The Best Schools for Narrative Storytelling

Crafting strong narrative in student animation is often overlooked, and Heather Kenyon makes the case for several top programs that have excelled in recent years.

With five entries and its multiple prize-winner Oktapodi, Gobelins dominated this year's SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival. The school consistently has turned out strong student works. © Gobelins.

With five entries and its multiple prize-winner Oktapodi, Gobelins dominated this year's SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival. The school consistently has turned out strong student works. © Gobelins.

I am sure with a title like this I am going to get into all kinds of trouble! There are many schools with great programs; however, these are the schools whose graduating students are consistently turning out complete, outstanding narrative films that have caught my eye again and again. These "student films" could go head-to-head with any festival film, and, in fact, frequently show up their professionally-done brethren. The stories are complex, interesting and well told and their artistry and command of techniques and tools is superb.

Gobelins L'Ecole de L'Image

Dominating this year's SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival with five entries and the multiple prize-winner Oktapodi, Gobelins consistently has some of the strongest student works out there. Funded by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris, the school is best known for the Cinéma Department of Animation, which was founded in 1975 by Pierre Ayma. The school prides itself on being almost 90% taught by working professionals and constantly monitors real-world production pipelines to make sure that their graduates have the necessary skills to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation. During the three-year program, the students produce a wide range of work that remains influenced by a strong tradition of drawing while incorporating the latest digital tools. While learning CGI software, the students are also pushed to hone such time-honored animation techniques as acting and timing. This shines through in their final works. Just watch Oktapodi for proof. The facial animation and a few subtle tentacle waves from the film's two octopi protagonists are what really help deliver on this story of never-dying love. Moreover, during holidays and breaks the students do internships at different production companies and studios. The students' third year is devoted to not only classes, but also their senior thesis film, which is done in groups. They may use whatever techniques they would like. Each year, Gobelins students do a different short film for each day of the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. Anima Facta Est and Le Building, which were featured in numerous other film festivals, are two recent stand-outs. Blind Spot is another one of their brilliant student films this year, which re-creates a crime scene using surveillance footage. From Europe to Asia, this school's films have won too many awards to mention.

Supinfocom's films frequently strive to tell stories that are well-paced and timed. Recent favorites include Bolides (l) and Marin. Courtesy of Superinfocom. 

Supinfocom's films frequently strive to tell stories that are well-paced and timed. Recent favorites include Bolides (l) and Marin. Courtesy of Superinfocom. 

Supinfocom (École SUPérieure d'INFOrmatique de COMmunication)

With a title that roughly translates into the School of Communication Science, it is not hard to see why this school is frankly one of the best of the best in producing stunning narrative films. Founded in only 1988 in Valenciennes and then expanding in 2000 to Arles, this French school is fabulous. The first two years of study are preparatory courses in design, art history, sculpture, 2D animation, color, perspective, etc. Then the students move onto three years of intensive 3D study, focusing on not only software, compositing and production, but also scripting and storyboards. The final year is spent working within a group to create a short CG film. Beginning in 2007, they expanded the program from four to five years. I cannot say enough about the high quality of their graduates' films. They are fantastic from both a technical and narrative perspective. When the school started, and CGI was a much younger art form, their films were mostly technical exercises but they have quickly grown into a leading narrative school. When considering their last year's works what really strikes one is the variation of styles and stories. Moreover, their films frequently strive to tell stories that are more than one off jokes. They are well-paced and timed. Some of my recent favorites are Bolides by François-Xavier Bologna, Théophile Bondoux , Lyonel Charmette and Vincent Le Ster, featuring late night shenanigans in a retirement home, and the beautiful Marin directed by Alexandre Bernard, Pierre Pages and Damien Laurent, where CG takes on the look of puppets and paper cut-outs. The year before yielded the hip noir Story Ville, created using, as an example of the student's technical prowess, 3ds Max, Premiere, After Effects and Photoshop; and the lovable Goodbye Canine, a thriller involving mice acting as the tooth fairy. The school is preparing to open a new campus in India.

