Search form

Cal Arts vs. USC vs. UCLA MFA-wise

11 posts / 0 new
Last post
Cal Arts vs. USC vs. UCLA MFA-wise

I got accepted into MFA animation programs at both Cal Arts and USC. IÕm still waiting on UCLA.

All three are excellent schools, so itÕs hard to make a choice.

Is there a philosophical bent between the schools? Are grads perceived a certain way in the industry?

IÕd love to get anecdotes and impressions of these schools. It would help immensely as I sort through the official literature, and visit the schools.

I'd like to hear from:
people who are familiar with the program because they hire and/or work with graduates.
industry people who are familiar with the schools reputations.

Funny, djmez, I just moved out of NYC. Its also funny because UCLA's MFA program was the only one that turned me down.

So maybe UCLA looks for different criteria than USC or CalArts. I don't have the strongest life drawing skills, I was a B student in school, maybe that was a factor. Or maybe its just the subjective quality of the admissions process.

Anyhoo . . . I'm not crying too much about UCLA. In the end, I decided to go to USC. It was the best fit for me.

Thanks for everybody's input, it was quite helpful.


Sorry for a delayed response, but been busy . . .

I graduated in 2003, and now work as a trainer at DreamWorks Animation. I focus on lighting, compositing, surfacing, etc.

In regards to my comment, yes, most people end up having to work and learn a lot on their own. Yes, this does beg the question of then why going to school, but specifically for USC, the reasons are then for its resources, its industry connections, and the chances to work not only in animation, but in other forms of filmmaking (but like I said before, those opportunities do not readily present themselves).

But I would also say that no matter what school someone attends, the people there who go above and beyond are always the ones who are the most successful. So that doesn't necessarily change. No school is going to give you 100% of what you need so that you automatically graduate and get a job.

Jason Scott

I said it before, but thanks Mr. Scott for such a thoughtful response. It'd be great to know when you graduated and your degree to give some the issues you mention some context. I'm curious what your job is, too.

My end goal for the MFA is still a little open-ended, this exploration is part of why I'm going back to school. It's a bit experimental yet pragmatic/professionally oriented.

I come from a creative director/graphic design background, and I also produce music. There's a strong thematic streak in both my graphic and music work that animation will bring together. So I'm looking to explore that connection creatively and intellectually.

That's the experimental element and why I want an MFA program vs. taking software classes. However, purely experimental work often strikes me as just noodling around, although I recognize its creative merits.

On the pragmatic side, I want to make a mid-career change. Even though I've been pretty successful as a designer, I've found it unrewarding. So I'm looking to gain a new set of skills and entry into a new field that'll be more fufilling.

Ultimately I'd like to direct. (Yes, I realize that's a cliche, and worse, I haven't even lived in LA six months yet. ;-) On the other hand, I did get into two of the best film schools, and I've managed/produced some complex creative projects, and I might as well aim high). However, I'm realistic, it will probably take a long time post-MFA to sit in a director's chair.

While I'm working my way towards directing - or just stuck in development hell - there are a number of fields I'd like to position myself for: 3D set-design, concept design, storyboard artist, sound mixing, or motion graphics. Who knows, I might just be happy staying in those fields.

I'm a little perturbed by your comment:
"the most successful graduates have been those who had to constantly work on their own to learn things that weren't taught to them"
I'd like to hear more on that point.

If the program requires too much working on your own - what's the point of going to school? I don't have a creative degree and I taught myself design - and managed to go from designing newsletters in my crappy Minneapolis apartment to an office overlooking Times Square.

So those are my goals. I hope that helps you understand where I'm coming from, and it doesn't sound too pompous.

I'm sending this from a public access internet station, so I might not be able to reply soon. But I'd appreciate any further input.

I graduated from USC after studying computer science and cinema-television, and I focused on visual effects and animation in my cinema-television studies. So I didn't directly receive an MFA from the animation program, but I worked with the department for over four years during my time there (including being a Teaching Assistant), so I feel I have a pretty good understanding of the program (just trying to establish credibility here ;-D). I now work for DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, California.

The USC program tries to have a similar philosophical approach to CalArts, mainly because the history of the program over the past 15-20 years (so, a relatively young program still) involves mostly CalArts alums (past chairs of the program, other faculty, etc.). That approach tries to be one that emphasizes more personal animation filmmaking as opposed to a commercial emphasis. There also seems to be an impression that personal animation and experimental animation (especially if it's non-computer animation like cel, stop-motion, puppets, etc.) is more valid than things like visual effects animation.

