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Kassel: The Little School With a Big Name

Professor Paul Driessen relates his experience at the animation school of Kassel University in Germany.

Paul Driessen.

After two Oscars, people (including myself) are starting to wonder if there is anything that Kassel does that most other schools don't.

The animation department, part of the "Visual Communication" faculty within Kassel's art school, was founded by my illustrious predecessor, Jan Lenica, who in the mid-eighties moved to Berlin. His students then started to visit animation festivals, looking for a new teacher, when they happened to stumble upon me.

The art school, which is part of the Kassel university but located in a different building, is based on an open system called "Freie Hochschule" (Free School). We allow students within a certain school to move freely amongst the courses of their choice. Part of the school's philosophy is that their tutors should spend time in the real world, improving their craft. This concept fits in nicely with my own working pattern, and the idea that the kind of animation I would try to communicate was going to need a lot of self-discipline from the students.

Style And Structure

My teaching takes the shape of workshops in which I explain my view of animation. I show my students the wide range of possibilities that techniques offer them, and think up some basic but essential exercises, mainly involving story-telling and movement. I then try to get them excited to do their own thing, in a personal, original style.

Kassel students celebrating Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein's 1990 Oscar for Balance.

Finding that personal style proved to be most difficult. Most students are so burdened with the barrage of global TV output that they find it hard to discover where their own qualities lie. The era of relative isolation in which I grew up made the development of an original style, both in design and way of thinking, much easier, and it helps me to sort out other people's dilemmas.

With no previous experience in teaching, I am still wondering about the mechanics of it. It is interesting for me to observe how, after a few hints of what could make an interesting story, some students suddenly catch on and come up with something really good. I would always stress the point that a good animation film doesn't necessarily need a story, as long as it has a structure, a defined plan, a sense of direction; at least something that makes it not only a work of art, but, more importantly, a film. Most of the Kassel students, though, focus on story, which is where I feel I can help out best. This commitment to story is usually a first step toward that weird phenomenon, a local prize the whole world knows about, the Oscar.

Giving your film a sound structure before you start the project is the best guarantee to avoid spending the rest of your life on your first film. Even so, the time and effort spent on the student films often exceeds what we anticipate. Quest is a good example of what seemed to be a never ending story. But then again, it did quite well and was worth the wait!

Tools and Technology

We should keep in mind that these are student projects. Given the fact that our means are rather primitive, as is the case in most schools, students simply need more time to figure out how to accomplish the goals they set.

The Kassel animation department has two 16mm Cras cameras, the Take-Two Amiga line-test system and three 16mm editing tables, which we share with the Documentary Film department. One of the tables has been attached to a mix panel by the indispensable Kazimierz Bendkowski. Bendkowski, a well known photographer in his younger years, now teaches the technical aspects of film making at the school.

driessenkassel03h.JPG.GIF Tyron Montgomery setting lights on the large (120 square feet) 3D set of Quest., which was re-built several times for the different scenes. "All" details were done in forced perspective, so the set looked bigger than it was," describes the student di driessenkassel04h.JPG.GIF For Quest, a small set in the cellar was used for close-ups. Notice the Arri camera on an old animation stand, for which Montgomery wrote a motion control program. On the left is the line-tester used to check the animation driessenkassel05h.JPG.GIF Original drawing by Paul Driessen, congratulating his students on their Academy Award.

Tyron Montgomery setting lights on the large (120 square feet) 3D set of Quest., which was re-built several times for the different scenes. "All details were done in forced perspective, so the set looked bigger than it was," describes the student director.

Most of our equipment is old and certainly not up to today's standards, so some students have taken the initiative to go more professional. Thomas Stellmach recovered an old 35mm stop-motion camera and Steenbeck editor, fixed them up and then got himself a decent sound computer. Quest came out of this investment. Of course, fellow students got excited, and started to borrow his equipment. This made me a little uneasy, for I always advocated the idea that a school should be a place to learn and our means should therefore be affordable; in other words, 16mm should be good enough. However, after two Academy Awards, I'm not so sure if that lofty idealism still stands.

Because of our latest Oscar for Quest, chances are that we can update our equipment somewhat; there is even talk of acquiring the Toonz or Animo computer systems. These are the kind of tools that animation students should get acquainted with for life after school.

A Need to Grow?

Another badly needed commodity at Kassel is space. We have very little of it and if, for instance, someone wants to do model animation, a lengthy retreat to some cramped basement room is their only option now. Repeatedly, poor Thomas Stellmach and Tyron Montgomery had to move their elaborate sets for Quest to different corners of the building, under the constant threat of expulsion.

As long as our class is kept small, we kind of manage. Currently, we have about ten students spread out over the roughly eight semesters it takes to finish the course. If our popularity rises, because of the second Oscar and this year's "Documenta," an international modern art exhibit which will be held in our back yard, we will have to withdraw even more from the reality of life and focus on what we are good at, the art of make-believe.

Editor's Note:

The one thing that Paul does not directly attribute to the success of Kassel is his teaching methods and experience in animation. To hear what his students say about their education, please refer to Looking Back on the University Days in this issue.

Paul Driessen is an internationally recognized animator, originally from Holland, whose more than 20 short animated films have been screened at festivals and in classrooms around the world. He currently divides his time between teaching at Kassel in Germany, and working with the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal.