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Looking Back on the University Days: A Survey of Alumnae

Talents fresh from the world's top animation schools reminisce about their educations.

What do all the alumnae have to say about their school days? Seize the day! We asked the following questions to a group of alumni and alumnus from some of the world's top animation schools:

What did you gain from your education?

What do you feel is the most important thing to take away from one's education?

What do you wish you had done differently?

What advice can you offer animation students in school now?

Tyron Montgomery with his 1997 Oscar.

Tyron Montgomery, Thomas Stellmach, An Vrombaut, Genndy Tartakovsky, Daniel Wiroth and Luc Otter all replied. Whether these graduates are working on their own independent films or at major studios, they all basically share the same sentiments - during school, you should create and learn all you can. Explore and expand yourself through your films, for you may never have the opportunity again. Tyron Montgomery graduated fromthe animation department at the University of Kassel, where he directed the stop-motion animated filmQuest, winner of the 1997 Academy Award for best animated short film. He is now animating and directing on various projects, including a recent commercial at Cod Steaks in Bristol, England. "Students from Kassel have won Oscars in 1990 for Balance and in 1997 for Quest. Thismay give the impression that the Kassel's animation school is a very advanced, top-class institution. But in fact, it isn't. The animation class there has only around ten students, very little equipment, only a few small rooms, and an annual budget of less than $2,700. US dollars (I never know whether I should laugh or cry about this.). There are hardly any formal lectures. If you want to, you can talk to the professors about your projects, if they are around - and that's not very often. So then, what's the secret?

Tyron Montgomery working on set of his Oscar-winning student film, Quest.

In other schools, where you have lectures and exercises and loads of equipment to play with, students learn something but often forget the most important thing: filmmaking is not about playing around with technology. Filmmaking is about telling stories. Here's one of the advantages of Kassel: the professor of the animation class, Paul Driessen, whose great animated films we all know. He's very good at helping his students to develop the stories for their films. Once you have a good story, creating interesting pictures and a good soundtrack is not a matter of money or modern technology, but a matter of talent and craftsmanship. A big budget and fancy effects will not make your film any better without a convincing storyline.

The other advantage to Kassel is freedom. In most schools students must finish one film per year and spend most of their time with lectures and exercises. In Kassel no one really cares what you do, so you can really take your time and concentrate on making your films as good as possible, even if you need a few years.

The fact that the university doesn't teach the students subjects like film language, editing, color design, body language, art history, dramaturgy, etc. . . . is not so important. I've analyzed many films, spoken to filmmakers at festivals, and read loads of books in the library. These events have provided me with a good theoretical base where I could decide for myself what to learn for my own filmmaking process without having to spend time in lessons, learning things I might never need.

My advice to animation students: if you want to become an animator, background artist or some other specialist in the animation industry, stick to your pencil, your computer or whatever tool you need, and learn to use it really well. Nowadays, the industry demands top-quality work. But if you want to become an independent filmmaker, always start with a good story, whether it's your own idea or not. Then try to create interesting pictures, not by using unnecessary effects but by utilizing a well-photographed, well-designed and interesting style. Then try to find sounds and music that match your images and really bring your film to life (sound is a weakness of many animated films). As far as the animation is concerned, good choreography and expressive characters are far more important than technical smoothness. Quest was filmed with an old Arri camera on an old Russian animation stand. We used old-fashioned models made of wood, polystyrene, and some paint. With the basic elements of story telling, animation, and filmmaking - and of course, love, imagination and patience, we managed to create something special. Actually, Balance is an even better example: half of a ping-pong table, five simple puppets, and a Bolex was all it took [Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein] to win an Oscar! Why? Because the film had a good story, an interesting visual style, and simple, but atmospheric, sound. So, wind up your cameras and do it!"

Thomas Stellmach.

Thomas Stellmach also graduated from the animation department at the University of Kassel, where he produced the Oscar winning Quest with Tyron Montgomery. Stellmach also created Weeds, a cel animated film, and now runs his own company, Thomas Stellmach Animation.

"The animation department at the University of Kassel is part of the Visual Communication school. The most important advantage to Kassel is the freedom to choose your field of study, theme and schedule. We can specialize our animation work with the production of our own animated films and obtain practical experience. Our excellent animation professor Paul Driessen gives advice and encourages our productions with his many years of experience in animation.

In regards to animation education, I think it is necessary to learn as much as possible about film, sound and animation techniques. Timing and storytelling are also important as is finding our own possibilities of visualizing one's ideas. I would study again at Kassel, if I had the choice a second time. I would also advise all animation students to come to Kassel and work together."

An Vrombaut received her MA from the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. Both her student film, Little Wolf, and subsequent short film, When I Grow Up I Want to be a Tiger, have won awards at festivals around the world. Currently, she is animating a sequence for Dutch animator Piet Kroon's collaborative film, TRANSIT.

