Breaking into the creatively-powered, passionate and playful animation industry may sound like cakewalk to those who have spent the better part of their lives doodling and watching cartoons, but the pursuit of perfection makes the industry chew up and spit out all but the crème de la crème. Hence, it’s no longer enough to take a few crash courses in animation and expect to break into an exciting career in animation, let alone stay there.
It wasn’t that long ago that animation degrees were virtually non-existent, but much has changed in the last few decades and today students have no shortage of choices. To make the search slightly less daunting, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite top 20 programs in the Western U.S. (west of the Colorado state line, encompassing the entire Pacific seaboard, the Rocky Mountain states and the southwestern region excluding Texas). To do this, we consulted school reviews by major surveyors like Princeton Review and US News Best Colleges, student reviews and our own (very unscientific) surveys of the animators and studios that we frequently interview here on ACR.
The schools on this list are as diverse as their students’ needs, with differences in size, selectivity, pedagogy, graduation requirements, tuition and more that ensure we’ve touched all areas of interest... we believe there truly is something for every aspiring animator here. Though most of these programs offer at least Bachelor degrees, a few have compelling Associate and graduate programs that beg to be noticed. While no list can ever be complete, we believe these 20 Western animation programs all deserve a closer look. And without further ado, here they are in reverse order:
20. University of Advancing Technology - Looking to explore the wide world of game animation? The University of Advancing Technology’s Bachelor of Arts in Game Art & Animation may be just what the doctor ordered. Located in the heat of Tempe Arizona, budding animators spend more time indoors than out, gaining insight into the evolving challenges that the video game industry poses. Learning the intricate production pipeline and working with industry tools such as Mocap, students create 3D art assets tailored to a host of gaming platforms. They also benefit from very small class sizes and attentive instructors. Some online courses along with an Associate of Arts offering make their program one of the most versatile in the Western U.S.
Tuition (at time of publication): $9,700 (USD) per semester (8-semester B.A. degree).
Program website: http://majors.uat.edu/Game-Art/
19. Los Angeles Mission College - While much of this list is focused on Bachelor degree programs, there are several community colleges that offer strong Associate degrees in Animation that merit inclusion. Los Angeles Mission College’s Animation & 3D Design program has flexible scheduling that students can build around their desired animation concentration. And don’t expect it to be lacking just because it’s a 2 year program: pro tools and labs ensure that students have access to the latest industry technology. Of course, its location near Burbank and the greater LA-area make it a breeding ground for local studios offering internship, mentorship and career opportunities.
Tuition (refer to school for updates): $36/unit resident. Animation AA degree requires a total of 61 units.
Program website: http://www.lamission.edu/multimedia/program.html
18. Santa Monica College - Another community college program that is often referenced by industry veterans is the Associate in Art Animation degree from Santa Monica College. Located in the hotbed of the industry, SMC’s program is a rigorous 4 semester AA degree that comprehensively explores a diverse array of courses ranging from animation history and storytelling to color theory and 3D development. Students focus on one of six animation tracks to further their goals that include 2D and 3D animation, modeling, rendering, digital effects and game design. When available, they also complete internships with local studios, work in teams to learn the production pipeline and walk away with the imperative portfolio to showcase their work to 4-year colleges or prospective employers.
Tuition (refer to school for updates): $36/unit resident. Animation AA degree requires a total of 60 units.
Program website: http://academy.smc.edu/programs/et.html
17. Southwest University of Visual Arts - Southwest University of Visual Arts forms one of the Southwest’s premier art institutions, offering two campuses (Tucson and Albuquerque) that just may send you off to the desert in search of your future. A private art college, Southwest University of Visual Arts (formerly The Art Center Design College) is small… really small (current enrollment falls under the 300 marker for its urban campus). Originally founded as a technical design-centric institution, the college has gradually expanded to include Bachelor degrees and recently unveiled a Master of Fine Arts degree.
Students in SUVA’s Bachelor of Art in Animation should expect a healthy dose of challenging foundational courses in fine arts and hand-drawn animation before expanding into 3D animation and computer effects. The program is known for its intensive training and concentrated approach to an animation education, ensuring that all graduates are ready for at least an entry-level position in the industry as a modeler, Flash animator, texture artist or character animator.
Tuition (at time of publication): $10,500 (USD) full-time semester.
