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The Animated Scene: An Organic Look at a Unique Animation School

At the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, Joseph Gilland teaches a workshop designed to put the real back in reality.

Joseph Gilland.

A few years ago, on a gorgeous sunny day in Annecy, I ran into the director of the animation program at the Filmakademie in Ludwigsburg, Germany, Thomas Haegele. We were both looking to get one of the free shuttle bicycles you can take from the main theatre to the palace during the animation festival, but the bicycles were all taken already, and so we decided to walk together instead of waiting for a bike. A pleasant proposition on such a glorious day, to take the half-hour walk along the lakeshore to the palace.

So we set off, and of course we talked about animation, and in particular, teaching animation. At the time, I was the head of the classical animation program at the Vancouver Film School, as well as the digital character animation program, which was new ground for me. I was passionately trying to get my head around just how animation should be taught in this digital age, and I had (and still have) some very strong feelings about the way things are being done at a lot of animation schools around the world. And so I climbed up on my soapbox as we walked together, and began my tirade on how everybody these days seems obsessed with computers. As we walked, I became more and more animated. I began to gesture wildly and raise my voice. "Everywhere I go," I exclaimed, "I see young artists looking for inspiration and solutions inside their computers! They spend less and less time observing nature, and really looking at life! We've got to teach them to stop thinking that the computer is an end in itself. We've got to teach them to use their imaginations, the real supercomputer that is their brain! And then, take that infinite cosmic intelligence to the computer, and make it sing."

Thomas stopped me right there, and said "Joseph, I would love it if you could bring that message to my students at the Filmakademie. Would you consider doing a workshop there?"

And so I began concocting a workshop entitled "An Organic Approach to Visual Effects Animation" and, the following year, I went to the Filmakademie and tried it out on the unsuspecting students there. Although it was deemed a success that first year, and I received wonderful feedback from the students, it wasn't an entirely smooth workshop. I knew I had the basic pieces in place, but it wasn't polished, it was rough around the edges, and I felt that it needed to be much better. I reached only a small percentage of the students who attended, or at least that's how it felt. But it went well enough for Thomas to invite me back the following year, and the year after that as well.

Which brings me to the topic of this story. This year, my effects workshop really came to life. The students who attended were extremely receptive, and really willing to listen and consider what I was proposing to them: To stop looking at their computers, to look elsewhere for their inspiration. To try drawing, even if they don't particularly like drawing. To take on their visual effects challenges with their imaginations, with paper and pencils, and cameras. To get off their butts, walk away from the Internet, get outdoors and try whatever they could think of to learn about the effects they want to bring to life.

First of all, a little background on the Filmakademie's unique approach to "teaching" animation, and filmmaking in general. The Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, as it is properly called, was founded in 1991. Today it is one of the world's most renowned film schools. The Filmakademie offers courses in production, screenwriting, film music and sound design, advertising, feature film production, cinematography, cinematic experimentation, documentary filmmaking, interactive media, science and educational filmmaking, film acting, technology for film and video production, and of course, animation, and technical direction for animation and visual effects. Their extremely project-oriented curriculum espouses "learning by doing," which is a catchy line I have heard from a great many films schools and animation schools, but from what I have seen, the Filmakademie comes much closer than most to actually delivering on that promise. Film projects at the school are approached professionally, with a producer, director and a crew, a real budget, full-blown preproduction, planning and execution. And just as in the real world, it gets crazy, and lots of things don't go exactly according to plan, but it is an exemplary model of how to really teach filmmaking, by doing it, just like the catchy slogan says.

In 2002 the Baden-Württemberg Film Academy and Thomas Haegele established the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction. On top of animated short films, visual effects, real-time animation and other animation-driven formats, the Institute offers a special program for students interested in technical direction as well. As a result, it has become a wonderful melting pot for students who are interested purely in the artistic, creative side of animation filmmaking, and students who are passionate about the far more technical aspects of creating high-end visual effects and cutting-edge animation.

One of the most important philosophies of the animation institute is that they do not teach students how to use animation software. Students who apply are expected to be proficient in their craft to some degree before they get to the Filmakademie, so that the focus is on honing your craft, and learning how to make films. There are students working in every conceivable animation medium at the school. Hand-drawn 2D animation, stop motion, 2.5D hybrids, 3D, you name it, they are doing it. And there is no bias as to whether you work with XSI, 3ds Max, Maya, Flash, Toonboom, whatever. This is a refreshing break from the corporate-style, sponsor-driven schools that feel like advertisements for the software giants.

