Animation School? (Don’t go unless you know how!)

A rant.

I should preface this by saying that everything I say here is based on my first year in a ‘legitimate’ animation school, namely, Leeds Arts University and that most of the topics discussed here pertain to universities in the UK from the perspective of an international student.

I didn’t want to come on too strong (especially in my first post)… however in my opinion, over the past 20 years, animation for TV and Film has been romanticized and we need to talk about it. This is mostly due to the wild successes of massive super companies such as Disney and Pixar. People seem to think that all you have to do is press a magic button in Maya and, boom, you’ve just made an Oscar winner. The idea of animations has devolved from fine art to a technical process. a misleading concept for aspiring animators.

I specifically say over the past 20 years because, believe it or not, before Toy Story and Star Wars, people used to animate films by hand! If you’ve ever attempted to animate anything by hand you would realize that in order to accomplish even the simplest motion, your command over the fundamentals of drawing would be put to the test. For some reason as soon as artists trade their pencil for a stylus, the fundamentals fly straight out of the window.

I’ve heard so many people say they ‘don’t need to know perspective because I’m only interested in character design’ or, even better, ‘what’s the point of life drawing if we are only drawing cartoons’. I can only imagine these people going into the industry only to realize that they just wasted 4 years of their life aimlessly scribbling into a sketchbook, hoping to get into Disney. Although I have to admit, there is some merit in abandoning the fundamentals, this probably isn’t the case, especially at the beginning of our careers.

The scary part is that ‘animation schools’ and universities around the world are the reason that students are coming into the industry unarmed, without functional skills. Animation schools (Specifically in the UK) sell us the idea that for an unreasonable price, they can give you a piece of paper that guarantees your entry into the industry. This is just wrong and I am prepared to fight anyone that argues otherwise.

The truth is that the animation industry revolves around individual skill, meaning you get jobs by showing what you can do with your hands. Most of the time studio recruiters don’t care about your education, all they want to see is a good portfolio. After attending the Disney Studio for a week, I learned (from multiple recruiters) that one of the most attractive things they look for in a candidate is a clear portfolio. 

That’s it!

They don’t even care if you even went to school. If that’s the case, why should I even go to school?

That’s a good question…

With all the resources we have online nowadays, that’s a question that I think about every day. Having gone through a year of both learning by myself (for free) and going to school for a year I like to compare both experiences. My friend and I like to play this game where we make a list of all the things you could learn in a £15000 animation school year and what you could learn on YouTube in a month. So far the YouTube list hasn’t ended.

But that’s not what this blog post aims to answer; this blog post is for the people who have to go to school. Be it because of parental pressure or some sort of wild pipe dream. In fact, the people who can really benefit from this are the international students that pay twice as much tuition out of their own pockets. I want this blog to give context to the state of animation schools today, I’m going to try and set a REALISTIC stage for the state of the UK animation education industry today. How did we get here? And what should you expect?

Now it’s time for a brief history lesson (don’t @me on the details).

The late legendary animator Richard Williams said that ‘one of the problems rampant today is that, in the late 1960s, realistic drawing generally became considered unfashionable by the art world, and no one learned how to do it anymore’. if you know your history you know that Disney animation was crumbling between the 60s to the early 80s, on the brink of defunding the animation department the bad streak of films combined with the general disinterest in a technical drawing in schools created the silver and bronze age of Disney. I assume, after this, a crippled Disney begins to look for fresh but more importantly cheap meat in the form of bright-eyed animation students from, the only specialist animation schools in the US at the time.

These schools namely Cal arts Sheridan (and later maybe SCAD and Ringling), as a result of Disney’s desperation, went on to produce the generation of animators that eventually helped legendary animators like Glen Keane and Dan Haskett bring upon the Disney Renaissance in the late 80s to 90s. Big names like Tom and Tony Bancroft as well as Aaron Blaise, and many more that are still at Disney today are a result of this generation of animators.

The relationship with these elite animation schools only grew resulting in a sort of Monopoly within animation recruitment, not because of some sort of conspiracy-like pact between the institutions but because they were the only ones teaching the fundamentals Disney was looking for. Now that Disney animation is back in business, people are starting to see animation as a viable career again and these schools start blooming in business. Predictably, other schools around the country and eventually around the world follow suit as animation becomes a demanding job again. But there is one big problem, all the new schools that are offering animation all of a sudden, don’t have the expertise in their teaching staff to teach at the level of the elite schools because remember, back in the early 80s fundamentals weren’t t generally taught and the knowledge of the old Masters was left to rot in the hands of these elite schools, which are ironically now booming with business.

So what do the new “animation” schools do? They compromise, substituting in-depth theory of design, appeal, colour, shape language, and anatomy with open-ended, grey area teaching, where nothing can be wrong and all drawings are GREAT, lowering the quality of education so that they can make money, this is a business after all. Uneducated schools would go in and create syllabuses that were inferior to those of the elite animation schools, and because of the success of animated films in Hollywood, the supply of animation students overwhelmed the capacity of the elite animation schools and prospective students eventually poured out into the secondary inferior schools that didn’t teach the same kind of animation. Unfortunately, all the things that you are not taught in these schools are exactly the things that recruiters expect you to have before you get hired. Good fundamentals are given for anyone in the industry, even if you’re just going to be on Maya all day.

Okay, so we’re all doomed?

No! At the risk of severely contradicting everything I’ve said so far, people can make it in the industry without going to expensive animation schools, some people end up enrolling in technical courses like ArtCenter to supplement technical skills they missed out in university. But ArtCenter is like $50k per term and most people can’t afford it, so the question is, what do we do about it?

You make most of what you have. at the end of the day university is just a tool that is supposed to be used to get to where you want to go, so use that tool. if it’s a technical skill you need you don’t have to rely on the university to give it to you GO LOOK FOR IT, even if universities in the UK don’t teach technical skills, they probably have libraries and other facilities that have that information, on top of that the internet has way more information about animation then your university course has to offer and it’s either dirt cheap or completely free. Use the internet to get the technical skills and if you have anything you don’t understand, ask your tutors. Even if they probably won’t teach you that stuff in class, they could probably give you the personalized review that online learning popularly lacks.

A good example of this was that before the whole pandemic I would use our vast library to borrow world-renown anatomy, perspective, and animation books that actually had the information that I came here to learn in the first place, the things that my teachers refused to teach. that way you can make most of the obscene amount of money that you will pay to come to most of these schools. 

Go online and learn from Aaron Blaise, Proko, youtube, skillshare, twitch, and literally hunt for knowledge and remember it will never be a waste of time as long as you’re learning something it’s worth it.

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