"The best thing about the RCA for me was that I was able to make my film Little Wolf there. Although I could have made Little Wolf anywhere, it would not have been the same film if I hadn't made it at the RCA. Unlike most students, I applied to the RCA with an idea for a specific film already in mind. I had worked in a London studio for a year after my degree course in Belgium, and had done lots of sketches for Little Wolf, so I couldn't wait to get started on the film.

In the beginning there was some resistance at the RCA. The teachers wanted me to experiment on other projects first . After an unhappy first term working on something else, I was finally allowed to start on my film. I spent a lot of time perfecting the animation and looking for a suitable technique. The animation department was very stimulating. There were opportunities to work with people in other departments, an excellent library and, of course, the bonus of being in the middle of London!

I believe that there are two things which all students should try to gain from their education; skills and confidence. Firstly, learn as many practical skills as possible. I learned most of the basic animation skills during my course at KASK in Gent, Belgium. When I was at the RCA, the teaching of practical skills was a bit of a weakness, but this has improved since then. Secondly, build your confidence as a filmmaker. This can only be gained by making personal films."

Genndy Tartakovsky graduated from the California Institute of the Arts character animation department. He is the creator, writer, director, producer of Hanna-Barbera's two time Emmy nominated Dexter's Laboratory. He has also worked on such shows as 2 Stupid Dogs, The Critic, Steven Spielberg Presents Tiny Toons, and Batman: The Animated Series.

"At CalArts, I gained a greater understanding of the art of character animation by making animated short films myself. I learned all the different aspects of animation, timing, character design, storyboarding, editing and sound design.

Genndy Tartakovsky.

The most important thing you can take away from your education is the freedom to express yourself. I feel that a visual forum is very important to develop your own style of filmmaking, and school is the perfect place to explore this. The best advice that I can give is to really take advantage of your time at school, and try to absorb as many different aspects of animation as possible." Daniel Wiroth graduated in 1995 from La Cambre ( in Belgium. His student film, Crusy Fiction, has won eight film festival prizes, including the Grand Prize at the Brussels Animation Festival. ( Daniel is currently working on another short film, a love story between a wine glass and a champagne glass, which he expects to complete by December 1997. "I studied at La Cambre for five years. The education there is based on a autodidactical system, which means that we are free to create whatever we decide. We are completely free to use and experience all types of stories and animation techniques. The only important thing is to create one or more short films every year. During my five school years, I experimented with all known animation techniques, and also tested some new ones. For instance, I produced an object animation film in which I animated more than two thousand wine and champagne glasses. The only advice I can offer to animation students is to create as much as you can. We must search for new techniques and new madness. We have to look for crazy scripts which amaze us and our thoughts must contrast with what exists today."

Luc Otter

graduated with "great distinction" in 1996 from La Cambre ( in Belgium. During his five years at the school, he made more than ten short films in various techniques,several ofwhich are touring the festival circuit. Luc is currently working on a short CGI film at Behavior, a young production company in Montreal. "I think La Cambre is the only school in Europe where you can learn animation for five years while being completely free and not having to spend too much money. I think these are wonderful, incredible conditions to find yourself in, to experiment and make as many mistakes as possible. Five years gives you the time to do so many different things, and at La Cambre no one can stop you, as long as you are not wasting too much film and the "producers," i.e. teachers, still have a little confidence in you! The most important thing to take away from your education and to never forget is the feeling of freedom. The dreams and goals you have while in school are what you should remember. You should work toward these goals because achieving them will make you happy and proud. Don't forget your dreams because one day you could find yourself doing something you NEVER wanted to do. You might be in a boring job that doesn't pay well and leaves you with little or no time for your own work. How sad. This is the worst thing that can happen to an artist.

What would I have done differently? Maybe I regret not having worked enough. I am very happy about what I did accomplish at La Cambre but because these years were ABSOLUTE freedom, with hardly any money, time, room or camera problems, I wish perhaps I had taken more advantage of that. I also hope that I will have enough energy to fight for my freedom in my current work. What I would really regret is to not have been able to attend La Cambre. My advice for animation students is...the only thing that is important is your reel and that is all! If people like your reel they will help you and they will love you!! To have a good reel, do not think too much, just do what you want to do. In school you can be free. Do not listen to things that put you at a distance from what you really want to do. The best films in my school were those that were made in the shadows. The magic of animation is such that no one can say exactly how it works. In school do not think you know how to make a good film. If you know, you should leave school! Instead, try and try and study your experiments and learn the mechanics of cinema and animation. Then use this knowledge to express yourself. The worst and the best of yourself has to get out of you ... and school is the dream place for this." For a comprehensive list of animation schools around the world, visit the ASIFA list of Animation Schools web site, accessible through the Schools section of AWN's Animation Village.