10 Most Innovative Animation Programs

Opportunities abound today for animators to contribute to film — both independent and mainstream — television, and games, but it is still a competitive field, and choosing the right animation program can mean the difference between pushing the animation envelope at studios such as Pixar and The Academy of Art University was founded in 1929 by artists, for artists. Faculty members are working professionals who stress strong traditional skills and storytelling abilities that can then be applied to digital technology. Graduates often find careers as 2D and 3D animators, 3D modelers, visual effects artists, compositors, storyboard artists, concept artists, character designers, and stop motion animators at companies such as Industrial Light & Magic, NBC, DreamWorks, Pixar, Sony Picture Imageworks and Technicolor.

Located in San Francisco, the school offers certificate, associate, BFA and MFA programs. During their undergraduate studies in the School of Animation & Visual Effects, students produce a body of work to take with them after graduation. They are given the ability to communicate their ideas professionally and connect with others using visual, oral and written presentation skills. The MFA program focuses on storytelling and emotional response, and graduate Samar Shool is a testament to its merits. He recently received multiple Emmy nods for work on television programs developed for the Discovery and National Geographic networks.

Brigham Young University

Brigham Young University is the new kid on the block. The program is only eight years old, but it’s already receiving international attention and, in the short time it has existed, has garnered four student Academy Awards and nine student Emmys, including one of each this year for both BYU films Kites and Pajama Gladiator. In fact, there is such an industry buzz about BYU that Pixar president Ed Catmull recently touted the program as “extraordinary” and said it had “risen to the top” among universities Pixar hires from.

BYU’s program differs from traditional art institute programs in that students must complete general and religious during their freshman year before pursuing animation coursework. Over the next three years, students work towards a BFA in animation, collaborating on the department’s senior film in their final year. While at BYU, students are exposed to the latest in animation technology, but emphasis is placed on solid drawing skills and traditional animation as the foundation for all forms of animation.

California Institute of Arts

It should come as no surprise that the art institute established by Walt and Roy Disney in 1961 is recognized internationally for its outstanding animation program. Known simply as CalArts, the institute offers a BFA and MFA in experimental animation and BFA in character animation. Six schools — art, critical studies, dance, film/video, music and theater — share the campus in Valencia, California, and CalArts encourages animation students to experiment and draw inspiration from other disciplines. Low student/faculty ratios and small class size provide individual attention and allow each student to work closely with a faculty member that serves as his or her own mentor.

Disney might be the name behind the California Institute of Arts, but its animation department stands on its own merits. Alumni include Tim Burton (Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and the upcoming Alice and Wonderland); Stephen Hillenburg (creator of SpongeBob SquarePants); John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc.); Craig McCraken (creator of The Powerpuff Girls, based on his CalArts project, The Whoopass Girls); and Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas).

Rhode Island School of Art and Design

Because the animation program at RISD is part of the fine arts division, students at the school approach animation as, what else, a fine art. Freshmen begin their studies studying design principals with students from other disciplines. As they continue their sophomore year, students move into the film/animation/video (FAV) program and share courses with film and video students, augmenting their education with traditional film language and video explorations. Students are expected to “find their voice” while pursuing their BFA and are encouraged to produce films in a variety of genres.

RISD students also have the opportunity to examine, explore and understand nature at the campus’ Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab. The impressive resource collection now numbers more than 80,000 natural history objects, including live animals and plants, a natural history reference library, a clipping file, and archives of slides, tapes, videos and x-ray photographs. Certain objects may even be borrowed for use in studios.

Founded in 1877, RISD hosts more than 200 prominent artists, critics, authors and philosophers each year.

Ringling College of Art & Design

U.S. News and World Report’s 2010 Edition of America’s Best Colleges recognizes Ringling College as one of the nation’s most unique art and design schools. 3D World magazine ranks its animation program first in North America and fourth in the world. And, Pixar and DreamWorks have hired about 40 Ringling College alumni over the years. Clearly, this program is doing something right.

Ringling has BFA degree programs in computer animation and in game and art design. Students at the school learn aspects of all industry professions — artist, animator, actor, storyteller, modeler, lighting director, set designer, customer, sound designer and director — and although Ringling is an arts school, the program’s success lies in giving equal weight to developing technical skills and teaching students the art of how to tell a good story. In addition to Pixar and DreamWorks, alumni here have gone on to careers at Blue Sky Studios, LucasArts and Rhythm & Hues Studios.

Need one more reason to consider Ringling? Every student gets a free MacBook upon enrollment.

