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Choosing An Animation School

Before signing up for training and signing that check there are several key facts that you need to know. Larry Lauria explains.

When choosing an animation school, a student can feel a bit like "Bambi in the headlights." The fact of the matter is, everyone feels the mental congestion brought on by the plethora of colleges, universities and trade schools competing for the attention and dollars of potential candidates. So, take a deep breath, stand back and make an informed decision.

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Before even beginning to peruse the long list of available schools you must decide for yourself: "At what level do I aspire to work when I graduate?" For example, if you desire to work at one of "The Bigs" -- Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Bros., Fox, etc. -- then the prescribed path will be somewhat different from that of someone who wants to build Web sites and do smaller Flash animation projects. Keep in mind that, now a days, the gap is growing smaller. Because of lower bandwidths, the Web is hungry for folks with classical animation skills.

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This article is not directed toward those interested in studying the art form for its own sake. Rather it is focused on how to find good animationeducation for those aspiring to become working professionals in the global animation industry. When choosing a program, it is always best to aspire to the highest level possible, since it is easier to move from classical animation into personal or experimental, than vice versa.

Your search can be distilled into three ingredients: the curriculum, the faculty and the facility.

The Curriculum:

The curriculum is one of the most important aspects of one's education. And in animation education, the most important element is drawing! Look for at least one drawing class (preferably 6 hours) a week for every termin school. The saying in the industry is, "The better your drawing, the further you'll go." There is no substitute (not even computer software!) for drawing. The best animation programs have plenty of drawing: a combination of life drawing, layout animation and fundamental drawing studies. "The Bigs" want folks who can draw. If they have to choose between drawing, animation or computer skills, their choice would be...drawing!

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Beware of the "bells and whistles!" The "bells and whistles" are the computers and software some schools try to substitute for drawing. Computers are sexy; they lure students into schools. But make sure to check the curriculum for the amount of drawing. Software programs come and go -- drawing is forever! Does it help to know the computer? Yes. Just be sure it is not a substitute for plenty of drawing.

What else should one look for in an animation curriculum? Animation skills, storytelling, layout, character design, direction, design, editing, acting and visual communication. Animation skills should include not only a knowledge of fundamentals (weight, movements, timing, reversals, motivational forces and thinking time, etc.), but development in posing, breakdowns, in-betweening, clean-up and special effects (wind, rain, shadows, water, explosions, etc.) as well. These skills will prove very helpful when one first enters the job market. Visual communication is defined by topics such as design, composition, texture, color theory, etc.

If inquiries into curriculum are answered by statements such as: "Oh, you can pick up the drawing with electives"...Beware! This often means the school does not place an emphasis on drawing. Also remember: studios like well-rounded people, so a healthy dose of academic classes will also be desirable.

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The Faculty: Another important element to look for in an animation school is the faculty. Good animation instructors are a commodity. The lure of the industry (and pay) far surpasses what most schools can offer. The faculty should have experience in instruction as well as experience at a desirable level of animation in the industry. Some of the best instructors are animators who work at their craft and teach part-time; or conversely, who teach full-time and pick-up freelance work on the side. Such arrangements allow teachers to offer students the most up-to-date information, expertise and insights into the field. Beware of classes taught by grad students and instructors who have never really worked in the industry, or who have been out of the industry for some time.

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When evaluating a program, try to look at the instructors' work; it will give an indication of their depth of knowledge. If you are able to observe classes, keep in mind that animation instructors who demonstrate and not just explain and oversee, are the most desirable. Ask some questions: How many instructors teach how many students? How large are the classes? Do students receive the individual attention necessary to develop? Ask the questions before committing to a program. Its your money and future.

The Facility:

The third ingredient is the facility. Though the curriculum and faculty are more important, it is an important aspect. When it comes to facilities, the following questions should be asked: How old or new is the equipment and building? What is the size of the facility? What is the ratio of equipment to students? What will be your access to the equipment? Are there designated areas for animation and for drawing? Are the pencil test systems in the studios up to date? How many pencil test systems are there? Do the studios have demo systems for the instructors? What kinds of hardware and software are in use? Is there an equipment update plan in the budget? Does the school have animation camera stands; digital ink and paint systems; editing and sound facilities (or an arrangement with a professional facility)? The answers to these questions will provide insight into the quality and direction of the program.

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The curriculum, the faculty and the facility are the main elements to consider when choosing a school. Another factor influencing your choice might be the hiring of graduates by the industry (what percentage and at what levels). Is there job placement assistance at graduation and beyond? How do the current students and recent graduates feel about the education they have received? How is the school rated by the industry? "The Bigs" know which schools produce results. Look for partnerships between the industry and schools. Finally, ask to see the school's "student reel"...what does the reel present? Does it have substance and display thinking, breathing characters that spark emotion and tell stories? Or does it resemble a rock video gone badly with loud music and a mish-mash of unrelated images?

Remember, you are searching for the school that will help you toward your professional goals. Don't be distracted by slick, flashy brochures and Web sites. Examine and investigate the curriculum, faculty and facility: these will help you make an informed decision and a satisfactory choice.

Don't miss AWN's Animation School Directory, which is available for download free of charge. Our school directory is your complete, indispensable reference guide to over 440 animation related schools and educational institutions from 37 different countries. This is a must have resource for anyone considering a future in animation.

Larry Lauria is an animator/educator with 25 years in the industry. When not working on his current millennium animation project, 2KJ, Larry keeps himself busy working as a freelance animator and classical animation instructor. He can also be found designing animation curricula, or traveling around the world giving animation workshops and master classes. His Web site "The Toon Institute" is part of the AWN family.