In 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave the green light for a newly recognized category in the upcoming Academy Awards: Best Animated Feature.

It was a subtle mark of changing opportunities for animators and their fans. Animation’s status as an art form was finally garnering legitimacy, encouraging the genre to push new boundaries by embracing exciting and unorthodox innovations — all while emerging from the shadows of the monopoly of Disney, Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Pixar was busy proving its potency within the realm of 3-D technology, Nickelodeon was enjoying the fruition of its first few multimedia ventures and Cartoon Network had just introduced its Adult Swim lineup, an adult-oriented complement to its popular action-animation block, Toonami, already in full swing at the time.

Now, little over a decade after animation’s turn-of-the-century takeoff, its stereotype as either Disney classic or cheap children’s entertainment has finally fallen away to reveal new doorways for animators at every skill level. Though the University doesn’t have an animation program of its own, the sheer versatility of the genre — combined with the increasing accessibility of classes and equipment — helps students employ hard work and creative initiative to transform their animation aspirations from conceptual art to reality.

Storytelling in the second dimension

Animators today have countless paths to choose from that lead into what is now an estimated $80-billion industry — the genre is used as a vehicle for everything from entertainment and advertising to medical modeling and teaching aids.

Even animation’s traditional TV demographic has shifted: The success of Comedy Central’s “South Park,” FX’s “Archer” and FOX’s “Family Guy” have proven that animation can thrive outside of cartoon-heavy channels, offering endless possibilities for those willing to think outside the box — a crucial mindset for animation-bound University students.

Because the University doesn’t maintain a formal animation program or major, students interested in pursuing the field are encouraged to create their own informal curriculum, complete with classroom and extracurricular experience.

The Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and LSA’s Screen Arts & Cultures department provide hands-on learning experiences that introduce students to the history, science and art of 2-D and 3-D animation. Classes range from lectures on animation’s political and social contexts to individualized, project-centered design courses, while SAC honors theses and independent student projects offer opportunities for self-directed discovery.

Options like these are not meant to be exclusive to those starting out with an intimate knowledge of the field. As daunting as jumping into animation may seem to new students, University faculty and staff are aware that most undergraduates likely have little to no prior experience with animation, and help design their courses accordingly.

“The very first project students do is make a flip book, so they can actually see how much work goes into doing something that takes about five seconds to watch,” said SAC professor Chris McNamara.

Among others, McNamara has taught introductory courses on 2-D animation and new media, which enable students to explore the methods and mechanics behind the illustrated illusion of movement. Instead of focusing on a single facet of design or application, students are introduced to a wide range of animation genres, from hand-drawn sequences to stop-motion video, as well as some of the abstract artistic elements that govern them.

“We have kind of a unique arrangement where students do both productions and studies in the department,” he said. “So the concentration gives them a lot of conceptual and theoretical background, as well as the foundational aspects that deal with production.”

Introductory SAC courses typically refrain from delving into the advanced specifics of any single form of digital or physical animation. But it’s their broad and inclusive nature — combined with the encouragement of students to pursue their own short and long-term project goals — which make them so enticing to curious first-timers and those for whom animation seems like a promising career path.

“From my own experience, it’s been pretty laissez-faire in terms of what style you’re taught (in SAC),” said LSA senior Mike Chenoweth. “They’re pretty inclined to let you develop your own techniques, whatever they may be. They’ll teach you how to use the technology to make actual animation, and other than that, the advice they give you on your artwork is more based in technical criticism.”

In some SAC classes, students are given time for individualized projects, or encouraged to start small ones of their own. Whether it’s an animation-based honors thesis or a personal work-in-progress, these animators-in-the-making are encouraged to get creative when looking to enrich their skills outside the classroom.

“The most helpful thing is to just go out and do it,” Chenoweth said. “Even though there’s not an intensive program specifically devoted to the art of animation, there are still projects floating around and people that need animators.”

“Since there’s not that much in the way of course material offered here, you have to take more of a hands-on approach, and you really learn more about the craft when you just do your own projects or work with other people,” he added.

This technical introduction to the field leaves students open to explore their own narrative ends and new media interpretations and gain a scope of the field before choosing to pursue a more specialized niche in the ever-growing animation spectrum.

“By no means do I think of these courses as comprehensively preparing students to become an animator,” McNamara said. “But it certainly gives them an introductory taste of what it would take to pursue that kind of work. In many ways I’m helping students to be more prepared for independent work, and for the possibility of incorporating animation elements into other kinds of media.”

Processing the power of pipeline

For students seeking to add another dimension to their artistic repertoire, the Art & Design School offers a small but intensive set of courses on the process of 3-D animation and modeling. This includes a semester-long pipeline animation class and a digital modeling courses that entertainment-bound animators are encouraged to explore.

Art & Design junior Molly Lester is currently enrolled in a pipeline animation class, which treats students as a comprehensive animation team. A semester is spent working toward the completion of a short animation piece — one which will eventually be submitted to the international SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival, held yearly during the prestigious SIGGRAPH International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and International Techniques.

