California State University Fullerton (CSUF) is a shining example of a public institution with an animation program that rivals any around. Tucked into the vibrant greater Los Angeles area, CSUF boasts a slew of desirable ingredients that lure students from around the world to its beautiful campus. But for those students serious about putting pencil to paper and making a go at becoming an animator, the top notch Entertainment Art/Animation BFA program is more than reason enough to head to northern Orange County.
The rigorous EA/Animation curriculum challenges students to develop their foundational, conceptual and technical skills while integrating the animation pipeline and software for industry-readiness. Students gain coveted access to working professionals from Nickelodeon, Disney, and other nearby studios who share their knowledge with students on a weekly basis.
Industry veteran and Professor Chuck Grieb serves as Program Coordinator and we were eager to pick his brain on the inner workings of its success. In the fifteen years since Grieb has been at CSUF, the program has grown three-fold and increased awareness of its accomplished alumni. As we learned in speaking to Grieb, it continues to emphasize the fundamentals while providing relevant instruction that keeps up with the latest industry demands. We hope you enjoy our latest Q&A with Chuck Grieb, CSUF.
-This interview has been edited for length & clarity-
ACR: Chuck, thanks for spending some time with our readership today. Let’s start with you. Do you recall when animation first piqued your interest?
Chuck Grieb: I fell in love with stop motion animation watching Ray Harryhausen films. I remember watching “Jason and the Argonauts” with my dad when I was three or four years old. By the time I was seven, I was trying to build my first stop motion animation armature out of bits of wood. My fascination with stop motion animation and fantastical films and stories was further inflamed by the release of Star Wars when I was eight – so the roots run deep. My ultimate decision to pursue art and film was a surprise to people who knew me and to my family, but it has worked out pretty well overall.
ACR: You went on to earn your MFA from USC and began your career doing storyboards at Walt Disney TV Animation. What was it like learning the ropes at Disney?
CG: I was hired as part of a storyboard training program which was a great way to get started. Animation is a pretty small industry and relevant animation educational opportunities were rare. I had a lot of fun in college, but frankly, didn’t learn much of direct practical relevance to working as an animation professional. I learned a lot about storyboarding for TV animation production in the training program which is very different from live action storyboarding.
I was placed on the “101 Dalmatians” TV show and soon found myself in the Special Projects Department headed up by Gary Katona and partnered with Woody Yocum. That was an exciting place to work. We were handed various jobs which didn’t fit into the normal TV production pipeline and we specialized in adapting new digital technologies to the traditional animation pipeline. Disney trained me on computer art creating tools and I did all sorts of different art-creating jobs- I animated, designed characters, drew layouts, prepared pitches, animated in After Effects, Maya, and even painted a background for a title sequence we designed. Woody Yocum was a fantastic mentor and Special Projects was a great training ground for me later becoming an educator.
ACR: You then co-founded a production studio before turning your attention to teaching. What sparked your move into education?
CG: In 1997, I was invited to teach a class at Glendale Community college by Dave Brain. My wife convinced me to give it a shot and I immediately fell in love with teaching. Glendale provided me the opportunity to effectively design an animation curriculum. When the opportunity at CSU Fullerton was posted, I decided to apply. I enjoyed meeting professors Don Lagerberg, Cliff Cramp, Larry Johnson, Dana Lamb, and Dorte Christjansen here- their focus on the fundamentals of drawing, an understanding of character and of story connected with my own focus… the rest is history.
ACR: Let’s talk about CSUF’s rigorous BFA in Entertainment Art/Animation. Walk us through the program if you would...
CG: Our BFA degree program is designed to provide a strong, broad foundation with the opportunity for students to further refine their focus as they near their senior year. Creating a short film exposes the students to all aspects of animation production, while the senior level Special Studies classes challenge the students to focus and develop portfolio/reels addressing an aspect of animation production.
Our students study animation in the application of creating character-driven stories. Courses at the lower division focus on the fundamentals of drawing, design, and animation. The core of the upper division studies are courses that define the opportunity for a student to create their own short animated film. Two semesters are devoted to the animated production of this film: the first focuses on pre-production (developing the story, visual concept, developing and designing characters, drawing the storyboard, designing the environment and completing test animation); the second focuses on the actual animation of this film along with the sound post-production.
ACR: Do students have leeway when it comes to electing courses that appeal to their desired area of animation?
