Columbia College is one of the nation’s oldest private arts colleges and boasts one of the largest film school enrollments. Sprawled across downtown Chicago, the urban campus is home to many budding animators who concentrate on both traditional and computer animation. From a state-of-the-art MoCap studio to a collective senior film, animation students can thrive in Columbia’s small classes situated in the heart of a big time city.
For a closer look at Columbia College’s Animation Program, we spoke with Director and Associate Professor Ron Fleischer. A graduate of the school himself and a veteran animator, Fleischer has witnessed the ebbs and flows of the industry and accordingly teaches the fundamental principles that consistently drive great animators through all eras.
This interview, done via phone, has been edited for length & clarity.
ACR: Ron, thanks for participating in our latest Q&A. To start, how did you find yourself teaching and directing the animation program at Columbia College after years of working in the industry (on some pretty fun stuff, I might add)?
RF: I was always interested in animation as a kid but there weren’t a lot of choices when I was going to school. I moved to Chicago in 1981 to study film and animation at Columbia College and have been working in the industry ever since. My first job was with a studio called Kinetics and I learned how to work with a motion-control Oxberry animation stand, optical printers and visual effects there. We created a lot of commercials back then and "industrials" for car companies.
I later joined StarToons, a studio that subcontracted TV shows like Animaniacs and Tiny Toons through Warner Brothers Animation. That’s where I really learned how to do a lot in production, quality control and producing to shooting pencil tests and track reading. I directed episodes of Pinky and the Brain before going out to LA and working on the Power Puffs Girls feature film as a technical director. Then I found out Columbia College was looking for a tenured track position and I decided that it was the right time and opportunity for me.
ACR: Is breaking into the world of animation different for today’s graduates versus what you went through?
RF: It’s always been a very challenging career to get into. Only the best of the best that have a burning passion to succeed and work hard will make it. That is the one aspect that has stayed the same. The job market comes and goes, especially on the traditional side of things. There’s a wider range of jobs now in animation even though most of the TV animation today is done overseas. Despite that, some studios are finding that it’s better to have in-house artists who can work at a format such as Flash with really short production spans of maybe just 3 or 4 weeks. One of our recent graduates was hired to build Flash animations for Motorola which is really cool.
ACR: As you say, this is one industry with stiff competition. What type of student succeeds?
RF: Passionate ones! Students who do things on their own and have that drive to succeed will do well. Dedicated students today come in already knowing Flash or doing some digital animations, though we don’t require that of incoming students. The process of creating animations and testing the bounds by using tools that weren’t made to create animations is amazing. It’s also very immediate- anyone can start doing this on their own, so that has altered the learning process.
ACR: How do you keep up with the pace of technological advances and changes within the industry?
RF: We try to keep computers upgraded each year. We have one staff person dedicated just to them. We also send instructors to SIGGRAPH to keep up with what’s new because things are always changing. We have a full, state-of-the-art Mo-Cap studio with 2 flying rigs, as well. And because we also have a gaming program in the Interactive Media department, we share some equipment and courses between the disciplines which broadens what our students have access to.
ACR: Does software alter what you teach considerably?
RF: Core classes pretty much stay the same. We do a really great job teaching students how to be great animators. And our classes are capped at 15 students. We teach timing, volume, performance on both the traditional and CG side. We try to use the newest tools and software and we do offer a class in Flash. But we don’t like to sell software in our classes because they come and go. We teach the same principles and aesthetics that will hold up over time.
ACR: John Lasseter once told an interviewer, “never in the history of cinema has a movie been entertaining to an audience because of the technology.” Do you agree?
RF: Yes! I preach that philosophy loud and clear. I really admire Pixar and the work they’ve done. I’ve visited their studios and the environment they have created… these are guys that have the best resources and best technology along with the best animators. But all of that is secondary to having an engaging story with characters that the audience cares about. That’s what we try to instill in our students at Columbia College. We are unique here in that we are in the Film & Video Department (though we do have an Interactive Media department), and as such we want our students to first and foremost create great films that happen to be animated.
ACR: Columbia College offers students a unique opportunity to create a film as a class. Tell us a little more about this endeavor.
RF: We have a capstone project called Animation Production Studio that all senior students participate in, working together to create a film that we screen each year for fellow students, friends, family, and industry professionals. We’ve been doing this for a decade and it’s something that we’re all very proud of. The process is like a boot camp for students who spend 2 semesters, 30 weeks total, creating a short film. One of the things I immediately noticed about the films is that no two are ever the same. Some years, they choose to do a stop motion and other years it’s 3D. Our screenings hold 300 people… last year we needed 2 screenings and we had 500 people attend. Last year’s films were remarkable and it will be difficult to top this year!
ACR: Are students each assigned a role in the studio as they work on the film?
RF: Everyone does boards. Everyone does art direction. Everyone does character design. The instructor acts as executive producer at a studio but it’s up to the students to do everything. They gain the experience of collaborating in a studio, relying on one another and wearing many hats. The most important element is always getting the job done. You don’t always have time to re-do a scene, so you learn how to move on… that is something that you can’t teach outside of actually doing it.
One of the most challenging and fulfilling parts of my job is instilling good story telling techniques. Often, when students first come into our program they just want to move a character from point A to point B. By the capstone, they want to create great characters that are identifiable and entertaining. Many of my students were at a professional level last year after graduation that I hired 7 of them to work on my own short film! That’s a real testament to how they developed as animators.
ACR: So you’re working on a short yourself?
RF: Yes. One of the requirements of Columbia College is that all faculty be working professionals. This year, my film is called “A Tooth Tale” and is almost wrapped up for its debut screening.
ACR: What is the campus like at Columbia College and how does Chicago play a role in what students learn?
RF: The nice thing with Columbia College is that we’re spread over downtown Chicago, so the city is in many respects their campus. It is just as important to them as our full production studio and mo-cap studio. It’s a great city for culture, performance, theater… arguably as good as any city on the planet and they have access to all of that.
I went to the Chicago International Film Festival when I first moved here. It’s an amazing annual event and the animation blew me away. From that moment on, I wanted to create a short that would appear at the festival. I ended up getting that opportunity when my film Lemmings debuted there and took the Chicago Award- that was a great personal moment for me and students also have access to it and screen their films. As far as jobs, there are opportunities here like Calabash Animation, an award winning studio, and many more. But I have students who go to the West Coast, East Coast and everywhere in between upon graduating.
A couple of years ago, we decided to offer a week long “j-session” called ASILA (an acronym for Animation Studios in LA). For one week between winter and spring sessions and 1 credit, students get set up in LA for a week and visit one of the five major animation studios each day for five consecutive days. They do workshops, portfolio reviews and essentially are shown what it takes to land an internship or job with a major studio. No amount of lecturing I do can match them seeing it all for themselves, so it’s an exciting opportunity.
ACR: Lastly, anything exciting on the horizon in the animation department at Columbia College?
RF: We are in the final stages of solidifying two new BFA degrees that we will be offering this fall in Traditional and Computer Animation along with our current BA degrees. They have twice as many credit requirements and also require the completion of a thesis film. This is something that we’re all tremendously excited about.
Q: We look forward to following that! Thanks for participating in our latest Q&A today.
RF: Thanks Bonnie!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.