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An Interactive Teaching Tool Comes to Life

Alice Carter leads us through a day in the life of the groundbreaking collaborative educational program, the ACME Virtual Training Network.

Three drawings by Dawn Robertson, a student of ACME VTN.

It is 3:00 a.m., and the lights are still on in the animation room at San Jose State University. Rick Servande, Ryan Carlson, Rachel Kane and Martin Gee are making final corrections to the pencil tests they will show to Warner Bros. Feature Animation (WBFA) later that morning. In an adjacent room, more of their classmates are flipping through stacks of animation paper, waiting for their turn to transfer drawings to video tape. It is not unusual for these students to be up so late. The art of animation is demanding, and now that they know what is required to get an industry job, they are willing to put in the extra time. Not only that, they have all been captured by the magic of watching their ideas grow from a single sketch on a piece of paper to an animated test with a life of its own.

At 11:30 a.m., all of the tests are finished. The students are sitting behind microphones, watching themselves on a 55" video monitor, and waiting for another adjacent monitor to light-up with the WBFA logo that signals the beginning of another lesson. Welcome to the most unique classroom in the country, the ACME Virtual Training Network. This program breaks every educational paradigm in the book and gives students a completely new way to learn. "A non-traditional classroom" is probably too confining a label for this pilot program which teaches animation to high school and college students across the country simultaneously. The weekly adventure begins for these 40 San Jose State University animation students when they are connected to top animators at the Glendale Studios of Warner Bros. Feature Animation via an interactive closed-circuit television network. Their classmates are spread over thousands of miles, and range in age from fourteen to over fifty and are students in high schools, community colleges, regional occupation programs, and universities.

Alice Carter, coordinator of the San Jose State University animation program, listens to students' questions via interactive video.

A New Day for the Classroom

Katherine Concepcion, ACME VTN producer and training administrator, calls roll. "Birmingham, are you there?" The monitors at all the sites show the classroom at Phillips High School in Birmingham, Alabama. All of the students wave. Concepcion next calls for Rowland High School/ La Puente Regional Occupational Program in Los Angeles. They're online too. The final check is for San Jose State. Everyone is ready to go.

Instructors at all three interactive sites load student tapes into VCRs and the lesson begins. Lenny Graves, an animator currently working on The Quest for Camelot, is forfeiting his lunch hour to review the work. San Jose student Ryan Carlson shows his "human jump" tape. Graves is pleased with the test, but their are a few more corrections to be made. Ryan, who has already filmed this tape over twenty times, has some questions and is anxious to improve his work. Graves sits down at a drawing board and shows everyone how Ryan can improve his tape. Then he moves on to look at the work from Phillips and Rowland. Students at all three interactive sites can then ask questions about each other's work.

Warner Bros. animator Jennifer Cardon introduces the next lesson, a review of the "quadruped jump" and "sack pantomime" exercises. Rick Servande shows his "cat jump" tape. The cat's tail still has a life of its own, but the timing is greatly improved, and the volumes are all consistent. Rachel Kane shows her sack pantomime test and has questions. Is the acting clear? Is the timing varied enough? How can the drawings be improved? Cardon answers all of the questions and re-draws the main poses on the white-board so that the whole class can benefit from Rachel's efforts. The animation instruction ends at 1:00 p.m. leaving half an hour for drawing instruction. Clean-up supervisor Sheldon Borenstein is ACME VTN's resident drawing teacher. If anyone at any of the sites across the country is exhausted by the fast pace and professional demands of the ACME program, Borenstein wakes them up. He is funny and outlandish, and has a talent for presenting difficult information in unforgettable ways. He begins by reminding students to look at the human figure as a series of three dimensional forms. "Make simple shapes," he says. "The cone, the rectangle, the cylinder." Borenstein breaks into song. "Simple shapes," he sings, "simple shapes, everything is made of simple shapes." At 1:30 p.m. the class is over. Nobody knows where the time has gone. Borenstein manages one more piece of drawing advice before the connections are cut. The camera at Warner Bros. zooms in and his face fills the screens at all the schools. "Always remember this one thing," he tells the students. "Wherever you go, the gluteus maximus is always behind you." Everyone laughs as the monitors go black. Student Dedication At San Jose State University, however, class is not over. Students grab a snack and go back to the classroom for another hour. Professors Alice Carter and Courtney Granner look at student tapes that are still in progress or have problems and collect the fifty new life drawings that are due each week. In three hours, the students will be back in class participating in a life drawing session they have organized themselves to help accelerate their progress. They draw four nights a week and all chip in to cover the cost of the models. Their instructors come in to help and offer suggestions. The long hours have produced results. "It amazes me to look back on my art work, the drawings before I began this program in August," says San Jose State Junior Tammy Manis. "Back then I thought they were pretty good but now I know they weren't. The comparison between then and now is astonishing."

