Find a school near you....

Animation. Graphic Design. Game Art.

The Best Animation Programs in the West: Our Top 20 in the Western U.S. Region

Written by Bonnie Boglioli...April 25, 2012
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.
view counter

 

 

view counter

1010. University of Colorado at Denver - If you want to cowboy up and learn the ropes of animation, Denver may be calling your name. Industry leading equipment draws many animation students to UC Denver, but it’s just one reason we include UCD on our list. The university’s Digital Animation Center (DAC) houses a full Motion Capture studio and state-of-the-art HP labs and workstations that are constantly updated to accommodate evolving industry needs. The university’s location in the heart of downtown Denver provides a stunning backdrop of the Rocky Mountains and its many leisure activities nearby, while the energetic and youthful city continues to beckon a growing list of studios.

DAC’s core pedagogy lays the groundwork for a lifetime of achievement in the digital arts. Accordingly, students learn theory, practice and application while leveraging the latest hardware and software available in the BFA of 3D Graphics and Animation program. Core studies in the humanities and animation gradually build, class by class, until they culminate in the senior ‘capstone’ project- an animated short film made entirely by the senior class (many of which have been featured at international film festivals).

As a major national university, UC Denver is selective, with approximately half of all applicants admitted. The DAC program selectively chooses up to 32 students for admittance into its major (generally following freshman year). Unusually, the Digital Animation Center is self-funded and tuition into the program is much higher than the school’s tuition rate. While this is a hindrance for some, the funds ensure that students have access to the latest technologies each year that are nearly impossible to find elsewhere. For potential DAC majors, several foundational animation courses are offered at a lower-cost rate that is a fraction of the typical credit hours rate of DAC.

Tuition (as of time of publication): $7,834 in-state, $20,570 out-of-state. *Note, the DAC program fully funds itself and has separate credit fees for its program courses, altering the total tuition for its students. Currently, DAC credit courses are offered at $4,050 each.
Program website: http://www.cu3d.org/
More: Read our interview with UC Denver’s DAC Head Howard Cook.

 

9. Loyola Marymount University - It’s little wonder that many of the schools that top our list in the Western Region can be found in and around Los Angeles. Loyola Marymount, sitting on the beautiful bluffs overlooking Playa and Marina del Rey, is a top-ranked private university in California. Working within the framework of the Jesuit tradition, LMU’s Animation program takes a classical approach to the evolving art of animation.

Students advance through rigorous core studies of the liberal arts in conjunction with work in traditional and digital animation. From history and society to aesthetics and audience, a variety of foundational courses integrate a broad spectrum of understanding with a nuanced approach to the craft. Freshman year is spent developing traditional animation techniques, with subsequent years diving into computer animation, multi-media and alternative forms of the art. During their senior year, students write, animate and direct their own feature film for their portfolio.

LMU has a competitive 53% acceptance rate (US News) and a low 11:1 student to teacher ratio. The Animation program, housed in the School of Film & Television, has a limited number of seats available to new students each year and applicants should be prepared to show an entrance portfolio… so get a start on your short animations and stop motion films well before you apply for these coveted spots! Lastly, nearly 60% of all students receive some form of financial aid, with the average scholarship or grant totaling $19,000 and significantly reducing the university’s otherwise high price tag.

Tuition (at time of publication): $37,605 for fulltime undergraduate year.
Program website: http://sftv.lmu.edu/programs/animation.htm

 

8. Ex’pression College for Digital Arts - Just a hop and a skip away from industry titan Pixar, Ex’pression College for Digital Arts draws from an enviable pool of San Francisco Bay Area talent to direct and teach its Bachelor of Applied Science in Animation & Visual Effects program. Working faculty members, most of whom hold prestigious degrees from top universities themselves, have diverse animation backgrounds and teach to the assorted needs of their students accordingly. Whether freelancers, independent artists or animators at industry powerhouses, Ex’pression’s faculty can boast countless accolades and bring their savoir faire to the classrooms.

