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East, Mid and West: Community Colleges Across U.S. Teach Digital Media

Santa Monica College's Academy of Entertainment & Technology was the first community college in California to offer a special animation program. Credit for all SMC images: Randy Bellous Productions.

Ten years ago, Santa Monica College, in California, started a special animation program in a new facility that was set up just for this newfangled thing called "digital animation." With the establishment of the Academy of Entertainment & Technology, SMC became the first community college in California to offer this specialized curriculum.

Many types of schools now teach animation and digital media. They range from vocational schools, to private specialty schools, to major universities, and community colleges are among the leaders in this discipline.

Today there are community colleges across the country teaching traditional animation, 3D animation, game design, Web animation and other forms of digital media. Why are there so many schools teaching this curriculum in all parts of the world?

"Santa Monica College's program was developed in response to local labor market data and many meetings with entertainment executives who were publicly bemoaning the lack of local talent to fill digital entertainment media jobs," said Katharine Muller, Dean of External Programs at SMC.

"The Academy of Entertainment & Technology is in the heart of the entertainment industry, which provides us wonderful opportunities for our faculty and staff to keep pace with industry needs," continued Muller. The academy is located in the center of 3D and game animation production in Santa Monica, CA.

But why would a school in New Jersey and one in Michigan include animation and digital media in their curriculum?

"The rationale was that there were few strong animation programs in the region and those that were around tended to focus upon traditional animation," said Van Muse, Dean of Instruction and Director of the Center for New Media at the Arcadia Commons Campus of Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "Our focus was on 3D animation with a foundation in drawing and traditional animation, which created uniqueness for our region."

KVCC's program started in 2002 and became a degreed program in 2005. Muse keeps abreast of current animation trends as the Director of Operations for the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International (KAFI), one of the premiere animation festivals in the country.

At Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, the program was spawned by one professor's personal interest in computer graphics back in 1985, according to Yevgeniy Fiks, the head of the current animation program. "It was started by a painting/design professor, Frank Rivera, who became interested in 3D graphics at the time. I believe the program grew out of his personal interest and fascination with digital media. And I believe at that time MCCC was one of the first community colleges that actually offered computer graphics courses."

MCCC's program began with a professor's interest in computer graphics in 1985, making MCCC one of the first community colleges to offer computer graphics courses. All MCCC images courtesy of Mercer County Community College.

Learning It All

Each of these programs starts out with the basics, teaching the foundation of art, basic drawing and life drawing. Then they move into digital, each with a focus on what is important regionally.

KVCC offers a curriculum in character design and visual effects, as well as video game art. The latter shares some of the same courses as the animation degree program, but also has a unique core consisting of video game design, business and legal topics, and a sociological course on "video game culture." According to Muse, KVCC is also addressing regional needs and offers curricula that will direct their digital animation students to careers in technical animation for the medical and legal professions.

Kalamazoo offers a full range of digital instruction in Adobe Suite applications, 3ds Max and ZBrush, along with a foundation in art and drawing, and a grounding in career education. Flash, multimedia and motion-graphics classes help to round out the program.

"For game animation, students experience the same drawing classes, image design and Flash as students in animation, as well as the 3D animation sequence," according to Muse. In addition, students in the video game art program can take intermediate and advanced classes in character design, 3D modeling and materials and texture mapping.

"In their final semester, the students take a portfolio development course, which requires them to have 12 completed pieces and a professional demo reel, which are evaluated by a panel of professionals," said Muse.

Mercer's program is geared to character animation for television and independent animation. Fiks says they teach all of their animation courses in 3D using 3ds Max and then, later, Maya. Mercer recently introduced an interactive animation course using Flash.

Kalamazoo Valley Community College's program, which started in 2002, hosts the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International, one of the premiere animation festivals in the country. All KVCC images courtesy of Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

According to Fiks, understanding the preproduction process, visualizing story ideas, the ability to achieve compelling personification of characters, and the ability to use animation principles such as secondary motion, anticipation and exaggeration are all an important part of the Mercer curriculum.

The program consists of traditional art courses -- such as basic drawing, life drawing, 2D design, and several courses in art history -- and liberal arts electives, as well as several levels of 3D modeling and 3D animation using Maya, 2D digital imaging, digital video/audio courses and a preproduction design course.

Muller of SMC says that her college "has a willingness and ability to respond quickly to industry needs and changes. This is a driving force behind the philosophy of the academy." The programs are also committed to insuring that, in addition to learning technical and digital skills, students have a strong foundation in storytelling, and artistic and communication skills.

