What are the top animation school programs in Illinois for 2021?

Top 5 Animation School Programs in Illinois - 2021 College Rankings
1School of the Art Institute of ChicagoChicago
2DePaul UniversityChicago
3Columbia College ChicagoChicago
4University of Illinois at ChicagoChicago
5American Academy of Art CollegeChicago

Our 2021 ranking -our tenth annual- of the top animation school programs in Illinois. For an explanation of the ranking criteria, click here.

1. School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Founded in 1866, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) is one of the oldest accredited independent schools of art and design in the country. Recognized as “the most influential art college in the United States,” by Columbia University’s National Arts Journalism survey, SAIC offers more than 50 areas of study in 24 departments.

The Film, Video, New Media, and Animation Department (FVNMA) offers several programs for aspiring animators including BFA and MFA in Studio degrees with a Concentration Animation, and a Certificate in Studio. The Department says it “endorses and encourages experimentation with radical form and content,” and is “open to many approaches to and understandings of experimental media art.” The Department is “dedicated” to helping students develop their “art practice in a variety of forms and contexts including the use of high definition video, new media art, experimental 3D animation, hand-drawn animation, and filmmaking.”

Students in the FVNMA department are taught by “award-winning pioneers,”  “revolutionaries,” and working professionals in the fields of experimental film, video, animation, nonfiction, narrative, installation, glitch, interactivity, art games, curating, archiving, and web-based art projects. Students also learn from “internationally renowned artists, critics, historians, and curators who regularly visit through the department and SAIC's Visiting Artists Program.”

Other FVNMA Department highlights include graduate projects and fall and spring critique weeks for MFA students, as well as access to world-class resources such as the Art Institute of Chicago Museum, on-campus galleries, and state-of-the-art facilities. Examples include The Gene Siskel Film Center, The Donna and Howard Stone Gallery for Film, Video, and New Media at the Modern Wing, and The Video Data Bank, which is considered the leading resource in the United States for videos by and about contemporary artists.

Famous SAIC alumni include Cynthia Rowley, David Sedaris, Georgia O’Keeffe, Elizabeth Murray, Jeff Koons, LeRoy Neiman, Michelle Grabner, Nick Cave, and Richard Hunt.

2. DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois
DePaul University

DePaul University was founded in 1898 by the Congregation of the Mission (of Vincentian) religious community, which follows the teachings of 17th-century French priest St. Vincent de Paul. Serving nearly 22,500 students, DePaul is the largest Catholic university in the United States, the 13th-largest private, not-for-profit university in the nation, and the largest private, not-for-profit college in the Midwest.

The school offers more than 300 programs of study across 10 colleges and schools and two campuses in Chicago. The College of Computing and Digital Media (CDM) is home to the School of Cinematic Arts, which houses the Animation Program. With more than a dozen full-time animation professors, the school has one of the largest full-time animation faculties in the U.S.

Program options for aspiring animators include BA, BFA, MA, and MFA degrees in Animation. The BFA program offers concentrations in 3D Animation, Cinema Animation, Game Art, Motion Graphics, and Storyboarding and Character Design. The MA program offers concentrations in 3D Animation, Motion Graphics, Technical Artist, and Traditional Animation.

The BA in Animation “emphasizes the art of animation, creativity, and critical thinking,” says the school. This “extremely” flexible and interdisciplinary degree allows students to experiment with the latest in animation software, technologies, and tools including 3D, green screen studios, hand-drawn, motion capture, motion control, and stop-motion.

The BFA in Animation provides a “thorough foundation in the art of animation and its history, combined with intense practice in traditional animation (hand-drawn, stop-motion, and hybrid), and 3D computer animation and modeling.”

The MA in Animation “provides a combination of artistic and technical training that prepares students for a future in 3D character animation, traditional animation, computer game art, or visual effects.” The MFA in Animation is the “premier degree” of the graduate program and it’s designed for students who are interested in “creating original animated films and artwork as their main vocation, and is the terminal degree in the field.”

Students in all programs have the opportunity to work with game development teams, participate in CDM’s annual Premiere Film Festival, which showcases the best of student work in animation and cinema, and study and intern in Los Angeles for three months through the school’s innovative LA Quarter Program.

Past participants in the LA Quarter program have interned at Warner Brothers, DreamWorks Animation, Sony Studios, Disney, Nickelodeon, The Mill, The Jim Henson Company, Titmouse Animation, Bix Pix Animation, and others. Back at home, students will also benefit from CDMs relationship with Chicago’s largest game development and animation studios.

Animation students also benefit from the visiting artist series, which brings “innovative practitioners and industry leaders to the DePaul campus for film screenings, on-stage conversations, and professional panels.” Past artists have visited from Disney and Pixar. The student organization Animation Lodge and Project Bluelight are other program highlights.

The Lodge is a place where students can network, build their portfolios, work on group projects, and discuss animation trends and techniques. Project Bluelight is a professional, educational, and community outreach program where students receive hands-on experience in motion picture production.

Graduates of the Animation programs at DePaul have been hired in animation roles at Blizzard Entertainment, DreamWorks Animation, Electronic Arts, Google, Laika Studios, Nickelodeon, Phosphor Studios, Synapse Games and Wargaming, to name a few.

