WHAT: The Animation Collaborative (AnimC) provides supplemental, high quality animation education taught by distinguished industry veterans from Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios and beyond. Students choose from revolving workshops in small classrooms which max out at 8 pupils. AnimC opened its doors to animation students in the summer of 2011.
WHO: We speak with AnimC co-founders and instructors Andrew Gordon & Michal Makarewicz. Both have prolific careers with Pixar, animating on feature films such as Monsters Inc., A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and more. Both also possess extensive teaching experience.
WHERE: All of AnimC’s workshops offered out of their Emeryville, CA, location which sits across the street from Pixar Studios.
WHY: Unlike other animation programs, AnimC students learn from the industry’s finest in collaborative evening workshops. Demo critiques, guest speakers and close collaboration are at the core of the workshop experience. Course offerings vary, with veteran professionals offering their insight into their areas of focus- from modeling to storytelling and character design.
WHEN: The workshops are offered on a quarterly basis, with each session lasting 12-weeks (and 8-weeks in summer), 1 night per week. Prices vary (check website).
ACR: Animation Collaborative (AnimC) offered its first workshops this past summer and is now in its fall session. How has the feedback been so far?
MM: It’s been going great. Both Andrew and I come from places where students don’t have much of a voice, nor did teachers for that matter. The Animation Collaborative allows students to have a real voice and work closely with their instructors. So far, both our students and our teachers are very happy.
AG: Our classes are very small and full. It creates an intimate atmosphere which was exactly what we wanted.
ACR: You accept students of all levels including novices to animation studies. What has the student demographic been for your first few workshop series?
AG: There’s been a good range of students so far. We have beginners and advanced students- sometimes in the same classes. We’re trying not to take seasoned professionals because we would rather give the opportunity to those students who are seeking to better themselves in their studies.
MM: Like Andrew said, we do have a good mix of beginners and advanced. Some of the most advanced students we have now are from areas like gaming and may have hit career plateaus and want to make some changes. But we have such a range of students which is great. And we keep a great community going with everyone working hard. It’s really impressive to see the work that they are all putting into this.
ACR: In addition to your prolific careers at Pixar, both of you have served as instructors for a number of years at venerable institutions such as CalArts and the Academy of Art, as you mentioned. Does AnimC seek to address shortcomings that you noticed in your work or teachings elsewhere?
MM: I noticed the structure in the animation academies is tough for both students and teachers. Some students just aren’t ready for some of the classes and others are too advanced for them so they get bored. Teachers have to stick to the curriculum regardless. We wanted to make the instruction at Animation Collaborative more flexible so that it caters to all of our students at whatever level they may be at.
AG: One of the things I noticed in teaching previously at Academy of Art, and just in general terms, is that many students get left behind. That doesn’t happen here. I also wanted a place for the core workshops: animation, drawing, story and modeling. Ultimately, I would love to get to a place where students (at AnimC) are working on films. I want to see character and acting and even set staging… everything that supports the scene in any assignment. A lot of students aren’t used to that when doing basic assignments.
ACR: Do you believe today’s animation programs are too focused on software, perhaps to the detriment of those basic core studies?
MM: My schooling was based on 3D art so I had to learn the fundamentals of the industry when I came to work at Pixar. Many people don’t have that opportunity to learn those basics where they work. Through our courses, we’re trying to help create well-rounded animators and artists overall.
AG: I also got into it all backwards, learning the computer first. When I was starting out in the early 90s, I wanted to work in feature animation, so I began figuring out what I needed to learn to make that happen. That’s when I discovered the core principles of animation beyond the software.
MM: We should mention that while we accept beginners, we want all of our students to know the essential software tools so that we can spend the workshop time on the animation side rather than the mechanics of the software.
AG: Yes, we don’t teach software. We’d rather Animation Collaborative students come in with their work and know how to do the basics on the computer so that we can dive into the coursework.
ACR: With some AnimC workshops focused on classic, fundamental areas of animation such as Gesture & Pose, do you view yourselves as disciples of the ‘Old Masters’, bridging the gap between the 2D era of animation and current CG animation?
AG: As far as the philosophy of the great old masters, I respect that and certainly grab those aspects in my teaching. We have instructors like Tom Gately who studied under Walt Stanchfield and bring so much knowledge to the classroom. But I don’t see myself as a disciple. I just like teaching and I didn’t like the restrictions upon teaching that I found elsewhere.
MM: I see myself as a student, and always will. I know Andrew views himself the same way.
AG: Absolutely. What goes on in the classroom and by our students is really exciting. I can’t tell you how many of our classes I would love to take if I had the extra time!
ACR: Let’s talk about the distinguished faculty that AnimC has attracted already. Many, including both of you, are Pixar artists who have worked on award-winning and beloved animated films. Yet you guys are anything but homogenous, and the faculty revolves with new faces coming in each session. What are the benefits of this for students?
MM: Our instructors change all the time which we believe is one of our strengths. We don’t just bring in good animators. They have to be good teachers, as well. We’re all a bit different in our styles and approach which the students recognize and getting those different points of view are critical. We have amazing instructors and we let them do what they do best and teach in their own style.
AG: Right. We have a lot of people interested in teaching. We certainly don’t want Animation Collaborative to be exclusively for Pixar teachers. We want professionals and passionate teachers from different places. From the students’ perspective, once they get past the initial intimidation of being with an artist they highly respect, they notice that all of the instructors are very accessible and really want to be there.
ACR: Do you have students that choose their workshops based on instructors?
AG: We do but we recommend students look specifically at the coursework. We evaluate where each of our applicants are at in their studies and try to fit them with the right instructor. Some teachers have extensive experience with beginner students and so we would take that into account when placing a beginner into one of our workshops.
ACR: Why did you both decide to teach in addition to your fruitful and busy careers?
MM: For me, personally, my good teachers were very influential to me and my career and I wanted to give something back and serve that role for new students.
AG: I had both negative and positive experiences in school that shaped me as a teacher. On the negative side, my old teachers often weren’t interested in sharing their knowledge. I always knew that if ever I became a teacher, I would share what I learned with my students. On the positive end of things, I went to a CSU Summer Arts program which was filled with professionals sharing their insight in a collaborative way. That was exactly what I wanted to do and what we’ve set out to do at Animation Collaborative.
ACR: The insight and expertise you offer to your students at The Animation Collaborative is unparalleled thanks to your own career experiences. Do any of your previous students stand out and do you find yourself learning from them?
AG: Yes! Mike was actually one of my students. I use his work as examples in some of the workshops that I teach. So there’s truth to that old adage of the student becoming the master. Of course, students do their own turns on what you taught them and take their own approach. When I see work from former students of mine I often think to myself, ‘Wow… that’s amazing.’
ACR: With many interested students and potential for large scale collaboration, do you envision The Animation Collaborative remaining small in the coming years?
MM: I like the boutique factor of it. It’s small and cozy. From a personal perspective, it would certainly be a lot to handle if it was large. We love our day jobs and doing this on the side is ideal.
AG: When we started last summer, we offered just 4 courses. This winter we will have close to a dozen. So we’re growing, but we don’t want to grow too quickly. We’re keeping it small for now but we have a vision for what it could be and that’s important. Those ideas will keep floating around in our heads but right now we love our jobs and we’re excited about this, too.
We’ve had a few students come from as far away as Brazil and France for our workshops. That’s really where we start to see the reward in it… that’s amazing! We are doing this because we’re trying to help someone realize their dream. If we can do that, then we’ve done what we set out to do.
ACR: Michal and Andrew, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you and getting to know more about Animation Collaborative. We wish you guys all the best.
AG: Thanks Bonnie.
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.