Jonathan Trueblood, Assistant Professor at Point Park University
When you think of Pittsburgh, you likely think of the old steel industry or the city’s famous professional sports teams. Yet the city boasts a growing film production industry that draws big companies to its Rust Belt location along with a nice crop of animation and motion graphics studios that have sprung up around it. Add in a thriving arts scene developed when big philanthropy decided to reinvest in this once golden age metropolis, and Silicon Valley offices for Google and Facebook that further attract top talent and creativity from around the country. It’s clear that Pittsburgh is fast becoming a city where aspiring animators and artists can thrive.
Point Park University is the only university located within the heart of Pittsburgh’s downtown, taking full advantage of what the city has to offer. With a small enrollment of just under 4,000 students, PPU’s students benefit from low faculty-to-student ratios and a dedication to student success and outcomes. Its Animation and Visual Effects program is no different, offering students multiple options that result in unique learning outcomes to prepare them for their careers and lifelong learning. Assistant Professor Jonathan Trueblood passionately teaches the foundations and finer points of animation and VFX to undergrads. We recently caught up with him to learn more about the advantages that Point Park University and Pittsburgh pose to aspiring animators. Enjoy!
ACR: Jonathan, let’s start at the top with Point Park’s Animation & VFX program. What was the program’s genesis and what does it aim to do that separates it from others?
Jonathan Trueblood: The animation program was born out of the Cinema Arts department about 8 years ago. We have an absolutely incredible cinema department and faculty; our cinema students make some of the best films I have seen. They have also proven to be very successful after graduation. Supported by the cinema arts department, the animation program has grown from twenty students to almost seventy in my 6 years at the university.
The goal of the cinema arts department is to shape our students into storytellers while ensuring that they have a firm grasp of the technology and state-of-the-art equipment in our labs. Another part of our vision for the program is that our instructors are teaching artists. Our faculty continue to learn, produce, and work in their fields. The animation curriculum focuses on a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of animation. This is the bedrock for everything we do in animation, whether that is 2D or 3D. We have a wide variety of classes that help students focus their skills on their desired concentration while making sure storytelling, artistry, and animation principles are always stressed first.
ACR: Animation and Visual Effects students at Point Park can pursue either a B.F.A. or B.A. which influences the scope of their work. Tell us a little about both curriculums.
JT: The BFA is an immersive degree that pushes the student to become an artist and storyteller- not just an animator. In their first two years, students take classical animation, motion graphics, and 3D animation classes in addition to drawing and animation history. They also take screenwriting courses and have the option to take cinema history and theory classes, as well. In their junior year, they focus more on their areas of interest. Character Animation and Analysis 1 and 2 are classes where the students all have the same assignments with the option to animate classically, in stop motion, or in 3D. This allows students to focus on their chosen concentrations while still being exposed to the other areas. Seniors are required to do a year-long thesis animation project- the culmination of their education here at Point Park.
The BA is much more open in terms of what classes are offered. Students can take more cinema and screenwriting classes or more animation classes. It’s a program that allows for a lot of flexibility for students that aren’t exactly sure what they may want to do. This flexibility also makes the program very appealing to our transfer students. It offers them more paths towards a degree that they wouldn’t have in the more restrictive BFA program.
ACR: How does the program’s small student to faculty ratio influence the education that Point Park students receive.
JT: That’s one of the best parts about the program. We’re a pretty new program and even with enrollment growing each year we still have the ability to work one-on-one with the students. Class sizes are typically 12-16 students, giving us plenty of time for individualized feedback. Our faculty also frequently teach independent studies to students that want to push themselves and further their knowledge in specific areas of animation.
ACR: Tell us about the foundational courses that students are required to take, and why they prove invaluable no matter their eventual career direction.
JT: All of our students start the program with a range of drawing and animation classes. The first semester students have a drawing class, a 2D design/drawing class, and also a fundational animation course. Freshmen animation students also take an introduction to screenwriting class. Students have the ability to take cinema history and production courses, too.
Ultimately, if students don’t have a solid foundation of principles then it doesn’t matter what software or technology we have available to them. I always say that the computer and tablets they use are just really expensive pencils. We want our students to have a strong technical and artistic foundation, but it’s also important that they become great storytellers. I think the program allows students to suppliment their animation classes with courses that enforce visual analysis and narrative structure.
ACR: On that note, students take a variety of other courses that round out their skillsets. Give us insight into these offerings and how they work in unison to create well-rounded animators and VFX artists.
