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Animation Mentor's Cheryl Hoke Discusses Online Animation Education

Written by Bonnie Boglioli...November 2, 2011
Animation Mentor
Did You Know.....Full Sail University offers online degree programs in computer animation, game art, and game design? Learn more about Full Sail University's online programs.
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Animation Mentor seeks to provide the most personal and fulfilling animation learning experience on the planet. That’s no small task, particularly for a school whose programs are offered online. Yet with a devoted staff and instruction from dozens of veteran industry professionals, many students and alumni say," the school accomplishes its ambitious mission".

Founded in 2005, the school's administrative offices are in the animation hotspot of Emeryville, California, with studios such as Pixar just a short walk away.Though students’ may not attend daily classes on campus, the program’s virtual hubs and innovative learning software allow for deep interaction and draw students from around the world. To learn more about Animation Mentor and get a flavor of what aspiring students can expect from its 18 and 6 month programs, we spoke with Director of Enrollment and Admissions, Cheryl Hoke (This interview has been edited for length & clarity).

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ACR:  Hi Cheryl. Thanks for speaking with us about Animation Mentor today. To start off, why did three successful animators decide to co-found a character animation program in an online environment?

CH:  Animation Mentor was founded with one core question in mind: “If we were to start over again how would we want to learn?” The founders of Animation Mentor – Bobby Beck, Shawn Kelly and Carlos Baena – believed that animation education needed to be reinvented because there was simply no model for the transmission of information from the top talent back to the next generation of animators. They wanted to create a school that was created by animators for animators that focused exclusively on the art and craft of character animation and was accessible to students anywhere in the world so all aspiring animators had the chance and opportunity to achieve their dreams.

Bobby, Shawn and Carlos knew there was a need in the market for industry-trained animators who were ready to step into production jobs, a skill many traditionally trained art school graduates lacked.  Animation Mentor teaches animation in a production style environment so students are prepared when they graduate.

When the founders attended school for animation, no online animation schools existed and most of the art schools focused on teaching the software and neglected teaching the art behind animation. At Animation Mentor, students learn character animation from their homes, receiving face-to-face instruction from top-notch professional animators and graduating with a polished demo reel.

ACR:  Despite being an online program, students and alumni often speak of the great rapport they develop with their mentors, staff and other students. How does Animation Mentor create this immersive, virtual environment online?

CH:  Our students and mentors see each other every week in live Question & Answer sessions and regularly on our student site, which is our “campus.” During the Q&A sessions, students and mentors see one another face-to-face to discuss the lectures and assignments. The student site is a vibrant community where students can see each other’s work, provide feedback on their peers’ work, share ideas and get support and inspiration. Some of the features on the student site include AM Connect, in which students can chat via text or on video with multiple people. The site also has a forum where students can post questions and view responses. Students can also send private messages through the student site.

The Animation Mentor community is diverse with students from various backgrounds from all over the world. Bonds and longtime friendships have been formed. We have even had students from different countries meet in class, fall in love, and get married. In fact, we have even attended some of the weddings!  

The commonality shared by everyone at Animation Mentor, from students to graduates to mentors to the Animation Mentor staff, is a passion for animation. New students have discovered their passion within themselves and are inspired and excited by this thriving community, which nurtures their talent and passion.  We have a Student Care Department that is dedicated to supporting students on their educational journey, life coach students with work/life balance concerns and  help students understand what to expect in classes ahead.

ACR:  Your programs keep low student mentor ratios. How important is the low student to mentor ratio on the collaborative learning environment at Animation Mentor?

CH:  Our mentor student ratio is 10-15 to 1. Because of this low ratio, our students receive more personal, individualized attention than they would in a classroom. As mentioned earlier, our students receive an eCritique every week from their mentor who reviews the animation work in great depth.  These critiques are recorded so that our students can view them whenever they want throughout the term. The school also has live Q&As and peer review, where students provide feedback on each other’s work. The classes also build on each other. Students work with six mentors during the 18-month program so they are networking while learning.

