Class Acts

Our an­nual look at five of the most in­no­va­tive and pop­u­lar an­i­ma­tion and VFX classes taught in col­leges around the coun­try.

Animation Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Tom McLean

Our an­nual look at five of the most in­no­va­tive and pop­u­lar an­i­ma­tion and VFX classes taught in col­leges around the coun­try.

For an­i­ma­tion stu­dents, school is def­i­nitely the per­fect place to learn the ba­sics of the craft while ex­pand­ing their per­sonal and cre­ative hori­zons. And with so many op­por­tu­ni­ties and new fron­tiers open­ing up for the art form, it’s no won­der that so many of the top an­i­ma­tion schools are find­ing fas­ci­nat­ing ways to pre­pare their stu­dents to make the most of it.

So here we present some of the most pop­u­lar and orig­i­nal classes of­fered at five of the top an­i­ma­tion schools in the United States. Some of them find new ways to in­still the foun­da­tions, while oth­ers of­fer flights into un­known ter­ri­to­ries. Ei­ther way, it’s an excellent ex­am­ple of the depth and qual­ity of an­i­ma­tion ed­u­ca­tion avail­able to stu­dents look­ing to take the art form by storm.

Slice of Life

Film­mak­ers have in­creas­ingly rec­og­nized an­i­ma­tion’s util­ity as a doc­u­men­tary tool and in­cor­po­rated it into fea­ture and doc­u­men­taries. CalArts pro­fes­sor Pia Borg helps stu­dents ex­plore those tech­niques in a class called Imag­in­ing Re­al­ity, part of the school’s ex­per­i­men­tal an­i­ma­tion pro­gram.

“The dis­tinc­tion be­tween doc­u­men­tary and fic­tion, that bound­ary is re­ally be­com­ing quite elu­sive in all ar­eas of cinema,” says Borg. “We’re en­ter­ing into an age where re­al­ity is more shock­ing than fan­tasy … and stu­dents are re­ally at­tracted to work­ing with nonfiction sub­jects.”

The class is geared to­ward MFA stu­dents and con­sists of a se­ries of screen­ings and dis­cus­sions with stu­dents cre­at­ing four short works in the class around a se­ries of dif­fer­ent briefs. One such brief might be to make a film about a lo­ca­tion, or do a por­trait or an ar­chive es­say film that draws on historical sub­jects.

“We of­ten as­so­ciate doc­u­men­taries with cap­tur­ing the real or show­ing re­al­ity,” says Borg. “An­i­ma­tion is re­ally in­ter­est­ing be­cause you’re able to cap­ture as­pects that can’t be filmed: a per­son’s in­te­rior state or events that haven’t been cap­tured.”

The class usu­ally has 12 to 14 stu­dents and de­mand is high for the class, which draws stu­dents from dis­ci­plines out­side an­i­ma­tion in the film and video depart­ment. The class is open to any tech­nique, be it stop-mo­tion, 2D an­i­ma­tion or CG.

CalArts stu­dents’ suc­cess sto­ries in­clude Dan­ski Tang, whose the­sis short Umbilical, won the silver medal in the in­ter­na­tional short film com­pe­ti­tion at the 2019 Lo­carno Film Fes­ti­val, and Sa­man­tha Gurry’s the­sis Win­ners Bitch, which was se­lected for the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

The chang­ing def­i­ni­tions of what con­sti­tutes a doc­u­men­tary and the grow­ing ac­cep­tance that doc­u­men­taries have al­ways been and al­ways will be con­struc­tions aligns the class with ex­per­i­men­tal film­mak­ing, Borg says.

“Ex­per­i­men­tal film­mak­ing does dis­tin­guish it­self from jour­nal­ism,” she says. “Stu

dents are deal­ing with emo­tional sub­jects … it’s about find­ing a truth in the rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the tone and ac­knowl­edg­ing that the voice of the film­maker is a part of the work.”

