Rochester Institute of Technology has been producing top animation talent for over thirty years with numerous award-winning alumni to show for it. The school’s BFA and MFA in Animation are housed in the School of Film & Animation and accordingly offer an enviable list of diverse courses that explore the craft of both live action and animation film making. To learn more about the exciting work that RIT students and faculty are doing, we caught up with Assistant Professor and veteran stop motion animator Tom Gasek who is currently in New York for the program’s Big Apple Animation, one of many compelling reasons for serious students to look at RIT. (This phone interview has been edited for clarity).
ACR: Tom, thanks for participating in our latest Q&A. To start, tell readers about your own extensive background as a stop motion director and animator and how you came back to your alma mater as an RIT faculty member.
TG: A career in stop motion can really be a gypsy lifestyle. I’m a graduate of RIT’s Design program in 1979. Malcolm Spaull (Chair of RIT’s School of Film & Animation – SoFA)) and I got together as students in 1979 and made a film that won a Student Academy Award. And then for the next 27 or so years, I worked as a stop motion character animator in the industry and went everywhere from Florida to California to England. In the 1980s, I worked my way into directing and animating many of the Penny Cartoons from the CBS show Pee Wee’s Playhouse partly because I really enjoyed them as a viewer. I tell students when they have an attraction for something in particular, shoot for it and be inspired. This was also true of the two years I spent at Aardman Animations directing and animating. I’ve had a couple of businesses of my own including Sculptoons, a stop motion animation studio in San Francisco.
All the moving and the erratic nature of the business was enough after so many years and I finally put on the brakes and settled in Massachusetts. I chose teaching both for the stability of it as well as to be able to pursue my own personal work that wasn’t for a company or a client. I called Malcolm and inquired about positions and sure enough they had an available faculty spot for me… that was about 7 years ago. Having worked so long in stop motion and working with so many people has allowed me to have a deep reach into the industry and this makes me a more effective teacher.
ACR: You worked on Henry Selick’s Coraline based on Neil Gaiman’s book, and I understand there was an RIT student on the payroll there, as well?
TG: There were several graduates of SoFA at Laika but Adam Fisher was a graduate student at RIT in the School of Film & Animation and well before Coraline he contacted me because he was very interested in stop motion. He’s a really self-motivated and talented guy so through contacts we got him out to Laika. Well, I went out to Laika a few summers ago to animate on Coraline and there was Adam doing pre-visualization work for the film. It was really great!
ACR: RIT has so many graduates that have earned top spots in the industry like Adam… do these students stand out from the get-go?
TG: There are always some students that really stand out. It’s about their passion and their drive. Animation takes a lot of time and effort and there’s an inconvenience about it. If you don’t have a passion for it, it will be drudgery! Some people are just discovering whether or not they even like that process. We’ve had so many graduates that have really excelled. I think one of the most distinguishing features of our program is that it is film based, whereas many others are art centered. Students also get hands-on experience almost immediately. Live action and animation students study together. Live action students take several foundational courses in animation, and animation students take courses in live action. We put them all together and approach it as a film making process. Because of that, our animation graduates often attest to the sequential storytelling and narrative aspects of film in their own careers.
ACR: You’ve seen so many changes within the industry through the years. How do you prepare students for the very competitive and constantly evolving world of animation?
TG: Everything has escalated through the years. Animation has gotten quite popular and there are a lot of schools out there that teach it but not necessarily in great depth. Animation at RIT gets into a lot of depth and that applies to career opportunities. We try to point out that there is heightened and global competition now, but on the other hand the venues are much more varied. We have graduates that work in architecture, medical, educational and legal visualization fields. We are a visual, storytelling culture so there are more and more opportunities for students with those skills. Sure, the entertainment business is always exciting to students but many of them find that they can have great careers elsewhere. Thinking broadly about your career and being open-minded is everything. That said, I encourage students to pursue what they want and we certainly have many grads working at Pixar, Disney, Laika, DreamWorks and all over but it’s not the majority because entertainment animation jobs are finite. One other thing that is great about the industry today is that it is global with American animators working overseas and non-domestic animators working in the States. This appeals to many of our students
ACR: Speaking of your graduates, how do they learn the production pipeline at RIT so that they are ready for it when they embark on their careers?
