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The Animation Pimp: Big School

What’s in the water at RISD that gives the school such a creative spark? A group of ex-students offers their opinions.

'The Animation Pimp.' Image courtesy of Andreas Hykade.

Aging brings a bit more calm apparently. Years back I’d have used this space to write a rant about the consistently porous state of North American student animation. How many of the films lack any clear vision, courage, individuality or sense of purpose. A majority of the films are conceptually weak, frequently reliant on existing tropes. Those that do show a modicum of thought lack risk, as though the students are afraid to challenge themselves, possibly for fear of disappointing their teachers and parents. No no no… I’m not going to go that way. It’s too easy and while a good swift kick in the senses might be ideal, it rarely works. So instead, I’m going to focus on the positive.

During the past 24 years that I’ve been involved in animation there have definitely been some consistently good schools. Cal Arts (USA) and Royal College of Art (UK) spring to mind as do Tama (Japan), Tokyo University of the Arts (Japan), Bezelel Academy of Arts and Design (Israel), La Cambre (Belgium), Filmakadamie Baden Wurttemburg (Germany), Kask (Belgium) National Film and Television School (UK), Gobelins and Supinfocom (France) but the one school that has rarely disappointed is the animation wing of the Rhode Island School of Design. Their track record and alumni are astonishing. Not only have they produced indie steadies like Fran Krause, Caleb Wood, Jesse Schmal, Leah Shore, Michael Langan and Max Porter, they also gave us the creators of Superjail (Christy Karacas) and Family Guy (Seth MacFarlane).  That’s just a few names. RISD films are consistently thoughtful and technically adventurous. Even their failures are frequently bolder than the best films from many a school. Unlike schools that seem to put more of an emphasis on technique over concept, RISD work clearly prioritizes the idea. How you express only comes after you’ve developed the idea. So, yeah, sometimes the techniques are a bit sloppy and lo-fi, but it hardly matters when the ideas are original and exciting.

So what’s in the water at RISD that gives the school this creative spark? I invited a handful of ex-RISD students (Fran Krause, Jesse Schmal, Joel Frenzer, Leah Shore, Max Porter, Caleb Wood and Michael Langan) to offer their insight into just what makes the school so unique.

Chris personal feeling is that RISD is probably the most consistent school in terms of creating innovative personal indie animation. There really seems to be more of an emphasis on the concept, on having something to say more than with technique...not that technique is minimized, but it's secondary to the idea.  And there's also a very lo-fi tone to a lot of RISD's work too. No high tech software...and even the ideas often seem quite intimate and personal (Is RISD the GBV of animation schools!? Okay..sorry...never mind). much of this is due to the influence of teachers like Amy Kravitz and Steve Subotnick? And assuming it is their influence, what is it that they bring to the students that's so special unique in your mind?

If it's not because of them...are there other teachers there whose impact has maybe been overlooked?

I'm sure it's not all roses there, but something is working well.

Michael Langan: I think Amy and Steve definitely have a huge influence on the quality of work coming out of RISD, although there are a few other folks who deserve a ton of credit, too…Brian Papciak is a passionate filmmaker who really pushed us to use our “voice” in our work and make creative decisions with great intentionality (even if that intention was difficult to verbalize - as long as it made sense in the context of the film). Dan Sousa and Jeff Sias were also gifted working animators who supported that culture of thoughtfulness and innovation.

All of these guys showed us a world of films which have totally different goals from conventional filmmaking. A lot of eastern European stuff, et al: Svankmajer, Priit Parn, Rybczynski, McLaren, Len Lye. Films which are totally self-contained, spinning their own logic, totally true to themselves and vaguely referencing “real life” but rarely outright narrative.

Something that RISD in general is sometimes criticized for, but which I think is part of why it’s so great, is its almost total disregard for the working world beyond graduation. This is definitely true in the animation department. I like to think that RISD prepares you to be a forerunner in your field— if you can put the pieces together to get to the top yourself.

Jesse Schmal: I am a big fan of Amy and Steve, and still consider myself a student of theirs studying effective teaching. 

There is very little techie instruction; if you want to be a traditional character animator, you are tasked with seeking out that know-how on your own.  There is a character animation elective (Dan Souza, Julie Zammarchi), but that's it.  I didn't even take it.  I think Krause showed me how to do tech stuff. 

From the get go in the Intro course the emphasis is on using your voice and making directorial decisions, all to serve the ends of making complete films. At the same time, our eyes are opened to amazing works the most of us hadn't seen before – Estonians, Russians, some Dutch-Canadian guy who can't stop being great, and a keen eye for the good new stuff coming out of Ottawa each year.  I didn't quite realize at the time, but now teaching the youngsters myself, they can have a remarkably limited and tepid pool of influence to draw from if they're not exposed to these independent voices early on.

