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Animation Education for the New Career Reality

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson looks into education trends that are preparing animation students for the new career reality.

Imageworks President Tim Sarnoff congratulates recent IPAX scholarship winners Alena Bejenaroli of Gnomon School of Visual Effects (l) and Vidal Perez of USC's School of Cinematic Arts. All IPAX images courtesy of Sony Imageworks.

An animator is likely to work for many different employers on different projects during his career. Some educational facilities are adapting their programs and curricula to prepare their students to compete in a job market where most jobs are project-based and animators are like migrant workers. Some are starting brand new programs to meet the needs of the students and alumni and industry, preparing their students in unique ways, often soliciting the advice and help of industry. Industry is responding by getting more involved in the training and education of artists and animators. Studios have had in-house training programs before, but now they are going to educational facilities and telling them, "Here's what we need and here's how we can help you so the people you train are people we can use."

On Course with Sony Pictures Imageworks

Sony Pictures Imageworks is home to one of the visual-effects industry's most respected in-house training and artist-development programs, designed to maintain a well-educated and competitive workforce capable of creating world-class imagery and animation. The facility has a dedicated training center integrated with production where instructors train new hires, conduct continuing education for crew members, teach third-party and proprietary software and techniques, provide career development and career path opportunities, and offer special events and screenings. Under the leadership of Sande Scoredos, Executive Director of Training & Artist Development, the program at Imageworks offers over 50 courses, including life drawing, sculpting and acting, as well as specialized task-oriented classes for performance animation, character setup, dynamic simulations and particle effects, color and lighting, compositing, and various production toolsets and methods.

Under the leadership of Sande Scoredos, Executive Director of Training & Artist Development, IPAX offers over 50 courses.

Sony Imageworks has enjoyed a close collaborative relationship with the academic community for 15 years. In 2004 it became even closer, when Imageworks established a faculty-development program designed to help academic institutions respond to the industry's ever-changing needs and keep up to date on the tools and techniques used in real-world production environments.

The Imageworks Professional Academic Excellence program (IPAX) was created to build stronger relationships with established academic programs and to nurture and grow future generations of digital talent. Faculty from participating schools take part in a fellowship program where they have the opportunity to attend in-house training programs and experience a visual-effects and animation production environment; they can then pass on valuable production knowledge and skills to their students. IPAX is the first program of its kind, exposing participating faculty to real-time production issues and advising member schools on course content and curricula.

"The top animation, visual-effects and computer-science programs are successful because they are taught by dedicated and passionate educators who attract exceptional students," observes Scoredos. "These devoted teachers provide the inspiration, guidance, expertise and rigor to their committed students who in turn produce exceptional work. Imageworks has always maintained a strong outreach program to the students, providing student tours, presentations at schools and industry events, internships, recruiting and portfolio reviews. We wanted to develop our outreach to provide the faculty with industry resources that were inaccessible.

"The core component of the IPAX program includes a two-to-four-week fellowship program for IPAX teaching faculty, who complete our rigorous in-house training program and participate on one of our live-action, performance-capture or feature animation productions. The faculty works hard while they are here and they really enjoy the entire experience. And they also have an opportunity to teach their favorite subject matter to Imageworks artists and animators, to get a perspective on the skill levels of our employees. Serving a fellowship and working with production teams helps teaching faculty know what skills are needed to work in this industry."

AWN's Ron Diamond delivered the keynote speech this year at the IPAX dinner.

Scoredos notes that all new hires, including seasoned professionals, go through rigorous training, and points out that students will be more prepared if they take scripting with MEL or Python and LINUX classes while in school. "We offer guidance to our IPAX schools to help develop curricula and materials in these areas," affirms Scoredos. "We also like to see programs that offer collaborative projects, supervised direction and rigorous critiquing, as well as projects with strict milestones and deadlines."

IPAX began with six schools and has expanded to 11 member schools: Animation Mentor, Carnegie Mellon, DePaul University Computer Graphics and Animation Program, Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Otis College of Art + Design, Pratt Institute School of Art & Design, Ringling College of Art & Design, Stanford, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.

