UCLA’s Animation Workshop offers students the opportunity to learn all aspects of animation in an age-old tradition seldom found elsewhere. Founded in 1947 under the auspices of the venerable animator Bill Shull (of Disney renown), the program is housed in the university’s acclaimed School of Theater, Film and Television and boasts a virtual ‘who’s who’ list of distinguished faculty and alumni.
The Animation Workshop offers an intimate, highly selective MFA program for graduate students who work under the mantra ‘one person, one film’, learning animation from A to Z. The program also offers upper-level undergraduate coursework that focus on the non-digital art of animation. To learn more about what makes the program so special, we spoke with the program’s Academic Administrator and Lecturer, Doug Ward- himself a veteran animator and UCLA graduate.
ACR: Doug, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us about the Animation Workshop at UCLA. As an accomplished animator, what was the impetus for your move to the academic side of things as the Workshop’s Academic Administrator?
DW: I’ve done a lot of different work in the industry over the years, bouncing around in interactive animation, computer games and eventually ending up on King of the Hill as an animation timer. The writing was great and I loved it, but at the same time the writer is always ‘king’ in films and on TV. If you wanted to make even a small change, there was a chain of command that you had to go through and that’s typical.
When I was offered the position here at UCLA, the idea of being around students with great ideas who could create films without needing approval of committees or producers was exciting. We could cut right to the chase, making comments and suggestions to the students watching as they created their own animations.
I also went to school here so it was exciting to come back. Our program has always been way ahead of its time and was one of the original animation programs in the country. I wanted to take what I learned in my years in the industry and bring it back for new students.
ACR: What changes have you noticed in studio production through the years that you try to teach your students about?
DW: A lot! Yesterday I was at Nickelodeon with a group of students from my layout class. I explained to the students that they do storyboard for the NICK shows there but they don’t do the animation itself in-house. Many large studios do pre- and post- production while the actual animation is done elsewhere. That’s one change that we have to prepare our students for because they can’t get those in-between jobs that allow them to work their way up the ladder as my generation did… that hierarchy doesn’t really exist anymore.
On the flipside, strong students end up getting the upper echelon jobs like storyboard or layout right after graduation. So, if you can get in, you start at the higher end today. Because we’ve taught them how to plan the animation in all aspects, they can do anything needed of them.
ACR: Is that where the program’s ‘One person, one film’ mantra fits in?
DW: Yeah. You never know what you will end up doing in your career. My experience learning all the roles of animation at UCLA allowed me to get out there and take different opportunities that came my way. Each studio works differently and that’s one of the great values of the UCLA education- you learn so many great, more efficient ways of doing things.
We created a layout class here a few years ago because some students didn’t really understand the layout process. They were skipping this planning stage and creating animation problems for themselves. This class not only helped them avoid mistakes in their films, but it also prepared them should they end up doing layout or storyboard clean-up (because) they know what to look out for.
ACR: Some animation programs focus on the technical elements and overlook the creativity side and the production pipeline. How do you teach the industry end of things at UCLA’s Animation Workshop?
DW: First off, the people that teach here all have significant industry experience, so the students learn directly from them. But we also follow the studio model and our students work on layout, storyboard, sound, post production- everything so they get a top-down global view of the whole process. That’s been very helpful for our graduates going forward in their careers.
ACR: UCLA’s Animation Workshop has a state-of-the-art facility made possible from its many ties to the animation community. With access to LA studios, venerable alumni and veteran faculty, is there a better place on the planet to study animation than at UCLA?
DW: I’m certainly biased, but we’re a great school. I think we’re even 10 times better today than when I was a student here and that’s saying a lot. We have more teachers, classes and equipment. There are so many people that want to get into animation and there are schools all over the place now.
The difference for us at UCLA is that we offer our graduate students a chance to receive guidance while making their own films. They own their work and we encourage them to get their films to distributors and to pitch their projects to studios. We also don’t just teach the Hollywood animation style; if a student wants to do experimental animation, they can do it here. We provide a well-rounded approach to animation that’s hard to beat.
ACR: For aspiring animators still in high school and trying to make sense of all the choices in animation education today, what are the advantages of obtaining a Bachelor Degree and going beyond with an MFA?
DW: In the ‘90s, people were falling all over themselves to start up schools because of the animation boom so there are a lot of certification programs today. Certification programs are not generally recognized by the studios. Instead, they are looking for great artists with great ideas and technical ability… not from a certificate from the ‘xyz’ school.
Here at the Workshop, we encourage students to be flexible in their style because once you get out into the industry, you never know where you’ll be working and what you’ll be doing there. That’s why we don’t just have a bunch of Maya classes here. We want our students to draw well because they will survive in the industry if they do. They may go to work in CG and when that project ends they might move to storyboards or conceptual art so they need to be prepared for any position. We don’t specialize in any one aspect of animation production; we cover it all so our graduates will be able to move around over the course of their careers. We don’t prepare students for their first jobs; we prepare them for their last.
At UCLA, we also actively encourage our students to pursue internships and learn how to help each other on their projects because that’s exactly what they’ll be doing in their careers. They’ll meet others in the industry and those connections are important. It is actually a small industry so the UCLA community makes a big impact on our students’ futures.
ACR: Where is animation today relative to the technological and conceptual changes that you see ahead?
DW: Animation has always been an artistic art form combined with technology. You give characters life whether its pencil and paper or on computer. The technology has improved incredibly, eliminating many of the tedious aspects of the process and I think it’s the perfect art form for the young, computer-savvy generation of today. My only concern looking ahead is that animation will not have a delivery system where animators can make money. Already, I see some students give away their stuff for free by putting it up on YouTube and I cringe. By doing this, they are effectively giving the rights away to their films and some festivals will not accept work that has already been in the public domain.
Ultimately, when looking into the future, I always look at the past. I remember when I told my father I was going to pursue animation he said to me, “That’s great. I didn’t know they still did that!” At different times, the future of animation looked like it would move in one specific direction until something big happened and changed everything. What that will be, I don’t know but I feel very optimistic that animation is here to stay.
ACR: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you about UCLA’s Animation Workshop. Thanks Doug!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.