Program website: http://suva.edu/animation.html
16. University of Hawaii at Manoa - We know what you’re thinking, and we can’t blame you: who wouldn’t want to spend four years of study on the shores of Honolulu on the island of O’ahu? But sand and surf aren’t the only things that beckon burgeoning animators to the Aloha State. The University of Hawaii at Manoa is one of only a few major research universities in the Western U.S. that boasts a Bachelor of Arts in Animation from its Academy for Creative Media Department.
With an emphasis on narrative within the context of a diverse fabric of Pacific Rim cultural values, U of H animation students take courses on drawing, 3D scene design, rendering, visual effects, narrative production, oral tradition and more to form a unique aesthetic all their own. A strong connection to local and Pacific film studios enables many graduates to pursue internships, study abroad programs, scholarship opportunities and job placement following graduation. And perhaps in part thanks to its world renowned location, the school has accrued top-talent teachers who have spent decades working in the industry.
Along with a good program, students reap the rewards of life on the islands and enjoy U of H’s many offerings. Dedicated to the Polynesian way of life and of preserving customs, community and ecosystems, the university encourages strong student involvement. Outside of the classroom, you can join some 200 student organizations, blow off steam at the rec center (which also coordinates sailing and surfing classes), and root for one of many Division I athletic clubs. Alas, perhaps due to excessive surfing or sunbathing, a mere 17% of students graduate in 4 years which is low even by today’s standards. Also expect to pay top dollar for room and board, which averages $10,000 per year… but you have to give some things up, we suppose, to study animation in paradise.
Tuition (at time of publication): $4,200 (USD) in-state fulltime undergraduate semester; $11,600 out-of-state.
Program website: http://www.hawaii.edu/acm/productions/festivalfilms.shtml
15. University of Utah - It’s not surprising that many art colleges top animation school lists, but a healthy dose of stellar programs at large public institutions proves that you don’t have to go small or expensive to get a great animation education. “The U”, as it’s affectionately called, has a highly regarded Bachelor of Animation degree in its Department of Film & Media Arts where students take an interdisciplinary approach to the craft. Encouraged to take cross-college courses in both the School of Computing and the College of Fine Arts & Humanities, animation students can choose from a BS or BA degree. All undergraduates take common courses on film studies, traditional animation, visual effects, story writing and more in addition to their chosen focus.
With a sub-urban campus in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range in Salt Lake City, the University of Utah has an allure for many students with nearby skiing, snowshoeing and hiking readily available for your free weekends. As the state’s major public research institution with some 21,000 students, it also boasts some venerable alumni including Utah native and Pixar President Ed Catmull and Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell.
Tuition (as of time of publication): $6,700 in-state fulltime undergraduate year & $21,400 out-of-state.
Program website: http://www.film.utah.edu/index.php
14. Woodbury University - Known for its rich cultural diversity and the close ties fostered between students and faculty, Woodbury University’s glistening campus sits in the studio town of Burbank, CA, home to The Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros. and countless others. Led by Dori Littell-Herrick, a veteran animator and modeler whose resume includes The Little Mermaid, Fern Gully and Ghostbusters, students explore both the historical and modern language of animation while developing skillsets and discovering their creative voices.
As a sign of its sometimes quirky and untraditional approach to higher education, Woodbury’s School of Media, Culture & Design (to which its Animation degree is a part of) was an early adapter in the virtual world of Second Life, maintaining its own virtual campus. Animation students are active participants in Cel Art, a student organization that brings in guest speakers, networking opportunities and community spirit. With a low student to faculty ratio of just 11:1, all Woodbury students receive ample one-on-one time with instructors. The school has a high retention rate (78%) to show for it, along with high job placement ratings for animation graduates who are required to complete an internship during the course of their studies. Though its private school tuition can be a challenge, the school is committed to a diverse student population. A remarkable 89% of its students receive some form of need-based financial aid, with the average scholarship or grant equally $15,000 (US News).
Tuition (at time of publication): $29,994 (USD)
Program website: http://woodbury.edu/mcd/majors/animation
More: Stay tuned for our upcoming interview with Woodbury's Dir. of Animation Dept., Dori Littell-Herrick, MFA.