ACR: Let’s talk about that eCritique tool makes collaboration possible. Fill our readers in on this amazing feature that all students utilize.

CH: The eCritique is a key tool in our program that allows our students to see, listen and view feedback on their work.  The tool allows the mentors to “scrub” through the animation, allowing mentors to examine and improve the animation frame-by-frame. Every week, mentors provide a recorded video critique on students’ assignment containing sketches, verbal insight and feedback on how a student can improve their assignment and animation skills. 

ACR:  On the subject of mentors, yours are working professionals at leading studios.  Not too long ago, animators notoriously held on to their trade secrets.  Is it tough finding animators willing to mentor students while juggling their careers?

CH:  Not at all. Animation Mentor currently has 85 mentors who are working in the animation industry. Our mentors enjoy sharing their knowledge, insight and feedback to aspiring animators. They understand the importance of training the next generation of animators to succeed in the industry and actively want to give back to the animation community they love.

ACR:  Mentors offer students the fundamentals of animation while also imparting their insight of the production end of things. How does this compare to traditional animation study programs and why is it so important for students?

CH:  Many schools focus on the technical aspect of animation, but we focus on the art and craft of animation. One of the things that the founders realized was that most graduates from other animation programs don’t understand the production pipeline. Our program is set up like a production pipeline so when our graduates go on to work at studios, they are fully prepared. The studios recognize this as well, making our students good candidates for animation positions at their company. Animation Mentor’s program is set up like a studio where students are the animators, the mentors are the directors and the assignments are the shots.

ACR:  Let’s get to the technical aspects of taking animation courses online. Students receive the animation software Maya for free. Are there advantages for students with this particular software in your learning environment?

CH:  Animation Mentor recognizes that Maya is a popular software in the animation world. However, our school focuses on teaching the principles of animation, not teaching how to use software. Most studios use their own proprietary software for animation, and Animation Mentor  graduates who go on to work at studios learn how to adapt to that new software, but are skilled in the principles of animation and performance. We teach enough Maya to be useful to get the performances the students seek from their characters.

We also offer an optional Maya Springboard class for students who have no experience in 3D software experience so they are more comfortable when starting the program.

ACR:  With solid coursework from highly respected animators and close connections with studios around the country, what can graduates of Animation Mentor expect from their degree and the opportunities it may present?

CH:  Animation Mentor has a Career Services department to support graduates with resume writing, demo reel polish, practice interviews and career fairs.  Our Career Services department has an excellent working relationship with animation studios and other companies within the animation industry in the U.S. and abroad, and can help students launch their animation careers as it has for hundreds of students thus far in Animation Mentor’s six-year history.

Many of our graduates go on to work at major film, game and television studios including Pixar Animation Studios, DreamWorks Animation, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), LucasArts, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Blue Sky Studios, Tippett Studio, Disney Interactive Studios, Framestore, Double Negative Visual Effects, Mac Guff, Weta Digital, Activision, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft.

ACR:  Beyond the 18 month character Character Animation, Animation Mentor now offers a 6 month Master Class in Animals & Creatures. Who is the ideal candidate for this program?

CH:  The Animals & Creatures: Master Class is a six-month program geared for graduate and professional animators who seek to expand their skill with animal and creature animation.   This is not a program for beginners, but for animators who have a solid understanding of the principles of animation, balance, and posing and who want to advance their career or round out their experience. The course also covers how to effectively integrate animation with live-action footage, introducing new skills and bringing a new dimension to Animation Mentor’s core curriculum.

ACR:  I have to ask: will we see additional programs offered perhaps in the next few years or will AM remain geared towards character animation?

CH:  We continue to study the educational needs of the industry and explore how we can meet those needs.  Stay tuned to see what we have next!

ACR:  Cheryl, it was a pleasure learning more about Animation Mentor’s unique character animation program.

CH:  Thank you!

More information on Animation Mentor’s programs can be found on its website.

Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.