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The Animation Studios/Animation Schools Relationship

Tara DiLullo Bennett gets the scoop on Sanctuary, which marks a new media experiment for sci-fi shot in HD and made with XSI and ZBrush.

The animation industry needs trained people who can hit the ground running. There are many schools where industry professionals and faculty with skills to match pass on the secrets of their trade. Image courtesy of

"Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" has never been a fair aphorism, particularly when it applies to the study of animation. Cartooning is both an art form and a craft, one passed on to new generations by its current practitioners. In the old, pre-CGI days an on-the-job apprenticeship was the only way to learn. Today however, there's no small number of schools where industry professionals and full-time faculty with skills to match pass on the secrets of their trade.

It's a good thing, too; the animation industry needs trained people who can hit the ground running. Feature and TV animation is booming... the Internet is continually growing as a market for new work... and companies creating high-end videogames need more skilled CGI animators all the time. Expensive software packages (and computers powerful enough to run them) are beyond the average person's budget, but a promising portfolio (and a tuition loan) will more than likely let you get hands on the equipment at one Cartoon U or another.

Then what happens? At the end of three or four years' worth of study you're ready to step out into the "Real World" (if that expression can be applied to anything having to do with cartoons) and show you've got the right stuff. When things go smoothly, everyone benefits: a student becomes a professional, the school proves its worth to both future students and the industry, and the studios get the trained personnel they need to stay at the top of their game. Making sure things go smoothly for the kids falls to the adults involved -- the schools and the studios.

More often than not, an unpaid internship is a student's first step out of the school and into the business. Finding an internship can be a challenge, involving factors out of anyone's control. "Last year we had no interns. We were too busy to spare senior people who could mentor them," says Joe Caggiano, Digital Domain's recruiting manager. "If we don't have a strong person to lead or hold hands, the intern would sit here all day and stare at the keyboard. It depends on our production needs as well. This year we're very intern-heavy. We have a show ramping up at the end the end of summer. We'll be looking for a lot of entry-level people because the tasks are simple. Somebody out of school would be able to jump into it a lot faster than they could on a more intense project."

With its ties to the Hollywood animation community, CalArts makes sure to keep the lines of communication between its students and the studios wide open. First- and second-year students are invited to Friday night pizza parties with studio recruiters and the occasional creative talent. "It's a fun and easy-going event," according to Jessica White, the school's career and internship advisor. "They talk about how their studios work and how they go about recruiting. We do it during the fall semester when the students are less busy -- in the spring they're animating their films."

A Friday night visiting lecture series is a year-round event at the school, one that students can take for credit. "It's at 7:00 pm, right after the pizza party," White explains. "The studio artists are much more influential than the recruiters -- students will say, 'Wow, I want to be like that person, I want that job.' Fridays are just hours and hours of studio interaction. Some nights we'll have DreamWorks for pizza and afterwards somebody from Pixar for the lecture."

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Some 40 companies show up for CalArts year- end portfolio review. The schools main gallery is filled with rows of tables for students portfolios, résumés and reels for the visiting recruiters. Photo credit: Scott Groll

Duck season, rabbit season... As far as the animation world is concerned, April and May is recruiting season. Animation studios, staffing up for fall TV series premieres are looking over the latest crop of graduating students in search of top talent. Some 40 companies show up for CalArts' year-end portfolio review and student film screening. White describes an "elaborate" event, with the school's main gallery filled with rows of tables, one for each student and grouped by year of study. Students leave their portfolios along with résumés and copies of their reels for the visiting recruiters to pick up. "There's a huge quantity of material the studios have to go through in a limited amount of time," White reports, "not just portfolios, but armatures, sculptures -- all sorts of work."

The studios spend the morning reviewing the students' efforts, then post their callback lists. Their tables line the gallery's perimeter, where they interview students of interest. "I'm surprised how diverse the studios are," White says. "It does seem like some studios jump on the same person because another one wants them. I'm always surprised looking at the callback sheets. Everyone has a different style. Some studios are looking for someone with a wide variety of work; others are looking for a niche artist. It's a pretty diverse list of people who get called back; some studios call back almost everyone."

A similar process takes place at Sheridan's School of Animation Arts and Design in Canada. The school's April "Industry Day" event has been going on for "a very long time, several decades at least," estimates Sheridan's Tony Tarantini, with some 160 reps from 60 companies attending this year. After industry representatives look over the students' work, "they give us a list of students they want to see and we set up rooms for interviews the following day. It takes a bit of work to get all that done overnight.

