Schools, Schools and More Schools!

by Pamela Kleibrink Thompson

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson.

The recent boom in animation led to a demand for more well-trained animators. There was a corresponding boom in educational facilities offering training in animation. This article will examine some of the types of programs now being offered. We will also look at some issues to consider when choosing a school.

Established Animation Schools
Many schools known for their animation program have revamped and revitalized their curriculum. Well-rounded programs include courses in drawing, acting, dance, sculpture, layout, design, art history, animation, story, timing, cinema studies, filmmaking, illustration, composition, photography, and communication.

The University of Southern California revitalized their animation program by recruiting some instructors from the California Institute of the Arts. USC instructors Becky Bristow and Christine Panushka bring their artistic sensibilities to the strong technical expertise of the department. Canada's Sheridan College emphasizes interaction between the computer animation and classical animation departments.

School of Visual Arts' Bruce Wands believes that a "rich critique environment" is important in an artist's development. Photo credit: Brian Finke.

The School of Visual Arts has been offering courses in animation since 1986 and now offers both undergraduate and graduate majors in animation. SVA's Chair, MFA Computer Art Department and Director of Computer Education, Bruce Wands recently downsized the thesis class to give the students more critique. "A graduate program needs to focus on developing the animator's creative voice and individual style. Learning the software is just the start of an animator's career. By providing a rich critique environment, students are exposed to working professionals and artists that can give them insight into their creative work," believes Wands.

New Animation Schools
Adding classes or programs in animation is another way that some colleges attract students. California State University, Long Beach has been offering continuing education courses and certificate programs in computer animation for 5 years. They recently added Alias|Wavefront Maya Certificate courses, because it is the newest software that everyone wants to learn. Shannon Peitzman, Training Coordinator, California State University, Long Beach notes the program's advantages: "The courses are short-term, so a person who wants to learn computer animation does not have to be in school for 2 years."

The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, which established its animation program in March 1995, offers three different Associate programs and a Bachelors program. Scott Nelowet, Computer Animation Chair, states, "In the past year we have undertaken an enormous revamping of our curriculum, particularly in concept development and storytelling. Before a student ever touches a computer, they are thoroughly drilled in perspective, lighting, movement, anatomy, texture, etc. It seems to be the industry's most regular complaint that computer animation students do not understand the fundamentals of art and design."

Students work hard at Ringling School of Art and Design to create films and demo reels that will impress potential employers. Photo © 1996 Frank Atura.

Short Term Training
The proliferation of schools with short-term intensive training answers a need from those students who want to learn a software package quickly. These technical institutes or workshop programs require a small time commitment and are ideal for those students who have a strong foundation or experience in traditional animation and are looking for some technical knowledge.

A low-cost, six month, full-time program in computer animation at the Technology Development Center in California, was started in 1995. Steve Nelle notes, "Most students receive limited training in important related fields such as traditional animation, photography, graphic design, layout, and fine art. We encourage students to have these skills already or to develop them concurrently with their 3D animation training." A student needs artistic training in addition to the technical training these types of programs offer to be ready for an entry-level job.

Time For Self-Assessment
How do you choose the right program for you? First assess your needs. Do you already have basic drawing skills? Basic animation skills? As an independent recruiter, I see many demo reels that show little artistic skill or sense of aesthetic. You may know a software's interface, but it takes much more than completing tutorial exercises to be an animator. Knowing how to utilize the tool to create a character with emotion is in higher demand than merely making a skeleton walk. It is important to develop a critical eye and have a strong foundation in drawing, design, art history and storytelling. If you have no formal higher education, a 4 year program may give you the well-rounded education you will need throughout your career. If a tutorial is your choice, make sure you are not paying as much as it would cost to purchase the software and hardware and learn it on your own.

Deciding Factors
Factors to consider when selecting a school are cost, access to equipment, quality and qualification of instructors and access to the lab. How many other people are enrolled there? Do you have your own workstation with current software packages and manuals? What about system support? What happens if equipment is not working?

Preparation For The Job Market
Once you graduate, your calling card in the job market is your resume and demo reel or finished film. Will you be able to complete a demo reel while enrolled at the school? You must have some of your work on video tape to present to possible employers. How successful is the school in preparing its students to work in the industry? Check out the resources of the placement office. Do they offer internships? Ringling School of Art and Design, a well established and highly renowned arts school, is a favorite of recruiters. Phyllis Schaen, Director of Career Services at Ringling, runs workshops on how to market yourself, how to write cover letters, resumes, etc. In spring, recruiters come to campus to interview seniors for full-time jobs and juniors for internships. Schaen relates, "Six years ago, 8 companies came to Ringling. Last year, 46 companies recruited on campus (for all majors - not just computer animation)."

A school touts its successes with the number of people it places in the industry. Schools have become innovative in attracting recruiters. Last May, the Academy of Art chartered three private jets to fly recruiters from Southern California to their campus in San Francisco. It was an effective means to bring me and representatives from DreamWorks, Warner Bros. Feature Animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Blue Sky|VIFX and others in contact with their students in the relaxed atmosphere of an open house.

Dan Sarto, co-publisher of Animation World Network. © AWN.

Making Connections
Students often overlook the importance of networking and relationships that are established at school. What connections does the school have in the industry? In Animation World Network's Animation School Directory, Dan Sarto suggests that you ask alumni, "If they had the decision to make again, would they choose to attend that school again?" Well-known schools such as the California Institute of the Arts with alumni like John Lasseter and Henry Selick attract other aspiring animators. These working alumni return to their alma maters to recruit new blood for their companies. Ringling's Schaen concurs, "Alumni are a wonderful resource for career opportunities for our students. We invite alumni to do workshops to explain their job and how they got it."


Beware of any school that promises you a job upon completing their program. Also, before you take any course of study please examine your motivation. If you are interested in animation just because you can make money, you will not find it to be a satisfying career choice. It's a lot of hard work to break into this industry. Recognize that it may take awhile to get a job. But if your passion is animation, learn as much as you can, prepare yourself with a well-rounded education in both art and technology and go for it!

To find out more about schools, check out these resources:

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson is an independent recruiter and business consultant. Her clients include Walt Disney Feature Animation, Fox Feature Animation, Digital Domain, Dream Quest Images, Lucas Learning and many others. Thompson produced L.A. SIGGRAPH's Career Boot Camp last year and she advises colleges and universities on establishing animation programs. She also writes a column for Animation World Network called "The Career Coach."

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to

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