Dachau Near Munich (l) by Frederik Ring and Bärenbraut by Derek Roczen show off Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg's serious commitment to film festivals. © Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg.

Dachau Near Munich (l) by Frederik Ring and Bärenbraut by Derek Roczen show off Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg's serious commitment to film festivals. © Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg.

Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg

Baden-Württemberg is one of the most affluent states in Germany and home to companies such as Porsche and SAP AG. However, it is also home to the national film school Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, located in Ludwigsburg. This school is very serious about film festivals! Founded in 1991 as a non-profit company, they early on realized the importance of having a presence at film festivals and opened a Festival Office in 1995. The office helps students work out a festival strategy for their film and then ensures that it is entered and sent around the world. Their work is paying off. In 2006, the Filmakademie was represented by 760 films, 100 of which won awards! Six Filmakademie films were in the SIGGRAPH Animation Festival this year, a strong, strong showing. What impresses me about Filmakademie though is that their films are not all CGI. They produce a number of different techniques from 2D to 3D to every combo in between and their films are frequently by one or two students, not large teams.

The completeness and professionalism of these films is amazing. One of their best-known works is probably 2003's Das Rad, which was nominated for the Oscar in Best Animated Short Film. Quite a feat for this stop-motion, puppet and CGI student film by Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel and Heidi Wittlinger. I am also very fond of Dachau Near Munich by Frederik Ring. This film was completed in 2006 and is a child talking about his hometown, blissfully unaware of its history. Another favorite of mine is the recent Bärenbraut by Derek Roczen. So far this year I have seen Roczen's film at SIGGRAPH and at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Normally films wouldn't cross over between these two different events but this one is special. Among the school's mentors is Andreas Hykade, director of such fantastic films as We Lived in Grass, The Runt and Ring of Fire. I recently spent time with him at the Anima Mundi Festival in Brazil and his insight into story, a film's purpose and intent, is great. I can imagine his students are challenged and made to think of narrative in a very complex and meaningful way.

USC's program came on strong in the late '90s. At the 2001 L.A. SIGGRAPH Values by a USC MFA student was named Best Animation at the Electronic Theater. Directed by Van Phan. © USC.

USC's program came on strong in the late '90s. At the 2001 L.A. SIGGRAPH Values by a USC MFA student was named Best Animation at the Electronic Theater. Directed by Van Phan. © USC.

The University of Southern California

Disclaimer: I am a Trojan! But I have to say I am so impressed with the growth of USC's animation program. While USC first offered "Introduction to the Photoplay" in 1929 and was the first university to have a degree in film, animation came to the university much later in 1970. While they expanded into computer animation in 1985, it wasn't until the mid to late '90s that I would say the films from USC's program began to come on strong appearing impressively at festivals and at the "First Look" annual show. It is a program that has gone from zero to 60 in the course of 10 years and doesn't show a sign of stopping. John C. Hench of Disney fame got involved in the program in 1997, along with such distinguished faculty as Christine Panushka, Ishu Patel, Kathy Smith and Vibeke Sorensen. At the 2001 L.A. SIGGRAPH Values by Van Phan, a USC MFA student, was selected as Best Animation at the Electronic Theater.

In 2002, one of my favorites, student film Horses on Mars by Eric Anderson, was selected for the Sundance Film Festival. Since then they have been off and running with films appearing in Hiroshima, Anima Mundi, Zagreb, Annecy and, of course, SIGGRAPH's Electronic Theater. I was on the pre-selection committee for Zagreb Animafest in March of 2006, when the USC films were shown and I was surprised by their sudden leap forward in quality and storytelling. They were meaningful films, beautifully done, with big name advisors like Igor Kovalyov attached. One standout is Small & Deep Love Stories by Hsin-Ping Pan. In 2006, the Hench Foundation endowed the program in John's name. George Lucas then went on to endow the school further with $175 million. This included a brand-new state-of-the-art building. I know the mantra at USC is story, story, story. I also know it is a serious place to learn. They are there to prepare people for the industry. Now with a great faculty in place, a huge endowment and facilities galore, I expect great films from this school.

