Edinboro University may be situated in the rural northwestern corner of Pennsylvania but graduates of its animation program can be found practicing the craft near and far- from the world’s largest studios to avant-garde experimental shops alike. A public university situated just a short distance from Lake Erie’s shores, the distinguished Art Department offers a BFA in Animation where students explore a variety of techniques taught by diverse working faculty members.
We get a taste of Edinboro’s animation program from Associate Professor Mike Genz for our latest spotlight Q&A. Genz’s affable personality and eagerness to talk about the craft reflects the many years he spent working as an animator for Disney Feature Films and Warner Bros. We ask him about his own career, what enticed him to start teaching, and just how good animation students at Edinboro really have it. (This interview was done via phone & has been edited for length & clarity)>
ACR: Mike thanks for participating in our latest spotlight Q&A. Before we get into Edinboro University’s animation program, let’s talk about your own career for a minute which includes animating on some beloved films like An American Tail, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid. When did you know you wanted to become an animator?
Mike Genz: I think a lot of children like drawing and I was certainly one of them, always working on a sketchpad or coloring book from a very young age. It was an outlet for me where I could escape to. When I was about 12, I took a correspondence course for drawing that my mother paid for. I would come home from school and do these lessons by mail and learn to draw cartoon characters.
After graduating from high school, I ended up visiting CalArts as freshman college student and had the great opportunity to meet Jack Hannah who worked for Walt Disney on so many characters including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. We shared the same home town and I think he really wanted to see me at CalArts, so he offered me insight for how to put together my portfolio for admission. I applied and got in. It was a fantastic era to be there- the first year I was a student, Tim Burton and John Lasseter were there, plus all the original guys from Disney back in the 30s were teaching there or mentoring. Everything unfolded for me... I saw people passionate about animation, making their art and being paid to do it! And that solidified my intent to become an animator.
ACR: Did you get a job with Disney Feature Films shortly thereafter?
MG: I actually started working at a non-union shop on a short term charity project in North Hollywood when I heard that Filmation was hiring for He-Man so that’s really where I got my start. They started sending a lot of their work overseas at the time, so many of us were looking for jobs. Disney was looking for animators for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and I was very fortunate to earn a spot to work on the Toon Town section of the film. After that, I worked on Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid and The Rescuers Down Under. So my career at Disney became much longer than I had anticipated which was terrific for my experience. You just learn so much from working with people like Glen Keane, Mike Gabriel, John Musker… all those guys.
ACR: When did you decide to pack it up and move to Pennsylvania, taking a faculty position at Edinboro University?
MG: There’s a story behind that! I met Bill Waldman when he and I worked on Hercules; we actually shared an office. I developed very bad tendinitis and eventually struggled to keep my production up. My doctors told me they couldn’t do anything for me and advised me to take time off. I told Bill and he mentioned that he knew of a faculty position at his alma mater, Edinboro University. That’s essentially how I ended up here… that was in 1999 and I haven’t looked back since.
ACR: What was the transition from working in LA to teaching at Edinboro like for you?
MG: Something happened here at Edinboro for me. When I was a student, I was so excited to see my instructors’ names on films like Snow White, Lady & the Tramp, Pinocchio. Then seeing my own name on the big screen was unbelievable. But after teaching here and seeing my students’ names on films like Brave, Ice Age, Wreck it Ralph… it tops them all. I’m helping students reach their dreams and their goals! I never set out to become a professor of animation, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve experienced.
ACR: Edinboro students take ample core studies alongside courses in the animation major. Having worked as a professional for so long yourself, what do these foundational studies bring to your students’ education and future careers?
MG: A lot. Thanks to the fact that it’s a BFA program, and also because Edinboro is a NASAD accredited university which has very high standards, all of our students take courses in a range of subjects from art history to math and the sciences. Recently, one of our graduates who is now head of animation at Lucas Films came and spoke to us. He specifically cited the courses in anthropology and physics and creative writing as having helped him become more successful as a film director than he could have been without them.
