The New York University's Tisch School of the Arts Animation Program

by John Canemaker, Professor and Head of Animation Studies

John Canemaker, Professor and Head of Animation Studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, poses with the Animation Area's "mascot," a holdover from a recent visit to the school by Nick ("A Close Shave") Park. Photo courtesy of John Canemaker.
In the fall of 1998, the students and faculty in New York University's Tisch School of the Arts Animation Program walked into spanking-new, redesigned and refurbished quarters. Over a single summer a marvelous make-over (two years in the planning) had occurred on the eighth floor at 721 Broadway in New York City.

In order to accomplish the change, our two massive Oxberry cameras were dismantled in mid-May and stored on another floor; also spirited away temporarily were numerous animation desks, files, art supplies, books, shelving, computers, monitors, printers, scanners, tripods, Bolex cameras, lights, and other equipment large and small. Finally emptied, the old classrooms, offices and walls were leveled.

Our New Space
Steadily, over the following weeks, a new learning center for animators -- traditional, as well as computer-oriented -- rose like a phoenix from the rubble. Spacious and elegant, NYU's animation area has morphed the look and feel of an artist's atelier with a streamlined animation studio.

Three classrooms, which now allow simultaneous classes to occur, include a large "teaching" classroom for lectures and life drawing classes; an equally large "working" classroom where students draw at animation drafting tables and shoot video pencil tests; and a computer lab equipped with SGI workstations.

Light from classroom windows filters into a wide hallway through beveled glass partitions that also contain wood panels and doors. Large round columns -- once partially hidden, now fully exposed -- line the long corridor and rest on restored wooden floors of a former industrial loft. Once upon a time, hats were manufactured here; today, young animators manufacture animated films.

Opposite the classrooms, in long, air and light-controlled black rooms divided by partitions, rest the two re-assembled Oxberry cameras (both equipped with computer controls) and three smaller animation camera compounds. At the front entrance to the animation area is the equipment check-out room, and office of Animation Area Manager Alison Corcoran. From that vantage point, one can look all the way down the long corridor (lined with cork boards displaying announcements, posters and artwork) to a student lounge containing a comfy couch and chairs. Nearby is my office and an office belonging to Peter Weishar, our new full-time assistant professor and resident computer animation expert.

Students at work in one of the three new classrooms in the refurbished Animation Area. Specially designed digital recorder pencil test rigs line the back wall. Photo courtesy of John Canemaker.
Beliefs, Staff and Alumni
The construction of the new Tisch Animation Area is a confirmation of the success and strength of a program begun nearly two decades ago. The animation curriculum has grown over the years to become one of the country's most diverse; we are proud of the integration of traditional animation principles and techniques with high-tech computer animation. (see below). The Animation Area is a component within the Undergraduate Department of Film & Television -- students graduate with a B.F.A. in Film & Television.

NYU's Animation Program was started in 1979 by independent animator Richard Protovin; the next year I joined the faculty as an adjunct instructor. Year by year, Richard and I designed, built and experimented with the courses that now define the program. In 1988, Richard took an extended leave of absence (because of the illness that led to his untimely death) and I became the Head of the Animation Area. In 1993, I was granted tenure and this year was promoted to Full Professor.

Peter Weishar, who joined us two years ago as the Animation Area's first full-time computer animation teacher, has a rich and varied background in consulting and production. His company, Weishar Mew Media, specializes in 3D design and animation. He is also the author of Digital Space: Designing Virtual Environments (McGraw Hill, 1997).

NYU's Animation Program accommodates nearly 130 students each year; after graduation, most find work within the animation industry. Our recent alumnae include: Eric Fogel, creator and director of Celebrity Deathmatch for MTV Animation; Jonathan Annand, who assisted Mark Henn on Mulan for Walt Disney Feature Animation; Sue Perrotto, animation director for various MTV series; Mike Dougherty and Jennifer Oxley, directors of the new Nickelodeon series Little Bill; David Palmer, director of Blue's Clues; Ted Minoff, Michael Adams and Greg Pair, founders of AMPnyc; Sam Levine, Regina Conroy, and Brian Mainolfi, clean-up artists/assistant animators at Walt Disney Feature Animation; Rachel Levine, computer animator at Walt Disney Imagineering; Jennifer Taylor and Randy Lowenstein, CGI designers/animators at Oxygen Media Inc., among many others.

Students shoot pencil tests on custom-made rigs using a digital recorder. Photo courtesy of John Canemaker.
Following are the courses we offer at the New York University's Tisch School of the Arts Animation Program:

*Introduction to Animation Techniques
A beginning course that concentrates on the basic techniques of animation, and is the main prerequisite for entry into all the other animation courses. Exercises explore a variety of techniques (i.e., flip book, clay, collage, and drawing from the model), materials, design, and writing for animation. All work is tested on video, followed by 16mm color film. Please note that you do not have to "know how to draw" in order to take this course. The course will demonstrate how drawing and graphics relate. At the end of the semester each student will have an edited, two-minute reel of animation experiments.

*History of Animation
A chronological survey of the art and commerce of the animated film internationally over the last 100 years. Currently taught by author John Culhane, the course is designed to expand students' awareness of the origins of a significant 20th-century art form and to acquaint them with a wide variety of practical techniques and styles, from pre-film influences to computer-generated images; from "Golden Age" studio cartoon factories to today's independent avant-garde animator-filmmakers. Geared toward the expansion of student aesthetic sensibilities and a sharpening of critical perceptions about this unique genre.