CG: Our program is designed to allow the upper division student to focus on their particular area of interest. For example, a student at the junior level might choose to continue their development focusing on storyboarding. Advisement would direct the student to continue to develop their drawing and develop their work into a portfolio ready to submit to studios for consideration. A student focusing on 3D Digital animation would be advised to take (upper level) Computer Animation which is a two semester experience focusing on the creation of an animatable character. Students who pursue 3D can take this character and use it in the creation of a short film.
ACR: What software do your students typically use?
CG: CSUF provides all students enrolled a lot of software for free including the entire suite of Adobe CC tools and access to Lynda.com. We use the Adobe toolset extensively, as well as Autodesk Maya and Mudbox (I wrote character creation curriculum for Autodesk in 2010). We also use Z Brush, Nuke, and Mari in our 3D Digital curriculum. ToonBoom Storyboard Pro is taught as a part of the Special Studies Storyboard class and Corel Painter is taught in Illustration classes in addition to the Adobe tools. We try to identify which software is in use within the animation industry, and of course, are also governed by what we can afford. Currently, our students have access to three high end Mac Pro based computer labs outfitted with Cintiqs and the software tools mentioned.
ACR: Earlier, you mentioned the Special Studies course that seniors participate in. What do they study in it?
CG: (The) Special Studies course focuses on 3D digital as well as a Special Studies character animation specific course in which the 3D digital student could continue to pursue their focus. The program also requires the completion of 12 units of upper division studio electives, courses that can be chosen from any of the upper division studio courses. At this level, we offer opportunities for students to refine their focus and build a reel or portfolio in character animation (digital or traditional), storyboarding for animation, animation character design, Special Topics in 3D Digital Imaging, or to participate in a group project.
ACR: Coming from a strong storyboarding background yourself, how do you teach them the intricate details of the process at CSUF?
CG: I introduce the beginnings of storyboarding in the Intro to Animation class that I teach at the sophomore level. Junior level students storyboard their films in our pre-production class and at the senior level we have a Special Studies Entertainment Art/Animation class which focuses exclusively on Storyboarding for Animation.
Practice is always a great way to learn. Focus on identifying the emotional moment- the story point of every drawing. I challenge my students to look around at the stories unfolding all around them – to draw these stories out in their sketchbooks focusing on the emotional movements in the events – even pushing the idea beyond what was observed to tell the story. Café sketching focusing on emotional gesture drawing is a great exercise. Studying film is also very beneficial; I challenge students to isolate sequences and break down the compositions into 4 value drawings focusing on the shapes as defined by values. Think about what your audience needs to know and how they should feel and how a sequence of imagery can best be designed to emphasize the emotional idea.
ACR: Students at CSUF also learn about the history of animation. What are the biggest takeaways for them in these courses?
CG: Knowing what has come before directly informs how cartoons are made today. Understanding how Walt Disney’s desire to make animation into something different and to make the illustrative work he loved in the European children’s illustrative tradition come alive drove his aesthetics; how UPA artists wanted to embrace a more contemporary and “adult” expression of animation art. (Students learn) how the strikes and unionization impacted the studios and artists; how the singular POV of artists like Tex Avery influenced others such as Chuck Jones; the experiments afforded Norman McLaren and others by the NFB, and animation creation in other parts of the world including Japan and the Soviet block.
They learn the influences of people like Don Graham into the more modern era with Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg; the move of TV animation to overseas production; the rise of 3D Digital and the end of traditional feature production- the exploration of so many styles of animation in TV afforded by new technologies, etc. All of this expands minds, provides a better grasp of why we do what we do, the kinds of decisions and goals which influenced the development of the “principles” we teach and employ when creating animation today.
ACR: CSUF has developed strong ties to local industry in the greater LA area. Fill us in on some of these...
CG: Our best advertisement has been the success of our alumni. Studios note where their new employees studied and began to contact us as they saw CSUF on the resumes of more and more of their new hires. Disney/PIXAR have visited over the past couple of years, treating us to fantastic presentations from art directors and designers on films like “Inside Out”, “The Good Dinosaur”, and “Zootopia”. Our own alumnus Wayne Unten visited to talk about his role as the lead animator for Elsa from “Frozen”.
We have a great relationship with Nickelodeon, as evidenced by Nickelodeon's 25th anniversary exhibition, "Happy Happy! Joy Joy! Art and Artifacts From 25 Years of Creator-Driven Cartoons”, and Sanjay and Craig art exhibits hosted on our campus. The CSUF pitch contest they sponsored, the Nickelodeon Master Class, their direct involvement in our storyboard class (Nickelodeon provided storyboard tests and had story artists reviewing student work for the Fall 2015 Storyboard class), and ongoing projects we are developing with the studio.
