California Summer School
for the Arts:
More Than an Education
by Jon Roslyn
Download a Quicktime movie of an animated group drawing project completed by students at CSSSA in 1997. Students draw a car from every viewpoint, then the drawings are filmed in sequence to make one animated piece. 660Kb. Courtesy of and © CSSSA
Download a Quicktime movie of a cut-out animation project completed by students at CSSSA in 1997. The assignment called for flying, swimming or leaping, metamorphosis and the use of two colors and sound. 990Kb. Courtesy of and © CSSSA.
Note: The photos in this article, courtesy of instructor and photographer Gary Schwartz, are intended for 3-D viewing. To view them properly, bring your face ten inches from the screen and cross your eyes to blend the left and right images.
CSSSA students learn the abstract technique of drawing on film.
3-D photo courtesy of and © Gary Schwartz.
Prior to 1987 extremely talented, artistic high school students didn't have too many opportunities to meet with and learn from leaders in the entertainment field. Then the California State Summer School for the Arts [CSSSA] was created and this opportunity of a lifetime has been experienced by almost 4,500 young artists to date. The CSSSA began as a unique private/public partnership giving high school students a place to pursue seven different arenas of artistic interest in a summer camp type of setting. By 1992, the CSSSA's animation program had blossomed into a bona fide power house.
This in-depth, one month animation program for high school students was the brainchild of well-known animator Christine Panushka. Panushka has won notable awards including the 1986 Aspen Film Festival animation grand prize for Nighttime Fears and Fantasies: A Bedtime Tale for a Young Girl. and the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival for The Sum of Them in 1985. Recently, she has garnered attention and success with her online animation festival Absolut Panushka. Panushka, a visiting professor at USC's division of animation and visual arts, was given authority by Rob Jaffe, Director of the CSSSA, to chair the new CSSSA animation department. She hired faculty, developed programs, scheduled the students' days, and planned to teach animation history, life drawing and take the students to studios to spawn a new generation of innovative animators.
Gary Schwartz, an Emmy and Oscar nominee, has been a faculty member for six years and was the first faculty member that Panushka brought on board. "The truth is we are jealous," said Schwartz, "We are giving the students what we wish we had when we were their age. I think it is the best program of its kind in the United States."
Ruth Hayes, an independent animator, agreed. "It is the high point of my teaching year," she said. "The students are wonderful to work with because they are so eager. It is great to work with them because they want to, not because they have to."
A Real Animation Program
A substantial animation program at the high school level was an idea so fresh, it was startling and Jaffe loved the concept. "In 1987, to my knowledge, animation wasn't taught in any high school. It was regarded more as a craft than an artistic application." (However, Dave Master, currently of Warner Bros. Feature Animation, did begin the La Puente Valley ROP Rowland High School animation class around this time.) The CSSSA is backed by a prestigious Board of Trustees and Directors that embody significant experience in all walks of the seven disciplines. Their network ensures that the school draws excellent teachers and guest lecturers.
The program was first based at Cal Arts, then moved to Loyola Marymount, where, ironically, there were no animation facilities. The next summer it was relocated back to Cal Arts, only to move again to Mills College. A final move for the summer of 1992 brought the program back again to Cal Arts where it has flourished. The program's growth curve would make any analyst proud. In 1989, 24 aspiring animators sketched until their fingers were raw. In 1997, 250 applicants vied for the fifty available slots.
Today the program has U.S. $600,000 in private endowments. Corporate sponsors are proud to be a part of this innovative program. The Walter Lantz Foundation recently contributed substantially in the form of a $100,000 grant that will be payable over four years and will initiate the Walter Lantz Foundation Endowment Fund. However, it isn't just the private sector that realizes the importance of this program. Rosalie Zalis, Senior Policy Advisor to the Governor, explained, "The California Summer School for the Arts provides an opportunity for students representing all of California's unique diversity to increase their artistic, creative and problem-solving skills which will afford them the valuable tools necessary for today's emerging industries in entertainment and high technology." Participation such as this insures a steady stream of talented animators in years to come.
Students come from every conceivable group all throughout California. "The program is so diverse. From tiny rural areas to major metropolitan ones, this program gives students access to the arts that normally would not have it. For the first time they are exposed to a serious art experience," said Hayes. Moreover, the caliber of student is extraordinary. "They are smart, talented kids," Hayes continued. More than 50% of these students receive some scholarship assistance from the school. While students out of California are encouraged to apply, there are currently no scholarships available for them.
From left to right: Christine Panushka, Phil Roman & Corny Cole.
3-D photo courtesy of and © Gary Schwartz.
Former student, Corinne Lambalot raved, "I loved it. Before I went I wasn't sure I wanted to go into animation. After, I was motivated to be an animator. I'm making my portfolio a lot better to focus on animation as a major. I want to be a key character animator for Disney. Everyone was great and I made tons of friends."
Ursula Glaviano shares Corinne's enthusiasm. "The screening on the last day was incredible. Other people come from other departments and you get to hear their responses to your work. The program made me really, really sure that there were no other options for me but to go into animation."
