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It’s a pleasant surprise to find an intimate animation program within a large, public research institution. It’s an event better find when said program features two very distinctive tracks that cater to the strengths and desires of their students. In the University of Central Florida’s School of Visual Arts & Design, undergrads can do just that by earning a B.F.A. in Art with a focus on either Character Animation or Experimental Animation.
To gain entry into either program, students must first fulfill two years of core curriculum at UCF that gives them a solid foundation in art, design, storytelling and technology. Following a portfolio review and application, students are then eligible for the Emerging Media- Animation tracks. While the Character Animation program acclimatizes students to the rigors and expectations of industry from day one, the Experimental Animation program takes an unapologetically artistic and hybridized approach to the medium. Both programs have become synonymous with hard working animators ready to tackle their careers.
As one might expect, the two unique programs are carefully crafted under the guidance of two unique faculty members. Associate Professor Cheryl Cabrera leverages her unparalleled technological credentials and her award-winning short film experiences to guide her students in Character Animation. Associate Professor Scott Hall draws from his own fine arts background and his savoir faire in the digital arts and electronics to help Experimental Animation students explore the many possibilities that await them. We caught up with both Cabrera and Hall recently for our latest Roundtable Q&A. We hope you enjoy! (This interview was done via phone and has been edited minimally for length & clarity).
ACR: Both Character and Experimental animation students at UCF take the same core curriculum which features art, design and computing courses. Then, the programs diverge. Starting with the Experimental side of things, what’s the approach you take with it Scott?
Scott Hall: All animation students at UCF take a broad range of classes in art-making that prepare them very well. Just like Character students, my Experimental students take courses with Cheryl to become familiarized with the technicalities of the craft as well as working in groups. It’s very rigorous and it’s a good exercise in discipline for them.
Then, (Experimental Animation) students work with me during their senior year to come up with an individual project. I drop restrictions at that point and work under the Oxford Approach- we discuss what their idea is, challenge it, and follow through with its progression. It’s an intensive, one-on-one experience that gives them freedom to build their body of work just as a sculptor does. It’s solitary. By the second semester of their final year several groups form, each with a handful of students, and tackle short films. They are challenged to create a film together and apply to film festivals. To me, Tim Burton would come out of an experimental program like this. It’s an independently-minded approach that I learn strongly towards.
ACR: Cheryl, the Character Animation program does things differently. How do you run things?
Cheryl Cabrera: We mimic the studio environment and the students are very much in the pipeline learning how it works from day one. All of them must learn every part of that pipeline before they specialize during their senior year. They do have some independent learning early on with regard to tools, character modeling and rigging; but by the end of their first year in the program it’s very collaborative. There are two teams and two projects that move into full production mode throughout senior year. They are given limitations such as keeping dialog out and keeping character count to two in our program.
ACR: Do most of your students look to the entertainment industry for career options?
Cheryl: The big studios still lure students. If you asked most new students where they want to be working, they’ll likely say Pixar because it remains ‘the dream’. We’ve had numerous graduates go there but others choose differently. Orlando is a modeling and simulation mecca so a good number of our graduates go into that area, at least initially, because it’s local and they have the connections to get in the door. A lot of our students work for Walt Disney World and Universal Studios nearby so they leverage those networks, too. We had three recent graduates who opened their own studio in Orlando that does projection mapping; they have a major contract with NASA. So I think more students see that there are opportunities outside of film for them than ever before. And we do have many students go on to graduate studies and the gaming industry, as well.
ACR: Many of the Experimental Animation program’s graduates have found commercial success, as well. Does that surprise you, Scott?
Scott: Both the Character and Experimental programs get grads into big studios so (that) doesn’t surprise me. The ones who succeed in the biggest ways are what I call ‘DaVincis’- they possess both technical and artistic skills but they also have the drive and the desire to go after whatever it is they want. Mo Hassan (2011 Experimental graduate) is at Disney and worked on (Academy Award-winning) Frozen. He is a great example of a student who approached animation as an art form. Elizabeth Rodriguez works in LA as a storyboard artist and has done a good deal of stop motion for large studios and her work has appeared on Adult Swim and elsewhere. Many experimental graduates make their own companies, too.
We certainly have confidence in our graduates who go to new markets, as well. Experimental animation allows their minds to range from web to print to pop art to animation and industrial animation and more. There are those like Samuel Borkson who co-created Friends With You (an art installation collaboration that utilizes animation among other mediums). My thinking and the thinking of my predecessor in the program, David Haxton, is to allow students to excel as individuals so that they can respond to the ever-changing job markets and different types of exhibition modalities.
ACR: You recently wrote a book on the importance of demo reels and portfolios, Cheryl. What insight do you offer your students when it comes to marketing their work?
Cheryl: We emphasize portfolio and demo reels from day one. In today’s world, it’s very important that all animators have a web presence, start networking online on the forums, ask questions and answer questions, and just generally get to know people in the community. Our students are encouraged to volunteer for things like SIGGRAPH and to get themselves out there as much as possible.
ACR: It sounds like your local digs in Orlando certainly help them when it comes to opportunities, as well…
Cheryl: Absolutely. It gives (students) great connections. We share our building with the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy (FIEA) which is UCF’s graduate video game design school. Thanks to their healthy budget, they bring a lot of industry people in and they allow our students to network and attend lectures and it’s just phenomenal for them. We have quite a few students who go on to graduate school at FIEA.
Scott: And we’re only a three hour drive from Miami. My students go to the Wynwood Art District down there and Art Basel so that they see exhibition art and understand what’s out there. There’s been a real boom in terms of area film festivals here and we have the Orlando Film Fest which grows every year. So I think we are well-poised in this area because the influence is here.
ACR: For such a large, public institution, the animation programs at UCF may have more in common with small, private school programs in many respects…
Cheryl: A colleague of mine here, Prof. Phil Peters, likes to say we’re a little gem. UCF has 64,000 students on its campuses but we admit just 30 students each year to the Character Animation program (similar for Experimental). I think that speaks volumes about the students we attract and what we’re able to offer them. Add to that the fact that UCF has one of the least expensive (if not the least) in-state tuition rates of any university in the country and it’s amazing for Florida residents. I should also mention that if everything goes through the approval process, we’re hoping to have an MFA for Animation and Visual Effects as early as fall of 2016.
ACR: It sounds like there are more exciting times for both programs on the horizon. Cheryl, Scott, thanks for speaking with us today!