If there was an Ivy League for animation students, Ringling College would be in it along with a select few others that offer a rigorous art education. While the intimate, private college sits just blocks from the sunny shores of Florida’s Gulf coast, you’re more likely to find its Computer Animation undergrads enjoying the most advanced equipment that the industry has to offer indoors.
An early leader in CG animation education, Ringling continues to lead the way. Its curriculum reflects both the tried and true foundations of the craft along with an adaptive approach that considers industry input and demand. Computer Animation students learn the entire animation pipeline in just four years- something their graduates often attribute to their professional flexibility and unparalleled opportunities.
In our latest feature Q&A, we are excited to catch up with Ringling’s Computer Animation Department Head Jim McCampbell. We ask him everything about his program- from its origins and its evolution to its industry connections and the students who continually rise to the challenge. We hope you enjoy! (This interview was done via email and has been edited minimally for clarity).
ACR: Much has changed in the last two decades since Ringling began its now renowned Computer Animation program. When did you join the faculty and what was it like in the early years?
Jim McCampbell: I accepted a faculty position at Ringling in June of 1995. I was one of only three full time faculty members teaching in the major that year. I became department head in 2000, and by that time we had seven full time faculty members. Today, we are at twenty-two. The enrollment here is intentionally held low. We are accepting about 25% of the students that apply to computer animation. It helps us keep the quality high.
At the time I started teaching here, there was no home Internet for people other than dial up, so there was no such thing as the massive amount of video tutorials like today. In fact, it was considered somewhat taboo to teach the deep specifics of what we were doing in 3D back then. At the time, being in 3D animation was somewhat akin to being a magician… you didn’t tell how the tricks were done.
ACR: What was the biggest lure for you going from industry to academia back then?
JM: The biggest lure for me was two-fold. First, I was being worked to death in production and needed to get away from it for a while. Second, I could see the wave of change coming from a mile away and wanted to get there early. I’m willing to admit I never thought I would stay here so long, but the story at Ringling kept getting better and better with each passing year. So now, 20 years later, I can see it has become a significant part of my own career and in some ways even entangled with my self-definition.
ACR: Ringling’s program is known for turning out graduates who are ready to roll in the industry from day one. How do you get them up to par and give them the attributes they need for a more seamless transition to industry?
JM: We have a huge emphasis on work ethic and professionalism. Students are held to a very high production standard and are on very strict milestones and deadlines… just like at a studio. They are required to finish their senior film to graduate. And they have to manage all aspects of that film. When they leave here, they know what is expected of them and how to rise to the challenge. They leave confident but humble. Somehow this process enables them to accomplish something that they themselves didn’t even think they could do. That has to be enabling.
ACR: Speaking of their projects, do students work individually, collaboratively, or a mix of both?
JM: It’s a mix. They have the choice of working alone or working in groups of up to three people. We have a two minute cap on the films for each student, but if they group they can combine their run times. That said, we are always cutting them down to their bare essence. It has to be feasible, and part of the job for faculty can be protecting students from their own ambition. Time is always the biggest constraint both in terms of how much time there is to produce something and how long the run time is for the film. We have a LOT of resources here, but everything is always pushed to the limit.
ACR: How do you balance teaching the technical tools of the trade with the persistent fundamentals of the craft?
JM: Everything is always taught in the context of characters and story. The technical things are necessary but secondary. For example, I would say “I need this character’s head to be able to deform along a curve so that I can exaggerate the line of action that his pose is forming. Here’s how to do that.” Now the information is placed in a context that makes sense. If I just show them how to put a non-linear deformer on a lattice, everything suffers.
ACR: Ringling has forged so many connections with the industry. Do these relationships impact the curriculum?
JM: One of the greatest things about having so many recruiters come to campus here is that we get to talk to them in person about what’s going on, what their upcoming needs are, what trends they see, etc. We filter through all of that looking for common threads. Each one of them has their own special thing that they want more of, but it isn’t feasible to customize to the point where it would damage the student’s marketability to others, so we have to pick and choose carefully. If one studio is saying something and they’re the only one, then fine… that’s their particular need. But if most of them are saying something specific, then we’d better pay attention.
ACR: Is there an example of something that you’ve incorporated in response to these suggestions?
