Persistence of Vision: How 2D Animation Education is Surviving Today

When last year’s student Oscar for animation was handed out, it went to a 2D animated film, Alex Woo’s Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher.

But the extent to which 2D will continue to flourish among students seems to be an open question in today’s 3D-saturated climate. Some well-known schools like Sheridan, Cal Arts, The Art Institutes and The Savannah College of Art And Design are maintaining 2D classes, but training in traditional animation has given way to an emphasis on 3D at many other institutions.

Some educators chalk this up to the influence of a professional marketplace in which 2D movies are increasingly eclipsed by 3D. ‘There are more opportunities in 3D than in 2D,’ admits Eric Elder, who teaches 2D animation at The Art Institute of California in Los Angeles. ‘I always have several students every quarter who say: ‘ I only want to do 2D.’ ‘I feel it’s my responsibility to tell them ”Don’t stop doing 2D, but be realistic and learn some 3D to be employable.”

Elder, himself a 2D animator whose credits include King Of The Hill The Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead, oversees 2D classes in two Bachelor of Science programs at The Art Institute’Media Arts & Animation as well as Game Art & Design. He teaches 2D in what he calls ‘Special production team classes.’ ‘I encourage students to do actual films, not just demo reels with spinning models that are samples of class work,’ he notes. ‘I want to make their education as close to a real world experience as possible.’

The results of this approach can be seen in a DVD collection of shorts from two production teams dubbed Shooting Stars and Red Giant, which Elder plans to submit to festivals. Meanwhile some of his 2D student animators have played a role in AICLA’s student-produced videogame Mage’s Mayhem, and others have landed jobs at THQ game developer Heavy Iron Studios on games like SpongeBob SquarePants. Games clearly offer a professional opportunity for 2D artists, believes Elder, ‘especially wireless games, where you can have 2D gaming experiences on your cell-phone. These ‘casual games’ are a multi-million dollar industry.’

The belief that videogames offer a promising career path for 2D artists is shared by classical animation professor David Quesnelle at Ontario-based Sheridan College. While Quesnelle’s background includes stints at Nelvana, at Disney’s Toronto animation studio and on Don Bluth films like The Land Before Time, he has also worked on 2D-animated videogames. ”I think there’s a wonderful opportunity there. There are lots of 2D games out now for the younger market.’

Quesnelle also sees a hopeful sign in the growing presence of 2D animation on the Web. ‘He points to the rapid Internet distribution of Eminem’s 2D-animated video Mosh as a high-profile example. ”It’s amazing. ‘Students can show their films to the whole world now.’

How soon the Web will provide a moneymaking venue for animators is unknown of course, but clearly 2D animation is poised to take advantage of the current downloading capabilities of the average home computer. ‘Given this, it’s probably not surprising that Macromedia’s web animation software Flash has joined the digital toolkit in many 2D animation courses. While Photoshop, AfterEffects and Flipbook are standard tools in current 2D animation classes, the ascendance of Flash is especially notable.

Eric Elder notes, ‘The shorts done by our Shooting Stars and Red Giant teams were Flash-animated. ‘And the newest version of Flash is even more animator-friendly.’ Another hopeful sign for 2D animators, adds Elder, ‘is that producers are starting to adapt Flash as a way to produce television shows. There’s a business model there. I know Mucha Lucha! ‘ is a show that uses Flash, and I think there are several new shows on Cartoon Network. Flash is giving U.S. producers the option of being able to produce a show here instead of shipping it overseas.’

While that might stir hopes for future employment among 2D students, neither Elder nor Quesnelle think the overall prospects for their graduates lie in knowing a particular tool. ‘You never know what software will be viable when someone graduates,’ says Elder.

Which is why Quesnelle believes the best preparation still lies in knowing time-tested fundamentals. Traditional animation is the foundation at Sheridan. Students leave here with excellent drawing, acting, and visual language skills, and we’re fighting to keep up that tradition. Even as the 3D animation industry grows, studios are finding that the more traditionally trained animators they can bring in, the better their shows are. Animators who just work on computers are giving themselves a handicap. At most studios, things start off on paper. If you need to go to a computer to communicate an idea, that slows things down immensely.’

The burden on educators is actually increasing as 2D animated feature production declines, believes Elder, ‘because we don’t have the studio apprentice system anymore. My biggest fear is that this tradition will get lost.’ So, like Quesnelle, Elder has one over-arching message for animation students who love 2D: ‘Don’t give up that love. Keep on drawing, because it will make you a better animator in the end.’ n

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

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