"As a leader in this industry, we know that we have a responsibility to develop the next generation of talent," states Imageworks president Tim Sarnoff. "We are very excited by the idea of working with educators to create specialized curriculum-based programs which will ensure that the heart of our industry -- the future artists, designers and engineers -- continues to grow, learn and prosper."

"We expect to nurture these relationships over time and look forward to significant results in the next five years," says Scoredos. "We have also been working with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' Science and Technology Council and the Visual Effects Society to offer internships and mentoring programs. IPAX is here to help the schools, as well as Imageworks and the animation and visual-effects community."

Schools interested in joining the IPAX program should contact Sande Scoredos at

Eric Drobile of the Ringling College of Art and Design's class of '07 created this work. All Ringling images ©2007 Ringling College of Art and Design. 

Artists Need Business Savvy

Over 1.25 million people are employed in art and design in the United States alone. Many artists think about starting their own studios. Those who have a background in business, or partner with someone who does, are more likely to succeed. Recognizing this, Ringling College of Art and Design (one of the eleven IPAX member schools) in Sarasota, Florida currently offers a Business of Art and Design minor and will be launching a new bachelor's degree program in Fall of 2008.

"The concept for the Business of Art and Design major arose from a number of strategic planning sessions," explains Ringling College President Dr. Larry R. Thompson. "Adding a business component to our curriculum, although unusual and certainly out of the box for an art college, made logical sense."

To determine if there was an interest in the degree program, Ringling first created the minor program. The classes were immediately oversubscribed. "There was no question there was student interest," states Thompson. "But, before deciding whether to make it a major, we invited a number of businesses to review the academic program to determine if the proposed curriculum met their needs. The response from the businesses was overwhelmingly positive. They wanted to hire graduates immediately."

Melody Weiler, Ringling's Vice President for Academic Affairs, brought together faculty, experts in business curriculum development, and creative professionals to design a curriculum for the new major. Incorporating feedback from students, employers, and Ringling graduates, the curriculum evolved into the new bachelor's degree offering. Among the employers providing input were Disney Feature Animation, Electronic Arts/Tiburon, IDT Entertainment, Pixar Animation Studios, ReelFX, Rhythm & Hues, and Sony Pictures Imageworks. The curriculum was approved by Ringling's accrediting agencies in May 2007.

Launching in Fall 2008, the new B.A. program, which combines business courses, art history, liberal arts and studio art courses, will give students a foundation in visual arts with a focus on creativity, entrepreneurship, design management and more. They will also gain a solid grounding in business skills, an understanding of the creative process, and the ability to work effectively with other creative individuals.

Recognizing that artists want to start their own studios, Ringling College of Art and Designs introduces a Business of Art and Design minor degree program next fall.

The new BA program's courses include:

Organization and Management Business Technology Applications Accounting Principles Marketing Art and Design Behavior of Creative Businesses Social and Consumer Psychology Financing Art and Design Art and Design Business Law Managing Human Resources Project Management Art and Design Entrepreneurship Strategic Planning for Art and Design

In business courses, students will focus on case studies in industries such as arts management, advertising, video production, and art-and-design entrepreneurship. Studio experiences will teach them to think creatively, understand how artists work and comprehend the role of art and design in the contemporary marketplace.

To see if there was interest in the minor degree, Melody Weiler, Ringling's VP for Academic Affairs (l) and its President Dr. Larry R. Thompson first created the program and the classes were immediately oversubscribed.

Candidates for admission to the Business of Art and Design major will need to demonstrate (1) general education competency, (2) a strong interest in business and (3) a history of creative activity and accomplishment. While students are not expected to measure up to the level of artistic achievement required for admission to a specific studio program, they must demonstrate strong interest in the arts, a creative spirit, and an eagerness to work tolerantly and enthusiastically with creative individuals.

Manfred Ragossnig of Vienna, Austria created Patient for Class 5 at Animation Mentor, an online animation school. All Animation Mentor images � Animation Mentor.

To find out more about Ringling and the new B.A. program, visit or phone 800-255-7695 (U.S. only) or 941-351-5100.

