Preparing for a Career in Animation

Many students or their parents have asked me if coming to Evergreen to learn animation will help them find a career in animation, and if we offer a BFA.  These are complicated questions that I try to answer here.

Evergreen is a liberal arts college that has no departments, so we offer a Bachelor of Arts (and for those who are interested, a Bachelor of Sciences) but we don’t offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts.  Students who do major work in one or more arts disciplines are considered concentrators if they choose.  We encourage students to take responsibility for their education, so it’s up to them to determine how to specialize and what to call it.


Collaborative motion study of a cat derived from Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic sequence, produced by students in Image and Sequence, 2008-09.

Regarding whether or not learning animation at Evergreen will lead to a career in animation later on, a lot depends on what type of animation you are interested in doing and at what level.  For example, if you envision yourself in creative positions such as director, lead animator, story developer/ character designer on large scale animation productions or developing a career as an independent animator, you will need a different and broader skill set than if you are interested in taking direction and working in the more technical side of production (character modeling, fabrication, assistant animator, etc).  Animation is one of the most interdisciplinary arts. It feeds on skills from a wide range of art forms including the visual (drawing, painting, sculpting, graphic design), performance (acting, scripting, comic timing, music) and media arts.  Now that so much production is done digitally, having creative, visual skills and experience in math and the computer sciences is an advantage.  And since animation is always about something, a good animator knows how to research a topic to understand how to represent it (this is true of any artist).   Therefore, solid foundations in the sciences, humanities and social sciences is recommended.

It is very rare for any graduating student to go right from college to a good job animating in an animation studio whether or not they have a BFA.  In general, employers are most interested in an applicant’s portfolio and how well they can work on a team and collaborate under demanding conditions.  They are also interested in originality, not whether a person can replicate the kinds of animation produced before, but what new ideas and approaches they can bring to the form.  They are interested in the quality of their ideas.  Finally, entry level jobs in animation usually do not involve actual hands-on animation or other direct production work, but are support positions that may seem very menial.  The expectation is that the employee who wants to get into creative roles does so through hard work, consistency, good collaboration skills, enthusiasm and a lot of time developing ideas and approaches while not on the job.

Evergreen students interested in going into animation should take any full time program that offers visual arts, especially drawing, and that also focuses on visual literacy and how images represent and communicate ideas.  Each year Evergreen usually offers several programs that combine one of the arts with another discipline outside of the arts.  In them, students learn about a topic and how to represent it through research and observational and creative work.  I teach animation every year, but not to all levels of students every year.  A student interested in animation but not able to take a program that offers it that year should focus on building the skills I mention above by taking other programs that offer them.  It’s best to work with an academic advisor to find the most appropriate programs. You can look at the on-line catalog to get an idea of how the full time curriculum works.  To the right of my home page are links to interdisciplinary programs I’ve taught that combine animation with other subjects.

I teach experimental forms of 2d analog and digital animation as well as stop motion.  I don’t teach 3D computer animation such as Maya and don’t recommend students attempt to learn it until they have developed fundamental animation techniques and a good sense for timing and movement the old fashioned way.  This practice is supported by major recruiters in the industry (I have talked with reps from Disney and Pixar and they confirmed this) who say that they are happy to teach good animators how to use their software, but they are not interested in teaching software experts and programmers how to animate.  This is why I focus on students’ understanding of the principles of animation and motion graphic design that they can then apply to any platform or technology.  The media faculty, myself included, predominantly support experimental and critical media approaches to theory and production that tend to be non-fiction.  As we are part of a broadly interdisciplinary liberal arts college, our priority is on helping students gain visual and media literacy and develop strong critical thinking, reading and writing skills in the context of the full time academic programs.

Good creative work is rooted in these skills.  From there many students go on to produce wonderful work, and many are employed in the industry in studios and on the crews of mainstream features and games.  I don’t have statistics for how many of our graduates are working in animation and where.  We have grads at Pixar, LAIKA, Cartoon Network, and lots of game developers.  Students have gone on to pursue their MFAs in the Department of Animation and Digital Arts at USC, others have gone to the Art Institute of Chicago, Emily Carr (ECUAD) and NYU. Many more are working freelance, doing animation, compositing and various other jobs related to animation or feature film production, or teaching.

We do support students in internships, generally in their senior year, or in their final quarter of Mediaworks.  It is usually up to the student to research, network and find an internship.  Our students have interned at a variety of places, both in the animation industry and outside of it in independent production.  Sometimes these internships turn into paying jobs.