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The Animated Scene: Industry & Education — Marriage Made in Heaven, or an Unholy Matrimony?

In this months Animated Scene, Joseph Gilland contemplates whether the animation industrys relationship with animation education facilities is a marriage made in heaven, or an unholy matrimony.

Joseph Gilland.

After a two-and-a-half year stint as the head of a couple of animation departments at a major film school in Canada, during which time I stayed close to what was happening in the "real" animation industry, I developed a few ideas and of course some fairly passionate opinions, about how animation schools around the world are being affected by what is going on in the current industry. In many ways, there is a wonderful, positive, and very fruitful relationship developing. Through the years it has always been happening, but more and more frequently, major as well as small animation, gaming and hardware/software companies are visiting animation schools, informing students about their current and upcoming products and productions, and, often, recruiting animation artists right out of school.

The animation industry, in spite of all the strange ups and downs in the last few years, is booming in many ways, and it can be hard to staff up for a new production, when so many are already employed. I know a few starving animation artists out there will strongly disagree with me. I know it is not rosy everywhere, and in particular; artists without strong 3D skills have had a hell of a time finding steady work in many markets. The "hand-drawn" animation industry has been through the ringer, but well just wait and see what happens there.

From where Im sitting, and I think most of us have to agree, animation is a robust industry, and animation education it follows, is also a booming industry. Look in the pages of all kinds of magazines and youll find a staggering plethora of animation schools to choose from. I cant even begin to imagine how many new and hopeful animation graduates are flying out the doors of colleges, universities and private schools around the world every year. Its almost out of control! Theres no doubt a very wide range of quality in the education you can expect to get from all these animation programs. And theres no doubt going to be a lot of graduates who will not find a life-long career with medical benefits and a retirement fund waiting for them. But they are lured by a great deal of very attractive and glossy advertising, both from the schools, and the industry?

So whos running the show here? Who is feeding who what? And what really comes first, a higher creative education, or obedient, specifically software trained animation soldiers ready to do battle at the biggest gaming company on the block? The animation industry needs a lot worker bees period. And at the same time, our schools, either because their public funding is being drastically cut, or because of their being private enterprises, need to look at their own bottom lines, and bloody well get bums in seats. And corporate dollars and clever tie-ins look pretty darned attractive when thats the scenario. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Well, only if we let it dilute the real meat of what it means to truly educate the fertile minds of our children.

Since the history of animation education, the studios have been involved of course. Who else to design and put together a practical working animation curriculum but the savvy industry pros? Back in the sixties, Sheridan College became one of the first colleges to offer a really well designed animation program, with the help of a Disney animator or two here and there. It was a "classical" approach to animation, a program designed to prepare students to walk right into an animating job upon graduating. And for the most part, it worked. The industry for the next two decades, gobbled up Sheridan grads as fast as they could squeeze them out. Elsewhere, all kinds of animation programs sprouted up.

I, personally, went to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School of Art and Design, (damn thats a long name) in the seventies, which focused heavily on the more "artsy" approach to animation. This was largely due to being staffed primarily by National Film Board animators, whose ideas and ideals concerning what constitutes quality animation was a far cry from what Disney was doing in the mid seventies. Disney was almost a dirty word at my school. To work for a big corporate giant would constitute "selling out" dont you know? (Interestingly, my dearest and most wonderful animation teacher at that school, the inimitable Keith Ingham, was one of the very earliest graduates from the Sheridan program!) But where did I end up working happily 20 years later, for over eight years? Well, Walt Disney of course, and all in spite of my artsy-fartsy beginnings.

So, from the standpoint of the industrys relationship with education, different models can get an artist to a very similar destination. At least it could back then, and I think it is largely because both a school like Sheridan College and my artsy school in Montreal offered something of real substance. Higher education if you will. At the time of Sheridans animation programs conception, the fine art side of things was very much stressed, even though the courses were primarily targeted at getting you a job at a studio like Disney. The importance of learning "how to see" was still paramount. The skills of observation and hand-eye coordination were emphasized heavily.

There was a depth of knowledge to be gleaned, besides the flipping and timing charts and character animation skills being taught there. Similarly at my school in Montreal, in spite of the Film Boards influence, there was a fantastic array of fine arts teachers dedicated to teaching us how to be artists. How to see the world through critical, analytical eyes and express it through visual means. Field trips were commonplace, excursions with a focus on observation and absorbing the real world into the imagination.

After I got out of my school (I never graduated, they closed the school before my third year, and I landed a job at the National Film Board) I stayed away from the world of education for about 28 years. There was always the slightly yucky stigma of "those who cant do, teach," which is of course frequently not true, and a huge disservice to the truly talented and dedicated animation teachers out there. But I just stayed too busy in the industry for all those years, and it wasnt until recently that I spent two and a half years running an animation program at the Vancouver Film School. A deeply rewarding and interesting time in my animation career, I must say. And an eye-opener in regards to how the industry is affecting what we teach.

A big part of my work at the film school involved researching and observing how the "other" schools were doing it, and I learned a great deal. I watched closely. I went to all the panels and sat on a couple, at the animation festivals in Ottawa, Annecy and Taiwan, discussing weighty things like "Art VS. Commerce" in animation education. I talked to countless educators in Asia, America and all over Europe, and got all the opinions about the current business of animation education that I could handle.