California Institute of the Arts

Created in 1961 by Walt and Roy Disney through the merger of two professional schools, the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, founded in 1883, and the Chouinard Art Institute, founded in 1921, CalArts is the grandfather of all animation schools in the United States. Their Producer's Show, held at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Theater, is sold out every year with people scrambling for tickets to see the Character-Based Animation program films.

Horses on Mars was selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 2002, and since then USC has been off and running with films appearing at all the major animation festivals. Directed by: Eric Anderson. © USC.

Horses on Mars was selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 2002, and since then USC has been off and running with films appearing at all the major animation festivals. Directed by: Eric Anderson. © USC.

All of the major studios attend, taking large blocks of seats. Each student creates a film and most are 2D. While this program provides a great place to scout and recruit talent, on a global level these films are often not as complete as those created by other programs. Frequently they are still in pencil test form, which could be attributed to the fact that these films are done by single filmmakers and not teams. The stories are more cartoony in nature and often are built of a joke and pay off, geared more for the Spike and Mike crowd. Deeper and more complete films are often found in the graduate films of the Experimental Animation program. Standouts from this program in recent years have been Miwa Matreyek's Grater City and Digitopia and Song E. Kim's Dinner Table, which is worth multiple viewings to understand the nuances of the idle conversation.

Other schools I wouldn't miss are:

Hochschule fur Film und Fernsehen, "Konrad Wolf" Potsdam-Babelsberg

This school had three entries in the SIGGRAPH Animation Festival; two of them were absolutely the funniest crowd pleasers on the bill: Tomer Eshed's Our Wonderful Nature and Chump and Clump by Michael Herm and Stephan Sacher were both well-timed, well-plotted hilarious shorts. Who said Germans aren't funny? I really think they should check out these two pieces! Konrad Wolf is the oldest film school in Germany and was founded in 1954. In 2000, they moved into a brand-new state of the art building. Keeping their enrollment numbers low, they teach a mix of theory and practical industry techniques.

Since 1983, London's Royal College of Art has been contributing to the industry animation greats with films like Suzie Templeton's Dog. © The Royal College of Art 2001.

Since 1983, London's Royal College of Art has been contributing to the industry animation greats with films like Suzie Templeton's Dog. © The Royal College of Art 2001.

Royal College of Arts

Since 1983, London-based RCA has been contributing to the industry animation greats like Suzie Templeton (Dog, Peter and the Wolf), Jonathan Hodgson (The Man with Beautiful Eyes), Ruth Lingford (Death and the Mother) and the list goes on and on. Led by Joan Ashworth, RCA produces a number of excellent films each and every year. A top choice of mine is Ian Gouldstone's guy101 that made the festival rounds in 2006-2007, being in Portland's Platform, as well as Ottawa and others. Utilizing the mechanisms of speaking and meeting people through the Internet, Gouldstone tells a griping story but also comments on the nature of communication in the digital age. We can tell, for example, all the types of fish in a lake near a man's home, but understanding what inner demons or emotions drive him remain incomprehensible. Another notable recent film is Sleep with the Fishes by Belle Mellor.

Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem

Honored at the Ottawa Festival in 2007 for the best collection of student films, Bezalel has quickly come up to be a school to be watched for sure. Winning over the U.K.'s well-known and prestigious National Film and Television School (home to such greats at Nick Park and Alison Snowden & David Fine), such films as Michael Faust and Ariel Belinco's Beton and Uri Kranot and Michal Pfeffer's God On Our Side surely put this school over the top. Bezalel offers a four-year program with the fourth year dedicated to the completion of a film either by oneself or in a team. Overall, the program is carefully crafted with each year expanding upon groundwork that was completed the year before.

And while there are probably a dozen to 15 truly great animation schools in the world, it never stops those enterprising, brilliant one-off students who come along and surprise us all, sending recruiters and talent scouts searching websites, "Now where is this school? What are their other films?"

Heather Kenyon is a consultant specializing in the development and production of animation. For five years, she worked at Cartoon Network, where she was the senior director of development, original series, leading the development of all series for children 6-11 years of age. She is also the former editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.

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