JM: One year, we had a lot of studios recommend that we give students more acting experience. To address that, we formed a relationship with Florida Studio Theater and hired some of their professional actors as adjuncts to teach the students how to act in the theater (and) on an actual stage. Advice taken.
I will say, there has been one instance where we bucked a big request from a vast majority of studios. We have always been pressured to have our students specialize (only animation, only modeling, only lighting, etc.). But we refuse to do that. Flat out refuse. Our students do everything. They create and refine original stories, they design characters and environments, they model, texture, rig, animate, light, render, edit, and production manage entire projects. All of them are required to do all of it, even on group projects.
In the last five years, those same recruiters have started coming in saying “we need people that can do more than just one thing.” It makes sense right? As the last of the models for a film are being constructed, wouldn’t it be great if some of those modelers could loop up to lighting and help where there is an inevitable bottleneck? Multifaceted artists make it so that a studio can run more economically, efficiently, and effectively. The problem in the past has been that there is a negative connotation with the word “generalist.” It used to mean someone who wasn’t really good at anything. Here it means someone who is good at everything… or at least several different things.
ACR: So your students are gaining an all-around education that they can leverage in many roles throughout their careers…
JM: By teaching students in this fashion, we believe that we are breeding tomorrow’s directors. They understand and are fluent in all aspects of the production pipeline. It also makes those who don’t fit in with the needs of big studios to remain marketable. If you specialize in something- let’s say only animation- and you don’t land something at a big studio that works in a compartmentalized fashion, your prospects at middle-sized to smaller studios are compromised.
ACR: Is it important that your students possess skills that transcend the entertainment industries?
JM: Yes, I believe it is. All of those areas use these same technical skills. In the non-entertainment areas I do think that their storytelling skills still factor into success in their jobs. We have alumni working at GM, the CIA, NASA, and other government areas too. There are no boundaries really.
ACR: In a constantly evolving field like animation, how do you prepare students for what might await them 10, 20 or 30 years from now?
JM: The essence of storytelling remains constant. Thank goodness. The tools and techniques we use to produce those stories change so rapidly that it is impossible to prepare them for specific (things) that will happen in a decade from now. In 2005, did you imagine the Oculus Rift? Probably not. The way you take care of the technical side for the future is to teach them to become lifelong learners. You have to love learning new things, and realize that whenever there is change there is opportunity.
ACR: How are your students and graduates typically recruited?
JM: We have about 75 recruiters that visit campus each year. They come throughout the year, but most for the animation major come in the month of April. This is because we want the senior projects to be completed before showing them to outsiders. The only exception to that is when a studio will send us a visiting artist to participate in faculty critiques on the work in progress. Other than that, the students are applying to recruiters’ web sites just like everyone else.
Being from Ringling College does seem to garner them some special attention, though. Most studios are familiar with that pedigree now. That also helps with internships. We do submit student work to a lot of festivals. I think that helps create a buzz out there too in certain circles, especially with things like Siggraph and the Student Academy Awards.
ACR: Being an art school, your students have access to a unique education. What is the campus and department culture like at Ringling?
JM: We are lucky to have such a heavily residential College. I think somewhere around 75% of the students actually live here on campus. It makes a learning experience that you can’t get easily. You live and work in a community of very talented artists. The bond that forms from that is absolutely amazing. The students are like a family.
They take electives and liberal arts courses with no consideration of major. They are mixed in together. The workload for Computer Animation majors is so heavy that they don’t have a lot of time to socialize much, though. That isn’t pressure for pressure’s sake… we just have to get a lot of information jammed into those four years so it’s tight.
ACR: It has to be tough determining which students have the best chance of success in the department. Are there common traits, experiences, aspirations, or other attributes that you seek out when deciding who would be the best fit for the BFA program in Computer Animation?
JM: It is indeed tough. The best way to know would be to meet each one of them in person, but with so many applicants from all over the world it’s impossible. Although grades are important to our admissions process, we tend to focus on drawing skills as the best litmus test for what I would call sensitivity. It is far easier to teach someone technology than it is to teach them to be sensitive to form, timing, rhythm, balance, etc. That isn’t a foolproof test of course!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.