Ad­ven­tures in Mo­tion

Mo­tion de­sign is a growth area for an­i­ma­tion, and Rin­gling Col­lege of Art and De­sign preps stu­dents in­ter­ested in the field with a real­is­tic sim­u­la­tion of the job.

The core cur­ricu­lum, es­tab­lished in 2009, ad­dresses the main skillsets re­quired for a mo­tion de­sign ca­reer: con­cept devel­op­ment, an un­der­stand­ing of brand­ing and mar­ket­ing and the tech­ni­cal skills re­quired to de­liver a work­ing screen-ready prod­uct, says Ed Cheetham, head of the school’s mo­tion de­sign depart­ment.

The se­nior project pro­duc­tion stu­dio class recre­ates the en­vi­ron­ment stu­dents will find in a real stu­dio, and re­quires stu­dents each se­mes­ter to pro­duce six fin­ished prod­ucts cho­sen from a ros­ter of briefs.

“It gives them a very ac­cu­rate ex­pec­ta­tion of what their turn­around time is,” he says. “We don’t tell them how to solve the prob­lem, we just give them the chal­lenge.”

Ex­am­ples of briefs in­clude cre­at­ing a piece for Ex­tinc­tion Re­bel­lion, con­vey­ing the im­por­tance of vot­ing for Civic Na­tion, cre­at­ing AR apps for the Mel­low Mush­room restau­rant chain, scoreboard graph­ics for the Tampa Bay Light­ning hockey team and film ti­tles se­quences.

Stu­dents are given prac­ti­cal skills they need to func­tion in the work­place, such as how to work with art di­rec­tors, tak­ing notes dur­ing meet­ings and fol­low­ing up with co­work­ers.

“The stu­dents that have grad­u­ated say that class pre­pared them the best for the in­dus­try,” says Cheetham, who adds re­cruiters say Rin­gling grads are the best-pre­pared stu­dents they’ve ever hired.

Nick­elodeon has hired 14 pro­gram grads

in the past three years and one stu­dent was named to The Rook­ies plat­form for emerg­ing dig­i­tal artists. Classes are kept to about 15 stu­dents and meet twice a week for three hours at a time.

And the fu­ture is ex­pected to con­tinue to grow for this seg­ment. “Ev­ery­body needs some sort of graph­ics on the web, on­line, advertisem­ents,” he says. “Ev­ery­thing is turn­ing into a screen.”

Pow­ered by Un­real

‘We of­ten as­so­ciate doc­u­men­taries with cap­tur­ing the real or show­ing re­al­ity. An­i­ma­tion is re­ally in­ter­est­ing be­cause you’re able to cap­ture as­pects that can’t be filmed: a per­son’s in­te­rior state or events that haven’t been cap­tured.’

— Cal Arts pro­fes­sor Pia Borg

way through the dark,” says McNagny. “Ei­ther they get as­sis­tance from their class­mates — of course they get as­sis­tance from me, I do pro­vide a lec­ture ev­ery class pe­riod — but you know it’s a lit­tle bit where the onus of mak­ing this is theirs to bear.”

While some stu­dents have at­tempted nar­ra­tive VR projects, most cre­ate en­vi­ron­ments. McNagny says one stu­dent recre­ated her fa­vorite part of a park that over­looks the Golden Gate bridge in San Fran­cisco, while an­other cre­ated a rac­ing game. One stu­dent cre­ated a sim­u­lated space shut­tle launch game, in which the user has to ex­e­cute a spe­cific se­quence of com­mands with their hands to get their trans­port into or­bit suc­cess­fully.

Grad­u­ates have landed jobs at com­pa­nies like Ocu­lus and Baobab Stu­dios, and the class en­riches the school’s over­all an­i­ma­tion pro­gram. “Cer­tainly The VR class has been a great as­set in our tool­box in terms of the classes we teach,” says McNagny.

