There is arguably no better place to learn the art of animation than in Paris’ Latin Quarter at Gobelins l’ecole de l’image. Known just as much for its grueling entrance exam (that includes multiple rounds of drawing tests) as for its renowned instruction, the visual arts school has been producing true masters of the craft since 1975 and is considered an industry benchmark. Working with the crème de la crème of emerging artists, the program develops students’ story telling abilities through images and movement within its animation programs. The work that Gobelins students create is nothing less than astounding and it’s little surprise that the world’s elite studios including Disney and DreamWorks look to Gobelins’ prestigious lineup when acquiring new talent.
We were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with the head of Gobelins’ Animation Department, Eric Riewer, for our latest Q&A. Frequently globe-trotting, Mr. Riewer took time out of his busy schedule to share insight into the program’s unique pedagogy and success. Even if you never apply to Gobelins’ program, take the time to peruse their students’ captivating work to see the hallmarks of exceptional animation from a new generation.
ACR: Eric, thank you for offering your insight today. To begin, how did you find yourself at the helm of the prestigious animation program of GOBELINS l’école de l’image?
ER: I became the head of the animation department of Gobelins in 1998, following in the footsteps of Pierre Ayma who founded the department in 1974. Prior to that, I worked as the head of training for the Canal Plus media group based in Paris which had an animation studio for TV series and feature films. From 2006 to this year, I have been the director of international relations for the whole school which in addition to animation also offers training in multiple fields of visual communication, including photography, multimedia, graphic arts, motion design and industrial graphics. But as of January 2012, I am wholly devoted to the special international operations for the animation department, including our two summer school programs in Paris and in Hong Kong, as well as master classes around the world.
ACR: You ushered in a new era at Gobelins by integrating 3D into the once exclusively classical 2D pedagogy. Is 3D just another tool in the artist’s arsenal, just as pen and paper or pastels?
ER: Yes. For nearly thirty years, the animation program at Gobelins was a two year program devoted entirely to hand-drawn 2D animation. Ten years ago we integrated digital tools into the program as they were becoming omnipresent in the studios. As a school of the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Gobelins has a professional focus, so we constantly monitor the constant change - technical, artistic and organisational - that characterizes the animation world. We must prepare the students for the current and future skills that are required by the professional world of animation production. We observed of course in the new millennium that 3D animation was beginning to dominate studio productions and that it would be in the best long-term interests of our students and of the studios for Gobelins to integrate 3D into the program, without however abandoning our strong foundation in traditional animation.
Drawing skills remain a cornerstone of the Gobelins program. Indeed, the major part of our rigorous, notoriously difficult, entrance exam is based on drawing skills supplemented by a strong art portfolio. Some of our students have had to take this entrance exam from 3 to 5 times before being accepted. During the first two years, there are life-drawing classes supplemented by lessons in human anatomy, perspective and painting. I believe that one of the major forces in the Gobelins films, in addition of course to the quality of the character animation, is the strong graphic and character design.
As I noted earlier, 3D animation has come to dominate major studio productions, despite some notable exceptions such as Disney’s The Princess and the Frog and The Illusionist from France. I’ll leave it to the experts to explain why the public seems to accord more success these days to 3D animation productions, but I’m still convinced that what matters most in making great animation films is not the technology or technical gimmicks, but the gripping story and compelling characters enhanced by beautiful animation movement and design. Nevertheless, our students must be skilled in both 2D and 2D animation techniques.
ACR: There is a measure of risk involved in developing one’s creative voice. Can you foster this attribute in students?
ER: I mentioned earlier the rigor of our learning program, but also to our careful selectivity of artistic talent whose creative edge we nurture while enabling them work with new methods and technologies. We seek to train young artists who will help shape the future of animation in France and around the world. Risk-taking is part of that. How do we do foster that? By encouraging a state of mind conducive to it and giving the students the technical means, skills and opportunities to give free rein to their creativity. One of the pleasures of accompanying the production of the first 3D animation films at Gobelins was seeing students totally enamoured with 2D animation accept the challenge of stretching themselves both creatively and technically with 3D techniques. It was a thrill to see one of the films made just one year after introducing 3D into the program win the Special Jury Prize at Siggraph in 2005 : Migration Bigoudenn. One of the directors of this film, Alexandre Heboyan, after a stint as animator at DreamWorks, is now co-directing a 3D animation feature film in France entitled Munn.