Monica Martinez loved the program so much, she's attended three times. "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do in art. Now I'm working on my portfolio and I want to major in experimental animation at Cal Arts." One student from Connecticut worked two waitressing jobs for a year in order to amass the $3,000 for out-of-state tuition. Clearly a testament to how seriously these students take their work and how beneficial and special they know the program to be.
Bobby Podesta is currently an animator on A Bug's Life at Pixar and had little art training before CSSSA. He was highly motivated and exhibited a second sense for motion in animation - one of the more difficult aspects of animation production to master. Seeing these gifts, professors saturated him and he loved every moment. "It is quite frankly one of the most amazing experiences of my life and if you talk to anyone at the program they will say the same. In mainstream school there just isn't anything like it."
The Application Process
Panushka warns applicants of common reasons for rejection. "Don't copy Simba or Spiderman," she said. "We always receive twenty to thirty of those. We want to see characters the students have created." Portfolio reviewers take notes on every applicant. Upon request, an unacceptable candidate can have a CSSSA staff member review their notes with them over the phone so that they may strengthen their portfolio for the following year. For consideration to enter, applicants present three pieces of still work: one technical, one exemplary of their character, and a third of their choice. They then explain each in writing. Students find out about the program through word of mouth, art classes in high school, and the organization's web site.
The four week summer program is one of seven departments at the CSSSA which includes visual arts, animation, music, film/video, writing, theater and dance. After a brief orientation, animation students immerse themselves in life drawing and animation screenings. One of the first exercises is to create a zoetrope. No matter who one speaks with, from students to faculty, the one word that is repeated is "intense." In fact, all of CSSSA's programs are designed to be taught at a college level. For the duration of the program, the students work six days a week and get little sleep.
Today, several high schools have begun offering rudimentary animation programs. Budgetary restrictions at these other schools, however, mean supplies and computer programs are limited or out of date by the time students get them. Panushka noted, "We don't let our students use computers. They need to get animation in their hands, in their blood, to develop a sense of timing essential for believable character motion."
Just because they're high school students, they're judged no less sternly than college animation students. Panushka continued, "College students take one year to do one minute. Some of these kids do it in a week and a half. At the end, we splice together all the strips on one reel. Kids cheer and rejoice at the sight. I've never seen students work as hard as these."
Many benefits to the program are only apparent a few days into the course. The students mature. For some it's the first time they've been away from home. Perhaps, they've always been the strange kid that sits and draws in the back of the classroom. "You meet people who are just like you for the first time," Podesta explained. Schwartz related that indeed the students do change. "You see kids who are totally transformed human beings."
Life drawing is a critical aspect of the CSSSA program.
3-D photo courtesy of and © Gary Schwartz.
Students do a spectrum of activities but core basics like life drawing (taught by Cal Arts' master, Cornelius `Corny' Cole) occur every day. One day might include life drawing, animation, then a visit to Disney. Students are required to go to theater and dance classes to help them understand movement. "We focus on introducing them to other art disciplines," Hayes confirmed. Another component of the day is an hour long screening of animation which can include works from Eastern European animators to early Fleischer cartoons. There are also talks with the likes of Craig Bartlett, creator of Hey, Arnold!, to French animation theorist and creator of Fantastic Planet, Rene Laloux. Not many local high schools offer such informal contact with industry stars and artistic visionaries. Guests from all walks of the industry, from recruiters to writers to production executives, donate generous amounts of their time.
As the students follow the month long schedule, they march ever closer to their final project. In 1997, they were each given two weeks to create an animated piece by hand which had to be at least ten seconds long and include animation of flying, swimming or leaping, metamorphosis and the use of two colors and sound.
Students use paper cut outs, paintings, drawings and other materials to translate their ideas into visual images to be shown to their classmates at the end of the program on the premiere night. Students scream and shout, rejoicing in their artistic triumphs. They learn about animation, but they also get much more. They learn they must give everything they've got to succeed.
Results That Last
The program is now a decade old. The groundbreaking educational venture has reaped a rich harvest of gifted animators who are now ensconced in some of the most respected animation facilities in the world. CSSSA alums are in the ranks of such animation houses as Disney, Pixar and Warner Bros. Feature Animation among others. Podesta is currently working with five CSSSA alums at Pixar. "Now is when we are beginning to see the impact of the program in the artistic world," he said.
Parents are amazed by the behavioral changes in their young animators upon returning home. One mother wrote, "What did you do? My son's cleaning his room!" It takes a lot of focus and organization to make an animated movie. It's only natural that these traits would carry over into other aspects of students' lives. Hayes pointed out that the students "...have to go home and they have to figure out how to continue this artistic practice on their own without support."
The students walk away from the program with lifelong friendships, professional leads and a feeling of self-worth gained from when hundreds of drawings become a single living entity. "It was the first time I had seen something of my own move. It blows you away," Podesta confirmed.
Moreover, the program seems to be just as rewarding for the faculty. "If I were a millionaire, wherever I was, I'd come back to teach CSSSA and that's the truth," Gary Schwartz said. Panushka added, "Students come back all the time to say thank you. That's not something they have to do."
To learn more about the California State Summer School for the Arts and their upcoming March 1 application deadline, visit their web site (accessible from the AWN Animation Village) or contact them at the following address:
California State Summer School for the Arts
4825 J Street Suite 120
Sacramento, CA 95819
John Roslyn is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and artist.
Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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