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Mark Jones is the Academic Chair of the School of Creative Arts and Animation at Seneca College
We recently had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Seneca College's Mark Jones, with contributions from Sean Craig and Eyal Assaf, to learn about the latest developments in Seneca College's animation program.
In September 2022, Seneca introduced The Seneca Animation Model. Tell us about it:
Most animation programs across Canada (and elsewhere) are based on a model which emphasizes traditional foundational skills with increasing specialization leading to a capstone project in which students demonstrate their skills. At Seneca, our Animation program has followed much of this progression. It had all students moving through two common years of foundational instruction. Students moving into the third year had the options of three streams: 2D Animation which focuses on original short film production; 3D Animation which focuses on character animation for film and television; and the Game Art & Animation stream which focuses on creating game assets for real time environments.
The new program creates a wholly new cross-disciplinary model in recognition of the changing conditions of the field. Students will now enter year one, which is a common art year. The focus will be on developing student ability in animation art for any specialization rather than specifically 2D production, etc. Students will now stream into one of four options beginning in second year: 2D animation, 3D Animation, Game Art & Animation, and our new stream Visual Development. "Horizontal learning" (in which students across streams take common courses) is crucial, as we want students to experience cross disciplinary learning as much as possible. In year three, students will continue in their specialization stream but will work on capstone projects that bring in team members across these streams.
You consulted with industry employers to develop this model. What did you learn from them?
We learned that the language is no longer about “generalists” vs “specialists”. It’s about individuals with specific skills that can work across teams of people with other distinct skill sets, because production methods are converging. A 3D animator for a feature film today needs to know the potential and constraints of working in real-time game engines because that’s the way production is headed. The challenge for educators is how to organize the training of these new expected skills without overwhelming the students. Our approach is to enable students to focus on their chosen specialization while working with teams of students in other specializations to have an exchange of techniques. This is so that they can become sensitized to the language and approaches of others in complementary streams.
But it’s not all about technology. From the beginning, Seneca never saw itself as an animation software training school, but as art school that teaches animation using technology where appropriate. Industry representatives underscored the need to continue to support traditional art skills as a foundation for everything. This remains the focus of the first year in the new program. There is no doubt we are introducing more digital tools into the program, and also introducing them earlier, but it still with a foundation of building good art skills first. Paper won’t ever completely go away.
Seneca is doubling the number of students in its animation program. Is this purely due to demand for what is a hot major at the moment, or are there additional benefits in having more students in a given year’s class?
Our relationship with industry leaders helped us identify workforce gaps before the pandemic began, and this helped us determine that it was our responsibility to graduate more qualified animators to fill these gaps. It didn’t hurt that our applications were dramatically increasing at the same time. But we knew we couldn’t just grow under the same model, and industry input was fundamental to our re-design of the program. The structure and delivery of the new program will help better prepare all our students for our professional streams. The expansion has also allowed us to add a new stream in Visual Development, again responding to what industry told us. The re-design and expansion of the program will give students a cross disciplinary education that was not possible under the original structure.
Seneca has always been proud of our reasonable class sizes, and this doesn’t change with the new program. We typically had 22-25 students to a class, and this won’t change. We are simply adding more sections.
We should say as well that part of the benefit of expansion is that it allows us to offer seats to students outside of Canada, something we have been unable to do until now because of domestic student demand. This Fall, we will welcome 15 students from around the world, and can’t wait to see how they contribute to the culture of the program.
Seneca is revamping its animation lab in parallel to all this. Tell us about the improvements.
Seneca has made a huge investment in making sure our facilities are among the best in the world to support our new program.
Our new first year is moving in line with the rest of the program and adopting a much greater digital workflow. While we will retain a substantial portion of traditional drawing, animation software and XP-Pen monitors will be standard at every desk. We looked at several competitive tablets on the market, and found XP-Pen was an excellent choice in terms of performance and cost.
