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Columbus College of Art & Design’s Tom Richner Talks Animation, Teaching and Working in the Industry

Written by Bonnie Boglioli...March 21, 2013
Columbus College of Art & Design
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As one of the nation’s oldest private art colleges, Columbus College of Art & Design’s small classes and tight knit community may harken back to simpler times but there’s nothing simplistic or insignificant about its animation program. Though a relatively young program, the college has long been turning out successful graduates working in animation (many of whom were cultivated in CCAD’s Illustration and Media Studies programs). Today, the Animation department continues to catch the attention of those in the know- bolstering its compelling list of industry partners as well as successful working alumni.

Believing that good animation always starts with good art and a keen sense of the world, CCAD’s Animation BFA pays special attention to the fundamentals of the craft where the proof is in the pudding. Following a freshman foundation year, students can specialize in 2D and 3D animation. 

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To learn more about it, we caught up with Associate Professor & Acting Chair Tom Richner. A UCLA grad who worked for a number of years on The Simpsons, we asked Richner about some of the hallmarks of CCAD’s animation program, what attracted him to teach there and what keeps him coming back for more.  (This interview, done via phone, has been edited for length & clarity).

ACR:  Tom, thanks for participating in our Q&A. Before we get into the unique attributes of CCAD’s program, tell readers a bit about your own (enviable) background.

Tom Richner:  Sure. I was an undergrad at Denison University in Ohio where I did independent study in animation. After graduating, I wanted to find a Masters program and I got into my first choice school, UCLA. While there, I started working on The Simpsons as a layout artist during the summers. It was great to be able to work on my degree while getting that experience. After graduating, I went full time with them.

ACR: What was that like working on such an iconic animated TV series?

TR:  It was a lot of work! But the environment was fantastic. People were willing to help you... it felt like a learning experience. A lot of things I studied in school were reinforced, but then you learn the practical day-to-day workings of a studio. Every day you’re pushed to do your best work with really talented artists, so in that regard it was stressful but very rewarding. I think the coolest aspect was that you’d be busy working with your headphones on at the studio all day and then you’d leave, go to Best Buy and see your work on all the TVs… it was great.

ACR:  And then Columbus College of Art & Design beckoned. What drew you to teaching?

TR:  Growing up as a swimmer, I looked up to my coaches and always had in the back of my mind that I’d like to either teach or coach. I spent about 7 years total in California which was great. But by the time my wife and I had a child, we really wanted to move back home to Ohio and Columbus College was the perfect fit.

ACR:  First year foundation classes along with liberal arts and sciences courses are one of the building blocks of a CCAD education. How important are these courses to your budding animators?

TR:  I don’t think it can be overstressed enough. I think more people are getting that message of thinking about fundamental skills which is great to see. We put a high priority on the first foundational year with students taking intensive drawing, color theory and more so that they can see 3 dimensional things and draw them on paper. When we talk to our alumni who have been successful in their careers, they bring up so many instances of falling back on those very fundamentals and they often say that others lack some of those skills. So, they might not like doing it while in school but ten years down the road, they’re really thankful they did.

ACR:  I have to imagine that students become better story tellers with a broad background, as well…

TR:  Yes. You need to draw from life experiences in order to tell a story. It’s really valuable to take science and liberal arts classes to do that, and I encourage my students to get involved in extracurricular activities and volunteering, too. Spend a lot of time on your craft but get out there. We’re fortunate that here in Columbus, there are many cultural things to do from museums and galleries to sporting events and festivals that they can draw from.

ACR:  Once they take their prerequisites, are specializations in 2D and 3D separated?

TR:  We like them to take a traditional animation course to start. We use Toon Boom software so that they begin to learn the principles of animation in 2D before moving into computer animation. Right now, we have a decent split (in the number of) 2D and 3D students. We try to keep them mixed, as well, so that 2D faculty members will work with and critique 3D students and 3D faculty works with 2D students. There’s a nice crossover so that we don’t totally separate the disciplines.

ACR:  You mentioned faculty critiques. Do students typically critique their classmates’ work?

