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The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) Daniel Hansen Discussses the Recipe for Creating One of the World’s Best Animation Programs
Ask anyone in the animation industry to give their top 3 list of schools and The California Institute of the Arts is sure to be on it. Better known as CalArts, the school has a distinguished history of creating superstar character animators along with a variety of other artists. It should come as no surprise, given that the school’s founder was none other than the man behind Mickey Mouse- Walt Disney himself.
Tucked in the LA bedroom community of Santa Clarita, the heart and soul of CalArts comes from its vibrant student population who work in collaboration with their instructors to develop a wide array of skills to prepare them for their lifework ahead. For our latest Q&A, we candidly discussed the Character Animation department with its Director, Daniel Hansen. What’s the recipe for creating one of the world’s best animation programs? Start with a vision by the Father of Imagineering; drop it in a prime location with a venerable list of faculty and alumni; add in a healthy dose of no-nonsense hard work; and don’t forget to finish it off with a bit of pixie dust. (This interview has been edited where necessary for length and clarity).
ACR: Daniel, thanks for offering your insight to us today. CalArts’ rigorous 4-year Character Animation curriculum incorporates all aspects of the art form, demanding the very best from students. At a time when 2-year degree options are aplenty, what are the advantages to CalArts’ well-rounded program?
DH: The major difference between a four year education at CalArts and a two year education elsewhere is that our program is focused on teaching the students to be artists and film makers, whereas a two year program is often focused on teaching the students how to do a job. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a student learning to do a task in the animation world, but the person who is only prepared for a task will find it difficult (at best) or simply impossible to move up the ladder because of the limitations in his or her education.
We teach 2D and 3D Character Animation, Layout, Story Writing, Story Boarding, Visual Development, Acting for Animation, Life Drawing, Digital Methods (Photoshop, After Effects, Final Cut Pro, TV Paint, etc), Character Design, Color and Design and many other subjects but one of our primary thrusts is to teach students how to think. I know that sounds very obscure but if one knows how to tell a story visually, or how to express a character’s personality through that character’s actions, or how to strengthen a story, that person will be far more valuable than one who hasn’t been educated to do anything other than a single task.
ACR: You had the tremendous opportunity to work alongside the venerable “Nine Old Men” while animating at Disney. Many other CalArts instructors likewise have enviable experience and accolades. Who are a few that students currently study under?
DH: CalArts is fortunate to be located 25 miles or so from many of the animation studios. Because of that, some of the most talented artists in the animation business today who were taught by animation legends have come here as Visiting Artists or to teach.
Glenn Keane is one of the greatest animators of this age. He started at Disney in the early ‘70s working alongside many of Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, has been a key animator on “Aladdin”, “The Little Mermaid”, “The Princess and the Frog”, “Tangled” and many, many others. Last year he was at CalArts to animate while his drawings were projected on a big screen for the students.
James Baxter is another animation super star and is known for animating characters like Belle in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. He directed the animation for “Enchanted” and animated on “How to Train Your Dragon” for Dreamworks. Currently he teaches a workshop at CalArts once a month.
Eric Goldberg, who created the Genie on Disney’s “Aladdin”, co-directed on “Pocahontas”, directed “Rhapsody in Blue” for “Fantasia 2000”, and was the lead animator on Louis on “The Princess and the Frog” was a Visiting Artist in the spring of 2011. Lisa Keene and Bill Perkins have both been key artists at Disney for decades and have both worked on many, many animated features for them. They both teach courses at CalArts in the Character Animation Program.
Just a few other current teachers are Rad Sechrist, Jon Klassen, Randy Haycock, James Lopez, Chong Lee, Rumen Petkov, Jim Hull, etc., etc. You can Google anyone above to get more information on their accomplishments. Their credits are much too long to mention.
ACR: Additionally, I understand that CalArts hosts many visiting artists and lecturers, as well.
DH: In the Character Animation program at CalArts, a Visiting Artist is scheduled almost weekly for our students. We do this to inform them and to stimulate students’ growth and always try to bring in someone that would be interesting to animators. The speaker might be a notable artist or illustrator in the animation world; an editor on a recently released animated feature; a CG character animator; a panel from a major CG animated feature to discuss the design, modeling and rigging of characters in that film; the director of an animated feature; etc.
Sometimes Visiting Artists get such a positive reaction from the students that s/he ends up teaching a course. Lisa Keene first came as a Visiting Artist to speak about the Visual Development work she had done on “Enchanted” and has since taught visual development for the last three years. Likewise, Jon Klassen came to talk about being an illustrator for animation and currently teaches an illustration class.
ACR: Have you noticed trends with regard to new students coming in today versus 10 years ago when you began teaching at CalArts fulltime?
DH: The main thing I’ve noticed since teaching fulltime at CalArts is that there are more students applying directly from high school today than in 2002. Although the majority of applicants (back then) were also from high school, there were always those who had a year or more of college already. For an artist, it’s often harder to compete with someone who has more drawing experience.
