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Animators – The Next Generation

We have enough people that can do hat tricks with computers. What we need are a few visionaries and dreamers.

For the past fifteen years, the Holy Grail for most new character animators has been a staff position with one of the major studios -  Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony, Blue Sky or Disney. Today’s new animators are encountering a rapidly changing industry landscape that includes entirely new production models.  Movies such as Chico and Rita, Rango, Coraline, The Illusionist, and Waltz with Bashir cost much less to make than, say, Brave or Madagascar 3, and they play for more demographically specific audiences. New channels of distribution and exhibition are emerging, and Hollywood’s big studios are feeling the sting that accompanies a mega-budget flop like Mars Needs Moms. Even lofty Pixar is having trouble sustaining its own high creative standard while producing three movies per year on an assembly-line basis.

We can do a better job of preparing the next generation of animators for the industry realities that await them.  We can do a better job of mentoring the next Miyazaki, Lasseter or Disney. Based upon my personal observations from interacting with young animators around the world, the schools and universities are graduating too many technicians and not enough artists. An ability to draw, as evidenced by the work in a strong portfolio, is increasingly optional or even irrelevant for admission to many animation-training programs. Granted, the computer has largely replaced the pencil as a primary animation tool over the past twenty years, but drawing skills are a visible marker of aptitude for animation in general.  Take that away and you are basically left with analytic computer programmer/operator potential.  The increasing numbers of animation technicians that is gathering at industry portals is creating a competitive climate that will drive down entry-level compensation that is, arguably, already too low.  Aspiring animators are becoming a bright target for entrepreneurs that want to exploit them.  A couple of months ago, I wrote about one example of this in the craft notes for my Acting for Animators newsletter.


A big part of the challenge is that structured animation training is still historically a recent development, and schools are still searching for the best way to do it.  California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), the first degree-granting institution of higher learning in the United States that specifically focused on animation, was founded by Walt Disney in 1961, a mere fifty years ago.  Before that, there were no animation schools.  My book “Acting for Animators” was the first to present codified acting theory to animators instead of stage actors, and it came close to not being published.  Countless publishers turned down the manuscript on the grounds that, “if animators needed their own acting book, there would already be one.”  It was largely serendipity that finally motivated Heinemann to publish it in 2001.  After the success of Toy Story in 1995, there developed a false public perception that animators might not have to draw like they did in the old days.  Computers would figure out the drawing part, so 21st century animators would only have to know how to manipulate pixels!  That, in turn, led to what we have now:  for-profit animation schools that are teaching computer skills rather than animation.

Most school and university programs would be instantly stronger if admission standards were refined.  A prospective student should have a genuine talent for telling stories visually.  If the portfolio is not going to matter, then other methods of screening for innate talent should be employed.  The truth is that talent cannot be taught, even by the best teachers. A school can teach skills and technique, but it can only encourage talent.  If a student does not have observable talent upon acceptance, she is not going to have it when she graduates. Classes in Maya and modeling need to be balanced by training in storytelling and creative writing.  To enhance cinematic literacy, a school might form a Film Club similar to what director Beeban Kidron describes in her inspiring TED talk:

Improvisation classes are useful because they help even the quietest animator productively interact with other artists.   Improvisation does not substitute for acting training, but it is good stuff and not expensive to offer.

Finally, and arguably most important of all, educators need to clarify the nature and purpose of storytelling.  Right now, the major animation studios define a “good” story as one that sells the most stuff, generates the highest grosses.  Value is measured only in commercial terms.  The priorities of Hollywood leaders are so upside-down that Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant was considered to be a failure and Shrek the Third a success. 

We have enough people that can do hat tricks with computers.  What we need are a few visionaries and dreamers, tomorrow’s John Lasseter’s and Miyazaki’s.  What we need are more “athletes of the heart”.  What we need are more shamans.