Sheridans Tony Tarantini reports 160 reps from 60 companies attending Industry Day this year. She has a bit of a love/hate relationship with the recruitment process as it distracts the students from finishing school.

"We've had companies calling ahead since February. They want to get a step ahead of Industry Day and check out the talent. Sometimes they start issuing contracts before the end of the term. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship to that. I think it's distracting to the students because they still haven't finished school. At the same time, the industry needs to get ready for April, because a lot of production happens then. In fact some students had to leave the last day of school because they had to start work on Monday." It almost sounds like agents might crash I-Day to offer their services to the most in-demand students, but Tarantini says it's no longer "like the mid-'90s when you had all that happening; that got a little out of hand."

On the other end of the equation, London's Framestore-CFC spokesperson Amy Smith admits that, "obviously there are some students we've been aware of through our links to the schools, who we've sort of tracked through their courses. We know they'll be good for us and we honestly try to target them directly." Her words summon up images of a cloak-and-dagger operation with Framestore's recruiters hiding behind trees, Smith demurs, "No, that's DreamWorks that does that."

Just as at CalArts, Sheridan's outreach to the industry continues all year long. Stop-motion studio Cuppa Coffee has set up a studio at the school where stop-motion scholars can practice that company's expertise as part of their studies. Students must spend 420 hours between their third and fourth years at an animation company to ear their degree, and currently has some 120 co-op students doing just that.

While the bigger studios can absorb interns, the smaller outfits tend to have trouble utilizing them. "We tried interns once or twice and it impacted us greatly -- in a negative way," says Glen Campbell, head of the Burbank effects house Area 51, a small shop that operates with a six or seven person core group. "How is the intern going to learn if someone is cranking out a shot that's due in a week for the Super Bowl? If one of our people takes time off to teach them, the job's not getting done and we don't make the Super Bowl delivery. Internship didn't work on our small scale -- it wasn't mutually beneficial."

At the other end of the scale, Framestore is able to take on interns as a luxury. According to Smith, "We make an effort to recruit graduates every summer even if we don't have specific vacancies. Last year we took on about 20 graduates we didn't necessary have junior vacancies for but we felt were talented and would be of benefit to the organization. This year we plan to take on 35 in the same way."

Framestore puts them to work and absorbs their expense in the company's bottom line. "They absolutely participate as artists. For their first three months we don't budget them to a show, which essentially gives the show extra artists for free. No project is going to turn that down, quite frankly."

Glen Campbell of Area 51 extols Gnomon for how it compresses its curriculum into one or two years of focused artistry. The school offers regular user group meetings in which students mix with professional communities. Courtesy of Gnomon.

The animation companies can be quite blunt in their assessment of the schools' pluses and minuses. Campbell extols Hollywood's Gnomon School of Visual Effects. "They have the same curriculum as many schools, but compressed into one or two years of focused artistry. You have to have a demo reel just to get in. Some schools will say, 'Your check cleared, you're an animator,' other schools say we're not going to let you in unless you demonstrate superior artistic ability because then you'll be worth training."

Digital Domain's Caggiano enthuses over Vancouver Film School's "amazing Houdini program," while in England, Smith says Framestore, "deals more closely with certain schools than others: Bournemouth, Teesside and Ravensbourne within the U.K., and the National Film and Television School as well. We've had the longest relationship with Bournesmouth. We are trying to increase the number of schools we deal with.

"The schools in continental Europe are actually better than the ones in the U.K. That's part of the problem and why we encourage the U.K. schools to improve." When I suggest she just offended everyone in England, Smith calmly replies, "We've made that very plain. They're very aware that they don't compete with continental Europe. I don't think that's a secret from them at all." Smith goes onto to spotlight a trio of schools on the continent: Supinfocom and Gobélins in France, and Germany's Filmakademie. "We think they're just fantastic, we take an awful lot of graduates from there. We want to encourage the U.K. schools to get up to that level, something we're actively pursuing. As a big company, we're trying to give something back, I guess."

CalArts Jessica White is surprised by the diversity of students who make it onto the studios callback lists for interviews. Photo credit: Scott Groller.

