Woodbury University is recognized for its rich cultural diversity and the close ties fostered between students, faculty and the production industry nearby. Its glistening campus in the studio town of Burbank, CA, makes it the perfect place to study the craft of animation, but location isn’t the only thing the program has going for it.
Housed in the School of Media, Culture & Design, Woodbury’s Animation program sets lofty goals for itself and its students, leaving no stone left unturned. Undergrads learn to master both hand and digital art skills, present narrative content using cinematic language, apply fundamental principles of the craft during design and production, collaborate and create a substantial body of work that ultimately showcases their creative voice. It’s little wonder that their alumni can be found at Pixar, Blur, Sony Image Works, Cartoon Network and LAIKA among many other studios.
We were eager to learn more about the school’s program from its Chair, Dori Littell-Herrick. A veteran animator herself whose resume includes The Little Mermaid, Fern Gully and Ghostbusters, few are better suited to lead an animation program than Littell-Herrick who also serves as a Board member for ASIFA Hollywood. She spoke to us about Woodbury’s program, her own career and observations of the industry. (This interview was conducted via phone).
ACR: Dori, you have an enviable background spanning decades in the industry and working on memorable films such as the The Little Mermaid and Ferngully. To start, when and how did you discover that animation was the career for you?
DLH: In 1972, I was shooting video…back when video cameras weighed a ton! I wanted to be a camera woman and had an undergraduate degree in Telecommunications at Indiana University. So I came to the west coast and applied to USC, CalArts and UCLA for my Masters. I was accepted to all of them but I chose UCLA because it had film, television and animation all in one department. There, I took an animation course and was hooked immediately. It had everything I was interested in rolled into one career.
My first job out of school was as a camera operator shooting on an acme crane for an industrial film company where I worked for about a year. It was very hard breaking into the industry as a woman at that time, but I really met a lot of people and learned the ropes. Back then, the industry was in a big slump, too. The era of the “Nine Old Men” had passed, animation was very limited (think Clutch Cargo) and studios weren’t hiring. My generation came in during the 1970’s as the older generation from the golden era of Disney feature animation retired and that was how I started, eventually working my way up.
ACR: Things have changed in the years since, not the least of which is outsourced production. At Woodbury, how do you prepare your students to break into the industry when many entry-level positions are no longer available?
DLH: I think colleges are the new entry-level positions… they have become the apprenticeships because you can’t enter into the industry without a professional quality portfolio and college is where you will build that portfolio. There are a few exceptions, primarily gaming and some special effects, where you can come in with a “backend” skill doing work that is essentially technical whether that’s modeling, texturing, lighting. But otherwise, I tell my students the goal is not to become a director immediately upon graduation… the goal is to get paid to learn how to be a director throughout the course of your career. You want to jump that edge between school and work because you won’t get the dream job when you walk out of here, but you want a job that pays you to continue working on your skills and eventually get there.
ACR: Animators have to do so much and understand a broad range of theory, applications, software and underneath it all humanity. It must be somewhat daunting to teach to the diverse needs of the industry…
DLH: This is one area where I think Woodbury differs dramatically from other schools like CalArts or UCLA. About 70% of our student population is first generation college students in their families. They come in with a life experience that is interesting and they have opinions about humanity that show in their ideas because they’ve been living their own story about how to get to college and succeed.
In a lot of college students’ lives, there can be a disconnect between the required general education courses and the courses in their major. But in every course our students take, there are new skills that can parallel their art skills and help them develop further. We have a course in psychology on sensation and perception and how our brain perceives things like light, depth and movement. It’s a great course for our animation students because that is how animation on the screen works and it isn’t hard for students to connect that to what they do while animating. I also push our students towards our acting classes, as well, for similar reasons. They can take anthropology and a number of different courses where they begin to really look at how their craft touches all of these areas which will make them better animators and storytellers.
ACR: When I ask animators what aspiring animation students should work on, they inevitably say ‘draw more!’ And yet, we see many software-centric animation programs crop up each year that seem less focused on those age-old fundamentals. What is your perspective on the role of the arts for an animator in today’s CG industry?
DLH: We want our students to know that pencil and paper are technology, just the same as a computer is technology. Whether you are working with paint, pencils or computer we critique our students as artists at the highest level we can. Yes, you need to understand the latest technology but five years from now, everyone will be using something else so it shouldn’t be the focus. One of my faculty members, Angela Diamos, is very technologically skilled and worked in special effects throughout her career. Her undergrad degree is in painting from CalArts, though, and she’s a great example of the importance of those fundamental skills that teach how to use a visual language.
I recently visited a newer studio near us in Burbank, Bento Box (Bob’s Burgers, Neighbors From Hell). They’ve taken animation software and developed it so that it runs a traditional animation pipeline because they want their animation to look like full traditional animation! Even though they are working completely paperless, their production pipeline could be that of a traditional studio’s. So, software is constantly changing but the core elements of animation remain and are always being rediscovered.