Marked by intense studies and emulating the fast-paced production world, Ex’pression College isn’t for everyone and certainly not for those who don’t have 24 hours a day and 7 days a week to spare. Students must take a variety of general education prerequisites; however these can often be completed online. Animation courses are covered in state-of-the-art campus facilities and range from fundamental courses on drawing and compositing to advanced courses on concept art, reel production and a group project. Internships at area studios are encouraged, with complimentary media business courses to give graduates a leg up in a difficult to crack industry.

Tuition (at time of publication): $11,536 (USD) per semester (B.A.S. typically runs 8 semesters).
Program website: http://www.expression.edu/animation_visual_effects/

 

77. Brigham Young University - Ripening into a highly regarded animation program in just a decade, BYU’s Center for Animation has snagged top teaching talent from industry titans like Disney, Warner Bros. and Pixar to create an interdisciplinary program that rightly deserves a top spot. Combining faculty from multiple departments including Engineering, Fine Arts and Mathematical Sciences, students take a range of courses in animation, special effects, game design and more for a holistic approach to the craft.

A string of accolades, including multiple Student Academy Awards and Student Emmy’s, has garnered significant attention from the animation community and caught the eye of some powerful players in the process.  Pixar President Ed Catmull has played a key role in assisting with the program’s development, generously donating his time as a guest lecturer, encouraging Pixar animators to mentor BYU students and hiring numerous alumni.

Brigham Young is a large private university in Provo, Utah, supported by the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints. Accordingly, student life centers on religion and responsibility, stressing a strict honor code for all students. That said, its shockingly low tuition rate (heavily subsidized by Church tithing) makes it a nearly unbeatable deal for students so inclined to the faith.

Tuition (at time of publication): $4,560 (USD) fulltime undergraduate year.
Program website: http://animation.byu.edu/frontpage
More: We spoke with founding animation faculty member, Professor Brent Adams, in our recent Q&A.  

 

6. California College of the Arts - Noted for its interdisciplinary programs of study, California College of the Arts’ history spans 100 years in the Bay Area and boasts many notable alumni across multiple artistic fields. Its Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Animation is widely regarded as among the best with core offerings in traditional, 2D animation and rapidly expanding course offerings in 3D character animation and environmental modeling. With an open-to-the-public annual animation exhibition and immediate access to the world class museums, galleries and film festivals that dot the San Francisco landscape, students enjoy a multifaceted approach to education that encourages them to take a few risks, deepen their inquiries and push the bounds.

Though you can expect to find all of the necessary tools of the trade, CCA’s animation program remains committed to the core techniques and tenets of the craft. Close collaboration with fellow students and small student to teacher ratio ensure that all students find their inspiration. Faculty members form a highly skilled group of animators, working professionals and veteran educators. Among them, Associate Professor Don Crum (who served as a traditional animator on Disney classics including Beauty & the Beast and Pixar’s Toy Story 3) and Adjunct Professor Steve Segel (who animated on PeeWee’s Playhouse and Pixar’s Toy Story) are just two of the instructors who bring their expertise to the classroom each day and make California College of the Arts one of the West’s best animation schools.

Tuition (at time of publication): $38,448 (USD) per YEAR.
Program website: http://www.cca.edu/academics/animation 

 

5. Academy of Art University - Founded in San Francisco in 1929, the Academy of Art University is the largest private art university in the country but that’s not why it makes our list. AAU offers an array of Animation and Game Design degrees including an Associate of Art, Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts that are difficult to find under one roof elsewhere. Animation & Visual Effects undergraduates take rigorous coursework in 2D and 3D animation, Stop Motion, Visual Effects, Visual Elements of Story and more to cultivate their own style while graduate students gain a refined education tailored to their interest.