JT: In their first few years, students take several courses in classical hand drawn animation, motion graphics, and 3D animation. After they get a strong foundation in these courses, they can decide in their junior year which “track” they would like to proceed in. We don’t have set tracks, per say, but the format of their junior and senior year allows them to really focus on what they are most interested in. This gives them plenty of time to deep dive into the foundations and principles of animation while learning the technical aspects of the software which sometimes is the limiting factor in successful projects and demo reels.
After graduating, many students become freelance artists and jump around to different studios. Being able to use a number of different software well really opens up opportunities for them. More than ever there is a need for digital content and animation. Think of everything you watch on all the streaming services. Now think that every country around the would has content. Then think about all the movies, tv commercials, videos on social media, and so on. There has never been a better time to be an animator. At the end of the day the curriculum is set up to have a well rounded artist that has the ability to specialize in an area of their choosing.
ACR: Earlier, you mentioned the role that PPU’s Cinematic Arts department had on the genesis of the Animation & Visual Effects program. Do your students continue to work with cinematic arts students?
JT: Animation and film are such collaborative art forms that you will almost never work on something individually. Courses are set up so students get the experience of working together early on in there tenure here. Someday the person you worked on a group project with in college may be your in to a company you wanted to work at. We have a good bit of animation students that work on cinema projects. Our students will help with everything from visual effects to title sequences and end credits. We’ve had animation students build stop motion puppets and maquettes.
ACR: Do students participate in internships or work with local partners while at PPU?
JT: Yes to both. Our “Community Animation Project” is a class that junior students take where they work with an outside non-profit organization. Students work with the client to produce projects from design boards, to voiceover, music, animation, all the way to a finished project. Students work in groups and have several client check-ins throughout the semester and really get a sense of what it’s like to work with a client and especially how to work in a group on an assignment.
Our students have been doing very well lately with internships. Most of the studios in Pittsburgh specialize in motion graphics so our students who focus on that aspect have gained great experience. We have several classes focusing on After Effects and Cinema 4D. Other students that have more experience in Maya have done internships here, as well. There isn’t much classical animation in Pittsburgh but every so often those studios have projects. Just in the last few weeks alone, several students have gotten work with the Pittsburgh Penguins doing animations that play during the games on the big screens and screens and TVs that wrap around the arena.
ACR: Speaking of industry Jonathan, you’ve worked as an animator for brands like MTV and ESPN. What lessons do you impart from your commercial work on your students in the classroom?
JT: My biggest take away from my time working in the motion graphics industry was the importance of meeting deadlines and developing the ability to work quickly at a high level of quality. The animation industry is such a fast, deadline-driven industry that you need to develop skills to quicken your workflow without diminishing quality. When you are in school, you’re constantly working on projects every week where you are thinking about principles, composition, weight and volume, perspective, etc. The more projects you do, the more those become ingrained in your method- like muscle memory for someone that plays guitar for example. Every project you do whether it is a failure or not is a learning experience that will help on the next project.
Time management is another aspect related to deadlines. Make sure when you sit down to work on a project that you really do the work. Remove distractions, turn off your phone, and maybe even set a timer and say “I’m going to work for 45 minutes straight”. Always save time to step back and look at your project, and send it to others to get feedback.
ACR: What’s the animation landscape like in Pittsburgh in terms of post-graduate work?
JT: The city has been very busy with the television and film industry lately which has been incredible for our cinema students. Netflix shot two seasons of “Mindhunter” here and many PPU students and alumni worked on the Mr. Rogers movie. Animation is not as big in the region, but there are a good number of smaller motion graphics and visual effects studios in the area. What’s more, many of the graphic design studios in the region have a need for motion graphics animators. There isn’t much work in the way of classical animation but that’s not to say it doesn’t ever happen here.
I think finding your footing in freelancing and testing what aspects you like and dislike about animation is always the best way to go. Many of the grads that end up staying local have picked up remote freelance work. Most of the animation jobs and studios are in the bigger cities so going there at least for a little bit of your career should be a goal. With how connected everyone can be now, you really don’t have to be in one place working on projects. I encourage students to move to the larger cities together. That helps with moving expenses and rent. Also, if one person gets in a studio maybe another one can come in too. Or when more established alumni are in a city, new grads can sleep on their coach and get settled. A rising tide lifts all boats.
ACR: Last but not least, what are your goals for the program moving forward as it pertains to its influence on the Pittsburgh art scene as well as student outcomes.
JT: I would love for the program to get to about 100 students. I feel like that’s a nice number we can get to in the next few years. Once we hit that goal, we can talk about expanding more facilities and writing new classes and concentrations to meet our students interests and program goals. I’d love to work more with high school summer camps and expand the opportunities of animation to younger people in the region. I can’t wait until we build an even better, more established, alumni network in the industry that can help new graduates and come back to school to offer advice and guidance to students.
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.