Savannah College of Art and Design

You might have seen the first season of MTV’s reality show The Engine Room, where teams compete for $400,000 by creating original animations, Web sites, short films and sound mixes. If you did, you saw a SCAD alumnus (recent graduate Rey Ortiz of winning Team Latin America) in action. Other alumni went on to have successful careers at places such as Big Idea, Blue Sky Studios, Cartoon Network, Pixar, Rhythm & Hues Studios, Sony PlayStation, Disney, and more.

The SCAD School of Film, Digital Media and Performing Arts emphasizes drawing and observational skills in its BFA, MA and MFA degrees in animation. Although multiple campuses make it one of the largest animation programs in the United States, size has its advantages. The animation faculty is one of the most diverse in nationality and experience, and is able to offer electives not typically available in other programs. Class size, though, is kept small, and allows for individualized attention. SCAD remains the only art and design university to offer programs in every specialization in animation: traditional, stop-motion and computer-generated animation.

School of Visual Arts

The West Coast doesn’t have a monopoly on superior animation programs: New York City’s School of Visual Arts holds its own against any of the California heavyweights. Classes are taught by a faculty of working directors, animation artists, special effects artists, character designers and writers, such as Yvette Kaplan (Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, Ice Age), and students learn to be “total animators,” by trying their hand at editing, cinematography, storyboarding, lighting, editing, 3D modeling, sound and character design. After receiving a BFA in animation, graduates are considered a primary source of animation talent for both coasts, going on to work at Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky Studios and Nickelodeon.

SVA places a priority on incorporating the latest technologies into its animation program. The school recently built a new stop-motion studio, and has added classes in techniques such as claymation and miniature set design and construction. While students do have access to the same equipment they’ll use in the professional world, SVA also provides the best in traditional technology, such as top-of-the-line Bolex and Oxberry cameras.

University of California Los Angeles

There are several notable University of California animation programs (and quite a few impressive California State programs), but UCLA stands out for its “Workshop,” a MFA and very limited undergraduate program that extols the mantra: “One person, one film.” Students learn every aspect of filmmaking, from scriptwriting to editing, while completing their own animation project, film or game during their final year of study. Notable alumni of the UCLA Animation Workshop include Gil Kenan (Monster House), David Silverman (The Simpsons Movie), and Oscar-nominated Shane Acker, who expanded his project 9 in to a feature film for producer Tim Burton.

Undergraduates interested in the animation program begin with two years of general college studies. In their junior year, they are introduced to all major aspects of film, television and digital media study. The following year, students concentrate their studies in animation and complete a professional internship. After earning a BA in film and television, they would apply to the MFA program, refining their skills in the Animation Workshop.

University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania makes the list for its unique approach to animation. Most animation programs graduate artists with a basic understanding of the technologies they need in the industry. Or the schools put out students who know the technical aspects of computer graphics and animation but have limited artistic exposure. The University of Pennsylvania created its digital media design (DMD) program to graduate well-rounded students who could communicate effectively and collaborate with both the artists and technologists in the animation industry. Now in its 11th year, the DMD combines a major in computer science with communication theory courses from the Annenberg School and fine arts courses from the School of Design. Students often minor in fine arts, theater arts and cinema studies.

Graduates have gone on to work in numerous arenas including animation, games, film, interactive media and advertising. They have worked or interned at companies such as Cartoon Network, CBS News, Disney Imagineering, HBO, and Pixar, but currently, Disney and Electronic Arts are the two companies with the highest concentrations of DMD graduates.

University of Southern California

USC’s School of Cinematic Arts has been at the forefront of entertainment education since it was founded in 1929 as a joint venture between the university and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Notable alumni read like a Who’s Who of the major film industry: Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind); Jon Landau (Titanic and the highly anticipated Avatar); George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars); Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin); and John Carpenter (Halloween). It’s only natural that its animation program, The John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts (DADA), is one of the nation’s best.

As part of USC, the animation program is situated within a research university, giving it the unique opportunity to collaborate with other divisions like computer science, the Keck School of Medicine, marine biology and archeology. In addition to its BA and MFA degrees in animation and digital arts, the program now offers a BA minor in science visualization. DADA requires its undergraduate students to have an internship, and its students have interned at places such as Sony Pictures Imageworks, Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network.

Additional Reference:
Animation School Database – http://schools.awn.com/
Animation Arena – www.animationarena.com
Animation School Review – www.animationschoolreview.com

These are just a few of the top animation programs in the United States. Is there a program or school you think we missed? An aspect of the school we forgot to mention? Or maybe you just agree with our choices! Feel free to comment, share your top picks and compare notes with other readers.

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