First Class
Issue: Volume 35 Issue 6: (Oct/Nov 2012)

First Class

Students produce compelling work, including (top) Fan Zhang from The Academy of Art University; (middle) budding artists from Vancouver Film School; and (bottom) Fernando Pena from Animation Mentor.

Students spend a great deal of time in the classroom learning the basics of animation, whether for films or video games. Instructors explain, discuss, and provide examples. Then, along the way, students are expected to apply those lessons–first in incremental projects, and later, as they progress within a school’s curriculum, they eventually reach a point when they must mentally assemble all they have learned and integrate that into a larger-scale project.

A number of schools require an individual or small- group assignment, often a two- to five-minute animated short film or 10-minute playable game. However, some take a different approach, having students create a portfolio of their works that span their school career, while others offer students a chance to lend their knowledge and budding expertise to an actual professional production.

The structure of the work may vary, as might the methods of instruction and how each school prepares their students for the projects. What remains consistent, though, is the fact that these students are stepping out of the classroom with some degree of experience and knowledge of what it’s like to work on an actual production, surely giving them an advantage in the job market.

Films with Finesse

A four-year college in Sarasota, Florida, Ringling College of Art & Design requires students to complete courses in 3D animation, concept development, and character and environmental design, among others. One class, Animation Preproduction, focuses on story concepts and design development to assist students in creating their senior projects.

“We have milestones they accomplish along the way. For example, the first milestone has them building the characters and laying out their UVs, as well as texturing the character,” says Jim McCampbell, department head of Ringling College of Art & Design’s Computer Animation program. “The deliverable for that is a turntable of the rendered model, shown during a full-faculty critique.” A visiting artist from a professional studio often attends the critique as well.

Students have a mere three weeks to complete that work. Then they must produce two minutes of animation by December.

At Ringling, students are able to select their own projects and whether they would like to work in groups or by themselves. While most of them opt to work solo, there is a growing trend toward group work, says McCampbell.

On April 1 (no fooling), the finished films are due. While this may seem early, McCampbell explains that this deadline guarantees that the projects are ready to be shown to “the recruiters who come to campus” and for certain film festivals. It should be noted that Ringling students have done extremely well in various festivals. In June, 2012 grad Eric Prah received a Bronze Award in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 39th Annual Student Academy Awards for his short film “My Little Friend.” In fact, this brings the number of student Academy Awards (Gold, Silver, and Bronze) won by Ringling students to nine over the past 11 years. Ringling students also have had success at the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival, and this past year was no different, as Prah’s film shared the screen with “The Colors of Evil” from fellow alumni Alex Glawion, Phillp Simon, and Alyse Miller.

What’s the secret to the school’s success in terms of the recognition the projects receive? “The curriculum is designed to create complete filmmakers. The faculty is diverse and committed,” says McCampbell. “I also think that our shorts are conceptually unique and technically sound. And, they are actually short. Too many films today drag on and on.”

Manhattan Advantage

Final projects are also required from students at the four-year New York City-based School of Visual Arts (SVA). Before students can complete their projects, they undergo a rigorous schedule of classes in story development and technology (2D and 3D), so they can achieve the required technical skills. “The core of the instruction lets them think about the short-film format during the freshman year, while the actual productions begin in the junior year,” notes John McIntosh, chair of the college’s Computer Art, Computer Animation, and Visual Effects Department.

Students are in full production by the second semester of their junior year. During the senior year, instructors evolve from a mentoring role to one that is more akin to a film director or producer. All students in the program take the same production-type classes before splitting off into different technical classes, depending on the demands of their particular course of study and the needs of their thesis. In the past, the program delineated between 2D (VFX compositing) and 3D (CGI). Now that most compositing entails integrating a 3D object into a scene, those disciplines have merged at the school, at least in practice if not on paper.

SVA provides a range of tools as well as a renderfarm, greenscreen studio, and sophisticated sound-recording studio. “The projects have Foley effects and subtle layers of audio. Our students approach audio in a very sophisticated way, and now it’s a requirement for all our students to have audio-design experience,” McIntosh says.

Once the films are completed, there are three public screenings. The first is a formal thesis presentation at the SVA Theatre. “We are one of the few schools where the first formal presentation is done in public with professionals as jury members,” McIntosh says. A formal evening encore screening and a senior exhibition and portfolio night follow.