A diagram illustrating ACME VTN's interactive set-up.

Master's Brain Child

In the ACME Virtual Training Network, the pace is sometimes frenetic and the work is challenging, but as this pilot finishes its first year the participants are all pleased. "This program has exceeded all my expectations," says Warner Bros. Feature Animation's director of artist development, and initiator of the program, Dave Master. Master conceived the idea four years ago to help educators provide students with the skills needed to enter the animation field. Once he came up with the idea, he pursued it tirelessly in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds; differences in school calendars, time zones, curriculum requirements all had to be considered. The fears of industry executives unsure about the project's feasibility and educators worried over a radical change in standard teaching procedures also posed potential obstacles. Fortunately for students hoping for a career in animation, Master's enthusiasm for the idea proved to be contagious.

Although there has never been any shortage of talented young artists hoping for an animation career, there has been widespread confusion about the requirements for entry level positions. ACME VTN has dispelled this confusion for the students involved in the program. They have had the opportunity to work with 22 professional animators, to have their drawings and pencil tests critiqued, and to view professional work. They know just how far they have to go. For San Jose State Junior Ryan Carlson, the program has been the experience of a lifetime, and his enthusiasm about his progress is evident. "I've learned more in the last nine months than at any time before in my life," he says.

Life drawings by Katrien Verbiest, a student at San Jose State.

A One Year Anniversary

Everyone involved with the ACME Virtual Training Network is working hard to insure that the program continues. Only a handful of the students in the class are ready to graduate, and the others all look forward to continuing in the program. As with any new endeavor, a lot of unexpected and interesting things have happened during the course of the year. Two sites in California, California State University at Fullerton and California State University at Northridge, did not have interactive access to the transmissions but did have classes auditing the lessons. To increase the involvement of students at the auditing sites, San Jose State, Fullerton, and Northridge went online together every Thursday. Students and faculty at all three sites viewed drawings and tapes and shared their expertise. Guest speakers were invited from Disney and DreamWorks to review work and to show portfolios. Two students from the class at San Jose State University have enjoyed the weekly interaction with the high school students so much that they are considering changing their career plans to include teaching at the high school level. Phillips High School senior Jonathan Gray has applied to San Jose State University. When the San Jose class heard that the ACME veteran from Birmingham might join them in California the whole group applauded. ACME Virtual Training Network is education at its best. Not only is it a collaborative effort between educators and industry, but it breaks geographic barriers and combines students of all ages into a learning community. The program also gives them an opportunity to work with top professionals and is rigorous in it's demands for excellence and immediate on evaluating results. "Receiving instruction directly from the entertainment industry has truly been the best opportunity of my life," says Junior Rachel Kane. "It's wonderful to come to class and see everyone so excited about their progress." It is this excitement that binds all the participants--students, faculty, school officials, Warner Bros. artists and staff and industry sponsors--into the ACME Virtual Training Network family. Alice Carter is acting director of the School of Art & Design at San Jose State University, and a participating educator in the ACME VTN program.