The USC School of Cinema-Television in general follows a traditional, visual storytelling approach to filmmaking, but the Division of Animation and Digital Arts is probably the best place in the school for experimental work. Neither way is necessarily better than the other; that's just how it is there. Depending on what you want for yourself, you can decide if it's the place for you.

Unfortunately, the program feels pretty disconnected from the rest of the school. Since USC has the oldest, most established, and possibly the most prestigious film production program (not trying to pick a fight with NYU here...), one would think that the animation program would try to integrate various areas of its curriculum together with non-animation filmmaking courses, but that is not the case. Animation students who want to pursue cinematography, editing, or other areas have to go about it on their own with no real plan or support from the animation division. This can involve petitions to take other coursework as electives, getting chair approval, etc. Not the easiest thing for those students who want to combine animation with other filmmaking skills (for instance, visual effects). It can still be done, but most students get frustrated trying to do it.

My experience is that the most successful graduates have been those who had to constantly work on their own to learn things that weren't taught to them. This has included things like taking courses outside animation (see above) or learning to be technical (like understanding a correct animation pipeline, knowing how your software works, or writing RenderMan scripts). The good thing is that if you're ambitious and self-motivated, you can do pretty well there, although you might be frustrated at times. The successful ones that I'm talking about have been fairly successful, so I think they're happy where they are now (Rhythm & Hues, Nickelodeon, Sony Imageworks, DreamWorks, etc.).

Having said all that, the communication between departments has gotten better over the years, so I'm sure it will still improve. Also, USC still has so many more resources than other places, that many people who are aware of the situation will still go there, knowing that they will be able to take advantage those resources, as well as the alumni connections, non-animation courses (with a little work), and other benefits of the cinema school. But if you're not looking for those additional things, and are looking just do something like experimental work, you should have a good venue and lots of support for it.

Is that the information you're looking for? What type of education are you wanting? What is your end goal?

I hope that helps give a little more info about the USC program. If you have any other questions, feel free to ask.

Jason Scott


Thanks for that great reply. Very helpful.
I do have some follow-up questions, and can tell you more about my end goal (such that it is).
Unfortunately I have to pack up for a trip, and I was just doing a quick forum check before I left. I'll try and write a better post from the road.
Don't let that stop other people from posting their thoughts :-)


Reason808, I too am into animation and music. I live in NYC, and I applied to UCLA and Cal Arts.

I just got into UCLA's MFA Animation program (and was rejected from Cal Arts BFA Character Animation).
Anyone have any comments about this program? I like the idea of taking some non-animation classes, also (. I have heard good things from the two students I have emailed, and will be visiting next month before I make a commitment to attend.

Calarts is definitely experimental and geared toward finding either new filmic techniques or expressing the filmmaker's own personal vision. I'm a character animation BFA now, but have several experimental MFA friends. So, while I can't comment from personal experience, I can say that experimental animation, especially at the MFA level, always produces unothordox products. If you want a traditional animation job, like storyboarding, this is probably not the way to go. People have done it (Glen Keane graduated from experimental), but you'd be better off with a BFA in character animation. If, however, you want to be an independent filmmaker or feel that you have a particularly unique vision, then the program could be great for you. It's a very innovative and creatively supportive environment.

As mentioned before, the best and brightest are always the ones who, in a sense, step out of the program and go way beyond the requirements. Experimental animtion at Calarts (like most of the other programs here) isn't so much about the classes as it is the enviornment.

Hope this helps...

I took a tour of USC, and they seem to be addressing many of the issues you mentioned. Some students mentioned what you were talking about, but they didn't seem too constrained by it.

I hear what you're saying about going above and beyond. It was a bit of a devil's advocate style question. :-)

Thanks for your input.


I got accepted into MFA

I got accepted into MFA animation programs at both Cal Arts and USC. IÕm still waiting on UCLA.

[URL=""]Laminate Flooring Mississauga[/URL] | [URL=""]Dallas Home Inspection Fort Worth[/URL]

If you're a first-time home

If you're a first-time home buyer in the San Antonio area, Ensure Home Inspections provides detailed inspections and full walk throughs at a low cost!