No, the Filmakademie sticks to teaching students how to make films. What a concept! And they do so by inviting scores of animation professionals from all over the industry to conduct short courses and specialized workshops throughout the student's time at the school. There are no tired old teachers who have been dragging their asses down the same old hallways for the last twenty years, teaching out of the same course outline they did a century ago. Rather, there is a constant coming and going of vibrant industry professionals who are actively engaged in their craft, passionately sharing their experience and insight.

Workshop participants shared a three-day journey into their imaginations, taking full advantage of their own personal cosmic supercomputers.

And into this wonderful melting pot of animation activity I brought my "Organic Approach to Visual Effects Animation."

This year, I went to Ludwigsburg in May, and after a long cold winter in Vancouver, and a miserably cold spring on top of it, I was delighted to find southern Germany hot and balmy, with imminent thunderstorms all around. It felt great, and although I was exhausted before I even left for Germany, I felt energized and excited to be there, and my jet lag seemed to evaporate into the warm, humid air.

Morning one of my workshop is always interesting, as a small group of brand new students I have never met before in my life gather slowly but surely in a neat classroom filled with computers, wondering who the hell I am, and what exactly it is I intend to "teach" them. First things first, I moved many of the computers out of the way and turned flat screens sideways, both so that we could all see each other clearly and to emphasize the fact that this is no computer class. Quite the contrary. The very first thing I proposed is that we have all become far too dependent on computers to fuel our imaginations. First thing on a Monday morning, and I assault these poor students with a barrage of touchy-feely, artsy-fartsy propositions, suggesting that we embark upon an adventure into our imaginations, far from the programmed digital lifeline to which we are attached every day, like dying patients to intravenous drugs.

More often than not, on the first morning of my workshop, I am met by steely eyes of skepticism and incredulity. Frequently, I am forced by clever questions asked with intense intelligence and sincerity to defend my position. Sometimes I have to clarify that, no, I am not opposed to computers in any way. I love/hate them as much as the next person and, yes, I do use Google and Wikipedia to research natural phenomena from time to time. It is a challenge sometimes to stay on message with my workshop, but I am very determined, and I stick to my guns. Computers are great, indeed. But the real supercomputer that is hardwired directly to the entire universe sits squarely on our shoulders. And the real world wide web stretches out around us in every direction, everywhere we go, no matter how far from or close to a computer we may be.

On this particular warm May morning though (and the air conditioning in the room was down), I was met by an engaging group of young people who were ready and willing to absorb what it was I proposed to them. There was a good energy in the room, and the workshop began to blossom into the workshop I had set out to put together years before. The time was right, and so was this unique and eclectic group of animation students.

Benjamin, Julia, Johannes, Thosten, Maryna, Daniel, Patrick, Moritz, Tonio, and Viola. Together we embarked on a three-day journey into our imaginations. We drew pictures, hatched schemes, took photographs, shared ideas and dreams, laughed and argued, and took full advantage of our own personal cosmic supercomputers.

There was a photo session that entailed smashing a cake into little pieces. There was a trip through downtown Ludwigsburg looking for sticky pieces of gum stuck on the sidewalk. There was a concerted effort (in vain) to borrow an industrial-strength pump from a local business establishment, to see what it might look like if an enormous alien with a huge trunk like an elephant was to suck a lake dry. There were surprisingly successful attempts to get footage of a match lighting, by taking Quicktime movies with an aged digital camera (that I always take with me everywhere I go). There were drawings produced by students who rarely draw at all that were surprising in their elegance. There were leaps and bounds made in everyone's drawing skills when, after long discussions about how energy works to create the natural special effects that we see all around us every day, they tried to draw energy on a page.

Day one, I begin by talking about visual effects in general, and I describe my career path in quite a bit of detail. I generally try just to get a feeling for the group, what they are interested in, and what each person might hope to get from such a workshop. I ask each student to tell me a bit about themselves, and in particular why they are attracted to animation. What style or medium do they love to work with, or aspire to work in? What is their ultimate goal? What is their dream job? Where do they see themselves going as far as their animation careers are concerned? And this was a really fun group to get to know.

On the afternoon of the first day, I laid out what it is I would like to see each student attempt to do in the next two days. First of all, identify a specific visual effect that you would like to learn as much about as you possibly can. This can be absolutely anything at all, and I presented them with a staggeringly long list of "things" that could be considered visual effects. We ended up with fires, smoke, sparks, water ripples, and more smoke. Waves, smashing cake, splattering whipped cream, sticking, stretching gum, and more waves. Crashing jetliners, and energy fields created by invisible flying objects (or was it invisible flying objects created by energy fields?).