TG: It’s something we’re known for. Essentially, we throw them into the frying pan right away! We give them a chance to get their hands on equipment in their first quarter at RIT. By the time they walk out of here, each student has an opportunity to complete 3 animated films. Sophomores produce an 11 week film that is very intense and they learn the importance of breaking things down to their essences. They move on to a 22 week film the next year, and then they create their thesis film which takes their entire senior year mentored by an individual faculty member. They learn technical aspects, storytelling, performance … everything. Students can specialize in certain areas, but we tend to take a generalist approach. If they want to specialize, we are big enough and they can do so but they all learn the art of making an animated film.
ACR: On that note, you have a diverse group of faculty members that represent the different skillsets in the industry…
TG: We do. We have about 17 full time faculty members and several adjuncts that fill in when necessary. We have a couple of 3-D specialists that teach performance and animation to modeling, texturing, programming and rigging. We have experimental animators like Stephanie Maxwell, our Animation Chair, 2-D people like Brian Larson, and I do the stop motion. Because I’ve run small businesses, I also teach a business and career class as well.
ACR: You are currently in New York City with a group of students who are participating in the 2 month long Big Apple Animation program. Tell us about this unique offering.
TG: I am! This came out of my own exposure to the industry. Rochester, being the home of Eastman Kodak, has had a relationship to film and filmmaking for many decades but it’s not an animation center per se. New York City isn’t too far away and has a lot of boutique animation studios. Having worked in New York and knowing a fair number of animators here, I thought it would be great to bring students here and get them exposed to the industry and its leaders. We lease classroom space on the Upper Eastside and I teach a few classes in research, interview techniques and creative sources.
Students have different housing options when they come here and we move all around the city each day on the subway, visiting studios and artists like John Canemaker, Bill Plympton, Nina Paley, John R Dilworth, Blue Sky Studios and many others. Dave Levy, the director, animator, and author taught a career class for me here as well as Steve Oakes, the former owner and founder of Curious Pictures. Our students get invaluable one-on-one time with these artists. Students get to ask questions and meet their animation heroes. The students realize that these artists are just regular people and that the industry is as much about networking and communication as it is talent. That’s a big lesson for them. Plus, they get to live in an urban center for 10 weeks. As a result these novice animators gain that experience which is really important because so much of animation is done in big cities and they need to decide if that life-style works for them. We’re starting to craft a similar program in LA thanks to the many connections and alumni we have out there. Students thoroughly enjoy the experience and we all have a lot of fun.
ACR: With an industry constantly in flux such as animation, how do ensure students are where they need to be in terms of skillset?
TG: It’s a good question. There are some things that we just don’t know how they will develop, but I’ll give you a good example of one of our graduates, Chris Edwards. He was a live action student who went to Disney and Lucasfilm before starting a company called The Third Floor that does pre-visualization for feature films. As a student, he had no idea that was what he was going to do nor did he know that it would be a huge thing thanks to the need for production efficiency. But he had the skills and the desire to be open-minded in his career. We encourage faculty to stay involved in the industry so we know the trends. Quite honestly, our students are curious and follow new trends and help us uncover them. We go to conventions like NAB and animation festivals like Ottawa and reach out and stay current. But ultimately it’s hard to know where the industry is going so the one thing I feel that will never go away is storytelling. There are constantly changing venues and methods in animation, but it’s always about pulling an audience in, making them empathize with characters, creating great ideas and storytelling.
ACR: Last but not least, RIT is a very competitive university and the Film & Animation department is even more so. Who is the ideal candidate to apply?
TG: Because it is a film making program, our set up is very competitive. (Incoming) students tend to be very bright, test high and interview well but one thing we don’t look at is portfolios for the BFA students. We do review MFA portfolios. That is partly because we have live action students come in to the undergraduate program and discover after a year that they really want to do animation, and vice versa. Those live action candidates might not have a portfolio or animation reel but we don’t want to exclude them. We look for strong curiosity, willingness to learn, an open-minded mentality, creativity and a good work ethic worthy of this study. It’s a little deceptive because filmmaking has no “perfect” approach and that’s a big revelation to students. They work on something for months and they realize that they could have and should have done this or that to improve a film… that’s the reality of this work. You can always explore new things and make things better so they need to be curious and willing to push the bounds and put in the hard work.
At the end of each quarter, we have school screenings so students can come to an auditorium and openly critique one another’s work. There’s a gratification there and a willingness to learn from others that is wonderful. Next week we have screenings over 5 days, so there will be many films. The thesis films are really great to watch as they come to fruition… it’s just phenomenal and our students learn so much by watching, listening and discussing their work.
ACR: Tom, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.