3. Columbia College Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Columbia College Chicago

Columbia College Chicago (Columbia) was founded in 1890 as the Columbia School of Oratory by Mary A. Blood and Ida Morey Riley. Both women were graduates of the Monroe Conservatory of Oratory (now Emerson College, in Boston, Massachusetts). By 1904, the school had a new name, Columbia College of Expression, and in 1927 it became a sister institution with the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College. Columbia College of Expression dissolved its partnership with the Teachers College In 1944 and became Columbia College. Nearly 50 years later, the school became what it is known as today—Columbia College Chicago.

Serving nearly 7,000 students from all 50 states and 60 countries, Columbia offers 150 majors, minors, and graduate programs in the Schools of Media Arts, Fine and Performing Arts, and Liberal Arts and Sciences. The School of Media Arts is home to the Interactive Arts and Media Department, which offers three degree programs for animators: a BA in Animation and BFAs in Computer Animation or Traditional Animation. A Minor in Animation is also available. Students in all programs begin animating in their first year.

Per the school, “BA students have the option of working with a team their senior year to create an animated film in Animation Production Studio, they can work on their own solo film, or take electives that will help them polish their demo reels and gain professional-level competency in the areas of their choosing.”

The Animation Production Studio is an intensive, two-semester capstone course that introduces students to the animated film process. Studio students will have the opportunity to, “supervise and be supervised in roles ranging from director to editor.” Finished films will be presented at Columbia College’s annual urban arts festival known as “Manifest,” which “celebrates the amazing work” of the school’s graduating students.

BFA students are required to take Animation Production Studio and produce their own animated thesis film as a solo project. This is similar in scope to the team project except students will have three full semesters to complete it. Students in the program will work as the producer, director, editor, and every other role in between.

All students will have the opportunity to take the one-credit course—Animation Studios in LA—where they will spend time learning professional standards and industry preparation as well as touring local animation studios such as Cartoon Network, Disney, DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, and Warner Bros.

Graduates of the Animation programs at Columbia College Chicago have won Oscars and Emmys and they have worked on popular animated films and series such as Brave, Coco, Finding Dory, Frozen, Pocahontas, Robot Chicken, The Lego Batman Movie, The Lion King, and UP. Alumni work at networks and studios such as Cartoon Network, Disney, DreamWorks Studios, Nickelodeon, Pixar, Warner Bros. Animation, Weta Digital, and many others.

4. University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
University of Illinois at Chicago

University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) was formed in 1982 “by the consolidation of two U. of I. campuses: the Medical Center campus, which dates back to the 19th century and the comprehensive Chicago Circle campus which replaced, in 1965, the two-year undergraduate Navy Pier campus that opened in 1946 to educate returning veterans.” Today, with more than 33,500 students enrolled in more than 260 degree programs and 66 certificate programs in 15 colleges, UIC is the largest university in the Chicago area. 

The College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts (CADA) houses the School of Art and Art History, Department of Art, which offers a BFA in Art and MFA in New Media Art. All programs offer the opportunity to choose animation courses. Course highlights include Space I: Modeling, and Space II: Animation, Topics in Motion Graphics I & II, Topics in New Media Arts, and Topics in Video. 

Students in these courses and others will be introduced to film/video animation techniques including cycles, direct animation, metamorphosis, special graphic processes and effects, and stop-motion. Courses also cover 3D modeling, computer animation, and lighting, rendering and texturing. Students will have the opportunity to create artwork with new media technologies, interactive installations, software, and of course, computer animation. An internship is also part of the program.

The College of Applied Health Sciences’ Department of Biomedical and Health Information Sciences (BHIS) offers another option for students that may be interested in a career that fuses science, medicine, and animation. The MS in Biomedical Visualization (BVIS) offers animation electives such as Interactive 3D, Modeling, Animation I &II, Illustration Techniques, Medical Legal Visualization, and Graphic Design.

BVIS is the largest and second oldest of four accredited programs of its kind in North America. Graduates of the BVIS program become highly skilled science visualization specialists in medical illustration, animation, interactive media, gaming, haptics, and virtual and augmented reality, working on the frontiers of discovery.

5. American Academy of Art College, Chicago, Illinois
American Academy of Art College

The American Academy of Art College was founded in 1923 as a school for professional artists seeking careers in the commercial and fine arts fields. Today, this small, private institution serves more than 200 students enrolled in seven programs leading to a BFA degree. For aspiring animators, the school offers a 3D Modeling and Animation area that “incorporates traditional skills, such as sculpture and drawing, with 3D digital skills to create 3D models and animations in a digital environment.”

The program begins with developing essential skills in art technique and the humanities and sciences, then progresses to the development of creative and critical thinking skills. The 3D modeling and animation courses focus on lighting effects, camera angles, motion studies, and digital video and sound to create scenes.

Upon completion of the program, students will have the skills needed to compose, develop and direct a scene to convey an idea, create a project concept and plan a production schedule, synthesize traditional art with 3D composite and photo-editing skills, and visually and verbally articulate a familiarity with current and historic industry examples. Graduates will leave the BFA program with a demo reel focused on an industry specialization.

American Academy of Art College alumni hold titles such as 2D and 3D Animator, Art Director, Background Artist, Film/Video Editor, Game Designer, Motion Graphics Designer, Visual Developer, Visual FX Artist, and many others.