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“So… How Do You See Yourself in Our Studio?” What We Are Teaching — And Neglecting to Teach — Our Animation Students

Raquel Benez looks at office politics, the crucial topic to landing a job at a studio and whether schools are preparing students for the dog-eat-dog real world.

Raquel Benitez, ceo of Comet Ent. Inc.

Recruiter: What is your area of expertise? Any specialty?

Student: Well, I pretty much know every area, so whatever you have available

Recruiter: How do you see yourself functioning in our studio?

Student: Im a director; I want to direct my own movies and control the staff in school I made a short film and

Recruiter: What kind of experience do you have as a director?

Student: In animation school they prepare you to be a filmmaker, so I guess Im a director

This exchange might sound unreal, but it was taken from an actual interview conducted in our studio recently. As you might have guessed, the applicant didnt get the job.

Why are students being trained to animate, but not how to work effectively at a studio? Why are they taught to be filmmakers but not how to be productive employees in the industry? In my view it is very difficult for any individual to master even a few of the many skill sets required in contemporary animation. Why is there such a disconnect between the needs of industry and the training being provided by educational institutions?

Over the years Ive discussed these questions with many professionals Ive known and worked with, including Carmen Llanos, Deborah Fallows, Debbie Pashkoff, Barbara McCullough, Maria Fares and Tony Tarantini. Id like to share with you some tentative conclusions Ive come to as a result of these discussions about the problems we currently face in educating animation students.

1. Uninformed Prospective Students

Typically, students have little knowledge of the animation process at the time they decide to get involved in a career in our industry. In many cases, they are familiar only with the end product the nice movie, but have no knowledge of the immense amount and variety of work that has made this end product possible.

Before selecting a new career in any professional field, it is key to research the field to learn as much as possible about it. Prospective students should read about the animation process and the various jobs involved, and contact local employers to ask about their needs. Before signing with a college or other training facility, students should research them, too, to learn about their relationships with employers and placement record. Talking with graduates and prospective employers to this end is critical. Training institutions should have a solid track record of quality jobs being secured by their graduates.

2. Lack Of Communication Between Academic Institutions and Industry Professionals

When industry professionals do not give relevant feedback to the academic institutions training future animation industry workers, some institutions may simply cater to what they believe to be students wants and needs. Animation professionals should provide input into training program design by specifically letting educators know how the industry is changing and what new skill sets will be needed by prospective employees.

At the present time there is high demand in the areas of 3D modeling, Flash animation and motion graphics, and opportunities in general for CG artists with traditional foundation skills. The market is saturated, however, with artists with only traditional skills and CG animators with no understanding of performance and acting. How many academic institutions are adjusting their programs of study to address these realities?

In theory, placing students as interns in working studios should help foster industry-academia communication, but in practice studios have a great deal of difficulty integrating student interns in the face of hectic production schedules. When a project is green lit, everyone tends to go into production mode, and there is little time to mentor students. Often either no work is provided for students, or the work that is provided is meaningless make-work. I dont believe industry placement should be abandoned, however, because experience in the workplace is beneficial to students, especially in a team-oriented industry like animation.

3. Student Lack of Teamwork and Other People Skills

Animation students must be taught that animated productions are the result of the efforts of strong teams of individuals working in collaboration. Students should be prepared to work with others at different stages of production, to understand how the varied roles in the process overlap, and to recognize that their participation does not mean that all of them are directors.

I believe that it is extremely important for students to gain an understanding of the entire process of animation production. In addition to the creative requirements of the process, it is essential to make students aware of the interactive social needs the process involves: the people, the various roles and responsibilities, teamwork and leadership skills plus communication skills. Lack of communication and leadership skills, in particular, seriously hinders students ability to perform well as supervisors and directors as they move up within an organization.

4. Insufficient Time for Essential Curriculum

Intensive animation programs can cram too much into too short a period of time. I believe a three-year program is necessary for the student to understand the entire animation process from conception to distribution. Some academies mandate that each student produce a short animated film, a project that requires that students personally assume the role of each individual artist in a production, from scriptwriting to casting to development, music, color, clean-up, compositing, editing and everything in-between, including production support roles for the entire process. The limitation of this approach is that students, in fulfilling the requirement, may work in isolation rather than within a teamwork structure,

5. Misleading Advertising

Its been suggested that schools sometimes send the wrong message to prospective students regarding their future occupation. I dont believe students entering any animation program are familiar with the variety of jobs that are open to them. Just about everyone wants to be either a director or an animator. Its normal and healthy that students dream about one day working for a major studio as the key animator on the next big animated blockbuster.

They need something to aspire to, something to motivate them. But they also need to be made aware of the realties of current job opportunities in the industry so they can begin to identify where their particular strengths and their true passions lie, and refine their career goals accordingly.

6. The Structure of the Academic Curriculum

We all agree on the importance of traditional and classical drawing in any animation academy curriculum, but an overemphasis on these skills can result in failing to provide time to educate students about other important matters. What do the academies teach about the process of production? Do students learn how to prepare a schedule or budget? Are they introduced to the essential role distribution plays in the animation process? Unfortunately, there are not many schools at present that can say they deal thoroughly with these topics. This brings us to another question: what kind of qualifications and experience are the schools asking of their instructors?

Lets not forget that animation students tend to be visual learners who like to see what it is they will need to be successful. They want to learn how to draw well, want to be able to produce attractive, inspirational, functional visuals that they can get excited about and be respected for. Rather than concerning themselves with the non-aesthetic aspects of the animation process, they tend to be focused on acquiring individual skills such as design, storyboarding, layout, animation and all the sub-skills attached to these: drawing, perspective, composition, staging, blocking, timing, performance, etc., and knowledge of digital tools such as macromedia, adobe products or even Maya.

It is up to educators to teach students those aspects of the animation process including production, distribution, and financing they might otherwise ignore.

It should be noted that we, as animation professionals, have a certain credibility with students that their instructors might not have. Students listen to professionals, so we have an opportunity to influence the content and scope of their education in a way that can improve their preparation and prospects for success in our industry for the benefit of everyone concerned.

Id like to ask you, as an animation professional, to consider these questions yourself: Is there sufficient communication between industry and educational institutions in our field? Are we looking to create employable graduates that will fill industry needs? Are we looking to encourage the growth of independent, creative individuals who can foster growth and innovation in our industry?

Thanks to all the friends and professionals who helped me with their invaluable feedback during the writing of this article.

Raquel Benítez, ceo of Comet Entertainment Inc. has written software programs and books that are now considered to be the industry standard, and has worked on, directed and received accolades for many animated films, with a while experience in the training aspects of the industry.