Map­ping Out a Ca­reer

USC was the first university to of­fer a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in film­mak­ing, and is renowned for ed­u­cat­ing in­no­va­tors such as Ge­orge Lu­cas and Robert Ze­meckis. The ad­di­tion in 1996 of the John C. Hench Divi­sion of An­i­ma­tion & Dig­i­tal Arts con­tin­ued its ded­i­ca­tion to teach­ing cut­ting-edge tech­niques such as a course in pro­jec­tion map­ping, added in the fall of 2018.

Hench DADA chair Teresa Cheng says that while pro­jec­tion map­ping has been around for a while, in­ter­est has been grow­ing as the tech­nol­ogy has ad­vanced.

The class is ti­tled Pro­jec­tion Map­ping De­sign & Pro­duc­tion, with in­struc­tor Jor­dan Halsey over­see­ing a class of about a dozen stu­dents.

Cheng says the class is equal parts tech­ni­cal and cre­ative work, with the goal be­ing to teach stu­dent in­dus­try stan­dards, how to cre­ate pro­jec­tion map­ping and cre­ate images that they can project onto 3D sur­faces of any type. “It could be a build­ing, it could be a tree, it could be a cake, it could be a sculp­ture,” Cheng says.

The course fits into USC’s over­all fo­cus of teach­ing an­i­ma­tion stu­dents to be con­tent cre­ators and film­mak­ers who choose an­i­ma­tion as their medium, Cheng says. “We try to ac­tu­ally im­press on them there are so many dif­fer­ent things out there, es­pe­cially now, that they can get into and have good op­por­tu­ni­ties to be cre­ative and also have a vi­able ca­reer.”

Pro­jec­tion map­ping has been used to cre­ate im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ences at con­certs, project the New Year’s Eve count­down onto build­ings at Grand Av­enue in down­town Los An­ge­les, and to brand en­tire build­ings for movie pre­mieres or other spe­cial events.

“There’s a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties out there for our stu­dents when they leave us to be­come part of these new ef­forts,” says Cheng. “Pro­jec­tion map­ping is so cool be­cause it’s a shared ex­pe­ri­ence … it’s not so lonely.”

Shar­ing a Tale

While hav­ing each stu­dent cre­ate a film is stan­dard for most an­i­ma­tion schools, Sheri­dan Col­lege in Canada re­flects the col­lab­o­ra­tive re­al­ity of life in the in­dus­try with its third-year fall-se­mes­ter course Sto­ry­board­ing: Ad­vanced Story Struc­ture.

‘When you’re work­ing on your own thing it’s not like work­ing on a real an­i­mated film.An­i­mated films are much more col­lab­o­ra­tive than even live-ac­tion films, I find, be­cause the story is kind of de­rived from board­ing and ev­ery­body has a kick at the can.’

— Sheri­dan fac­ulty mem­ber James Caswell

Taught by full-time fac­ulty mem­ber James Caswell, the class di­vides the en­tire thirdyear class into 12 film groups to pitch an idea and de­velop it, start­ing with beat boards, mov­ing to sto­ry­boards and devel­op­ment art and con­tin­u­ing into the spring se­mes­ter for pro­duc­tion as a three to four minute short.

“When you’re work­ing on your own thing it’s not like work­ing on a real an­i­mated film. An­i­mated films are much more col­lab­o­ra­tive than even live-ac­tion films, I find, be­cause the story is kind of de­rived from board­ing and ev­ery­body has a kick at the can,” Caswell ob­serves.

Fac­ulty serve as men­tors, of­fer­ing ad­vice but leav­ing the rest up to each group of stu­dents to de­cide among them­selves.

“It’s their first crack at try­ing to make a col­lab­o­ra­tive film,” says Caswell. “They fig­ure out how a story works in front of an au­di­ence, and that’s some­thing that in the first cou­ple of years here they don’t get.”

