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Walt Disney - How to Train your Animator

Walt Disney lays out revealing thoughts about what up-and-coming animators should be taught, and how.

Nowadays, its easy to forget that Disney animation was a driving force in advancing animation. The name Walt Disney conjures up the corporation as much as it does the man, if not more so. So its very refreshing to get a direct glimpse into this man's thoughts, and that's what his correspondence allows. Recently, lettersofnote put up Walt's letter to Don Graham which lays out his thoughts behind a curriculum for animators.

Walt writes to Don Graham - from lettersofnote

If you're involved in or interested in animation education, its worth a read. Its very open in its concerns about finding a balance between the joint demands for technical craftsmanship and artistic creativity. Walt's answer to this issue strikes a chord in my own experiences working with students... shift the educator's goals to peripheral aspects of the coursework.

Okay, that's a bit heavily paraphrased. In proposing a systematic approach to teaching animation he proposes "not going too straight". Why not combine a straight walk with the task of exaggeration or a comic interpretation, he suggests.

"I ... think this is a very good idea, and constitutes a far better approach for the younger men than giving them too many straight natural things that direct their minds to the unimaginative end of the business.It is possible that with the comedy, you can still teach them the fundamentals of all these actions."

Of course I'm tainted by my own experiences in the educational trenches, but I envision a room full of students, most of which tout disproportionate amounts of confidence and all of which have skewered ideas about how a major animation production functions and what their role will be. Walt's suggestion echoes what any educator knows: you learn the most when you're having fun. Instead of dry technical exercizes, he suggests fun, comic walks - with the student proposing his or her own comic premise. "How would a pot-belly look? How about a bloated balloon-man?" 

If the students are running after their own self-set goal, they are more open to advice and criticism intended to help them get there, pointing out the issues that they should be concerned with peripherally - as stepping stones to their goal. The educator is assisting them and they are (more or less) grateful.

The alternative is that the educator is a contractor. He or she lays out the task, defines the goal and supervises the students' progress. The educator is the boss, the students are there to fulfill the task more or less satisfactorily, and the goals of the exercise aren't stepping stones, they're integral check-lists. You'll likely see which of the two strategies I prefer. It's important to note that both can be efficient and I've experienced educators that manage to motivate students wonderfully in the traditional "contractor" role of education. I also suspect that my preference has at least a bit to do with personal comfort. The student delivers their own motivation and my job as instructor is to deftly step out of their way, maintaining a space on the sidelines from which I can comment, criticize and call to mutual evaluations. The more one-sided contracting is so much more tedious!

Walt at the board - image source

Walt's letter is a beautiful document in revealing the thought processes of an animation pioneer – independent of sentiment for or against the corporation that he left behind. He reveals himself as a poignant designer of animation structures and philosophy, bent on having animation fulfill its potential as he saw it. A refreshing re-encounter with the man whose name has accompanied us for so long and an inspiration in pursuing our own visions of aniamiton's potential!

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