“Most every nuance of a production environment is reflected in this curriculum,” says McIntosh. Also, because the school is based in New York City, it can provide many internship opportunities, giving students valuable insight into the industry before graduation. Moreover, the SVA faculty is adjunct, enabling instructors to stay abreast of the latest trends and subsequently introduce them into the classroom.

The School of Visual Arts in New York City provides classes with state-of-the-art equipment to use for their courses and projects.

Southern Charm

Animation students at the four-year Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) focus on skill, concept, and professional development, as well as production techniques, as underclassmen, so they are prepared to take on production of their final film during their senior year. Previously, students took a portfolio class during the senior year; however, since so many students do internships at this time, the school moved this important class to junior year, giving students time to update their work using newly acquired skills from on-the-job training. The same holds true for students in SCAD’s interactive design and gaming departments.

“A portfolio should be constantly updated and refined as an animator matures in vision and develops new skills,” says Peter Weishar, SCAD’s dean of the School of Film, Digital Media, and Performing Arts.

At SCAD, visual effects is a separate course from animation. “Visual effects can serve as a bridge between animation and live-action film,” says Weishar.

SCAD has built a reputation for producing noteworthy animators, many of whom have had their projects selected in various film festivals and are eager to take the next step. According to Weishar, each academic year SCAD hosts well over a hundred recruitment visits from studios and production houses. Some attend the annual Savannah Film Festival, hosted by SCAD and featuring independent and innovative films by professionals as well as students.

During the weeklong event, SCAD students can view films, participate in panels and workshops, rub elbows with professional filmmakers, and perhaps even have their own project screened for this often sold-out event.

“ALKA” is a short CG film by Ieva Sauciunaite, a graduate from SVA.

A Winning Recipe

Many students from the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Germany have won accolades in various film festivals and competitions—among them, the Visual Effects Society’s award for outstanding visual effects in a student project, for the last three consecutive years.

So what is the secret to the school’s success? During the first two years at the Filmakademie, students receive a basic education in filmmaking—writing a script, creating an experimental animated film, working a camera, and directing a short action film. They also learn how to handle basic animation tools at the Institute of Animation and Visual Effects. So, by the end of their second year, the students have a great deal of basic knowledge. This enables them to begin their junior year by completing a short trailer, for which they have to bring an idea to full bloom, says Andreas Hykade, professor of animation.

A range of software is available for the students, and if they need something special for a technique, they can work with the R&D department.

Hykade explains that students work off a menu of sorts, taking the appropriate classes and working on a number of projects to improve their skills. Or, they can develop, prepare, and execute a film.

Filmakademie students have the opportunity to present their projects at the international FMX Conference, hosted by the school. The Filmakademie also enters the projects in a variety of competitions, often garnering a positive result. This year alone, five Filmakademie student films were shown at the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival.

French Flair

At Supinfocom, a five-year computer graphics university with campuses in France and India, students perform a great deal of hands-on work. Students are first taught the basics of art before they begin applying that knowledge to animation. At the end of the third year, each student is required to develop a one-minute animated film containing one human-like character; the film is then produced in the first half of the fourth year.

“These are individual projects, and the students must do everything themselves, from coming up with the original idea, to doing the script, storyboards, character and set designs, models, textures, lighting, rigging, animation, compositing, sound editing, sound design, and so forth,” says Jerzy Kular, head of studies.

Also during this time, the students have specific project-oriented courses to provide the requisite skill sets to complete the short films. Later, students are exposed to various industry technologies, such as stereo 3D and motion capture, through master classes and testimonials from working professionals.

Various instructors (those specializing in art direction, scriptwriting, animation, technical direction, production management, and sound design) follow the projects regularly. “The role of the teachers is to guide and counsel. They give their opinion but in no way impose their views on the students, nor do any hands-on work for the project,” Kular points out.

At the end of the fifth year of study, the films are judged by an international jury of professionals; a public screening follows.

Winning Recipe

Gobelins School of the Image in Paris focuses on instruction and projects. “Our objective is to ensure that each student, apprentice, and trainee at Gobelins receives the instruction he or she needs to acquire the solid technical skills as well as a cultural education in general that will allow graduates to successfully join or create companies, work on professional projects, and adapt to changes in their future professions,” states a school representative.

Prior to working on a final film project, students create individual animated movies during their first year, working within graphics and length constraints. During the second year, they work as a team to produce an animation that adheres to a specified theme.

More than a Game

Vancouver Film School (VFS) in Vancouver, British Columbia, is known for its film classes as well as its game development program. For the latter, students are required to develop a playable game. “The games incorporate all the elements of an interactive gameplay experience, including audio, visuals, gameplay, and story,” says David Warfield, head of Game Design. Students select the game engine they would like to use based on their concept and skills—the most popular choices being Flash, Unity, and the Unreal Development Kit.