Thanks to its location in the backyard of not-too-shabby studios like LucasFilm’s Industrial Light & Magic and Pixar, AAU has become one of a few select breeding grounds that supplies devoted new animators to its fast-paced neighbors. Emphasis is placed on hands-on experience for students who create professional demo reels; the school can boast a very high job placement rating, accordingly. Though it has a 100% acceptance rate of new students, many drop off with each subsequent year (possibly not realizing just how difficult the curriculum is!) and its attrition rates are rather dismal. For serious animation students ready to apply themselves, however, AAU offers one of the best programs anywhere in the world.

Tuition (at time of publication): $17,760 (USD) per fulltime undergraduate year.
Program website: http://www.academyart.edu/animation-school/degrees.html
More: Read our Q&A with AAU’s Director of the School of Game Design, Christopher Schenck.

 

4. Otis College of Art & Design - Among the oldest art schools in the country, Otis College of Art & Design offers an esteemed undergraduate degree in Digital Media which includes focuses on Animation, Motion Graphics, Visual Effects and Video Game Design. Situated in the heart of Los Angeles, the intimate college, home to some 1,200 students, has fostered close connections with the local animation and digital media community which students leverage for a range of opportunities. As far as art schools go, Otis is not for the faint of heart or those unprepared for a selective admission process (currently, the school’s 50% acceptance rating ranks lower than most). Once you’re in, you’ll bask in the glory of student to teach ratios of 8 to 1 and probably become one of the 82% of freshman who continue on (among the highest retention ratings anywhere).

Otis takes an integrative approach to education where students couple foundational liberal arts courses with a Digital Media focus of their choice. Venerable working faculty members impart the intricacies of the production process while encouraging students to become capable problem solvers. This is an ideal school for those seeking an intimate, creative community that sits smack in the middle of the production center of the universe. A listing of graduate employers includes industry titans like Blizzard Entertainment, DreamWorks, Pixar and Sony ImageWorks… not too shabby.

Tuition (at time of publication): $35,354 (USD) for full time undergraduate year.
Program website: http://www.otis.edu/academics/digital_media/index.html
More: Read our Q&A with Otis College’s Digital Media Department Chair, Harry Mott. 

 

3. University of California at Los Angeles - Thanks to its many esteemed alumni and faculty, UCLA’s MFA in Animation program is held in very high esteem. Though more rare, the department opens a few selective seats to upper-level undergraduates who possess a proven track record for outstanding work and promise in the field. Founded by legendary Disney animator Bill Shull in 1947, this production-style curriculum has proven highly successful over the generations. Under the mantra “One person, one film,” students learn animation in an age-old tradition seldom found elsewhere.

Given how often animators bounce from job to job throughout the course of their careers, UCLA’s Animation Workshop believes that instilling fundamentals while ensuring students receive training in the latest industry standards makes for a successful career. All students create and produce their own films, learning the intricacies of all roles that they may encounter. The program touts a high degree of success with notable alumni including Gil Kenan (Monster House), Doug Chiang (award winning entertainment artist) and Shane Acker (whose student short film 9 won the applause of the animation community and of Tim Burton, who produced a feature-length adaptation). Access to state-of-the-art equipment from the generous donations of some of the industry’s finest, including the great Walter Lantz (think Woody Woodpecker), ensure students have the necessary tools to promote their own creative intellect.

UCLA boasts a high university ranking (#25 US News) which always earns points on a resume and allows for a full educational experience, diverse course offerings for undergraduates and teaching opportunities for grad students. Its tuition is very competitive for California residents. And who isn’t up for a little beach volleyball or weekend strolls through Santa Monica?

Tuition (at time of publication): $11,604 (USD) in-state fulltime undergraduate & $34,482 out-of-state.
Program website: http://animation.filmtv.ucla.edu/
More: We recently spoke with the program’s Academic Advisor & Lecturer, Doug Ward, in a spotlight Q&A.

 

2. University of Southern California - Perhaps no university can tout as many esteemed cinematic and interactive entertainment programs as does USC, and it should come as no surprise given its location in the world’s production mecca. Want to hobnob with animation executives and media moguls in your free time (what little of it you have, that is) or take in a guest lecture from any number of countless alumni and animators who help make the program so distinguished? USC may just be your ticket.