"Students that complete the program will be able to enter the workforce as entry-level artists in games, broadcast, Web and feature film production," adds Chris Fria, assistant chair of the Design Technology department. SMC offers courses in traditional animation, web animation, 3D animation, digital video editing, digital audio editing, game development and visual effects.

SMC is located in the heart of the entertainment industry, which provides opportunities for the faculty and staff to keep pace with industry needs.

"If a student can't communicate a good story and doesn't have an artistic foundation for their digital skills, they won't be competitive," says Muller.

Degrees and Certificates

The community college is the one institution that serves many different populations. There are students right out of high school ready to begin their college careers. These students may want to gain a specific skill or may want to complete their foundation courses in order to move on to a four-year institution.

The community college also serves those that want to be retrained, such as adults seeking a completely new career. The community college is ready for them. In the case of SMC, many of their students are already professionals in the production business who need to learn new software skills in order to be competitive in their field.

Community colleges also offer certification in a couple of ways. First, there is the Associate of Arts degree. An A.A. or A.A.S. will give the graduating student the foundation to get a start in the industry, or will give him/her a leg up in completing a four-year degree. Some community colleges offer certificate programs for those who may already have attained a degree or those who wish to specialize in a specific area of their career path.

SMC offers an A.A. in animation, with enough electives to allow a student to gain an entry-level job in any of the digital industries. The SMC Academy offers a two-level certificate program in digital media. The first-level certificate provides students with a foundation in digital media tools, while addressing traditional techniques of storytelling and visual communication. The second-level certificate allows students to choose a specialization in game development, postproduction or visual effects. These certificates, according to Fria, are currently undergoing state approval.

MCCC offers their A.A.S. degree in digital media arts with a concentration in 3D animation. The New Jersey school also offers a certificate in 3D animation. The certificate program is new. Its curriculum is similar to the A.A.S. degree, but it's more focused, with fewer general education/liberal arts electives, according to Fiks.

"The certificate is designed for students who would like to attend college for a few semesters and focus specifically on animation. Most of these students are more concerned with building a stronger portfolio and entering the job market and have less faith in the degree as such," he said.

MCCC offers an A.A.S. degree in digital media arts with concentration in 3D animation, as well as a new program that offers a certificate in 3D animation.

Muse says the Kalamazoo A.A. degree focuses on preparing students for the workplace. "We have seen our students successfully transfer to such schools as Max the Mutt, Kendall College of Art and Design and Savannah College of Art and Design," he said.

"Our students have options. The career path for our students is doing animation and visual effects for commercial applications, such as advertising, multimedia presentations, medical and legal animation, as opposed to features or television," he continued.

KVCC has two degrees, one in animation and the other in video game art. Currently the college offers a Post Associate's Certificate in animation, which provides advanced directed study in animation. Students can explore areas and topics in more depth and receive even more individual attention. The certificate program is being redesigned and, when completed, will be offered to graduates in animation and the video game art programs only.

About 14 students a year graduate from KVCC's program. Alumni move on to the leading four-year animation programs, as well as find jobs in the business upon leaving.


KVCC graduates about 14 students a year from their program, but boasts that they have students not only moving on to the leading four-year animation programs, but already working in the business. Nate Bond, who graduated in 2005, was recruited by a start-up company called LifeStory Network.

An average of 22 students graduate from MCCC each year. Richard Thompson is the most recent success story. Graduating in 3D modeling and animation from Mercer, he is working on the new PBS show Word World.

Santa Monica College's academy has hundreds of students going through their program each year. Through an aggressive internship program run by Gloria Mottler, many of the students are hired as interns, and eventually gain employment at Black Ops, Electronic Arts, Activision, Digital Domain and many other well-known studios in the academy's backyard.

The applications of digital media are far-reaching in today's ever-growing world of animation production. Community colleges have the ability and responsiveness to develop comprehensive programs to train future digital media professionals. Check out what the community college can do for you.

Jan Nagel, the Entertainment Marketing Diva, is a consultant who has been involved in the business of animation and visual effects since 1991. She represents creative producers and production companies worldwide, including Small World Animation, Santo Domingo Films, and Jim Keeshen Productions, as well as being a frequent guest lecturer on the subject of the business of animation. She is also a founding member and president emeritus of Women in Animation International.

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Jan Nagel, Entertainment Marketing Diva