Typically, the students work in groups of three to six. At this point, the teachers will shift their focus from formal instruction to acting as mentors during project development, meeting regularly with students. Outside industry veterans working in game development also avail themselves, offering additional mentorship.

After the projects are done, VFS hosts a Pitch & Play event, during which the teams present their final projects to industry professionals.

For Vancouver Film School’s 3D Animation & Visual Effects program, students also create projects following rigorous instruction. One of the most valuable classes is Presentations, conducted from Terms 3 through 6 and done within a “dailies” session atmosphere. “These classes are critical in developing a student’s ability to accept critique and feedback,” says Marianne O’Reilly, head of Animation & Visual Effects.

The school provides students with industry- standard software, and a partnership with HP provides Z400 workstations containing dual monitors for the students.

“Student projects truly help prepare them for industry, with delivery dates, presentations in front of their mentors and peers, addressing feedback, and working in a studio environment,” says O’Reilly.

Students are encouraged to promote and market themselves and their work through various festivals and competitions, such as the CG Student of the Year Awards. This year, three VFS students won internships with leading global studios through the competition, and VFS won CG School of the Year for the third consecutive year.

SCAD’s Dan Doherty rendered this image using real-time techniques (UDK).


At Cogswell College in Sunnyvale, California, which offers a Bachelor of Art degree in Digital Art and Animation, students work on what is called Project X, a collaborative movie that requires a large group of students. The final Project X productions are then entered in various film festivals.

The concepts and the film scripts come from Michael Huber, Project X professor, and the work spans approximately a year and a half. Close to 80 percent of the script is established when it is handed over— similar to what would occur in Hollywood. “There, you are hired to work on something for a director; it’s not your own thing,” Huber says. “We flesh out the rest and integrate the students—especially the animation team—in the story process, since animators are usually very strong in narrative.” Once the story is refined, students are selected or vetted for various positions on the project; they often cross-train to work in other areas after their initial task is completed.

At any given time, approximately 15 students are working on the film, while 20 to 25 collectively will have participated in the process.

At Cogswell, two classrooms are dedicated to Project X: a compositing lab where the comp work and scripting/programming is done, and an animation lab for all the modeling, animation, and content development. Both rooms are outfitted with a variety of hardware (including HP workstations) and software. “If it gets the job done, we use it,” Huber says. There is an actual Project X class within the curriculum; students also have access to the dedicated classrooms after hours and on weekends to continue their work.

When a film is completed, a big screening and awards ceremony are held. Cogswell also tries to get the films screened at studios, such as DreamWorks, and at film festivals. “These are big productions that look professional, and that is what Hollywood studios are looking for,” says Huber. “I think what we do here is unique, and the kids are getting jobs and becoming viable.”

Inside Job

The Digital Animation and Visual Effects (DAVE) School in Orlando, Florida, also takes a different approach with the student projects—and one that fits well with the school’s one-year, concentrated program. It is a project that lasts three months, equivalent to one of the school’s terms.

Students receive nine months of intensive skill and software training, taught in “specialist” classes. The fourth and final block of study simulates a production environment, in which students apply their prior skills as they progress through all phases of a production, from creating animatics to compositing high-res models into a scene for a final group project.

That project can come from a range of sources, including professional directors; as a result, students have worked on shots for Battle for Terra (2009) and the recent fan-film music video for the Clutch song “Spacegrass.” What’s more, students have excelled on these projects, garnering a number of awards. In early 2012, a team from the DAVE School was nominated for a VES student award in visual effects for its work on “Renee the Movie.”

The tools that students have at their disposal are impressive. Of course, there is the usual software and hardware, including Wacom Cintiqs. Beyond that, though, is a custom-built stereo 3D screening room (most of the productions are created in stereo 3D), a state-of-the-art Vicon motion-capture stage with 4k cameras, as well as one of the biggest greenscreen cycloramas on the Eastern Seaboard, boasts Steven Warner, executive director.

Another impressive advantage: the DAVE school is located on the backlot at Universal Studios and has a working Hollywood soundstage.

Filmakademie students Jan Lachauer and Thorsten Löffler directed this short, titled “Herr Hoppe and the Nuclear Waste.”

Mentoring Students

Animation Mentor is an online animation school whose program spans 18 months. During that time, students progress incrementally through the classes, building on their skills. In Class 6, they prepare their portfolios of the work they have done by finessing prior assignments.