According to Smith, some 75,000 students are registered in animation programs at 80 different European schools. "We have lots and lots of applications, but very few meet the standards we feel are acceptable for a new graduate. The main problem is that the U.K. schools are teaching them to be generalists. In a big company like ours, we need very specific people. We try to encourage the schools to turn out people who have particular interest in something and train them in that specialty. Rather than just doing two days of Houdini, if someone is genuinely interested in that, give them the training to become an effects artist -- don't expect them to also model and animate, because not everyone was born to be an animator."

Smith adds -- and other industry people contacted for this article agree -- that, "we're fighting against the heads of departments and school deans who don't really understand our industry and what we do. They keep pushing back against the lecturers and say "This isn't academic enough.' We're pushing one way and the bureaucracy is pushing the other -- and the lecturers are trapped in the middle, trying to do what we want but also fighting against the powers that be."

Area 51's Campbell recalls attending, "a SIGGRAPH presentation a couple of years ago about recruiting from schools. The general consensus among the effects companies was that the schools were not doing a good job. They were turning out 'keyboard kids' -- they knew what the buttons did, but had no real problem-solving skills or ability.

"On a scale of one to 10, one is 'I've seen The Matrix 20 times,' and 10 is the guy who made The Matrix. In school, most students are fives; we're looking for sevens -- someone who looks at a stock tutorial shot and says, 'This would look so much better if you moved the camera here and the light over here,' and on their own improved the shot; someone who doesn't need to be told to do so and their reel shows that. In a very short time you can train them to become an eight, nine or even a 10.

"Several schools at SIGGRAPH said, 'Okay, we needed to hear this.' I visited the schools and tried to help shape their programs. We look at their curriculum and say, 'You're seriously lacking in this area, you might want to add a class in this.' The schools don't know what jobs are. Outside of code writers -- 'chip heads,' there's basically five jobs in physical effects: model; texture; light; animate and composite; if you don't do one of them superbly there's not a lot of room for you when you graduate."

Framestore-CFCs Amy Smith bluntly states, The schools in continental Europe are actually better than the ones in the U.K. Singled out are Supinfocom and Gobélins (above) in France, and Germanys Filmakademie. Courtesy of

Digital Domain's Caggiano agrees with Campbell's assessment, and adds that he's currently looking for some 15 interns with specific skills in lighting, technical direction, Houdini, tracking and software. All hope is not lost for the generalist however. According to Campbell, generalists can "do themselves a world of good -- if they are superb at everything," and suggests they focus on finding work at a small shop that hasn't split up the individual stages of production into separate departments.

At Sheridan, Tarantini also points out the growing use of animation beyond film and TV, "Different industries require our graduates. Architectural companies come in looking for people who can generate walk-throughs; even toy companies are looking for animators who can work on interactive games to go along with their toys."

New York University's John Canemaker points out the benefits of, "studios seeing work that is a reflection of who the students are. Rather than looking at [a professional's] commercial reel, they see work that the student has put their passion, personality into it.

"Even if they're weak in some aspect, they may be strong in another. Maybe his drawing ability isn't what it should be, but the story, characters, the personality is there -- the studio can get an inkling of what their strengths are. They look at it and say, 'That's an interesting story, maybe they'd be good in concept, maybe in animation, maybe technical is what we need them in.'"

Smaller animation programs have a different focus, revolving around teachers who are simultaneously industry professionals. David Levy, an instructor at New York's School of Visual Arts is the author of Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive, a manual on breaking into the business. "I always say one of best reasons to go to a school like SVA is that all the instructors here are working professionals -- they represent the animation community in New York. That's the bridge for a lot of students. I was lucky enough to benefit from this as well, as a student going through SVA to freelance for their instructors.

"They can recommend good students to employers and studios. A lot of instructors go way out of their way to help, long after their role in the classroom is over. There's a friendship and a mutual respect that develops; some of the best results come from an informal scenario," he said.

Back at Digital Domain, Caggiano cautions that, "the student is never really prepared for the Real World, because it's absolutely 100% different from doing your student reel. They think when they leave the school it's the same kind of relaxed environment. I let them know that during the production crunch it's 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week; you'll live, eat and sleep your job -- and then take two months off when you're done."

Finally, Campbell offers some additional advice to schools and students alike, "The biggest thing the schools need to do is teach art. I tell students don't watch Babylon 5 if you want to learn how to light something -- watch Law and Order, a live-action show where people sit and talk and they have to light and move the camera to make talking heads look visually interesting. You'll learn more from a show like that than you ever would from a sci-fi show where everything blows up every 10 minutes."

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.