Monday, 13 June 2016

Do Animators Need a University Degree?

The TAAFI Education Panel
The Toronto Animation Art Festival International ("TAAFI") recently hosted a panel talk on the subject of  “An Animation Education”.

But the real substance of the talk was “do you need to go to university to learn animation?”. In other words, should animation students commit to the time and expense of a full undergraduate education?

Here at Escape Studios we think the answer is undoubtedly "yes". But it's important to understand why a full undergraduate degree still matters in a digital online world.

On the panel to discuss the question were Richard Arroyo – head of Games at,  Mark Jones, chair, School of Creative Arts, Aubrey Mintz, Head of Animation, California State University Long Beach, Brooke Keesling, Manager, Animation Talent, and Tony Tarantini, Sheridan College Professor of Animation.

The first question out to the panel was: Are we living in a Golden Age of animation training? And, what are the challenges and opportunities for both schools and students?

Aubrey Mintz recalled that back in the 1990s there were hardly any animation schools where students could learn - and now there are hundreds.

Brooke Keesling, who works as a recruiter at Cartoon Network as well as teaching at CalArts, said that "Cartoon Network targets "certain schools where the quality is high". But "some things", she said "cannot be taught". And she often recruits students who have not been to any university, just by surfing the web. Sometimes she "just looks at Tumbler to look for great artists".

Tony Taranti of Sheridan College in Toronto said that for universities there are "lots of restrictions, imposed by the Government; there is tons of stuff for educators to deal with".  He said that educators often spend a lot of their effort "trying to circumvent the bureaucracy".

But Tony felt strongly that his students are in fact ready for industry. As he put it, "Animation is a team sport – if you want to play in a team, you have to be in a team". You have to "get students together in a physical space to collaborate".

Richard Arroyo of iAnimate said that "kids need access. iAnimate gives access to more kids" in a way that traditional universities do not because of class size restrictions. As Richard put it: "our students hang out, (just like university students do), but they do it online".

Brooke Keesling said that getting internships can be harder for online students. Many companies only accept students from organisations which are "formally accredited". Therefore, online students can’t intern at Cartoon Network. Richard said that this is sometimes true, but it depends on the company. Many companies just want talent. If online students have skills and talent, they will get hired, and they will find internships.

Aubrey Mintz said that to find work, "you must be top of your game". As he put it, "4 or 5 years [of undergraduate study] may not be enough" to get there. He sends many of his students to online schools after they graduate to polish their skills.

The second question was "Are schools teaching Soft skills like teamwork?"

Aubrey Mintz said that their university do make short films with the students, so they get a "real-life experience". And in fact increasingly the industry is working remotely - even Sony pictures "works with many remote animators". He said it was important for students to get real-life production experience at university, just like working on a real production.

Tony Tarantini asked if it is even possible to treat your students like employees. "Can you treat your students like they are working in industry?" The answer is "No...they can complain. You can’t fire them (like an employee can be fired), but they can fire you. Or, rather, they can get you fired". As Tony put it: "It’s a different environment [from industry]. Some teachers pass people just so they don’t deal with the outcome of failing students. The students paid their tuition fee; they expect to pass.  Production managers have to deal with this when they have hired people under contract who don’t produce, but at university it is a very different environment to industry".

Brooke Keesling said that Gnomon in Los Angeles is very good at what they do, as is as an online learning environment. As she put it, learning online, "you get to be a specialist". A full degree is a very different beast. At, say, CalArts "you get a well-rounded education, with an emphasis on drawing. CalArts students have to make a film every single year. They get a chance to fail or succeed four times". As she put it: "making four films at CalArts gives the students vision, and offers them chances to fail. Even if three films fail, one will succeed". In other words, CalArts "trains directors".

Aubry Mintz emphasised that "we are educators, not employers. Our students will get beaten up in the industry anyway" - so they don't need to get beaten up at university as well. However, students do "need to learn how to fail". Passing students who don't make the grade does them no favours.

The third question posed to the panel was: "What Do Universities need to do, to raise their game?"

Tony Tarantino made a plea for "less bureaucracy" from government, in order to set schools and universities free.

Aubry Mintz agreed. "The biggest challenge is the academic unit count. Universities want to get students out faster", ie to "teach a lot in a little time". He described how hard it is to get things done in spite of the bureaucrats, and said that educators have to learn to be people who take decisive action, and “ask for forgiveness - not for permission”. He also had some good advice for university lecturers. "Don't give your course specific names. Instead, name them simply 'Animation 1', 'Animation 2' etc. That way you can change the content later on."

Brooke Keesling talked about the importance of networking. She said this was "very important", and that students who study in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles have an advantage because of geography. As she put it: "for schools in distant towns, its is harder for them". She advised students to “go to a school in a town where there is work”

The fourth question to the panel was : What makes a studio hire a student?

Brooke Keesling said "It’s not about a school. It’s about the work. We look for students online, we invite them [to work] on the show [Cartoon Network]. For TV work – it’s all about story, because the actual animation is done overseas. Working for Cartoon Network is all about drawing and story telling ability. Our story artists must be writers as well as artists."

Aubry Mintz said that "animation is a big term"; it covers many disciplines. Educators need to "get students away from Google; go to the library. We have to train well-rounded artists". There needs to be "time for students to explore at university".

Tony Tarantini said that students "have to be well-informed. You have to know the industry". Students also "need to know art history. You must be a full artist". Students must not just learn to press buttons but must become "a creative force" in order to succeed.

Should animators learn art history?
Brooke Keesling agreed. Some of the best artists at Cartoon Network really know their art history.  JJ Ballard's excellent short film “Son of Satan” has "lots of art history references".

Tony Tarantini teaches a course in Florence every year, called “Italian Art and Culture”. It is a way of helping students to get a "better background" in general art history. It's all about the "expansion of them as an artist."

Aubry Mintz agreed, saying that he "does not want to teach software in class". Instead, he "wants to teach theory and interesting stuff"

Needless to say, here at Escape Studios we think that a university degree is the right way to go. The panelists were right in saying that animation is a team sport, and one of the key skills that we teach at Escape Studios is the soft skills that go into working successfully in a team. Not just being a leader, but also how to be a follower - someone who is capable of working on a group project and contributing positively to the outcome. When we go to employers asking them what they need, the feedback is always the same: "we want team players, not solo performers".

And, of course, being a well-rounded artist is important. But here at Escape we are in no doubt of the success and fitness for purpose of our courses. With thousands of Escapees working in the industry, we know our students will get the best possible preparation for a career in the animation industry.


The Escape Studios Animation Blog offers a personal view on the art of animation and visual effects. To find out more about our new BA/MArt starting in September 2016, follow this link.  To apply, visit the offical page here.

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