The goal, says Bobby Beck, CEO/co-founder of the school, is for students to build a solid portfolio that they can use while they look for work. “[The program is] customized to each student. We don’t try to fit everyone into the same mold,” he says.

Each quarter, or “class,” students get a new mentor (a professional in the industry) and tackle a small sequence based on the focus of the class, building on the work with weekly submissions to their mentor, who then provides feedback. “We used to have a dedicated short-film track. We’re currently revising it to work better for what the industry is looking for from this type of class,” explains Beck.

At Animation Mentor, each one of the students’ sequences is telling a story. Often students will go above and beyond in their projects, making those sequences into 30-second short films.

“We know what the industry is looking for. You are trying to tell a story—it’s not just about doing a run cycle or something like that. What we’ve found is you don’t necessarily have to tell a story idea in a short film. You can tell it in entertaining ways, and in the process, bring something unique to the table.”

Fast-paced Learning

Computer animation students at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, complete class projects as they progress through their degree program. For the first 12 months, Computer Animation and Game Art students follow the same curriculum before splitting off into their chosen path. Game Art students create a short game build for their final projects.

Students meet with art directors regularly for critiques, while the last month of study is an assembly class, where they put their portfolio together. According to Pete Bandstra, Full Sail’s program director for Computer Animation, the instructors are all industry veterans and many are still actively working on productions. “I think it makes a difference overall when it comes to what they can provide students educationally,” he adds. “They have experience and can talk from a more practical standpoint when they are in the classroom.”

Portfolio Production

The Academy of Art University in San Francisco offers various tracks for artists and animators, giving students a chance to use the projects from those tracks for their portfolios. Students also have a chance to work on a larger project.

To help students realize their projects, the Academy of Art University provides facilities for sound and greenscreen production, and will lease time and equipment for motion-capture or camera work as needed.

The university hosts a fall and spring festival, where guests from the industry view the work. The school also encourages students to enter various competitions. “It’s good promotion for themselves as well as the school,” says Chris Armstrong, executive director of Animation and VFX. Festivals also provide students with the opportunity to meet others in their field, he adds.

At the Academy of Art University’s game development program, students work on various projects. In addition to targeted courses, they take collaborative classes, during which students from multiple disciplines, such as design, animation, sound, and illustration, all work together to make playables.

“Our purpose is to give the students the advice, support, and training they need to complete their own path to the industry, whether it is in the mobile area, Triple-A, or starting their own studio,” says Christopher Schenck, a full-time instructor within the School of Illustration at Academy of Art University and former director at the School of Game Design.

The goal, Schenck points out, is for each student to leave the program with playable demos in their portfolio and a skill set that will land them a position within the industry.

“The portfolio is the most important part of what the students leave the school with, and without it, no one can get a job,” Schenck says. The portfolio consists of drawings, paintings, 3D models, game environments, level designs, and playables, among other things.

Reel Effort

A training school, Gnomon School of Visual Effects is focused on helping students prepare a demo reel, as opposed to creating a short film. Brian Bradford, director of admissions, realizes that this is a different concept than what most students are used to, but it’s an element to the school’s programs that allows the facility to place 97 percent of its graduates into industry jobs shortly after they graduate.

Students create their individual demo reel— which contains the best of their work—toward the end of the program. Instructors act as mentors, providing critiques and suggestions. The demo reels are viewed during graduation and displayed on Gnomon’s Web site.

While some Gnomon students have entered and won competitions, Bradford maintains that the school’s students often find it is not the most direct way to accomplish their goals.

“Often it comes down to a matter of priority for them: ‘Should I dedicate my time to creating projects to win competitions and gain exposure? Or should I focus my energy on developing an animation demo reel to submit to Disney so I can begin my career?’ ” he says. “In the perfect situation, our students can do both.”

Future Looks Bright

While an entire school year or even more can seem like a long time to work on a project, that could not be further from the truth, as students balance “learning” and “doing.”

As Animation Mentor’s Beck points out, not everyone can go through a program and then get a job immediately at Pixar or DreamWorks. “It’s great to be ambitious, but students have to have realistic goals and know [education] is a stepping-stone in the right direction,” he says.

As indicated in this article, different schools have different philosophies when it comes to an ideal animation program. Perhaps there is no single solution. After all, the schools featured here offer different structures and requirements, but in the end, they produce eager graduates who are ready to make a name for themselves in the professional world.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.