So heres what I think, or should I say, "feel," about what I see happening, with this disclaimer up front. This aint nothing new, and it isnt restricted to animation schools. But all the same, I think its worth looking at, and analyzing a bit. The trends arent all good, and there is a "corporate" smell to it all. Dont worry, Im not here to bash any companies at all, or any schools. The vast majority of animation educators are doing it because they are passionate about it, and want students to get the best education they can. The vast majority of corporate business people are just trying to feed their families. (Although the ceo salaries are slightly suspect.)

We are all witness to what is happening. Globally, we are all watching corporations outgrow their real usefulness as reliable employers of the good working people, as they expand ruthlessly and exponentially, with only the bottom line as a measuring stick, seemingly without any regard for human welfare, not to mention the welfare of something as arcane as "fine art" or "culture." And to a greater extent every year, the pressure on schools of all kinds to feed these massive machines is increasing. Animation schools included. So lets focus on animation schools shall we? Let all those other areas of higher learning fend for themselves against this high octane, big bucks onslaught.

Big animation studios, medium-sized animation studios, gaming companies and, especially, software manufacturers, whether we want to admit it or not, to the extent that they can, are pressuring animation schools to teach specific software platforms or specific techniques to ensure their own survival. Everywhere you look in the most "modern" animation education facilities, you will see the advertising, unabashedly displayed, for the latest, greatest hard and software, the biggest feature films and television shows, and, of course, the latest gaming sensations. And, more and more, when you talk to prospective students, the young minds of today, it is the specific software they believe they need to learn and the biggest studio they want to work for, that is driving their interest in the animation "business." Art? Higher education? Fine Art? Whats that? Really. It is happening, it is happening big-time and it is widespread.

Again, let me stress the fact that there are a lot of quality educators out there, and still a lot of good stuff to be learned in animation schools around the world. All is not lost, and I dont want to point any fingers. But weve got to be aware of it. I have experienced scary things out there. I have given workshops to students in America, Canada, Europe and Asia, who, after two or three years of animation education, had never had the importance of learning "how to see" emphasized for them. Talented young people, with so much potential, who had never been on a fieldtrip to a zoo to draw animals, or a train station, just to learn how to observe and draw people. There's a whole generation of young artists whose idea of research is pushing the Google button. Not once had one of their teachers said, Hey, turn off that computer and go outside and look around for your inspiration! And this is in a couple of the very best educational institutions in the world.

How did this happen? Its multi-faceted isnt it? Nobody is to blame, its just progress in action. With technology playing a bigger and bigger part in the creative process, the men and women who make and sell the technology and the new wonders being created with it are bound to get more involved in the big picture. Hell, I just wrote a column extolling the virtues of a specific piece of hardware, and some specific software as well, that have changed the way I work creatively. I am right in the middle of it, and Ive been known to tell a student or two, Youd better learn software X if you want to get a job in this town." (But, just by the way, 90% of what I am creating in my anxiously-awaited upcoming book on animation is hand-drawn on paper! See? More promotion, its out of control!) Ahhhh!

Like I said earlier, I think Id be a damned fool to try to place blame here. It is a phenomenon with a life of its own. I just think we need to observe it, and, if possible, address it. The kids need us to pay attention to what they are being taught. "Higher Education" need not fall by the wayside. Most of the teachers out there actually have a pretty amazing artistic background; its not like they dont know the stuff. But some teachers already, the younger generations coming up behind us, well, they are losing touch with some really important stuff, especially if we continue to let the big, big companies tell us what we should be teaching, and how we should be teaching it. In far too many cases they want obedient soldiers for their armies, ah, rather companies, and they couldnt care less whether or not these students are being taught anything else besides how their software and their production pipeline works.

Animation is an art. A damned fine art. Look at how rock & roll evolved. The fine art of classical music threatened to become extinct. But did it? No, of course not, and breaking away from it spawned an incredible array of fantastic new musical art forms. Perhaps that is whats happening to animation as well. Maybe these young whiz kids chained to their computers are going to catapult us into a whole new dimension of creative genius, without once ever going for a walk in the forest, or drawing a nude model. Who knows? But lets not forget, the musicians that changed rock & roll, and brought it to the highest heights, were classically trained. And lets not forget, that if all our youngsters just want to work for Disney, where is the next Walt going to come from? And lets also not forget, artificial intelligence is still very artificial. The hardware and the software aren't going to make imaginations flourish; it is a well-informed imagination that is going to make the hardware and the software sing!

If the studios need a specific skill set, well, we need to do our students the service of teaching it to them. We need to incorporate it into what we teach, to be sure. But not at the expense of the real stuff. Lets, please, just not forget the real stuff in our excitement with all the big corporate glossy versions of what is hip, happening, cool and necessary. Like Roy Disney said so eloquently about the "soul" of the Walt Disney Co. being lost in the corporate shuffle not so long ago.

My simple observations here are simply a call to honor the "soul" of the fine art of animation, and, where education is concerned, can we please downplay the glossy stuff a bit? Its embarrassing to see a huge poster telling you that this latest gizmo is going to "Fire Your Imagination," hanging the halls of higher education. "Corporate" is not cool. The imagination of one individual student has more potential than the limited imaginations of every single bottom line-driven corporation in the world put together. Let us honor and nurture that, and we move forward, with cadence, class, and culture, into the new dawn of animation.

In his 30-year animation career, Joseph Gilland has worked with studios as diverse as Walt Disney Feature Animation and the National Film Board of Canada. He has worked on all styles of animation, experimental films, television series, commercials, theatrical feature films, stop motion, title sequences, live-action films and documentaries. He is writing a passionate book about the art of animation.