Wow, can you believe yet another year has gone by? And what a year it's been! We've seen so many amazing animated projects this year, from feature films (including major stop-motion AND hand-drawn releases!) to TV to some incredible videogames. The school has continued to not only be a personal passion for me, but has evolved into the most inspiring thing I've ever been a part of. The newsletter is cooler than ever, and our Tips and Tricks blog is jam-packed with amazing contributors and great feedback from the community!
It seems like just yesterday I was trying to decide what my first newsletter article should be about, and here we are, five years and 50 billion words later (sorry), and animation remains just as deep and endlessly interesting as ever for me. Hopefully, you feel that way too!
So – if you're up for celebrating yet another year of these articles with me, here's the plan. Grab a snack, whip up a Bacardi Anejo & Coke (mmm), and clink your glass against the screen for a virtual celebratory toast!
I got a great question via the blog from someone who is a big Animation Mentor fan, but has some legitimate concerns and questions that I felt were worth addressing, so if you're up for another way-too-long Kelly article, take a big gulp of your drink and let's dive in!
Does Animation Mentor run the risk of homogenizing online animation education, or even animation education in general? You would have to concede that AM has become a huge presence when it comes to the online animation scene. And while I appreciate that the tutors come from a broad range of backgrounds (if different feature studios could be called a broad range), the information does all come through a similar set of channels and systems. In spite of the diversity it is fair to say that an AM student generally create animation with a recognizable feel to it, and I don't just mean because we all know what the rigs look like, I'm talking about the posing, timing and spacing etc. Some might argue that its just "good" or "better" animating, but I'm afraid I don't accept that, I've been around long enough to know that there are so many different ways of approaching animation and many different kinds of movement that can be considered appealing.
Great question, right?
I'll be the first to say that there are many appealing and fun styles of animation, and none is more artistically valuable than any other. While the most experimental or stream-of-consciousness styles of animation may not have much demand in the workplace (as they don't tend to be as focused on storytelling, performance, and often aren't even character-based), the art behind those abstract styles is certainly beautiful and can even be moving.
So I think it's a valid question to ask: Why do we focus on teaching the style of animation we do?
Well, I'll say this: We're here to help people get jobs. That's it. That's our mission. Our entire school is based around the goal of giving our graduates the best possible chance at competing for the top animation jobs in the world. The type of animation we teach is by far the dominant and most popular "style" of animation out there today. We teach the range of styles found in nearly every modern animated project I can think of from popular culture, from Snow White to Lilo & Stitch, from Harryhausen to Transformers, from Zelda to Assassin's Creed to any iPhone game featuring a moving character – all of these and everything in between falls within the curriculum we teach at Animation Mentor.
We teach what is classically considered "character animation," and we keep our focus as tight as possible in order for our students to get the maximum bang for their buck in the shortest possible amount of time. I agree that teaching other styles could broaden some minds and expose students to more abstract artistic approaches, but in the end, it comes down to what they want from their education.
If their goal is to work at a big animation studio, then the abstract stuff would be an expensive distraction and a waste of their time. The cold truth is that 99% of the studios out there, regardless of medium, are not looking for demo reels filled with explosions of colors flying around or short films that they don't understand. They're looking for reels filled with personality, entertaining animation choices, rock-solid body mechanics, and clear emotional performances.
So that's exactly what we teach.
The principles of animation that we teach at Animation Mentor transcend style or medium. They are applicable to the wackiest of characters and to the most underplayed performance. The exaggeration or under exaggeration of these principles is what results in the zany Looney Tunes characters, the fantastical Miyazaki characters, the more subtle Disney characters, the exaggerated motions of some European characters, and the life-like performance of a character like Davy Jones. All of these styles are done by animators employing the exact same set of principles and skills, simply using them in slightly different amounts.
