Insider Tips: Some of today’s top pros share their insights on getting the right animation education

+DreamWorks animator Cameron Hood couldn’t have predicted the circumstances surrounding the return to his alma mater, Toronto’s Sheridan College. But when the school invited DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg to address Sheridan’s students, Hood joined him onstage. This trip came a year before the debut of First Flight, the 2006 CG short which Hood co-directed with DreamWorks animator Kyle Jefferson, so Hood couldn’t share that story. But he did tell students how his three years at Sheridan influenced his career. ‘It was a unique opportunity to explain what it was like going from school to work.’

Most computer animation pros probably can’t revisit their colleges, but several did volunteer perspectives on their schooling’including Hood’s co-director Kyle Jefferson, who joined Dreamworks after taking Sheridan’s compressed curriculum. Also reflecting on his intensive animation training was Rhythm & Hues’ Thom Roberts, (Happy Feet) who attended the Vancouver Film School in 2002-3.

Other pros offered insights about four-year BFA programs, including Tippett Studio’s Ryan Hood, (Charlotte’s Web) who got his degree in 2001 at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University. Blur Studio’s Jeff Fowler earned his degree at Ringling in Florida in 2002′an education that prepared him to create the Oscar-nominated short Gopher Broke just two years after graduation. Cal Arts ’05 alum Joshua Look spoke of how L.A.’s acclaimed art college readied him to work at Nickelodeon and on Laika Studios’ upcoming feature, Jack & Ben. Finally, underscoring the adage ‘The more you learn, the more you earn,’ Gil Kenan recounted how his ’02 MFA efforts at UCLA’s Animation Workshop led directly to his 2006 directorial debut, Sony’s Monster House.

The Fundamentals

Clearly, educational choices are plentiful these days, especially when you add online options like Animation-Mentor.com. So direct comparisons are difficult’in terms of both cost and coursework. But one point on which the pros agree is the importance of foundational art courses.

Figure drawing classes top the list. A.A.U. alum Ryan Hood observes, ‘They helped my understanding of the human form. Strong, clear poses are important in animation, and figure drawing helps strengthen those poses.’ Kyle Jefferson concurs. ‘What I got from Sheridan was classical training in got to DreamWorks I knew how to take apart a script and draw storyboards. Anyone can learn Maya but not everyone can learn to draw.’

This is also true even in Ringling’s noted CG program, says Jeff Fowler. ‘Your first year has nothing to do with computers; It’s figure drawing, color & design and learning how to compose traditional images. That helps later when you’re doing layouts, setting up a camera for a shot and having opinions about lighting.’

Joshua Look reports similar experiences in CalArts’ Character Animation program, likening his first year to an artistic ‘boot camp.’

‘I took maybe one CG class that year. They didn’t even require CG classes for character animators until my senior year.’ This may seem surprising’considering all the CalArts Character grads who are producing computer animation at Pixar’but it highlights the enduring usefulness of foundational art courses.

The Power of Peers

The abilities of the educators teaching these courses are crucial, but it’s hard for prospective students to evaluate that unless they can query graduates. Certainly UCLA’s notable alumni roster speaks volumes about its faculty’s skills, but there’s a halfcentury track record behind them. Also worth weighing is the opinion voiced by Kyle Jefferson, who with Cameron Hood has taught at L.A.’s Gnomon for five years. ‘The most successful teachers I had at Sheridan were working teachers. The classes Cam and I teach use real world experiences that are never more than a couple of months old.’

More nebulous to assess is the influence of fellow students, which can be substantial (and relies on lucky timing). For example, while CalArts’ faculty is widely lauded, Joshua Look extols the value of collaborative students. ‘Every person’except the foolish few’goes to their neighbors for feedback. When you show fellow students your work you get new perspectives, even if you don’t change what you’ve done. It prepares you to work on a team in the industry.’

Thom Roberts recalls how student collaborations helped them flourish within the 24/7 environment of Vancouver’s compressed curriculum. ‘Our instructors weren’t there at 4 a.m., so we learned to ask other students. It’s very similar to production, where you can’t always ask the director if something looks right.’

Jeff Fowler admits, ‘It can be nervewracking to put yourself out there and bounce ideas off Jeff Fowler Monkey Pit people. But it’s the only way to improve. If someone doesn’t understand your work, you’ve got to be able to deal with that professionally. That’s the real world.’ And the motivational aspects of what Fowler calls ‘benign competition’ can’t be underestimated. As Gil Kenan observes, ‘You need the energy that varying voices create. Seeing exciting work that’s unlike yours is a real jolt. It makes you want to make better films. Almost everyone makes one stinker in school, so it’s really important to put it up and see what doesn’t work.’

Perfecting The Pitch

Student interactions may be ephemeral, but a perennial part of animation training involves mastering ‘the art of the pitch.’ That’s especially true where schools require students to regularly produce individual films. Pitching your storyboards, says Kenan, ‘Is a ‘litmus test.’ Our teacher invariably asked: ‘Could this be done in live action?’ If you had a magical teapot in a sword-fight you’d say ‘No way.’ But if you had a humanbasedstory you’d have to give reasons why it was suited for animation. Pitching is about as vulnerable as you ever get in this world, but if you can’t defend your drawings that’s a useful lesson.’ The pitch process also dissuades fledgling animators from proposing ‘epics’ that outstrip their time, resources and abilities. Thom Roberts admits, ‘There’s always the tendency to think big and be completely unrealistic.’ Jeff Fowler agrees. ‘You think you can make a five-minute film with 20 characters, but in two minutes your teacher disapproves. It’s tough love!’ Such critiques, however disappointing, provide preparation for the studio notes that professionals regularly receive. As Ryan Hood remarks, ‘That’s reflected in our jobs every day when we attend dailies and hear from directors.’

Showtime and Beyond

In the end, what determines students’ professional opportunities is the quality of the reel they can show prospective employers. Most schools are proactive about preparing their students for festival screenings, and host career days where students meet studio reps. CalArts holds legendary job fairs, Ringling is ever present at SIGGRAPH and posts student films on iTunes.

The most heartening outcome is what happened when UCLA chose Gil Kenan’s $400 film The Lark for its Spotlight Awards. In the audience sat a CAA rep, who offered Kenan representation. Through that, Kenan got to see the Monster House script, and his ideas (welldrawn, of course) so impressed producers Zemeckis and Spielberg that Kenan landed the director’s job. He’s now working on his second feature.

Lest you think that was fluke, remember that UCLA grad Shane Acker is now turning his student film 9 into a Tim Burton-produced feature. And over at DreamWorks, Jefferson and Hood are developing a feature to codirect. When Cameron Hood ended his talk to Sheridan’s students, he left them with advice that applies to all student animators: ‘This is a craft. The more time you put into it, the better you’ll get. Chuck Jones said, ‘There are 100,000 bad drawings in everyone. Get them out as soon as possible.’ So keep drawing. Don’t stop.’

Ellen Wolff is a Los Angeles-based journalist who specializes in visual effects, animation and education.