ACR: On that front, how do you teach the production pipeline to students?
DLH: The first two years we try to teach it using personal content that students want to make. The reason is simple: I want them to remember things and be engaged early on because, frankly, I don’t remember technology that I didn’t use to make one of my own projects! In their junior year, I teach a class that is a collaborative animation project with some 6-8 students on each team where they learn project development and production. I tell them that this is the time to fail- and I’m not referring to their grades! They need to try the pipeline, take risks and figure out what it takes to make a film. I had a group that took incredible risks and used green screen and Maya with traditional animation… They had some problems, but they learned a heck of a lot! I expect good things from them in the future.
In their senior year, students have to complete a full film that is shown and critiqued at our animation showcase. I think you need experience before you leave college of doing a personal project and thinking of your personal voice because no one will encourage you to have a personal voice in the first decade of your career. I did a lot of commercials… I drew more Keebler Elves and Tony the Tigers than I care to see again! But you keep applying yourself and getting better in the craft and new opportunities come. A new graduate may do jobs they really don’t care to be doing but someone will come along and see the drawings on their cubicle walls and be impressed. You need to keep up your chops to do different things or else you’ll be typecast as an animator who can just do a certain type of character... and eventually, that show will cancel. You may work for years for a particular studio and be laid off. The more you develop yourself as an artist, the more styles of animation you can do.
ACR: Are there any new changes to the curriculum or classes that seem to peak students’ interest?
DLH: Curriculum changes are driven by both the industry and dominant project choices of our students. We have 3 students currently interested in live action and green screening so I drafted faculty from our film department to help give them necessary insight. I want to let our students say “this is what I want to do, this is the best way to do it and this is the pipeline to use. What do I need to learn to make that pipeline happen?” That’s realistic problem solving for the world. No one says “we’re going to make Maya films.” The reason behind any animation is to make good stories.
Also animation artists need to group their skills and be able to jump from one production technique to another. You need to do a credible job of traditional animation even if you’re a CG animator. That’s how you build a career over time.
The latest curriculum tweak is that everyone does at least one stop motion class as well as CG and traditional animation… the stop motion will help all animators learn how to set up the camera, do the lighting and the studio setup. One of our fulltime faculty members with considerable experience in stop motion, Ric Heitzman (PeeWee’s PlayHouse), introduced a stop motion class several years ago and we are building that program.
ACR: Woodbury is in Burbank, the beating heart of the industry. How does your location play a central role in your students’ education?
DLH: I think the access to faculty is the first way it plays in. When I came into the program as Chair in 2004, they were just starting to add CG. I made a promise to myself and the students that if someone was teaching a subject, they had done it professionally in the industry. Otherwise I shouldn’t be here… because if I can’t find the best faculty in Burbank, I can’t find them anywhere. I’ve been lucky to have access to industry veterans to join our faculty, including some of our own alumni.
In terms of internships, I view this as the first opportunity to learn to how to hunt for a job. I try to get students to network with alumni and colleagues that have internships in order to find one. A good internship is important because it often leads to work. Of course, we help out as well by maintaining good relationships with the studios.
ACR: Recently, an animator told me that women often make for better animators than do men. Is it important to encourage more young women to enter the field?
DLH: If I look back over my own career, there were times and places where there were glass ceilings but towards the end I got where I wanted to be. I think it’s easier today than when I was breaking into the field. Our department has a majority of females studying animation compared to men, and to some extent that is a reflection of the fact that more women are enrolled in universities than men. But I also think that there are role models up there now to point to in every area, not a lot but I think there are opportunities. Not to generalize too much, but I do think women can often bring in stories that are more socially-oriented than their male counterparts. They also tend to be more interested in performance than action. There are always exceptions to the rule though. If anything, age is a prejudice in the business as animators have to be up with the latest trends and sometimes, older animators aren’t. I’m lucky I’m in academia now!
ACR: Lastly, you serve as a board member of ASIFA Hollywood and you co-chair the Animation Educator’s Forum which works to set standards for animation programs. Can you tell us a little about the A.E.F.?
DLH: The Animation Educator’s Forum has connected faculty from around the country and continent so that we can talk about programs and exchange ideas to raise the bar in animation programs. What they teach on the East Coast can be quite different than on the West, sometimes more experimental. Programs and faculty are diverse. That’s a good thing, but there are fundamentals that all young animators need whether they are experimental artists, CG, traditional or stop motion. We can help raise the quality of animation education by linking faculty and discussing standards.
Recently, we worked to add a Student Annie Award category that recognizes the best student animators which was very exciting. The winner will be recognized at the annual Annie’s Award Ceremony in Los Angeles along with the best in all professional categories. Ultimately, it’s our animation community and we want everyone within it to be as good as possible.
ACR: Dori, thanks for sharing your insight today and telling us all a little bit more about Woodbury University’s Animation program.
DLH: Thank you, Bonnie.
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.