Go to Animation School Wherever You Are

Another IPAX member school, Animation Mentor, based in Berkeley, California, teaches students all over the world via the Internet. Launched in March 2005 by animators Carlos Baena, Bobby Beck (president/CEO) and Shawn Kelly, the school's curriculum is 100% dedicated to character animation and teaches the art of animation the way the founders wished they could have learned it when they were in school.

The Animation Mentor program consists of six different classes (terms) of 12 sessions each for a full course of 18 months. It is a feedback-driven, online program that is based on the studio production system and pairs animation students with working professionals (mentors). The mentors act as teachers to students from more than 50 countries all over the world.

"Animation Mentor has closed the gap between the working world and the educational process and [prepares] graduates for the cyclical world they will encounter before landing a permanent studio home," notes Beck. "With the help of my partners and our amazing team of mentors, Animation Mentor remains in close touch with the ebb and flow of the animation business, with creative trends, new tools, technologies and more."

Like the students, mentors come from all over the world, from studios such as Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, DreamWorks/PDI, Sony, Tippett and Zoic in California, House of Cool and Nelvana in Canada, Reel FX in Texas, and Blue Sky in New York. It's possible for a student in Germany to learn basic principles like squash and stretch from an animator in California, and principles of body mechanics from an animator in Canada in the next class.

Left to right, Shawn Kelly, Carlos Baena and Bobby Beck, cofounders of Animation Mentor, at the school's Berkeley administrative headquarters.

"Every quarter, students are assigned a new mentor, so they end up studying with six studio animators, all of whom have worked at different locations, with a unique set of directors," clarifies Beck. "The mentors pass on this plethora of experience to their students. They talk about the many personalities and directing styles they have encountered and how they impact the animator's job, explain the various studio pipelines, and share the tricks of the trade. The same can be said for the experts who deliver our lecture/demos, which are rich-media files that students download each week to learn the fundamentals of the craft.

"The goal of our program is to teach the principles that were developed in the '30s and that somehow got lost in the shifting emphasis to computer software," continues Beck. "We believe it is the best way to develop a deep and lasting knowledge of the craft. At the moment there might be more talking animals in feature films, but animating animals comes from knowing how to animate dialogue. There might also be more animated creatures, but creating a great creature boils down to your knowledge of physics and body mechanics. No matter the storytelling trend, the skills are transferable and the fundamentals remain the same."

In addition to individualized one-on-on feedback, students also "meet" online in regular weekly Q&A sessions using a proprietary platform that includes web conferencing and real-time chat technologies. Animation Mentor has created an online peer-to-peer community where the school's aspiring animators can view each other's critiques, assignments and tests, and can communicate with each other, as well as with professionals in the animation industry.

Most importantly, Animation Mentor prepares their students for the freelancing way of life. "From day one at the school, we work with our students to nurture enthusiasm and build a professional attitude towards the business," says Beck. "We teach our students that animation is a collaborative art, that it's not about their ideas alone, but about creating great work by bringing together the director's vision, their talents and feedback from their peers. Filmmakers love to work with animators who understand this process, and bring their love of the craft to the studio each day. It's the beginning animators that have these attributes that get that second call to return to a studio for another project.

Animation Mentors grads whoop it up for a class photo at the school's second graduation ceremony held at SIGGRAPH 2007 in San Diego.

"Animation Mentor has amazing connections to the industry worldwide and we go the extra mile to build strong relationships with the studios... At the same time, we work directly with the students to help them tailor their materials and to prepare for interviews. Our career services department provides a wide range of support and services that begins as an integral part of the educational process and continues after graduation. Working with our curriculum team, they have created a series of rich-media lecture/demos that provide detailed instruction on how to create a demo reel that stands out, how to give a successful interview, how to create a standout resume, etc. We also provide our students with a host of resources that help them get their reels into the hands of decision-makers and that expose them to job opportunities and we maintain an internal alumni job board where we post openings. As graduation time approaches, our students partake in Q sessions that delve into the job search in great detail, and during which their mentors, who have successfully found studio jobs themselves, address students' questions and concerns and share their personal tips and tricks."

Tuition is $16,350 for the full 18-month course. For more information about Animation Mentor, visit its or email

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson is a recruiter, hiring strategist, career coach and speaker, available for personal consultations and speaking engagements. She writes the monthly column Career Coach for AWN.