Widely considered to be among the top art schools in the country, the School of Visual Arts (SVA) is a leading producer of the next generation of animators who learn from the world’s best and push the bounds of their craft. Students flock from around the world to SVA, attracted to its distinguished faculty list and multidisciplinary approach to the arts as they are to the school’s state-of-the-art equipment in its central Manhattan location.
Offering an BFA in Animation as well as a MFA in Computer Arts with a focused Animation track, an SVA education is within the grasp of the most dedicated aspiring animators who seek more than what a traditional animation program provides. We spoke with the Chair of the MFA Computer Art program Bruce Wands about the graduate program, the state of the digital arts and how SVA prepares lifelong artists able to succeed in an ever-evolving industry landscape. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity).
ACR: Bruce, it’s a pleasure to speak with you today about SVA’s Master of Fine Arts in Computer Arts. The program is recognized for its multidisciplinary approach to the digital arts. What are the advantages of your curriculum for animation graduate students?
BW: The focus of the program is on creativity, not technology. SVA as a school in general (seeks) to develop artists and help them refine their creative voice and style. That is ultimately the most valuable commodity in the industry. We are a studio-based program, so our students have the knowledge necessary to excel in their careers and in their artistic endeavors.
Our MFA program was the first of its kind in the US and the animation (courses) grew from a group of students interested in that area. The advantage of the multidisciplinary approach is that students take a variety of courses which give them a broad outlook on their future careers. We have long standing relationships with prominent studios including Disney and Pixar and so many others. All of them tell us that they are interested in hiring generalists whose strengths are in various areas. Those are exactly the kind of animators we produce by expanding our students’ creative prospects with our broad curriculum.
ACR: You have students coming from diverse backgrounds in Computer Science, Animation, Dance and many more! Is there an ideal candidate for one of the coveted spots in the MFA program, held to about 100 seats?
BW: We look for creative potential in students. When we look at applicants’ portfolios, we want to see if they can express themselves in an artistic manner. Ideally, they are fairly computer literate; often they have high GPAs. We do seek students with a wide variety of interests- they tend to gravitate towards and excel in the digital arts. The graduates of our MFA program have accumulated 6 Student Academy Awards, which I think really speaks for itself.
ACR: What are some of the required multidisciplinary courses that your students take?
BW: All students must take several courses. Art History is among them and animation students can choose courses including Video Art and Beyond which looks at the beginnings of video art (dating back to the ‘60s) as well as a course on Animation Culture which explores the impact of animation on culture, as its name suggests. Programming coursework and a Computer Systems class are also required as they often comes in handy in the professional world.
ACR: You have been working with digital art for over thirty years, beginning in computer animation long before most people knew what that was. You went on to produce, direct, author and compose while teaching at SVA since 1984. What lessons do you share with your students that you’ve learned through the years?
BW: I tell my students to do what they really love and not worry about specifics for particular jobs. Once they graduate, they will have the tools they need to find and excel in their careers. If you do what you love, people will come to you. I also encourage them to continue creating art in their free time throughout their lives.
ACR: You’ve seen extraordinary changes in the digital industries in those years. Have students changed in that time, as well?
BW: Yes. I call it the generational shift that happened about three to four years ago. Previous to that period, the level of literacy of incoming students was not as great as it is today. The iPhone was invented in 1997 and it created a revolution in terms of computing that has now caught up to the youth population. Students today are quite familiar with software- they know how to shoot video and often have their videos displayed online already. In some ways, we have changed our curriculum to accommodate this trend, emphasizing less the technical aspects and more critique.
ACR: I can imagine that refining and critiquing is more enjoyable to art faculty members than simply teaching the latest software.
BW: Yes! It’s a lot more fun thanks to students’ (technical) base to draw from today. Back when I started out in the 1970s, everything was new so we needed to learn everything from the ground up. Students now have a history to draw upon thanks to that sea change that has occurred.
ACR: Speaking of the faculty, tell us about your program’s highly regarded instructors.
BW: Our philosophy is that our faculty should be working professionals who teach. We have 100 students and 45 adjunct faculty- all of whom work in the industry and provide their insight to students. Students choose from approximately 40 courses per semester from faculty who come from distinguished studios and galleries like (Academy Award winning) Blue Sky Studios, the Museum of Modern Art and many others.
ACR: Your location in the center of Manhattan certainly plays a pivotal role in the work of your students, as well.
BW: Yeah, this kind of academic model that we have would really only work here in New York or in L.A., the two epicenters for digital arts.
ACR: It wasn’t that long ago when computer art wasn’t even considered art by some within the community. Where is digital art today within the art world and where do you see it heading in the next 5-10 years?
BW: Absolutely. Part of it is that generational shift that I spoke to. We have young and emerging artists who (are) digitally literate. They may do painting or sculptor but they don’t find working with computers to be unusual, either. For example, digital sculpture is growing because it allows artists to be much more precise. Locative art is also emerging where you work with GPS to deliver digital media in a localized way.
Galleries and museums have had to respond to these changes and are starting to collect digital art. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London started a digital art collection a year ago, as did the Museum of Modern Art here in New York. In the 1990s, my efforts were on increasing awareness of the digital arts but today, digital is merging with contemporary art. I think the term digital art will fade away.
ACR: Bruce, it’s been a pleasure learning about the MFA program at SVA. Thank you!
BW: Thank you!
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.