13. California State University Northridge - CSU Northridge has a plethora of opportunities for its diverse 30,000 undergraduates, including those who seek a degree in Animation. Through the years, the program has fostered strong relationships within the surrounding LA industry community and is recognized in SONY’s Imageworks Professional Academic Excellence Program on the merits of its outstanding program. Working from a bottom-up approach, students begin their studies learning the fundamentals of the trade while progressing up the 3D ladder and eventually working on an animation collaboration project. Courses are taught by a veteran ensemble of working pro’s including Mark Farquhar (whose illustrious career has taken him from DreamWorks, SONY, Disney and Pixar and included work on Monster House, Beowulf and more). Alumni currently work at large and boutique studios such as SONY Imageworks, Film Roman Studio and more cementing the program’s spot as a top breeding ground.
Not unlike many other large institutions, expect larger class sizes for freshman year required courses and a rather dismal 14% 4-year graduation rate (among all undergraduates). On the flipside, students enjoy a wide range of electives outside of the Animation major, a stunning campus that features a new state-of-the-art rec facility and all the things you could ever want and need within a 30 mile radius. And despite recent tuition hikes in the Cal State system, CSU Northridge still offers one of the best bangs for your buck for in-state residents.
Tuition (at time of publication): $6,448 in-state for fulltime year; $17,548 out-of-state.
Program website: http://www.csun.edu/art/areas/animation.html
12. Los Angeles Film School - Wish Hollywood was your classroom? You just may want to explore Los Angeles Film School, in that case. The private multi-media school makes our list with its stellar Associate of Science in Computer Animation program. Dubbed “one of the best equipped private learning centers in the country,” by the Hollywood Reporter, the school’s Sunset Boulevard location puts you right in the beating heart of the industry. Founded little more than a decade ago by industry pros in search of training better graduates, today the campus provides professional-grade digs and access to full production and editing labs, screening rooms and workstations.
Just because it’s a 2 year program doesn’t mean that it’s for slackers… LA Film School seems to squeeze 4 years’ worth of courses into a jam packed and all-encompassing schedule. When the LA sunshine beckons, be prepared to face some grueling days indoors while getting your work done. The tough, production-focused curriculum takes students through crash courses in behavioral science, historical archetypes, communications and character animation before getting heavy into industry requisites like sculpting, rigging, lighting and effects. Ultimately, students create their own animation, leveraging a production environment and their newfound skills. A final assembly of a cumulative demo reel for use during job interviews rounds out students’ degree, enabling graduates to immediately seek work and embark on their careers.
Aside from its challenging curriculum, there’s that certain playful attitude that is respected and encourages at LA Film School. Its urban campus, housed in the former RCA building, often plays host to industry guest speakers eager to share their own experiences with the next generation.
Tuition (at time of publication): $39,340 (USD) TOTAL cost of 2 year program.
Program website: http://www.lafilm.edu/
11. DigiPen Institute of Technology - As the world’s first accredited university dedicated to video game development and computer graphics in the 1990’s, DigiPen has been at the forefront for digital education, earning a #2 ranking from the Princeton Review (Game Design Schools, 2010) and consistently topping similar lists. In the years since its founding, it has expanded its degree offerings and now boasts a BFA in Digital Art & Animation program that pushes students to dive deeper into their studies. The BFA requires a greater breadth of work than most art degrees and teaches artistic fundamentals prior to adding a technological layer. Students are required to take healthy doses of illustration, composition and color theory as they amp up their creativity and learn how to visually tell stories for a variety of digital mediums including film, interactive simulation, games and more.
Nestled in the Seattle bedroom community of Redmond, DigiPen is smack in the middle of the nation’s second largest game development hub and minutes from Microsoft, Nintendo and ArenaNet to name a few. What’s more, DigiPen is a good choice for serious students eager to do a lot of legwork in order to embark on their careers post-graduation. We hear quite a few stories that students should expect maximum working hours, rarely seeing the light of day at times… but the Seattle weather might prove just the right recipe for getting that work done! Expect a wide variety of acclaimed working instructors, focus on demo reels and portfolios and not-to-be-overlooked clout (particularly in the video game industry).
Tuition (at time of publication): approx. $12,800 (USD) for fulltime undergraduate semester.
Program website: https://www.digipen.edu/academics/degree-programs/digital-art-and-animation/
More: We recently spoke with DigiPen’s VP of External Affairs, Angela Kugler, in a Q&A.