ACR: On the flip side of creativity and risk are constraints and parameters. Rather than be defined by a project’s limitations, is great animation better off because of them?
ER: There are numerous famous quotes about artistic constraints, notably the one of Leonardo da Vinci, "Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom". Haikus are a fine example of self-imposed constraint and innovation, but also brevity. Gobelins student films are notoriously short, if only because the production period is itself so short (four to six months). It is also because we believe it is in the interest of student films to be short but brilliant. That in itself is an incredible constraint but believe me it focuses the mind! Gobelins is all about achieving a degree of professional quality and the preparation of the students for the challenges of a professional pipeline with its process of deadlines and strict specifications. I definitely believe it is an asset to our students to go through that process of constant constraints, but with at the same time a nurturing environment for their creative edge.
ACR: The annual Annecy International Animated Film Festival just wrapped up, showcasing short teaser films by Gobelins students as it does each year. How long do students spend making these?
ER: These bumper films that Gobelins students have made for more than 25 years are the highlight of the second year of our program, with a four-month production going from January to April. This year the films all have an Irish theme, as Ireland is the special guest country in 2012. As usual, after the festival, the general public can view these films on the school’s website gallery at www.gobelins.fr.
ACR: Even in these Annecy intro films that are just a minute long, your students’ work displays a healthy dose of life experience and curiosity…
ER: Yes indeed. Again, it goes back to our rigorous selection of students. The final stage is an interview in which we will be very attentive not only to their portfolio, creativity, and understanding of what awaits them at Gobelins and in the animation world, but also to their intellectual and artistic curiosity. I remember one case in particular of a student who is just graduating this year with a delightful film made as an exchange student at CalArts. The selection jury was very impressed first by how he had spent the year prior to taking the entrance exam seeing several films a day to develop his cinematographic culture, but also by how articulate he was in speaking about some specific films he admired. It has come full circle because his graduation film called Le Ballet has several visual nods to his personal pantheon of filmmakers and other artists and poets.
ACR: You’ve seen many changes in the industry through the years, not the least of which is the outsourced production of many projects to emerging markets. Does this reality affect what you teach your students?
ER: Animation artists must be prepared to be cultural nomads, going from production to production, and yes, from country to country. Except for the handful of major animation studios, mainly American, co-productions are widespread today, and the production pipeline is often scattered around the globe. Even DreamWorks now has a studio in India where Gobelins graduates have worked, and soon will open one in China. So yes our students must be aware of this element and we have thus increased the international dimension of our program, notably by encouraging internships outside of France. Having acquired extensive knowledge of all the main stages of animation film making, including character and background design, storyboarding, and character animation, our graduates are prepared to adapt to the changing situation and different productions.
ACR: Are there animators, studios or techniques that you are particularly eager to follow in the coming years?
ER: By organizing Gobelins’ master classes around the world and hosting an international group of animators at our two summer school programs in Paris and also now in Hong Kong, as well as attending festivals across the globe, I have a great opportunity to see a wide array of artists, films, schools and studios. What I am always eager to be able to do though is not follow a specific technique or studio but to see animation talents shine and blossom, and find their audience.
ACR: Lastly Eric, Gobelins is situated near Paris’ famous Latin District. Could there be a better place to learn the art of animation than in the City of Lights?
ER: I would be hard pressed to say no. Although I think the point can be exaggerated. There is often the mention in the press of a specifically French touch in animation, be it in singular films such as The Illusionist by Sylvain Chomet, on which a number of Gobelins graduates worked, or in the captivating designs of the films Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon done by former Gobelins student Nico Marlet, but also in the subtle, even elegant animation sequences done by French animators in such films. It can of course seem even more apparent in French productions, such as the beautiful film Azur & Asmar of that always distinctive director, Michel Ocelot. What is particularly attractive in the French studios is the shared artistic culture of the artists working there and their deep passion for image-making.
ACR: It has been a pleasure learning more about Gobelins’ prestigious animation program. Thank you Eric.
ER: Thank you!
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.