Armed with these visual effects elements, I then ask the students to put as much effort as they possibly can into figuring out how the effect works and why, using whatever means are at their disposal, except for computers. I show them lots and lots of examples of how one might go about this. Write a list of things to consider. Gather any kind of reference you can find. Make a plan of attack, a story board, a sequence of drawings or diagrams.

Now here there is always the question, "Can we go online to look for reference?" And I generally will allow this to some degree, but only as a last resort. I definitely try to discourage it as much as possible, as that is one of the habits I am trying to break them of. But then again, the web is an absolutely phenomenal source of information, and it would be foolish not to take advantage of it. However, it has gotten to the point where the very first thing we do is Google anything we want to research. We do not even consider another initial approach. I really enjoy reminding students about libraries. When is the last time you even tried looking in a library? Imagine how different that is. The whole experience of going into this massive place filled with books and looking for something, it is a learning experience unto itself. And it frequently leads us places we never expected to go. It is almost impossible to browse through endless rows of interesting books without other topics jumping out at you, firing your imagination, pulling your imagination in different directions.

The wonderful texture and smell of hot melting bubblegum on asphalt was utterly inspiring! Courtesy of Joseph Gilland.

How about just using the Internet to find an expert on the element you want to animate, and then contacting them? Asking questions of or interviewing local professionals who would be intimate with the element in question. When we want to animate a house on fire, do we ever think to go to the local fire station and ask a firefighter for his or her point of view? If we want to animate bubbles, might we go scuba diving? If we want to animate waves, can we go surfing?

I strongly advise that one just go for a walk, armed only with the desire to learn more about a specific element. Just walk, meditating on that topic, and then open your eyes. You will be absolutely amazed at how often references appear before your very eyes. The natural world around us is full of it. Infinite amounts of ongoing reference for just about anything you could possibly imagine.

For the next day and a half, I embark upon this journey with the students. If I have anything in my bag of tricks that pertains to their element, accumulated over thirty years of referencing visual effects, I share it with them. I encourage the most "outside the box" approaches imaginable. "Try something you would never consider trying!" I implore them.

Each morning, I show some animated films, just something to get the juices flowing, and to get the dialogue running again. At intervals throughout the three days, we review what we have learned up to that point. It is loosely structured, but the intention is that we move ahead with purpose, with an opened mind, and with our imaginations running at full tilt. And our computers, as much as possible, dark and quiet.

This year, this group of students just blew my mind. They latched on to the very essence of the workshop, and they expanded their minds, as well as mine. They had fun with it, they ran with it, and best of all, they took advantage of it. Even if the exercise only breaks them of their regular day-to-day routine, I consider it to be of enormous benefit to their creative growth.

On the last afternoon, I asked the students to get up, one by one, in front of the classroom, and do what I have been doing for the last three days. Explain clearly, step by step, everything they now know about this visual effect that they decided to learn more about. Using whatever visual aids they choose, including their computers, I ask them to describe in detail the process they went through, the discoveries they made, and the conclusions they drew. I ask them as many questions as I can while they are up there, so they don't get off easy. I want to hear everything. And I make them speak up and look up, and don't mumble either! Imagine if I came to do a workshop and looked at my shoes while I was talking? Well, that's the little "public speaking" seminar within the "Organic Approach to Visual Effects."

This group of students did a fantastic job. There was a sincere effort by everyone, and there were some real insights gained. There was also a great willingness to learn, outside of what they might have thought they needed to learn. And best of all, there was actually a sense of wonder. That fantastic childlike quality of wonderment that is so precious and rare in this over-informed society of ours, which can be so cynical and skeptical of anything that doesn't come in a perfectly designed package. We tapped in to the potential of our imaginations, and the infinite universe of available reference material all around us.

There is something so wonderful about discovering something new, especially things in real 3D space, not the virtual one that we seem to spend so much time in these days. When we see, touch, and feel something in the natural world around us, there is an elegant element of spaciousness that just isn't there on the screen of our computers. Even on the page of a book, there is that subtle tactile touch, the gentle sweeping sound of a page turning. The smell of sulfur after we light a match. The texture and smell of gooey bubble gum on a hot summer day, the sound of a pencil scratching a page, the wonderful texture of whipped cream splattered on the floor... mmmmmm!

Now, students of animation, armed with that untouchable moment in your imaginations when your mind expands into the universe and connects with the creative collective consciousness of every moment that has ever been... now, sit down at your computer, and unleash yourselves into the future of what it means to be an artist in the 21st century.

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.