ACR: At what point in their studies do students elect one of the animation concentrations in Computer Animation, Traditional or Experimental?
MG: They can select their concentration upon enrollment (but must) pass candidacy to earn the right to continue in their selection. (Then they) are able to take upper level courses, and we start to see their selections and their strengths. Then we cultivate and build on that. Not everyone will be an animator; some are better at storytelling, others are good at post-production or sound or editing. We can see the strengths that surface and as faculty we advise them to take courses to supplement those strengths. For instance, we advise students that like hand drawn animation to take anatomy courses.
ACR: Is it tough to uncover those natural aptitudes and inclinations, particularly given that so many American kids don’t have access to art in school or don’t spend as much time as they once did with pencil and paper?
MG: Yeah, I think that it’s a journey. Once we see what students are good at, it gives us a flag about a hidden talent or strength. How they choreograph something or animate it. Maybe their drawing isn’t as strong as others, but they try with another form or technique and do really well. Not all of them have the aptitude to see how things look from different angles from a 2D perspective but maybe they have a great sense of timing. So we have them try different things to bring out that talent. We do flat animation, stop motion, experimental and making something non-representational into something representational and descriptive. We try to give them everything, in bits and pieces in a controlled environment, to see how they develop and bring out their best.
ACR: What kinds of projects- individual or collaborative- do your students complete?
MG: We have them do both individual and team projects. They start by doing small exercises based on physics in Animation 1. In Animation 2, we introduce character and archetypes and personality. By Animation 3, they animate a complete thought with a scenario and a conclusion. Starting from beginning to end, this project lasts an entire semester and helps them to develop by working into it. They need to have those fundamentals first.
Then, we have collaborative projects. One of the most memorable ones was several years ago when we teamed up with the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra. They gave us a score (Rossini’s Overture to La Scala di Seta) and four of our students collaborated to animate it from start to finish, which was then screened during the performance by the orchestra. It was really unbelievable work. We have other students who have done collaborative work with the local baseball team, the Erie SeaWolves, in creating scoreboard animations. These projects are vital because this field is very collaborative. Students need to solve problems together working with tight deadlines and limitations.
ACR: Edinboro is situated in rural, northwestern Pennsylvania not far from the shores of Lake Erie… perhaps an unlikely spot for a world-class animation program. Are there local opportunities that students can take advantage of?
MG: We aren’t that far from Toronto and other eastern cities and many of our students travel near and far for summer opportunities. But Pittsburgh is really where our students have the most internship possibilities close by. Thanks to tax incentives, studios have been setting up in Pittsburgh and we’ve been able to expand opportunities for our students considerably. One of them is at Animal Inc. (their latest film, Blood Brother, was a Sundance award winner this year). There’s also MoreFrames Studio which is just a short drive from us in Erie.
We also take our students to the Ottawa International Film Festival and the CTN Expo in LA. Wherever we go, chances are that we have alumni working there who offer their insight and let our students see firsthand the environment of the studios, big and small. We have an active animation club here on campus and a study abroad program in Italy where our students gain exposure to the formal aspects of drawing and illustrating right where the Renaissance masters painted.
ACR: The program has produced impressive graduates through the years. Give us a taste of some recent graduates working in the field.
MG: In the last three years, we had a graduate win in every Emmy Awards category for which we teach animation. We also had graduates represented at the Academy Awards (Wreck it Ralph, Paperman). And through the years, we’ve had students nominated for Student Academy Awards, as well. A few years ago, there was a call that attracted some 900 applicants to work for South Park Studios. They narrowed it down to 3 finalist and 2 of them were Edinboro graduates from a field that included grads from CalArts, Ringling, RIT and all the big powerhouses one might think of. You name a studio, and we have graduates there!
ACR: Mike, thanks for speaking with me today. It was a pleasure learning more about your own background and the work you guys are doing at Edinboro University.
MG: Thank you, Bonnie!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.