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The University of Southern California has earned its spot among the nation’s most esteemed institutions of higher learning. Among its many venerable departments, its School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) has nurtured and inspired generations of film makers, animators, directors and entrepreneurs for 85 years. Not surprisingly, it attracts a who’s who list of faculty, guest lecturers and generous endowments while drawing in students from around the world to California’s golden coast.
The School of Cinematic Arts also boasts one of the most well-rounded and highly regarded animation programs around. Named for the late, great Disney animator and endower, The John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts (DADA) has been a forerunner in animation education since its inception. Offering an M.F.A. and a B.A. of Animation, the program is not for the un-intentioned, unsure or unambitious. For those students who meet the rigorous admissions standards however, a new world of animation education, practice and theory await.
To learn more about USC’s animation offerings, we spoke with Chair Kathryn (Kathy) Smith. A native of Australia, Smith was an internationally-screened animator before coming to USC over a decade ago. She discusses the unique attributes of DADA, the close-knit community of artists and endowers, and the innovative atmosphere that continue to push the boundaries. (This interview was done via telephone and has been edited for length & clarity).
ACR: Kathy, thanks for participating in our latest feature Q&A and giving us more details about USC’s John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts that we’ve long been craving! USC has been teaching animation for decades now… what were its origins?
Kathy Smith, Chair: I’ve been here for 15 years and it has been constantly evolving. Animation has been taught in various forms at USC since the 1940s. The Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts (DADA) program as we know it was not firmly established until 1994 by Mark Harris and Richard Weinberg. They recruited Vibeke Sorenson, the founding chair and former founding director of CalArts’ Computer Animation Lab, who designed a curriculum for the M.F.A program.
The B.A. came a bit later out of a minor we offered which was immensely popular; we decided to create a full-fledged B.A. program- the first of its kind in a major research university- and draw from the greater depth of USC. There is so much complexity in animation and cross-discipline that it goes hand-in-hand with the B.A. curriculum. If you’re working on character animation, you can’t beat going to USC’s School of Gerontology to learn more about the human body as it ages, for instance. Our students draw from different disciplines constantly to perfect their animation here at USC.
ACR: How do you cultivate the exceptional storytellers, artists and critical thinkers that graduate each year?
KS: Storytelling is the essence of everything we do as animators and at USC. Of course, there are many different ways of storytelling now, and stories aren’t always told in a linear way. But we’re at a point in history where almost everything is animation. Take the new film Gravity which, as my colleague Tom Sito says, is predominantly animation via the virtual characters and visual effects. Being in the School of Cinematic Arts, our students are required to take courses in live action, interactive media, media arts and practice, writing for animation and more so that they are well-rounded as writers, thinkers and artists. We teach them the principles of film making to create students who will become the innovators leading the field tomorrow.
ACR: Your graduates really stand out whether they go on to work in the industry, as independent artists and even as faculty around the country. Are there any current students we should keep our eyes on?
KS: It’s so hard to single them out because they are all truly exceptional. We did just learn that three of our recent graduates’ films have been selected for the Graduation Films Competition at Annecy this year which is a tremendous accomplishment. Miguel Jiron, Chaoqi Zhang and Lou Morton all worked so hard for this. We also have an alumna, Corrie Francis Parks, represented this year at Annecy for her commissioned animation Hatch. There’s no shortage of talent here and hard work and dedication to the art.
ACR: Let’s talk about your faculty- an enviable roster that includes experimental animators, industry animators, independent film makers, computer scientists, designers and others. How important is their diversity?
KS: That’s a great question. Everyone here brings something unique to the program. I like to think of us as a mosaic of great people- faculty and staff- who are always pushing for a stronger, ever evolving curriculum. Everyone has a role to play, and we make sure our students get experience in a bit of everything so that they can then focus on their interests. Some want to direct, others want to do layout… most of them end up where they want to be thanks to our industry, academic and arts approach which our faculty embodies. Each student gains an appreciation for these three parts thanks to our faculty regardless of which direction they choose for themselves.
ACR: Your students also have access to unique programs seldom if ever found elsewhere…
KS: They really do. They have 24/7 access to our facilities so that they can create and problem solve at all hours. We also have our semester abroad for animation undergraduates in Florence, Italy. In my opinion, it is one of the best international programs in existence- very comprehensive and extremely well structured. Many of our students are able to take advantage of it because we specifically designed the B.A. so that they don’t lose step in the curriculum. They get to live and work and walk alongside the Renaissance paintings, sculpture and architecture for an experience that enriches their animation, education and their world view.
ACR: Another unique attribute of the program is its close industry connections. Jeffrey Katzenberg (studio executive and DreamWorks founder and CEO) and his wife Marilyn recently donated the state-of-the-art Katzenberg Center for Animation to advance the study of animation. That’s quite a draw…
KS: The Katzenberg’s truly made something wonderful for our students when they donated the Katzenberg Center for Animation in 2011. Students go there to experiment, explore, and learn the art and business of animation. We also have numerous direct connections with DreamWorks, Pixar, Disney… there are too many to list. They each open up doors for our students and graduates for internships, jobs and direct collaboration. We often have animators and industry pros come in and work with our students as mentors and adjunct faculty. And, of course, our program’s largest endowment comes from the John C. Hench Foundation.
ACR: Right. Famed Disney animator and Imagineer John Hench was a giant in the world of animation. How did his relationship with USC begin?
KS: John was a wonderful person. He was an animator but also a special effects artist. If you look at say 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea it was John who created the pre-viz work and animatronics that influenced the film’s look and feel. His sense of animation was always larger- looking at it in all of its forms.
He connected with our founding chair, Vibeke Sorenson, who encouraged him to see the program’s growth. He supported our first studio iteration and continually gave support for funding, faculty recruitment and workshops. In 2006 through his foundation, he endowed our program. John passed away at that time but the foundation has been so wonderful. Jose and Leonor Deetjen (trustees) and John’s personal assistant Sandy Huskins are such wonderful people that we are so fortunate to have. Because of that endowment, we’ve been able to recruit more faculty, support student scholarships and put together conferences. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do any of this. We are extremely proud to have the John C. Hench name on our division. His legacy is about paying it forward- that’s exactly what he did and what we try to do.
ACR: Lastly Kathy, as an accomplished animator yourself, what do you love most about teaching and chairing DADA that keeps you coming back for more?
KS: It’s absolutely the students. There is excitement here and constant inspiration. That challenge to innovate. It’s such a great community of students, faculty and staff. I come from Australia and up until the late 1990s there were hardly any degree programs focused solely on the art of animation- unlike what existed here. For me, it’s the multicultural and international aspects of USC and LA that are exciting, as well. That very much represents the universal connectivity of animation; it connects people across language, race, class, everything.
ACR: Thank you for giving us insight into USC’s esteemed John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts, Kathy.
KS: It’s been my pleasure!
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.