*Animation Action Analysis I
Discovering the key principles and mechanics of animation motion, including timing, spacing, staging an image for clarity, imparting a feeling of weight in animation graphics and characters, etc. Live-action and animated films/laserdiscs are studied frame by frame; live models (i.e., a dancer and an actor) pose and perform various actions which students visualize and break down into drawings and analyze the movements. Students shoot pencil tests (i.e., the bouncing ball) onto video for class criticism. Classes are based on the intensive studies done in the 1930s at the Walt Disney Studio for the purpose of improving their animated films. "I definitely feel," Disney wrote in 1935, "that we cannot do the fantastic things, based on the real, unless we first know the real."

Computer animation professor Peter Weishar instructs a student in the new SGI computer animation lab. Photo courtesy of John Canemaker.
*Animation Action Analysis II
A development of Action Analysis I. How to put individuality and personality into characters, both traditional and CGI. Using frame-by-frame studies of live-action and animation on film/laserdiscs, students explore techniques and stylistic signatures of professional animators (e.g., Chuck Jones, Vladimir Tytla, Otto Messmer, Tissa David, Frank Thomas, Caroline Leaf, etc.). Students' pencil tests on video deal with the expression of emotions in animation, rather than mechanics. Visiting models and a Central Park Zoo trip are included.

*Stop Motion Animation
Includes all techniques in which the animator works directly in front of the camera. Examples include: clay animation, puppet animation, paint under the camera, in-camera special effects, and pixillation. Demonstrations on character building, set construction and design, armatures, and lighting for miniature are included. Several short assignments are required to introduce students to the intricacies of stop-motion animation.

*Advanced Animation Production

A one-year (two semester) course in which a finished film -- picture with sync soundtrack -- is required. Designed to meet individual problems in concept and technique. Use of varied equipment, mixed media techniques, and a personal approach to content is encouraged. An opportunity to work closely with the instructor, as well as to meet and consult with other professional animators for criticism and advice. Individual development is stressed.

At the start of the semester, each student chooses one of three story suggestions, for example, a section of Jungle Book, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, "Genesis" from The Bible, or The Martian Chronicles. Students research the visual material pertinent to the stories in picture libraries, print and photo archives, and museum and gallery libraries. From this basic research, the student begins to create and develop all the visual elements of the final production storyboard, including character model drawings, costumes and sets, and experimental sketches exploring mood, color and character relationships.

Each week students present all of the above material as it is developed; through critiques and suggestions from the instructor and class, students refine and shape the storyboard to its final form. At the end of the semester the approved storyboard should be ready to go into production, and reflect character, attitude, design, entertainment, mood, expressions, feeling, type of action, timing, use of dialogue, music and sound effects, and tell the story in the best possible way.

*Life Drawing
This course is designed to train students (both animation and live-action) to think visually, and strengthen their overall drafting and design skills. The focus of the course is drawing humans and animals from live subjects, thereby learning to translate the three-dimensional world into two-dimensional terms. Drafting skills are important to all animators, regardless of their chosen media or focus; for character animators in particular, strong drafting skills are essential.

*Titles and Optical Effects for Film and Video Productions (a fall course)
*Titles and Digital Effects for Film and Video Productions (a spring course)
Both sections teach theories and principles of motion picture effects using lectures and hands-on projects. Parallels are shown between the traditional mechanical system and new digital systems; the best of both worlds are used to illustrate a variety of camera and optical effects. Also demonstrated: lighting, exposure manipulation, camera movements, etc. Students are required to shoot and screen short exercises demonstrating fundamentals of camera technique for animation.

*Introduction to 2D Computer Animation
Students gain a basic understanding of several software packages, the ability to navigate on desktop computers, and create a short animated film. Software packages included Fractal Design Painter, Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, and After Effects.

*Intermediate 2D Computer Animation
This course will build on the basic tenets learned in "Introduction to 2D Computer Animation." Students will learn advanced techniques and concepts used in professional digital video editing with Adobe After Effects.

*Introduction to 3D Computer Animation
This is an introductory course in 3D computer animation using desktop hardware. Students learn the basics of modeling, lighting, texture mapping, set design and animation using 3D software.

John Canemaker lecturing in an Action Analysis class. Photo courtesy of John Canemaker.

*Intermediate 3D Computer Animation
This course concentrates on animation and advanced modeling using Alias|Wavefront's Maya software on Silicon Graphics, Inc. workstations. Students will learn about Inverse Kinematic character animation, special effects, rendering techniques, file optimization and UNIX basics.

*Advanced 3D Computer Animation
Students learn the advanced techniques of model building, rendering and animation, hierarchical skeleton animation, video production via computer special effects processing and output to video. Software used is Alias|Wavefront Maya run on Silicon Graphics, Inc. workstations. This is an intensive advanced course where students will experiment with the medium of 3D computer art and learn advanced techniques such as compositing, dynamic effects, and photorealistic lighting and texturing. Each student will work on their own 15 - 30 second animation for the entire term.

For further information, contact:
The Animation Program
New York University Tisch School of the Arts
721 Broadway (8th floor)
New York, NY 10003
phone: (212) 998-1700/fax: (212) 995-4062

John Canemaker, professor and head of the Animation Program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, was honored by New York's Museum of Modern Art on November 6, 1998 with a retrospective of his animated films. A renowned animation historian, he is the author of six books including Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists (Hyperion); Tex Avery: The MGM Years (Turner); and Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat (DaCapo). His new book, Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards, will be published by Hyperion in fall 1999. He is also the illustrator of the children's book Lucy Goes to the Country by Joseph Kennedy (Alyson Wonderland).

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to