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The University of the Arts (better known as UArts) has been producing creative thinkers and doers since it opened its doors not long after the American Civil War. In the century and a half since, it has retained an intimate and rigorous arts education in the heart of Philadelphia while implementing cutting-edge programs that provide students with both foundational and technical know-how.
Uniquely, the university encourages students to dabble in an array of diverse courses or choose minors to compliment their area of study. UArts’ Animation program offers a BFA, minor, and courses fit for students curious about the process of the craft. Spearheaded by Karl Staven, students gain a working knowledge of animation while priming their reels for work after graduation. We catch up with Staven for our latest Q&A and ask him about the advantages and approach of UArts… enjoy!
ACR: Karl, let’s start with you. As the Program Director of Animation at UArts, what are your goals for both the curriculum and students?
Karl Staven: Our program goals continue to be ensuring our students create outstanding work, growing the program, and increasing our national and international presence. A key role I have is working with students to make sure that they succeed academically. Whether through advising, substituting courses, filling out academic forms, or referring them to assistance elsewhere in the university, I want to make sure they have access to all our university resources as they head towards graduation.
I (also) make sure that we stay on top of current production modes and provide our students with the necessary hardware, software and instruction to master them. I’ve overseen a total shift in production methods over these past two decades. When I arrived, all student films were shot and completed using 16mm film… we still have an Oxberry Animation Stand but it is now just an interesting dinosaur to possibly impress visiting students. We started off teaching Softimage on the 3D side but now Maya is the industry standard so that’s what we use. Likewise, Flash was the go-to 2D program, but now we teach TV Paint and Toon Boom. Programs increase in complexity while new ones appear. Schools have to adapt to the changing digital landscape.
ACR: Speaking of that, it’s astounding how far technology has come in the past two decades, yet some things never go out of style. How integral is narrative to the process of animating?
KS: Narrative is key. You can have a wonderfully looking 3D animated short with amazing sets and great lighting but if the characters or story aren’t engaging, the audience won’t care. On the other hand, you can have a poignant animation using stick figures that moves an audience to tears. Not all animation has to be narrative. We usually have one or two senior students who approach films more experimentally. For example, one senior froze animal x-rays in water, recorded those melting using time lapse photography, and then interwove those sequences into an interesting work. For most, however, story is key and the hard work is honing that story into a tight and captivating narrative.
ACR: A key differentiator of UArts is that students are enabled to take a diversity of courses both in and out of their majors, and even select a minor in an area of interest to them. Tell us a little about that, Karl.
KS: One of the unique aspects of UArts is that it has both a College of Performing Arts and a College of Art, Media and Design. This means, for example, that Animation majors can take dance courses and Dance majors can take animation courses. In fact, there are now two Dance majors who are working towards an Animation minor. This also means that animators are able to collaborate with theater majors to record dialogue, and work with composition majors to have their films scored. I often recommend, however, that students not just focus on a minor but instead take classes in a variety other majors that interest them and increase their skill sets.
Having students from different majors and artistic cultures taking animation classes together increases the overall quality of work as varied perspectives open up students conceptually. This past year we had a UArts Day where students from all majors could engage in collaborative projects. We had two animation workshops that attracted majors from dance, illustration, music and film.
ACR: What traits do you believe make for great animators, and how do you instill those onto students studying the craft?
KS: Great animators love to animate. They are creating and exploring not because they have an assignment due, but because they want to try something new and figure out how to realize what they picture in their mind. They want to see their images move. We like to push the idea at UArts that any individual assignment can result in a finished piece with beginning, middle and end that could have a life outside of the classroom in festivals, online, etc.
Animation is also cinematography. Camera angles and movement can be key to help drive the narrative forward. Taking a step away from the narrative is also helpful. The silences in addition to the action, the b-roll avoiding the narrative, and cuts away from the main characters talking can all be brought to bear to shape a film. But animation is mostly about understanding movement. A great animator would be able to create a silly fat walk whether they were drawing, animating a puppet, or setting keyframes in a 3D program.
ACR: Students have the distinct advantage of developing artistically without the encumberances of commercial art or paying bills. Are there themes that your students explore that particularly resonate or interest you?
KS: As a MFA student at NYU, I loved the opportunity to create work just to create work. The graduate requirement was to complete one film each year, but I completed two. They were always using different techniques, so when I got tired or frustrated with one I could switch gears and jump into the other. We often see the most successful films when students look at their own lives and identify moments, actions or periods that had a strong emotional resonance for them. This connection to the story tends to come through with the characters and animation and can have an impact on an audience- reverberating long past films based solely on physical humor or fight scenes.
ACR: On the flipside, when it comes to earning a living the animation industry is notoriously competitive and ever-evolving. How do you set up graduates for the success they often find in the field?
KS: Students used to arrive at UArts with fantasies of working for Disney or Pixar to become the ‘10th Old Man’ (or 1st Old Woman), but that’s not the way the industry works. Everything is project-to-project these days. A feature project can last several years while TV/cable series can go much longer; we have alums who have been working on The Simpsons for more than 20 years. In any case, animation graduates need to be adaptable and nimble as they define themselves in the workforce.
We offer a professional practices course in the spring of senior year where students prepare themselves for life outside college walls. In addition to finessing resumes, cover letters, business cards, animation reels, and their online presence, students also conduct mock interviews and visit animation studios in NYC. Animation is everywhere these days but our students know they will need to be creative and collaborative as they define their future careers.
ACR: UArts is an intimate college, with less than 2,000 students. What is the campus and its culture like?
KS: We are proud of our student-to-faculty ratio; animation classes have a maximum capacity of 15 students. With 6-hour studio classes that meet once a week, the faculty are able to spend a lot of individual time with students in-class as problems are solved and software/movement issues addressed. And we have been happy to support a strong increase in female and foreign animation students since I started, as well.
UArts purchased a 17-story building right in the heart of center city Philadelphia more than a decade ago and then renovated it to house both College of Performing Arts majors and Collage of Art, Media and Design majors. Animation is on the 14th floor, and the bottom floor is the student dining hall. This has meant that there is much more intermixing and engagement between students from different disciplines.
The animation program has always had a supportive culture. Sophomores devote 10 hours of their time towards senior thesis projects, helping seniors and increasing their own skills. Animators spend a lot of time on the floor and in the labs together as they are working on their films. I’m seeing more and more non-majors taking animation classes and animators exploring outside courses. We have a new president who is working very well to increase the size of our campus and student numbers. Things are looking good.
ACR: Being in the heart of Philadelphia brings with it access to a vibrant arts community. What do you appreciate most about living and working in Philly?
KS: UArts has many different connections within the community to further student interests. We have strong connections to Nextfab (a large expanding maker’s space), a recent purchase/collaboration with the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and an ongoing Neuarts initiative working with local after-school programs- and that’s just to list a few. And then there’s the fact that you step out of the front door of our Terra building and you’re smack dab in the center of Philadelphia with City Hall rising high up 2 blocks to the right and the Kimmel Arts Center fronting the street two blocks down.
Recently, the Plastic Club of Philadelphia hosted its 4th annual Animation screening which featured work from local animators, independents, and UArts students and faculty. Plus we just won the Super Bowl. I’ve been commuting to and from UArts on a bicycle since I arrived here, about 7 miles each way from where I live. Over this daily commute, I’ve seen a massive change in construction, restaurants, and cultural options. The city just keeps getting better and better with more food and improving infrastructure while still remaining affordable. No... I’m not running for city council!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.