We have moved away from only teaching students to paper flip their animation, to working with software which will not only train them for industry standards but also allow them to work more efficiently and iterate. This also allows us to move into digital paint as a foundational course. All our first-year labs include XP-Pen monitors, which can be used as a light table and support a peg bar for any traditional work required. We did this by custom-designing an animation disc that the tablet sits inside, and can be covered with a protective shield to protect the tablet from any markings from pencil.
All our digital labs for our second and third years are being outfit with new workstations to take advantage of real-time rendering software and will also have an XP-Pen monitor at every station. We also added new open lab for students to work in outside of class time which houses 72 workstations each with an XP-Pens
We have also adopted a remote desktop solution for after hours to our workstations. This will enable our students to manage renders and workstations remotely utilizing any available GPUs across our entire network.
The new model emphasizes cross disciplinary work. Which disciplines will students gain exposure to?
Our four available streams to students beginning in their second year are:
- 2D Animation
- 3D Animation
- Game Art & Animation
- Visual Development
But as mentioned above, students will gain exposure into the other streams in order to understand different workflows and how they are increasingly working together. For example, in their final third year projects, all students will be brought together each week for a “production weeklies” course that allows them to share ideas for their projects and open to input from students with other specializations. Imagine a 3D student describing assets for their film to the group, and a 2D student comments how some might be more effective as stylized 2D assets; the idea sparks a collaboration between them. Or a game art student pitching a 2D student to use real-time graphics as a hook to their project, and then they work together to achieve that. The possibilities are vast. What we have designed is a structure for collaboration to happen, and the students will have the space are resources to explore how they want to execute that.
Prior to that third year, though, students in second year will be taking some courses across streams together. For example, life drawing. Their unique streams means they will bring their specific context to those classes for cross-disciplinary discussions: “Here’s how I would apply that in my specialization”, etc.
What traits do you seek in applicants to your program?
We are looking for visual artists with a strong background in traditional art. The portfolio focuses on life drawing, perspective drawing and object drawing. We are not concerned with light and shadow, but rather line and how it is used to describe form. We want to see how well you can observe, and translate that observation into visual art.
Describe the skill set employers can expect to find among recent graduates of your program:
Generally, employers will find that students will be well rounded artists due to all our cross disciplinary learning, with a focused portfolio in their chosen specialization. They can expect them to be highly skilled in all the things they would expect: story, animation, story boards, acting, character and background design, modeling, rigging, texturing, and so on. But where they will notice a unique contribution is in our graduates’ ability to be aware of how to work across different kinds of styles and pipelines, and in using emerging technologies like game engines in animation production. Top that off with their solid background in soft skills like team dynamics and professionalism, which they start getting in formal curriculum from their very first semester, and you’ve got an emerging animation professional for the 21st century.
What exposure do Seneca students get to game design training?
In this new program, gaming students can count on exposure to everything they would expect to be excellent artists in the gaming sector: modeling, surfacing, character and prop design, animation, environments, and so on. All these are standard skills that would make a professional in the field competitive. But besides these, students will also get exposure to emerging methods and applications, such as procedural modeling, gaming engine optimization, automation, and its application into new forms of filmmaking like in virtual production and real-time 3D graphics. In the final year, gaming students will be exposed to the work of students in other streams to create collaboration opportunities across capstone projects. Imagine a 2D animation student describing their final film in a program-wide “production weeklies” course, and a gaming student suggesting they produce it in a game engine using real-time graphics delivery. It’s that kind of cross-pollination that we will see in the program and will enable graduates to say they are truly conversant in other methods and forms of production. We believe this will make them in high demand across the related sectors in animation, especially as technologies and methods continue to converge between them. Our team of amazing and talented faculty are working professionals in the gaming, animation and VFX industries and they bring their professional knowledge to the classroom.
Thanks to Mark for participating in the interview. See more Animation Career Review interviews in our Interview Series.