SAE Institute teaches the creative media arts to students eager to learn the ropes and get a jumpstart on their careers. With nearly a dozen U.S. campuses in creative art hubs (think NYC, Miami, Nashville, and Atlanta), all SAE Institutes leverage industry faculty members like veteran animator Lauren Morrison to teach their craft.
At SAE Expression College in Emeryville (California), Morrison guides her students through the process of animating- whether it be introductory drawing courses, body mechanics, or advanced reel production. She draws from her own broad background working on puppets for ANOMALISA, doing VFX, directing animated shorts, and serving as a 3D Generalist for The Little Prince, to cover all the bases for her students. When their accelerated 32-month education culminates, graduates leave SAE with a Bachelor’s of Applied Science in Animation & Visual Effects as well as a healthy leg up on the stiff industry competition that awaits.
We recently caught up with Morrison to inquire about SAE’s animation and visual effects program, as well as learn how she developed her many skillsets and get her tips for aspiring animators. Enjoy!
ACR: Lauren, one striking thing about your work is how multi-faceted it is. How did you develop such a broad spectrum of skillsets and interests?
Lauren Morrison: I’ve always loved making things. When I was a kid, I used to spend hours creating pixel-by-pixel drawings on the computer. I made stop-motion animation films with my friends by taking my parents’ DV camera and quickly turning the record button on and off. I took all the art classes my high school offered—and fortunately for me the public school I attended had a pretty extensive art department. I would often go into the art room during lunch and after school to keep working on my projects.
ACR: Tell us about your formal education following high school.
LM: I got a BFA from the University of Wisconsin with an emphasis on painting. After I graduated, I realized I was more interested in animation than gallery art so I went to grad school at CalArts for animation. CalArts has a great stop-motion animation department; for my thesis I made a stop-motion film with a lot of composited 3D backgrounds.
The stop-motion work set me up to get jobs as a puppet maker and a scenic painter. The compositing helped me get the visual effects jobs. Whether I’m making a puppet or a 3D model, the skills have the same foundation. They require attention to detail, problem solving, and a good eye for design.
ACR: Amidst a very successful and undoubtedly busy career, what attracted you to teaching your craft to others?
LM: I find that teaching is more creatively fulfilling than the work I did in the animation industry. When you work in animation, you often spend days or weeks working on the same shots- performing the same repetitive tasks. When I teach, I get to work on every step of the animation pipeline and I get to design and direct the projects I give to my students. It’s rewarding to see a student grow, evolve, and take the things I teach in class and interpret them through their own artistic lens.
ACR: Now that you’ve been at SAE Expression College for a couple of years teaching, what do you value most about it?
LM: It’s unique here because the class sizes are very small and the program is accelerated. This equates to a lot of class hours each week. Because of this, the students and I get to know each other quite well. This year, my students threw me a surprise birthday party—when I came into class, they all brought treats and had the teacher’s work station covered in balloons. It’s rare in a professional career to have people come together to thank and celebrate you… having my students take the time to put together that party was really special.
ACR: You mentioned the accelerated pace at SAE. What is the approach you take in the classroom to get students up to industry speed within a short timeframe?
LM: Because of the accelerated nature of the program, a class may meet as often as 12 hours a week which provides far more contact hours than you would see in a traditional four year degree. To fill the time productively requires a great deal of preparation!
I conduct lab exercises primarily during the first half of a course while the students are building new skills and knowledge. For a lab exercise, I give the students all the files they need to complete a task and I show them all the steps it takes to complete the goal of the exercises. I will often spend half the class time lecturing in ten minute intervals with time in between lectures for students to work on the material.
Once the students have practiced completing tasks in this kind of controlled environment, I assign a project that applies the same skills and gives the students some freedom to make artistic decisions and troubleshoot unique problems. In the second half of the course, class periods are usually spent on larger projects that allow students to apply their knowledge through developing projects and troubleshooting.
The goal is to create industry-standard work that they can use in their portfolios. I spend a portion of each project work day conducting a group critique that analyzes student progress and determines if the students have met their check-in goals. These critiques allow the students to see the problems and solutions that others have faced, discuss strategies for approaching challenges, and learn from each other’s experiences.
ACR: What kind of projects might students expect to have from you?
LM: Last term, I taught our Live Action Compositing class and for a final project I had the students take a 10-second clip of some hand-held camera footage of a normal city street and turn it into a post-apocalyptic scene with broken windows, sinkholes in the streets, and burned out cars. The project was a culmination of the work they had been doing throughout the term: it involved 3D camera tracking, advanced matte painting with Photoshop, color correction, and creating 3D projections using Nuke software. It allowed students to see how you can use a series of relatively simple visual effects processes to create the type of complex composited environments we see in film and television. As a bonus, most students got a portfolio piece out of the assignment.
ACR: Tell us about your fellow department faculty members and how you collaborate with them at SAE Expression.
LM: Currently, the animation department in Emeryville has three full-time faculty members including myself, Zoe Chevat, and a former texture artist from ILM named Steve Hammond. Zoe and I have known each other for a long time—we went to grad school together at CalArts. We recently collaborated on redesigning the curriculum and came up with some exciting new courses like Character Creation, where students learn the skills of a 3D character artist, and Worldbuilding which focuses on environmental design.
We also collaborate on the department’s Group Project class in which students work together to create an animated short film. Currently, they’re working on a sci-fi animated short about a robot on an interstellar voyage. I wrote the script and am directing the film while Zoe is acting as the lead production designer and department supervisor. The students are put into departments based on their interests—concept design, modeling, shading, rigging, animation, etc. They get to see what it’s like to work together in a complex digital pipeline to create a finished product, and they get a sense of how studios are organized. When the project is done, the students get their first iMDb credit and they can write on their resume that they worked on a team to create an animated short.
ACR: Your students at the SAE Expression College Emeryville campus have the good fortune to study the craft in the backyard of industry giants and startups alike. What kinds of relationships has SAE Expression forged with its industry neighbors?
LM: We have a great relationship with a number of nearby studios. There’s a VR video game studio in Oakland that regularly invites our students to come in for field trips and portfolio reviews- over half their staff consists of Expression graduates. We also have a good relationship with a studio in the South Bay that focuses on VR and interior design visualization; for a while now they have hired a few of our students from each graduating class. Pixar is just down the street from our school and we have friends there who come in to give portfolio feedback to our students. Having that proximity to so many studios makes it easier for our students to make those connections and start working in industry.
ACR: Are there any soft skills that you try to impart on your students for their future success?
LM: I tell my students all the time that the software and skills they learn in school is only a small part of the package that they get with their education. Arguably, the most important part of animation school is the reputation and relationships they develop with their teachers and classmates. The first jobs I got when I graduated from animation school came through recommendations from my friends. It can be nearly impossible for an outsider to get an entry level job in this industry without having some inside connection, and the way you make those connections is through the people you meet while you’re in school. For that reason alone, it is critical that students prove to their teachers and classmates that they are dependable and hardworking.
ACR: Lastly Lauren, you spoke about curriculum changes coming soon. Any other things on the horizon at SAE Expression College that you’d like to share?
LM: We have a few big changes coming up. The biggest is probably the new curriculum that I mentioned. Existing students will finish their degree with the old curriculum, but incoming students will start the new curriculum in the next year. This summer, we’re also switching from 8-week terms to 15-week semesters. This will not affect the 2 ½ year graduation schedule, but it will give students more time to learn concepts and material while giving them more time for homework.
ACR: Those are exciting changes. Thanks for filling us in on SAE Expression’s animation program, Lauren!
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.