Its John C. Hench School of Animation & Digital Arts, named after the famed Disney animator and Walt’s right hand man, offers a minor, BA, MFA and PhD degrees making it an extraordinary international program. Students have access to facilities and pedagogy that lead the industry while award winning artists share their insight as faculty. Frequent guest lecturers are never hard to come by at USC with campus appearances by esteemed animators and film producers alike.

Recently, the school unveiled its new state-of-the-art Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Center for Animation, gifted by the building’s namesake DreamWorks chief animator and mogul who has frequently plucked new USC graduates to fill positions in his company through the years. The new home of the animation program houses the latest tools of the trade including numerous innovative workstations for both 2D and 3D art, a visual effects lab, stop motion and production rooms and more from multiple sponsors including Adobe, HP and Pixar. But don’t let the equipment fool you: USC’s animation program is built on the fundamental philosophies of animation that emphasize a strong theoretical approach with the development of imagination, historical context and critical thinking.

USC also has the distinction as a world renowned research institution and one of the nation’s top universities (#23, US News 2012), adding considerable value to the education students receive and the opportunities that come their way. Its park-like, architecturally rich campus is ripe with student offerings and may be one reason why the freshman retention rating is an unparalleled 96%.  And you don’t need to go to a small school to reap the rewards of small class sizes: USC’s 9 to 1 student teacher ratio is among the lowest you’ll find. With these distinctions comes stiff competition, however: expect one of the most difficult acceptance rates anywhere (currently 24.4%) among some of the brightest high school seniors. Tuition is equally as daunting for some, but earning a degree in Animation from the University of Southern California will knock down most walls that come your way to becoming the next industry luminary.

Tuition (at time of publication): $42,160 (USD) for one full time undergraduate year.
Program website: http://cinema.usc.edu/animation/index.cfm 

  

11. California Institute of the Arts - Cal Arts is to animation what M.I.T. is to Physics- it just doesn’t get any better. Ask anyone in the animation industry for their choice of top 3 animation programs and they will inevitably concur. Its legacy is steeped in a rich tradition that fills the annals of animation history: the founders of the college included none other than Walt Disney, his brother Roy and several of the ‘Nine Old Men’ (Disney’s legendary animators) during the so-called ‘Golden Years of Animation’. But history alone isn’t the only reason to believe us when we say Cal Arts is number one in the West.

With a longstanding tradition of producing widely acclaimed animators, Cal Arts alumni directory reads like a ‘who’s who’ of animation and includes the venerable John Lasseter (of Pixar fame). What is the recipe for creating one of the world’s most revered animation programs? Start with a classically-oriented framework (think illustration, storytelling and design) and then add layers of nuanced studies which may include work on graphic novels, CG animation and advanced visual design. Individualized coursework, with the assistance of its internationally renowned working faculty members, rounds out students’ education preparing them for a lifetime of often successful, fulfilling career roles.

Offering a BFA in Character Animation and a BFA and MFA in Experimental Animation, California Institute of the Arts attracts not only the best and brightest out of high school but those who are willing to endure four years of rigorous yet immersive animation studies. And with just 900 undergraduate students, high school students should be prepared for a challenging acceptance process with a low 30.6% acceptance rate made even more daunting by the fact that most students applying have outstanding scores and recommendations (US News Best Colleges 2012). Also be prepared for a steep tuition… now might be a good time to discover what your financial realities are and to check into available grants! That said, graduates go beyond what is considered ‘excellent job placement rates’ by getting hired by studios that make most animators drool at the ripe age of 23.

Tuition (at time of publication): $37,684(USD) for fulltime undergraduate year.  
Program website: http://filmvideo.calarts.edu/programs
More: check out our featured Q&A with Pixar animator & Cal Arts alum Chris Chua or read our interview with Program Director Daniel Hansen.