Offering a Bachelor of Science in Media Arts & Animation, The Art Institute of California at San Francisco is often on animation students’ shortlists. Sitting in an artistic epicenter with no shortage of nearby studios, thought-leaders and opportunity, the school also boasts exceptional instructors who teach to the diverse needs of an ever-changing industry.
As Lead Faculty member of the Media Arts & Animation program, Billy Burger draws from his eclectic experience to develop and teach the next generation of animators and character artists. With a contagious enthusiasm for his work, Billy B., as he’s affectionately referred to, is a student favorite whose unlikely origins in the field provide a myriad of teaching opportunities in the classroom.
For a look at how he and A.I. ensure graduates are ready to tackle anything thrown their way, we spoke with Billy for our latest Q&A. This phone interview has been edited for clarity where necessary.
ACR: Billy, I’m delighted to speak with you today. Before you became a Lead Faculty member in The Art Institute’s Media Art & Animation department, you had an incredibly diverse educational and professional background. Tell us a little about it.
BB: For me, it’s always been about communicating with drawing and that was something I developed during my (undergraduate) work at The Ohio State University in Industrial Design. I was a bartender for a number of years and one day a guy from Colossal Pictures came in. I kept asking him questions about Mel Blanc and Carl Stalling (a music composer on a number of animations, notably Warner Bros). He thought I was an animator because of everything I knew and my interest, but really I was just an animation fanatic.
So I got into the business without a resume, show reel or an interview. (Colossal) needed me and I was enthusiastic about it and so I was brought on board. Over the course of the next year, I learned how to do all kinds of things like cutting and pasting (I mean actual cutting and pasting!), how to be a checker... I was even a camera assistant for 6 months. I tried to do everything that goes on in a studio because that was what I had done my entire life- combining different elements together. In animation, the drawing becomes the gesture, the gesture becomes the weight, the weight becomes the act. So when you tie it all together, it works pretty well. It’s taken me a lifetime to figure it out!
ACR: So you got your first gig in the industry without a degree… talk about how times have changed! When there are so many options for certifications in animation that maybe only take 6 months or 12 months, why is it important for aspiring animators to obtain a Bachelor’s?
BB: Animation studios look at your show reel first and foremost, but they like students with degrees because they want to hire someone who will stick around for the long term. They like seeing people who are committed to a program because it often means they are committed to a career in animation.
ACR: Aside from degrees, what are some other industry changes you’ve witnessed and how does that impact the curriculum of your department at The Art Institute?
BB: That’s the most awesome question. When I first started in the industry, I was painting Cap’N Crunch cells. It was traditional art and I did the backgrounds in water color, but it was fun and pretty wild. By 1995, when Pixar’s Toy Story hit, we could see the emergence of visual animation really take shape. Fast forward a bit to the Bush Administration and studios were able to get tax breaks by outsourcing animation overseas. Few companies were hiring 2D animators at that time, but many were working with Maya so our curriculum (at AI) was very Maya focused.
Three or four years ago, little companies started popping up thanks to Facebook and started building animations in Flash so we had to shift over to Flash very quickly for our students. Right now, we’re getting reports that HTML5 is right on the horizon and has audio and visual elements that you can animate within. So, we are responding to this and we’re going to have to build a new curriculum, hire teachers, design exercises and make people sidewalk confidant in just a few months.
ACR: You touched upon this issue of studios outsourcing animation overseas which has become increasingly common in the last decade. How do you prepare students to enter into such a competitive field knowing that outsourcing is probably going to stick around for a while?
BB: One thing we can do to keep this stuff on American soil is to make sure our animators are FAST, so that is one area I’ve focused on in my curriculum. All of us were relieved of our positions at Wild Brain after a Chinese studio blew us away- they were doing perfect work for 15 cents on the dollar, and we were toast. So I say to my students, “you know how to draw. Now, do it fast. You know how to animate in Flash? Great. Do it fast.” You’re competing with people in the US but also around the world and speed becomes critical.
I’m setting up a 2 Second Club based on an animation website, The 11 Second Club, where people put up 11 seconds of animation online. In terms of curriculum, I’m borrowing from that and taking it down to just 2 seconds so that students do one little action. But they’re doing it fast. And they’re having a lot of fun.
ACR: That would be a fun club indeed. Do you, or your students, have a favorite course offering?
BB: Absolutely. There’s a class called Animation Studio. It’s written very simply. My students go out into the real world and talk to character designers. People like Carter Goodrich (of Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc.) and Sarah Mensinga (The Ant Bully) who are also some of the greatest people in the world. I tell my students to go find them, email them… meet with them! Students even ask to use some of their characters on models to design and the designers love it.
ACR: That seems like such an important trademark of the industry- very accomplished animators helping the younger generations. There is certainly a tremendous camaraderie in the field, isn’t there?
BB: Yes, one of the things I learned right away in the field was that the gods of the industry are actually the best people around. They’re intellectual but they’re silly. They’re fun and they’re still great at what they do. They are so humble because any great animator knows there are always things they haven’t yet learned.
ACR: Who inspired or served as mentors in your own career?
BB: My first was Bill Watterson who, even though he is a cartoonist (Calvin and Hobbes), greatly inspired me with his characters. The award-winning Dave Thomas is another, who now does storyboards for El Tigre (Nickelodeon). Tod Polson is unbelievably fabulous. He won a Student Academy Award while at CalArts and honestly, he never even mentioned it. Talk about humble. Aaron Sorensen was lead animator at Wild Brain and is now directing at Laika. It was really him, Dave and Tod that helped push everything of what I know. They are my mentors.
ACR: What a great story you have, and exciting work you and your students are doing at The Art Institute of California- San Francisco. Billy, thank you so much for giving us an interview!
BB: Thanks Bonnie!