Muncie, Indiana, may not immediately spring to mind for aspiring animators looking for a stellar animation program heavily rooted in art. Yet at Ball State University, that’s exactly what many find. While BSU’s animation program is still relatively young, that doesn’t stop it from offering both a BFA and MFA in Animation that boast small class sizes and ample one-on-one instruction from industry veterans.
Andy Beane leads the program and draws from his own industry experience to help students learn the craft of animation in all of its forms. An accomplished 3D animation artist based in California for a number of years, BSU’s animation program eventually lured him to the Midwest to steer the helm. We caught up with Beane via phone for our latest spotlight Q&A. Enjoy! (This interview has been edited for length & clarity).
ACR: Andy thanks for speaking with us today about the Animation program at Ball State University. As a 3D animator, you worked on some diverse projects ranging from the film Barnyard to a Korn video and a kid’s TV show pilot. You’ve also authored several books on the subject. When did you get the itch to teach what you had learned in the industry, and what ultimately drew you to direct Ball State University’s animation program?
Andy Beane: I was working at Omation on Barnyard and a guy in the layout department’s wife was looking for a rigging teacher at the Art Institute of Orange County. I decided to give it a go part-time but ended up teaching there full time for two years. By then, my wife and I decided to move back to the Midwest- where we are both from- to raise our family. I began researching programs and found Ball State University. At the time, they had a brand new animation major within the art department and they had the financial backing to make it grow which was very appealing. But they lacked someone who could run it. That’s where I fit in.
ACR: That was several years ago now… how big is the animation major today?
AB: We’re up to about 68 students in the major and we get many more applicants. We’ve actually started a secondary portfolio review to limit our numbers and keep class sizes manageable. It’s heart breaking to turn away students who want in, but it really has raised the quality of students in the major and allows us to do more with them. They really want to be there. It makes it easier from a teaching perspective and their education can go so much farther because of it.
ACR: Ball State offers both a BFA and MFA in Animation- impressive for a relatively young program.
AB: Our MFA program is still new- just 2 years old but it has really caught on. It was originally independent study, which is what many MFAs in Animation are. Now, we have a big time curriculum with a small school feel. We meet several days a week, schedule classes and push the curriculum so it’s come a long way from its independent study beginning.
ACR: A quick look at the program’s Vimeo channel shows a slew of impressive animation, particularly the experimental stuff.
AB: Yeah, the experimental class we offer is to break the mold for our MFA students. They come into the program already with a lot of stop motion and 2D and 3D, so within the assignments it’s not about the medium but (rather) it’s about parameters. We’ll say that they can’t use a computer for the first assignment, for instance. They get to try things out, make mistakes, fail without too much worry. In the second and third year of the MFA, they focus on production techniques.
ACR: On the undergraduate front, students take a first-year foundational program before gaining acceptance to the major. Once they’re in, what can they expect by way of courses?
AB: Once they get into our program they take both 2D and 3D classes every semester that complement one another. By junior year, they get more options and as seniors they make a senior film as an entire class.
ACR: I want to get to that senior project but before I do, does the high bar of acceptance equate to undergrads coming in with considerable art and technical chops already?
AB: They aren’t coming in with the whole equation yet, but we do get more and more with experience- a few even have Maya experience which is shocking. But we stress an art background here- we’re firmly planted in the art department and there’s a portfolio review just to get into the department before they can even start in animation.
There is a trend with some students applying with a strictly computer skills background. The first thing I tell them is to buy a sketch book and get going. A few computer students come in and work extraordinarily hard to get their portfolios together and make it. Many programs out there are largely technical-based without an emphasis on art, and there are different job prospects for those skills and that’s ok. But I try to tell my students and their parents that we approach it from the art side so they can decide if that’s a good fit for them.
ACR: And going back to that collective senior project, productions really bring their education full circle, don’t they?
AB: Yeah. Undergrads are often focused on tools and techniques – and understandably because they have to learn them- but it’s important for them to see the big picture. For the project, one student acts as the director and then others take on roles as art lead, modeling, texture. As their instructor, I act as executive producer and try to keep them on track while teaching them how to work within a pipeline and keep communication up. That’s the crucial part where things can falter if you’re not careful. After that, the final semester is their senior capstone project: they tell me what they want to do in their careers, what industry they want to work in, the studios appropriate for their goals, and finally they create and tailor their portfolio accordingly.
ACR: Being situated in the middle of Indiana, are there nearby work or internship opportunities for students?
AB: There are a few studios in Indianapolis which is just a short drive from us- they are mostly advertising and product visualization studios. We’ve do a lot of web and Skype chats to set up mentorship opportunities with industry veterans around the country and we also have visiting artists come out. Recruiters from ReelFX and Sony come here or do chats with our students. Mark Kennedy from Disney came out and gave a great 3-day seminar. Most industry professionals are more than willing to help out and we seize those opportunities.
ACR: On that front, animation has expanded far beyond the realm of entertainment. Are there areas that you’re particularly keen to help your students explore?
AB: Yes, especially being in the Midwest and not in Hollywood! A lot of students come in with the idea of making a video game or Pixar film. As most of them are from the Midwest, they often start thinking long-term by their senior year with a different perspective. Maybe they want to be close to their families or get married and stay in the region. So we go over what areas of animation they can do here if they choose. We introduce areas like product visualization and architectural rendering… there are great jobs here for these new areas. I want them to find something that interests them and gives them the lifestyle they’re looking for. They can become creative directors and move up the ladder from most anywhere. Students often learn that late, but there’s a big awakening.
ACR: Last question Andy- did I miss anything that you’re dying to tell readers about?
AB: Well we do have a new thing in the works that hasn’t yet been formally announced: a low- residency track for our MFA students. Only a few universities offer this in animation, and we anticipate having it up and running by next fall. We’re already recruiting industry professionals from around the country who are interested in teaching. People that have been working in the industry but want to start teaching will be able to earn their MFA while also learning how to teach animation. It’s hard to find (animation) faculty members with terminal degrees which are generally required. You have talent but many don’t have graduate degrees and so they’re hitting a wall. The low-residency track will be a two year program done mostly online: students will come to campus for just two weeks at a time twice per year to earn their degree.
ACR: That is exciting, Andy! We’ll have to catch up next year to talk about it. Until then, thank you for filling in our readers on the BFA and MFA animation programs at BSU!
AB: Thanks, Bonnie!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.