Virginia State University is one of the only HBCU-designated universities (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) offering an animation program. That’s a big deal for many reasons, not least of which is because animation relies on the backgrounds, experiences and creative voices of a diverse group of artists. The vision for developing the Animation BFA at VSU was thanks to numerous individuals, including a band of dedicated students (many of whom graduate this year) and one man who wouldn’t let them down.
Hailing from a strong visual arts background, Anh Do earned a BFA in Kinetic Imagery/3D Imaging before working as a 3D modeler/animator, visual artist and instructor in VSU’s Art & Design Department. Unlike Do’s experiences, his students often lack a solid art foundation- in part, the result of an educational system where roughly one half of American eighth-graders have access to regular visual arts classes and the other half do not. For minority students, the picture is bleaker still with significant gaps in primary and secondary visual arts education along racial and ethnic lines.
Though Do and his undergrads had their work cut out for them, they also had the backing of the department chair, other art faculty members and a growing list of students eager to learn the craft and add their voice to the art form we call animation. We asked Do about the beginnings of the program, what it teaches its students and what he hopes it will accomplish. (This interview was done via phone and email and has been edited for length & clarity).
ACR: Anh, the BFA in Animation at Virginia State University is still relatively young. What was its genesis and how is it evolving thus far?
Anh Do: I was hired in 2002 to introduce animation to VSU graphic design students and discovered that some of them along with others in the art department wanted to be animators. VSU did not have an animation concentration. Because of the growth of students’ interest, the department Chair Dr. Thomas Larose, asked me to put together a curriculum for an Animation Specialization in ‘06. I did so with the consideration of the needs of the students at VSU. It was approved and set in motion in the fall of ‘09. Because the program is relatively small, it is flexible enough to be individualized to the needs of each student.
ACR: What are some of the advantages you’ve noticed thanks to the program’s smaller size?
AD: Because of our size, the faculty is able to be more involved with students’ progress- not just in their animation classes but also in the students’ other art courses during the semester. Likewise, the small nature puts students constantly in touch with each other and they develop very tight personal bonds. They compete with each other, but they also share knowledge, help each other out and (serve as) an invaluable support system.
ACR: Students can choose to specialize in 2D and 3D animation but they also must take the full gamut of foundational art classes. Do they expect the rigors that are part and parcel to a BFA in Animation?
AD: Generally I have found that the students do not know what to expect due to a lack of art education prior to coming to VSU. Student success in animation, like any of the visual arts, is dependent on them having a firm understanding of basic design concepts and foundational skills because the tools will change but the basic foundation will not. Master those aspects and you can succeed in any aspect of art – it’s just a matter of learning the specifics of the media.
ACR: As you mentioned, many students enter the program without a strong visual arts background. I know it’s important to you that they develop into both solid artists and outstanding individuals. How do you help them accomplish that?
AD: By instilling in the students good habits, a sense of work ethics, an understanding of accountability, development of creative problem solving, and a sense of pride for doing the best for your ability. We also get the students to understand that failure is just a part of the process and that it does not set a bar, limit, or box to their future. We encourage students to just think. To do their best and be good at it; that will serve them well in whatever they pursue after they graduate.
ACR: What are your personal hopes for the role that VSU’s animation program can play in cultivating a new generation of diverse animators?
AD: My hope is that the program provides a nurturing, creative and fun environment for each individual student who has the motivation and zeal to be an animator. We want to provide the instructions and guidance necessary for them to be successful by the time of their graduation; not just as an animator, but also in any other pursuit regardless of their background and skill level when they started in the program.
This will hopefully introduce a new generation of diverse animators into the industry who, because they may have lacked access to a high school art program and are not a good fit in many animation programs at mainstream art colleges, would otherwise not have had an opportunity. This program is designed for any student who wants to be an animator to become successful regardless of their art background when they start if they have the raw talent, are willing to do the work and do it well.
ACR: This year marks the very first graduating class of students who have gone through the program from start to finish. You’ve gotten to know them quite well by now- how long was the road they travelled and what do you see in their futures?
AD: The first group of students to go through the entire Animation program at VSU will graduate in May of this year. They have done a lot of work in the last four years in order to develop their foundational skills. They are now capable of moving to the next level in their development as an animator, whether it be as a grad student or for an animation internship. I had two students graduate in the spring of 2012, having transferred into the program so they did not go through our complete specialization, and one of them is currently in grad school for animation. From what I have observed of this group of graduates, there are students that will be successful in their pursuit to be professional 2D or 3D animators.
ACR: Congratulations to them and to you for building an animation program from the ground up at VSU. Looking forward to watching it, and its graduates, in the future!
AD: Thank you, Bonnie!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.