It's like you have a huge set of ingredients, and you can mix and match all of them in order to create any style of animation. While some may be more tasty than the others, it's the ingredients we teach, and the particular studios and projects themselves are the chefs demanding any given recipe. And those recipes often change at least somewhat from one project to the next!
As such, we encourage our students to work in a "recipe" that is the most broadly appealing and commonly used recipe out there. (Once again, if the goal is to get a job, your demo reel better show a style of animation that makes it clear to recruiters that you know all the ingredients that go into the recipe). This style we encourage lives somewhere between ILM and Disney, but it's a nice balance that shows recruiters that the animator has the chops to handle any style.
However, that said, we don't force animators to work in any particular style. It is up to them to choose the style they would like to work in. Many of our international students choose to work in a style that is found more locally to them, and we certainly encourage that. In most cases, their first animation jobs will likely be local to where they live, and we want them to have the best possible chance at landing that animation job!
I do have to disagree with your premise that there is no "good" animation or "bad" animation. I believe that there are certainly varying styles of animation, and that "bad" animation in one style could be "good" animation in another (or vice versa. Try putting Mr. Incredible into Transformers and he's going to stand out like a sore thumb. Or go ahead and put Optimus Prime into The Incredibles – he's going to look stiff and lifeless! However, if you are talking about animation that a hopeful job applicant is going to put onto a demo reel, there is absolutely "good" and "bad" animation.
You are almost never going to be standing next to a recruiter as they review your work, so there will be no opportunity to say, "I know that looks kind of weird, but I made the character off balance on purpose to subtly emphasize their emotional imbalance." Nope. They'll see the character's balance is "wrong," and toss your reel in the "no thanks" pile.
Even if that studio miraculously happened to be crewing up for a film that actually featured a character that is off balance, I *still* think that this demo reel would be denied because they would still simply assume that you don't know what you're doing.
So, while experimental animation can be fascinating and engaging, and while there is a great diversity of animation styles out there, our school is designed to prepare our graduates for the type of animation that studios are actually recruiting for.
We're here to help them get their dream jobs, and what we've found is this: If you take some of the brightest animators in the world and have them mentor and prepare students at the highest possible level, then no matter what studio or medium they end up working in, they will be ready to hit the ground running and excel.
As for your other question of whether or not I feel that we are running the risk of changing animation education in general, I sure hope so!
Too many students at too many schools are throwing their money away on educational programs that are not preparing them in any way for today's high-level job market. In some cases, we're talking about students losing US$100,000 or more, which really makes me angry considering the shockingly small amount of actual animation instruction they received for that amount of money, and the sad state of the demo reels they leave their schools with.
Sure, there are very few experimental abstract animators out there who are happy to pay for a non-traditional animation education, knowing full well that while they may not be truly trained to work in today's animation industry, because they will be pursuing a personal artistic endeavor instead. I think that is fantastic, and will be eager to see what these artists create in the coming years. However, the people that can afford to pursue a style of art that will at best severely limit their job options, are few and far between, and are just not the students that are interested in attending Animation Mentor.
Experimental and abstract animation is a worthy pursuit, but Animation Mentor is not a hobbyist school. We aren't here to teach people who are casually interested in animating in their spare time to create pieces they only show to their moms or submit to the occasional film festival. There's NOTHING wrong with that, but that just isn't what we're here for, and it isn't what our students are paying for.
We're here to teach people who have a passion to reach Disney or ILM or Valve. We're a serious school teaching serious students, and I just don't think it'd be right to slow down their education by distracting them with types of animation that there is sadly little demand for in the job market.
I'd encourage any student to pursue any art or style or medium of animation that interests them, but for us to force our students to spend a single day on something that doesn't take them a step closer to their dream job is just something that I think is fundamentally wrong, even immoral! We would be sinking to the level of the schools who are only in it for the money, and it would make us no better than these schools that we are specifically trying to be a positive alternative to.
Thanks again for the great question! I love that you guys all care so much about not only our school, but about this amazing art in general!