That being said, when attending any school it’s almost always the student who puts in the most effort (no matter his or her age) who will improve the most. It’s the same with working in the industry. Generally it’s the one who is willing to put in the effort who will pass up those who won’t.
ACR: And how has the industry changed during this time?
DH: The animation industry is becoming more diverse which is great for one interested in animation. Animated features are primarily done in CG now (Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, Blue Sky, etc). 2D is primarily for television (Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, etc.). Studios doing animation for TV do most of the work in this country, but the animation is primarily done in Korea or elsewhere.
There are opportunities in video games, animation for the internet (for example Jib-Jab) and recently there have been opportunities in companies that do pre-visualization (The Third Floor, etc). Although there are more opportunities, it’s important to remember that there is a lot of competition, too.
ACR: Many of the world’s most reputable studios are just a short drive away from the Santa Clarita campus and regularly scout the talent at the school. How much of an asset are these established relationships within the animation community to your students?
DH: There’s no question that CalArts benefits from being nearby the studios, but one of the biggest advantages is that there are a lot of CalArts alums at many of the studios so there is often a camaraderie as they’ve all been through similar struggles in school. As important as that might be, we don’t count it as a given.
Once a year, CalArts Character Animation has a Portfolio Day and there are usually twenty or so studios that send representatives to view the students’ reels and portfolios. There are always interviews generated from the Portfolio Day. Although most of the studios are from Southern California, there are always studios from New York, Oregon, and Northern California. Primarily, there are summer internships that will arise from Portfolio Day.
We also showcase students’ animated films at the end of every school year made by character students. Before the showcase, the films are juried by roughly forty of the faculty in Character Animation to pick the best films. Since the showcase only shows sixty minutes or so of animated films, the competition is pretty intense. This showcase is in a six hundred-seat theater and is attended by representatives from various animation studios, the students, some of the parents, the faculty, etc. There may be internships or job opportunities that arise from the showcase, as well.
ACR: A significant number of CalArts alumni have gone on to distinguished careers in the field working for renowned studios and earning many accolades along the way- John Lasseter and Glen Keane to name a few. Why do you believe the program continues to produce top animators after fifty years?
DH: Although I’m sure that each Character alum would give a different reason for what s/he feels is the key, I believe it has to do with the fact that we teach the students to be artists and filmmakers rather than to be animators and in-betweeners. We strive to give students the strongest education in animation available anywhere. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. But it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
If one’s primary interest is CG rigging or modeling, there are better schools. Although we deal with both subjects and have classes in Advanced Lighting and Shading, CG Foundation, and Zbrush there are schools that concentrate exclusively on the technical side of 3D. If one’s interest is in Visual Development, likewise there are schools that concentrate on it almost exclusively. Even though we offer classes in Visual Development, Illustration, Composition and Cinematography for Animation, Color and Design, and Animation Layout our focus is in animation filmmaking and not illustration.
We believe there’s a super fine line between being too artistic and too industry-oriented and we try to walk that fine line in what we teach and how we teach it. If we were to lean too far one way the program would be too artsy, but if we were to lean too far the other way the program would be too industry.
Just as an example, it would seem that because the (Cartoon Network) show ‘Adventure Time’ is so popular right now, the school should teach students to mimic it. But the animation industry is always looking for the next big idea. They don’t want someone whose work is too much like ‘Adventure Time’ because that show is already on the air- they already have a slew of artists working on it. They want what’s next- something that nobody has seen before and yet doesn’t look so different that the characters look like they were put into a blender.
ACR: On that topic, is it difficult to meet changing industry needs and expectations or are some elements of animation always constant?
DH: If you asked a director this same question you’d get a completely different answer, I suspect. I’d say that the constants in TV animation are story / entertainment; and the constants in animated features are story / sincerity...although I’m sure that someone into comedy would completely disagree.
An animated TV show only has twenty minutes or so to tell the story. Consequently they don’t have enough time to develop a complex plot line or develop characters in any depth. However, they have plenty of time to make interesting characters and an entertaining plot. An animated feature has roughly 72 minutes to tell a story so there’s time to develop the plot and the characters. For the most part, the characters in a feature must still be entertaining but they must also be completely gettable, likable and believable- otherwise the audience won’t be emotionally involved in the film.
ACR: Lastly, as a veteran in the industry, what do you love most about teaching at Cal Arts?
DH: Helping the students along their own path toward animation. When I was in college and art school, I was interested in animation but there wasn’t a single class or teacher that helped me find the way. It was because they thought animation was passé and not worth one’s time. Consequently, it was extremely difficult just to find out what was the right way to go. Luckily, I met a couple of students who were interested in animation and we were able to stumble down that path together. Now I can help point the students in the right direction and I like that.
ACR: It’s been a pleasure Daniel. Thanks for participating in our Q&A and telling us more about CalArts Character Animation Department.
DH: Thank you!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.