Nickelodeon also sponsored two years of monthly lecture series at CSUF we called the Nickelodeon Master Classes. The first featured various people associated with the creation of “Fairly Odd Parents”, and the second featuring artists involved in the creation of “Shimmer and Shine” (a show created by Farnaz Esnaashari-Charmatz- a CSUF alumna).
ACR: Your students also have opportunities to work closely with DreamWorks and Sony Picture Imageworks...
CG: Yes. We have been chosen to participate in DreamWorks DreamCrit experience. Students are selected via portfolio review- two have their work critiqued by the DreamWorks artist while the others are provided the opportunity to observe the critique. The semester ends with an art show featuring the student DreamCrit work from throughout the year at the DreamWorks Animations studios in Glendale. We have also been selected by Sony Picture Imageworks to be a part of their IPAX program, and have worked directly with Autodesk (creators of Maya software) in designing and implementing 3D Digital curriculum.
ACR: What are some on-campus initiatives that your students regularly participate in?
CG: Our on-campus student club, the Pencil Mileage Club, is an opportunity for the students to develop relationships and contribute to their own development. The PMC is very active in reaching out to the studios and artists. Students organize and run the club, providing the students opportunities to make connections as they organize the various events. Examples of guests to visit include DreamWorks Animation director Steve Hickner, PIXAR animator Erick Oh, Disney Animator, Benson Shum, Vis Dev artists Helen Chen and Ryan Lang, Fran Krause, Animator and Illustrator cartoon Network, Disney TV Timing Director Herb Moore, DreamWorks TV Animation Character Designer Elsa Chang, Character Designer Steven Silver, DreamWorks Story Artist Ian Abando, and the list goes on!
ACR: I imagine there are a wealth of internship opportunities for CSUF students?
CG: (Yes!) The internship program at CSUF is extensive and well developed. Prof. Dana Lamb coordinates it and has done a remarkable job building relationships with major studios. Many of our students intern at major cartoon studios including Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Film Roman, DreamWorks Animation, Blizzard etc. Students find opportunities at smaller studios, too, including toy design studios and smaller animation studios. One of our alumni just started work at Lego in the Netherlands having started with an internship at a small local toy design company. The internships have often proved a foot in the door for many of our students, many times leading to their first animation industry related job.
This past spring, a number of our students were hired as they were graduating. One to work as a revisionist on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, another to storyboard on “The Loud House”, another as a PA at DreamWorks. It is very exciting to see these young people’s dreams come true!
ACR: What other opportunities does your geography allow you to take advantage of?
CG: Being located in SoCal near the heart of the animation industry gives us talent we can draw upon to teach. Prof. Mike Dietz joined the faculty last year with over 20 years’ experience as an animator for a variety of projects and runs his own studio. Two other recent hires include Prof. Andy Fedak, a fine artist with an interest in Lighting/Compositing and exploring VR in his personal work, and Carol Ashley, a 3D artist and studio veteran with 20 years’ experience, including credit as the lighting/compositing supervisor on “The Matrix”.
ACR: To deviate slightly, I have to inquire about your spouse- Wendy Grieb- who is also an animator and educator. What’s it like sharing a passion and career with your spouse?
CG: Wendy and I have enjoyed working together in animation and now teaching. We have had the chance to storyboard a few projects together. I know that I am stronger and better as an artist and teacher with her – she challenges me, offers insight, critique, and a fresh point of view. When I am creating a piece of art, Wendy is a reliable measure, critic, and part of my process. I rely on her to help me best design a class or critique what I have created.
The level of understanding we have for each other’s challenges is complete as we’re both artists, and we are both very supportive when the other wants to buy more art supplies! I met Wendy when I was 17, we have been married for almost 23 years, it is hard for me to imagine life without her – Wendy is an integral part of my life, and I think a part of who I am today.
ACR: You’ve been teaching at CSUF since 2002, Chuck. What keeps you coming back for more?
CG: It’s a lot of fun to see a student animate for the first time, and as such I love teaching the intro to animation class. I also enjoy seeing the students make their stories and characters come alive when they make their own films. The students are the real draw. What excited me about teaching first is what still captures me – seeing the real and direct positive impact I can have on another individual’s life.
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.