoboScreens. “I’ve roboticized the most common item in any home,” Flessas says. “We spend our lives surrounded by stationary video screens. If they move, it’s because we pick them up ourselves. With robotic control, a screen could bob and weave to give gamers a new obstacle to conquer, or shimmy and shake to add a new dimension to action flicks.” Other ideas for the moving screens include marketing displays in grocery stores and monitors in hospitals to help doctors treat patients.

As a student, Flessas commuted to Columbia College from Milwaukee, lugging his camera equipment on the train each day. His major campus influence was professor Barry Young, who still teaches animation. When Flessas took Young’s classes, computer animation involved a Mauer camera, a 16-millimeter film camera pointed in front of the computer screen to capture the images, which took up to five minutes to regenerate. Nowadays, students can generate the images in real time and record them on their hard drives, without an external camera.

Flessas says Young pushed his students to work beyond their perceived limits. “Barry Young inspired me to strive for excellence, to believe in my vision, and then taught me how to get there,” Flessas says.

He adds: “Everybody is creative, and everybody has talent, but not everybody is willing to go into the shadows to where your ideas lead you.” At Columbia, he learned to push his art to the next level.

After graduation, Flessas set up an animation business in Milwaukee. One of his clients was Potawatomi Bingo and Casino, and that work brought him to the attention of other casino operators. Las Vegas resort operators, looking for the Next Big Thing, were willing to support Flessas’ ideas for creative animation. The income and experience with large projects gave the entrepreneur the freedom to experiment. Suddenly, audacious ideas like robotic video screens became real.

Flessas remains in motion during his free time: His hobby is riding motocross bikes in the Nevada desert. Even at home, he and his wife chase after their two-year-old son, known as Andy Robot Two.

Whether he’s working with rock bands, traveling to China to research manufacturers, or designing a new animation for casino signage, Flessas marvels at his animated career. “Every day is so weird in my life,” he says. “It’s just so interesting.”