“Last year this (class) was actually a club,” Lester said. “But they couldn’t get enough lab time. So they decided to petition it for a class, and it got through, and now everything’s completely new for us.”

The resulting course is the first of its kind at the University, and their festival submission will be the University’s first in what is considered a professional-grade animation competition.

Since the animation pipeline process depends on the completion of many specialized jobs, the creation of their short offers a multitude of challenges for students who must quickly learn new skills and take on multiple steps in the 3-D animation process.

Lester said that though the process of 3-D animation itself is difficult — especially the learning curve for the software they use — it’s actually the process of large-group communication that offers the most potential for problems.

But for Lester, the benefits of group dynamics outweigh the weekly difficulties. Making a single piece of animation forces each member of the group to see their work in the greater context of the narrative and its painstakingly constructed setting.

“Originally, when they told me this story, I had a completely different mental image of what it was going to look like,” Lester said. “But the more and more we do it, the more and more I get used to the idea that my work has to look like everyone else’s, since it has to fit in with this universe.”

Though introductory animation classes tackle 2-D animation and processes like Claymation, it’s the staggering capabilities of the Duderstadt Center’s little-known technological gems, such as the 3-D lab and the various multimedia workrooms scattered around the building, which aid students in developing career-applicable modeling, editing and motion-application skills.

“We actually have a lot of equipment for 3-D animation,” said Lester. “We even have motion-capture equipment. The Dude is really set up to have the processing power for you to do a lot of really extreme digital work. It’s like a little goldmine that no one really knows about.”

With so much advanced hardware and software available for its students, the Art & Design School’s North Campus resources have the department primed for any potential future expansion of their animation curriculum — or even a full-fledged animation program of its own.

“It seems like they should have more focus-based animation classes,” Lester said. “Or more focused product-design classes. But our school is so open and broad that basically you pick a teacher that you like, you pick a type of class that you like and you pretty much stick with them.”

And despite the many difficulties that come with a sudden immersion in something as technologically and creatively demanding as 3-D animation, Lester said their hard work always seems to have a way of paying off.

“I love what I’m doing because I love the outcome,” she said. “When I see something that I modeled, and it looks really good, and I know I put all that time and effort into it, it’s like a little piece of pride for me. So no matter how frustrated I get about pulling all-nighters for it, I still love it.”

Finding the “I” in animation

Not every animator chooses to go the route of large-scale group collaboration — and not every project’s success depends on access to a stockpile of industrial-strength rendering equipment.

One of the most important turn-of-the-century innovations for aspiring animation students was the introduction of accessible software that could keep up with demands of a creator’s imagination, making small-group and independent work a new norm for people from different backgrounds.

“I’m actually an English major, and my original interest was in creative writing,” said LSA senior TajRoy Duane Calhoun. “From there I got into the graphic narrative and started focusing on animation. I really like storytelling in general, so I would eventually like to get to a point where I write my own narrative stories, but right now I’m focusing more on developing the actual craft first.”

Calhoun’s English background is an important contributing factor to the way he approaches animation inside and outside his SAC animation classes. Instead of being employed solely for entertainment purposes, it serves as an alternate narrative vehicle for otherwise non-visual stories. And though his interests lie mainly in the style and execution of Japanese animation, his narrative specialty lies much closer to home.

“My main goal is to become my own storyteller through animation,” he said. “As an English Language and Literature major, my focus is on 1950s African-American literature, black existentialism and social realism, and those are the kind of stories that I’d want to tell as an animator. So in terms of my narratives, I’d still want to focus on something about life in America and being American.”

The University’s open-foundation approach to teaching animation, especially within SAC, has the added benefit of encouraging cross-disciplinary learning. Students can connect with a more visual method of storytelling through their varied majors and interests.

Since animation’s background is as diverse as the people that employ it — part storytelling method, part artistic endeavor and part social phenomenon — the vast variation of its creative sources leaves it especially open to academic and extracurricular integration. Even without a structured animation curriculum, this malleability allows students to choose a personal focus within the interests they already enjoy.

“Speaking critically, I think the most difficult aspect of animation might be the rhythm and the tempo,” Calhoun said. “The thing I actually have the most difficulty with is anatomy, but I do dance, I did poetry, and I did some hip-hop and a little bit of music production, so I like to think that they’ve given me a good sense of this rhythm.”

Crafting a creative future

No matter their background or style, students look to find new and innovative ways to utilize animation as a form of personal expression and collaborative entertainment.

“You never know where students are going to end up,” McNamara said. “I think there’s a lot of activity in the independent animation world that has little to do with the studio conventions. If a student is interesting in pursuing that, I give them all the guidance I can as their instructor.”

“There are some who work on their projects independently and submit them to festivals, and then maybe have day jobs doing animation or special effects, or perhaps design or editing or post-production. There are many different ways of thinking about how animation could fit into your career,” he added.

Above all, students are encouraged to keep an open mind about the possibilities the field can offer them, even after leaving the University — especially in places and ways they might not expect. And with the millennial advent of the Internet, advancements in technology and the rising popularity of independent studios, it’s now easier than ever for students to take the future of animation into their own hands.

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