TR:  They do. With some help from the faculty, students recently started the Animation Student Collective that’s really taken off this past year. It meets once a week and they do their own demos, discuss a topic and critique each other’s work. It’s great because they push each other in a very healthy yet competitive environment.

ACR:  And I hear that students are now collaborating on films in the department?

RT:  We're moving towards collaborative film classes where students produce an animated film from start to finish within a semester class.  The first one, LUMIN, was a film produced in the Advanced Time Based Projects class last fall that I taught and it’s currently being sent out to festivals all over. The students were really excited to make a film as a group and we look forward to more and more of these types of classes in the future (as) they’ve have become very popular.  It really gave them an experience similar to what you'd see at a studio- hard deadlines and challenges to overcome quickly.

ACR:  The Internet is a huge asset for students today. It adds a whole new dynamic to their education, doesn’t it?

TR:  It’s interesting. A lot of things that are available to them at the click of a button we had to search out just fifteen years ago. The Disney Drawn to Life series used to be floated around as handouts; I remember Xeroxing them and other notes from the Disney Studios. Now they’re available on pdf right at their fingertips.

I think in general, our students make good use of the material online but it can be daunting because there’s just so much information out there. I tell them to read it, file it away and every so often do a refresh of the important material you find. I think they’re looking at other students’ work from other colleges and communicating with each other which is great. It’s so interconnected. When I was in college, I felt more alone in my study of animation. Now, they can see work from other students and artists halfway around the world.

ACR:  CCAD has an enviable roster of faculty members, many of whom are full time. How do you stay up-to-date with the latest industry tools and trends?

TR:  We put a high priority on continued involvement in the industry and all of us here greatly value that. We don’t want to be people who no longer work. Andy Friz has done a lot of work including the SNL Animated Shorts, as has Patrick Kenney. I’ve continued to do commercial work and have a project coming up soon which I’m excited about. So we try to keep involved and maintain connections. I think it’s important for the students to know that the faculty are working, making an impact in the field and understanding the industry.

ACR:  And jumping to the alumni side of the equation, many of your graduates are very visible in the industry…

TR:  Yes, there are so many… we’re very fortunate. (Readers can check out our department newsletter for the list), but one that jumps out is Nate Greno who directed Disney’s Tangled and who won our outstanding alumni award two years ago. He came out to campus for a few days recently and hung out with our students- we got to spend hours talking with him. He was very gracious with his time.

And then there’s Dan Scanlon, who directed the soon to be released Pixar film Monsters University. Dan also won the alumni award just last year, so we had two animation people back to back which we’re really proud of! (Oscar winner) Steve Hubbard, Saul Blinkoff, Tamara Lusher, and so many others.  Almost all of them do a good job staying connected to the college, answering student questions and giving them feedback, too.

ACR:  Between your faculty and alumni, the program has really fostered great partnerships hasn’t it?

TR:  We try to maintain close relationships with the industry. Personally, when I left California and came to Columbus, just knowing that CCAD was here made me feel good because we have a very strong connection to our alumni and the animation community. We have close connections with Disney and we bring people out often; we’ve brought DreamWorks Marilyn Friedman here quite a bit. One event we’ve had for a while now is called Directions and it’s like a reverse job fair where students set up booths displaying their work and employers check them out. I feel like in the Midwest, we’ve got a nice little pocket of really strong connections, but the national connections are always growing.

ACR:  What are some highlights for you as an educator… what keeps you coming back to class for more?

TR:  There’s been a lot of examples! Anytime a student works hard and is rewarded with a job and they become successful it’s fantastic. For me, some of the first students I had are particularly rewarding. Steve Umbleby was one such student who’s now working at Bento Box and doing a great job. I think you can tell those students that come in and are just driven… they’re working hard from the beginning. You see them doing that and it’s that much easier to encourage and guide them. They’re the real treat.

ACR:  Awesome Tom. Thanks so much for telling us about Columbus College of Art & Design’s Animation program. It was a pleasure.

TR:  Thank you Bonnie.

To read more about the work of CCAD graduates working in animation, check out the program’s blog Animation@CCAD!

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