Professors mentor film's next gen of animators

These animation professors share their expertise with Hollywood's next generation of artists.

R. Brent Adams
Director, the Center for Animation
Brigham Young University, Salt Lake City

Adams, who migrated from architecture and engineering visualization to computer animation education, says BYU's program evolved out of other computer-visualization programs and has emerged as a cross-disciplinary course.

Setting BYU's three-year animation program apart from other film programs is that each class of students collaborates on a single, five-minute short film.

The school also has a mentoring relationship with Pixar, which sends out employees several times a year to advise students. Sony Pictures Animation has a similar relationship with the school.

"(The student film collaboration) becomes this vehicle for broad mentoring," says Adams, who notes that since the program began seven years ago, it has won 10 student Emmys and four student Academy Awards.

Student Quote: "Brent Adams wasn't big on teaching the small details of software or even techniques of creating a film (but rather making sure our) projects got completed and helping us find connections with individuals in the animation industry." -- Thomas A. Leavitt, previz artist, Blue Sky Studios

Laura Barbera
Senior lecturer, digital media department
Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles

"The main focus is trying to give (the students) everything in my brain that they're not going to get by sitting in front of a computer," says Barbera, a lead character animator who has worked extensively in commercials as well as on "Star Trek: Voyager" and "The Polar Express." "Anything that gives those kids practical skills as soon as they can is the way to go."
Alongside the technical aspects, Barbera says she makes sure they pay attention to the artistic elements. "Animation isn't just about being able to set a key frame; it's about timing and it's about movement and flow and arabesques."

Student Quote: "Laura has the best eye for animation of anyone I've ever known; no matter the situation, she can always spot where there's room for improvement." -- Craig Christian, freelance animator working at Psyop

School of Visual Arts professor Howard Beckerman with students
Howard Beckerman
School of Visual Arts, New York

When Beckerman, an animation legend whose career spans more than six decades, began teaching in the 1970s, there were few textbooks for aspiring animators. So he wrote one.

"Animation: The Whole Story," emphasizes the basics that Beckerman continues to impress upon students at the School of Visual Arts.

"You really have to know the basics of animation before you approach the computer, because you have to be able to bring something to it," he says.

A lot of Beckerman's success with his students -- who include animator and historian Tom Sito, director Yvette Caplan and Disney's Alex Kupershmidt -- comes from encouraging them to see the bigger picture.

"It takes a lot of maturity and understanding of the work process," he says. "You can put a lot of hours in, and sometimes nothing comes of it. But you still have to do it."

Student Quote: "Howard Beckerman not only taught me about animation, but also how to behave like a professional. His method of teaching though anecdote and example are techniques I use today in my own teaching." -- Tom Sito, USC animation professor and animator

Patrick Hanenberger
Instructor, visual development
Art Center College of Design, Pasadena

German-born Hanenberger understands the power a teacher can have on a student. "(When I was in school), I could tell who were really good teachers, and I kept in touch with the ones who were mentors to me," he says.

Such contacts led Hanenberger -- a DreamWorks production designer who has worked on "Over the Hedge" and "Bee Movie," among others -- to teach at the Art Center only a few years after graduating.

Now he's paying it forward. "I really try to make as many connections as I can (to plant) guys in the industry," he says.

Student Quote: "He was always full of passion and in return expected us to give 100% back as well. This fueled a very healthy, positive competition among the students." -- Alex Chin Yu Chu, concept artist, Bungie Studios

Daniel Hansen
Director, character animation
California Institute of the Arts, Valencia

When Hansen started out as a layout artist at Disney in the mid-1970s, he learned from Don Griffith, a self-taught layout artist who had worked in the studio since the late 1940s. Now he's teaching what Griffith helped him understand.

"I'm teaching all that stuff that took me 15 years to learn, but it doesn't have to take 15 years for somebody else to learn," he says. "It can take them 15 weeks."

The key to success, he says, is teaching students to take control of the process and communicate more than just a pretty image. Often, that means encouraging them to learn about writing, acting and design.

"I try to get them to understand they don't have to get the same education as every other student," he says.

Student Quote: "Dan (Hansen) had experience and knowledge, but also patience -- something very valuable." -- Pete Docter, director of "Monsters, Inc." and "Up"

Midori Kitagawa
Instructor, 3D computer animation and motion capture
University of Texas at Dallas

Learning computer animation was a lot harder in the 1980s than it is now -- but that didn't stop Japanese art student Kitagawa from mastering English and coming to the U.S. to study the nascent technology. Now she is an influential figure in computer animation education, which she's taught since 1994.

Kitagawa encourages her students to pursue both foundations and specialized skills. "It's getting more specialized," she says. "There might be even more (specialization in the future)."

There might be more competition, too. Thanks to the lower costs of making animation on home computers, more students are arriving at college having made shorts in high school.

Kitagawa urges them to take the long-term view and not just think about the skills they need to get a job today.

"I encourage my undergraduate students to get master's degrees before they leave," she says. "I tell my students to think about 20 years from now."
Student Quote: "Midori is a wonderful artist who offers determinedly authentic criticism to her students. She has a clear insight into the industry and its standards." -- Scott Swearingen, level designer, Electronic Arts

Rob O'Neill
Acting director, digital arts lab
Pratt Institute, Brooklyn

O'Neill is working at the intersection of technology and art, bringing the former to a school better known for the latter. He teaches both a large undergrad studio class and an advanced technical elective.

"I try to re-create a real studio environment so that they understand deadlines, pipeline and work flow," he says of the studio class.

His advanced technical electives range from character animation to programming for animators, aimed at students with art backgrounds. "I always make sure students know they can ask me anything about my own career," says the animator who worked as a character technical director at PDI/DreamWorks on the "Shrek" series and "Madagascar."

Student Quote: "(Rob is) well-versed in the workings of both the animation industry and the fine art world and understands how technology enhances and informs both." -- Paris Mavroidis, software developer

Mike Patterson
Visiting associate professor
University of Southern California, Los Angeles

An animator and director of commercials who also has worked as a director at visual effects house Rhythm & Hues, Patterson says he thinks of teaching like producing.

"You try to pull the best work out of students that they can do," he says.

Exposing students to current practices and as many professionals working in the field as possible is part of his role. "It's really important to connect with truly contemporary people who are making it happen right now."

Student Quote: "Mike consistently researches the most current and innovative work in the field and makes the effort to get a hold of the work so his students can see it." -- Jan Pfenninger, Pixar

Heather Thomson
Instructor, computer animation
Ringling College of Art and Design, Sarasota, Fla.

"Our classes aren't broken up into individual modules, like modeling, lighting, texturing," Thomson says. "The students learn the whole thing; they don't just practice one."

It was this aspect that lured her back to the school after stints with Lightpoint Entertainment and Victory FX, says Thomson, who often will have the same students through three years of her computer animation courses.

"It helps me to be a better teacher and to help the rest of the instructors," she says. "We're very collaborative."

Student Quote: "Putting in extra hours long after class ends, listening and being constructive every step of the way -- we couldn't help but follow her lead." -- Kevin Andrus, animator, DreamWorks' "How to Train Your Dragon"