The feedback from Amy and Steve on our films was big picture stuff:  how to communicate; how to create a tone that matches our vision.  Yoda gets thrown around often as a descriptor for their instructional style, and disagree I would not.

Someday, I plan to off either Amy or Steve - whomever puts up less of a fight - to be faculty there; I would miss Amy or Steve of course, but carrying on the RISD way of independence and vision would be a noble workday.

To comment on the criticism that there's not a focus on jobs after school or the practical skills involved in some of those jobs - fuck it, I say.  If I'd spent a zillion of my parents dollars to learn one distinct trade, then got to the point I did a few years back where I realized, "shit, I don't think I want to do this trade much longer," then I'd be in trouble.  I think RISD readies its grads to live a creative path after school and adapt, make decisions, create and lead. 

Fran Krause: I've thought a lot about RISD since I graduated, especially since I've spent so much of my time since RISD being involved in teaching animation at Pratt and NYU and CalArts. First off, keep in mind that I started at RISD twenty freakin' years ago. Goddamnit. I also had Steve Subotnick for my fourth-year animation class, as Amy was on sabbatical.

RISD was great for keeping me sheltered from the professional world. I can't really recall any guest lecturers that were professional working studio animators. Bill Plympton stopped by, but I think of him as an independent animator more than a commercial or professional studio animator. We were able to develop our styles and films without really worrying about getting jobs. This was very helpful, as I see a lot of students only working on animation in order to get a job in the industry, and that's a very depressing and unfulfilling way to approach animation. Studying at RISD taught me to enjoy my own process, and I'm very thankful for that.

Joel Frenzer: Steve Subotnick and Seth MacFarlane made me do it. 

While at Washington University in St. Louis, I made an animated short based off a comic strip I published in the school newspaper.  There were no classes offered in animation; I cobbled together my media know-how and, using very old film equipment, expelled something, mainly unwatchable, in the wee hours.  I then entered it into a school film fest.  Being able to sit at the back of the theater and watch the audience watch my work was exhilarating.  It what was missing from the comic strip. I was hooked.  I proposed focusing on animation as my major.  The Admin was receptive but in the end said there was no one at the school to teach me - I would spending a lot in tuition for an independent study.  They suggested perhaps transferring to another school that had a strong animation program, and that they would give me a good recommendation.

 I visited a bunch of west coast schools before arriving at RISD.  On the tour, they pointed out the animation building, then continued on to all the other sites.  At a certain point, I ditched the group and headed back toward the animation building.  It was the summertime and classes were not in session.  I wanted to see the studio to get a feel of equipment, environment, etc.  I had to wait for someone to walk out of the main door because it was locked.  I slipped inside, no one was around, I went into snoop mode.  I eventually found the studio on the 4th floor.  To my surprise the door was open.  I walked in and was met by a young Steven Subotnick.  He happened to be there to pick up some VHS tapes.  He asked about me, what I was interested in, etc.  He told me the RISD animation program was based on the individual artist, his/her unique perspective, as a means of personal expression versus a traditional technique-based curriculum.  He said something about making a whole film, from start to finish on your own, based on something uniquely you.  No other schools were saying such things.  I was hooked yet again.

He then let me watch a compilation of senior degree projects as he left to work in his office.  I loved what I was seeing, so many different styles, ideas, and ways of animating that were completely new to me.  While I was watching, someone else entered the studio and was talking to Steve down the hall.  They eventually come into the main room where I am and Steve introduces Seth McFarland to me as a former student who was in town paying a visit.  Seth tells me how great the program is, how great a teacher Steve is, and that I should definitely come here.  I had also just watched his degree project and we talked about that as well.  He told me that he was able to do stand-up as a student, work that directly into his animation, and do all the character voices.  Very cool, thought I - exactly the things I wanted to do.  I asked what he was doing now.  He mentioned working at Hanna Barbara , moving more into directing, but that he was also trying to make his own animation (4 months later got the Family Guy deal). 

I felt like for the first time I was talking with my people - that shared multifaceted and independent/unique approach to art making and invention.  I got in, dove in, and have been forever transformed.

Caleb Wood: The success of RISD grads, or rather the impetus for RISD grads in animation to pursue their own work, most likely boils down to what takes place in the Junior and Senior year. There's a lot of chaos, parties, bad relationships, excess of drugs, etc. And then there is Market House, a safe haven for the animation department. The place where animators retreat and restructure their lives in a safe/somber environment.