Along the way, stu­dents learn pro­fes­sional grace notes, such as putting in their best ef­fort on projects that may have come from other group mem­bers, mak­ing sure they don’t drop the ball and leave their team hang­ing at a cru­cial point, and learn­ing to fix a project when it isn’t work­ing.

“Of­ten, seven weeks in, they’re chang­ing their idea, and I tell them not to change their idea but what they do, is they have to re­think and make sure it’s land­ing,” he says. “It’s land­ing with them, but it’s not land­ing with the broader au­di­ence.”

The class earned praise from Sheri­dan alumna Domee Shi, who di­rected the Os­car-win­ning short Bao for Pixar. A project de­vel­oped in the class, The Fox & The Pi­geon di­rected by Michelle Chua and Aileen De­whurst, is nom­i­nated for best stu­dent film at this year’s An­nie Awards.

“It’s re­ally in­tense be­cause there’s eight months they work to­gether on these things at stu­dent work sta­tions, but they live with each other for about eight months so I think they learn a lot about how to work with peo­ple,” Caswell says.◆

‘I don’t want to say it’s un­charted ter­ri­tory, be­cause ob­vi­ously there are a lot of prac­ti­tion­ers out there by now. But what I al­ways ap­pre­ci­ate about Ocu­lus is that, back when they made this [VR equip­ment] do­na­tion, they made it clear that they’d love to see the stu­dent work just be­cause they’re sort of feel­ing their way through this as well.’

— NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts VR in­struc­tor Phil McNagny

Re­al­ity Bites: CalArts grad­u­ate Sa­man­tha Gurry’s the­sis project Win­ners Bitch was se­lected for the Toronto Int’l Film Fes­ti­val.

The an­i­ma­tion pro­gram at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts re­quires stu­dents to ex­pand on the fun­da­men­tals they learn with spe­cial top­ics, ex­plor­ing such new fron­tiers as VR with the Un­real En­gine, which was first taught at the school in 2015. Taught by as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Phil McNagny, the pro­gram started with a do­na­tion of 13 VR head­sets from one of the field’s top tech com­pa­nies, Ocu­lus, which was es­pe­cially in­ter­ested to see what stu­dents could do with the new medium. “I don’t want to say it’s un­charted ter­ri­tory, be­cause ob­vi­ously there are a lot of prac­ti­tion­ers out there by now. But what I al­ways ap­pre­ci­ate about Ocu­lus is that, back when they made this do­na­tion, they made it clear that they’d love to see the stu­dent work just be­cause they’re sort of feel­ing their way through this as well,” says McNagny. A dozen stu­dents are in each class and are tasked with cre­at­ing a VR ex­pe­ri­ence, which in­cludes cre­at­ing as­sets, learn­ing to use Epic’s Un­real En­gine cre­ation soft­ware, do­ing some script­ing and demo­ing the fi­nal project at the end of the se­mes­ter. “It’s pretty in­tense, you get a lot of work done in a short time,” he says. The process is very much one of trial and er­ror.“So much of it is just kind of feel­ing their

Prize Win­ner: Sheri­dan grad­u­ates Michelle Chua and Aileen De­whurst’s an­i­mated short The Fox & The Pi­geon is nom­i­nated for an An­nie Award this year.

Dragon Quest: In­spired by the art of Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle, Rin­gling stu­dents Paul Detlin and Liv Len­hoff cre­ated the stun­ning AR project The Hole in the Wall.

Hands On: Rin­gling’s mo­tion de­sign stu­dents work with fac­ulty on demo reel re­views at the open lab.

A se­quence from the in­no­va­tive VR project cre­ated by NYU Tisch School of the Arts grad­u­ate Bettina Avila.

Like Life: CalArts grad­u­ate Dan­ski Tang’s pow­er­ful short Umbilical has re­ceived much crit­i­cal praise world­wide.

Win­ners’ Club: Pixar’s Domee Shi, who di­rected the Os­car-win­ning short Bao last year, is a proud Sheri­dan Col­lege alum.

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