Amy has a collection of the best animations films in history, open for viewing. You can walk in there, make some tea, and browse the shelves full of mind-altering works. That's how students really make revelations, when they see work that is truly great. When I was there, I felt like I was exposed to everything that really matters in the animation world. Aside from this, I believe Amy has figured out the right moments in each student's development in which they are ready to see a certain film from the shelf. She waits to see a spark in your work that correlates to one of the films on her shelf. Then she shows you, and you become a little bit more enlightened.

Leah Shore: Bryan Papciak really helped me with my senior thesis and really understood where I was going and assisted me with lighting and all the technical and experimental aspects of my film. I felt like he really understood what I needed for my film etc.

Other major teachers that were influential for me were Dan Sousa who basically taught me how to animate. It made no sense to me until I had him as my teacher and I am very thankful for that, and John Terry who taught me live action and insisted that I experiment within live action. Also, Ryan Lesser who taught me the computer as I did not understand the computer and After Effects before RISD.

Something I feel I wish I knew about before deciding on colleges in general was debt. I wish high schools were more informative about debt, loans, life after college and how screwed you could potentially be if you decide to go into the arts and pick one of the most expensive private schools in the world. I did have a scholarship, but perhaps I should have gone to a school where I had a full ride.

I think the Film, Animation and Video program I was in was amazing, but I was not entirely impressed overall with RISD. I did not particularly like all of the students, courses and how we were forced to take 2d, 3d and drawing classes during freshman year. I wish I had learned more technical things, even painting techniques and wonder what I could be doing if I had gone somewhere like Cal Arts, Mica or AFI etc. I do not regret RISD, she has flaws and there are flaws in every school program, I just know there are other amazing art schools out there with amaaaazing talented people in it. RISD is not the only choice, though a ton of amazing quality art is produced from it.

Max Porter: I visited RISD as a guest critic a couple years back, and after chatting with this one ridiculously talented student, I asked Amy how she approached teaching him. She quoted Jules Engel: “it’s not what you give to students, but what you don’t take away.” I think this sums up her philosophy: teaching is about coaxing out what is already unique in students, rather than imposing your own standards on them.

On the surface this may seem laissez faire, but Amy did crack the whip in two important areas: 1) she could be brutally honest when she needed to be, 2) she placed a huge emphasis on finishing work. Not finishing in the “polished” sense of the word, but taking ownership of a project by calling it done and putting it into the world.

I get the sense that Amy’s background in anthropology is a big part of an open-minded culture of her approach. If you mentioned (linear) perspective, she’d remind you that we’re talking about Western-style perspective and then discuss Eastern approaches to creating depth in the picture plane.

Bryan Papciak is also a huge influence on the quality of work coming out of the school. I remember that Bryan screened The Passion of Joan of Arc [dir. Carl Dreyer] and brilliantly deconstructed how this complex narrative was built off of a sequence of simple close-ups. He hammered home that even if animation has its own language, it’s still part of a larger cinematic vocabulary. He pushed us to dig deeper and challenged our assumptions about what we were doing.

The RISD animation program is a subset of the larger Film/Video/Animation department, and because animation students were required to take live-action classes, they offered less technical animation courses than other animation schools. Ultimately, I thought the limitation was good because students were forced to figure out more direct solutions and didn’t get lost in the tech. The students that dove into more complex technical processes did a lot of the learning legwork on their own.

There was a strong emphasis at RISD that a sketch could be a finished piece. I remember that some students were encouraged to shoot pages out of their sketchbooks and use them in final film. Faculty would talk about a quick doodle and a fully rendered drawing with the same consideration. This happened after my time at the school, but these days, the animation senior year begins with a marathon of tiny 24hr films designed to take away the preciousness of making. 

It’s also worth noting the greater Providence community. Maybe it’s different now, but when I was student (1999-2003), the local art scene was enormously influential on the type of work being done at RISD. Fort Thunder was still putting on shows weekly and you could pick up a Xerox copy of Paper Rodeo just about everywhere.

Like all American private institutions, RISD is criminally expensive and most grads leave with debt. And like most schools, there is a legitimate conflict between preparing students for the real world and protecting them from it. When I graduated in 2003, RISD was very much of the mindset that that if you just focused on making your work, the other post-graduate stuff would sort itself out. Now that I’m in a place where I’m able to do work I like and still pay my bills, I can say that having the time at RISD to just focus on art was far more important than learning the latest tech or having portfolio reviews from industry people.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.