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(NORTHRIDGE, Calif., Oct. 23, 2007) — Students filled every computer station in Cal State Northridge’s Walter Lantz Animation Studio, their eyes shifting between drawings—some sketched on torn sheets of lined notebook paper and others meticulously etched on artists’ pads—laid near their computer mice and the screens in front of them.
As they worked, soft-drink cans, a fantasy hospital guard and tables among other objects slowly came to life. It’s only a beginning 3-D animation class, but the images on the screens already looked like something you’d find on the latest video game.
"Most of these students have the talent, we’re just giving them proper skills so that they can succeed in the industry," said Mary Ann Trujillo, coordinator of Northridge’s animation program in CSUN’s Department of Art. "These students do succeed. Our grads are working in some of the top animation studios in the industry, whether they are working on a movie or television show or in the game industry."
She quickly runs through a short list of some of the program’s alumni: Robert Castaneda, director of animation for Technicolor Interactive whose work includes games "Gears of War," and "God of War II" as well as computer animation for the film "The Matrix Reloaded;" Artak Avakyan, cinematic animator for Sony Computer Entertainment America, whose work includes the games "God of War II" and "True Crime;" Chance Raspberry, character layout artist for Film Roman Studio who worked on "The Simpson Movie;" and Tyree Dillihay, a director and flash animator and development artist currently working on a project for BET.
"The list could go on and on," Trujillo said with a laugh quickly throwing out the names of art alumni Vicki Jenson, director of 3D CG features for DreamWorks and director of the movie, "Shark Tale," and Brian Miller, president of Cartoon Network Studios. "The thing is, our students are leaving their mark in animation."
Trujillo’s enthusiasm for her program is infectious as she describes the long hours she and her colleagues, many them part-time instructors who hold full-time positions in the animation industry, put in to ensure that CSUN animation students get the training that can open doors.
"We do it for the students," said Mark Farquhar, the program’s only other full-time professor and a 17-year animation veteran who has worked on such movies as "Surf’s Up," "Open Season," "Beowolf," "Shark Tale," "Toy Story 2" and "Iron Giant." "It’s really surprising how much effort these students put into their work and I’m very excited by it."
Students in the program start with the basics, learning the principles of animation through hand-drawn and 2D digital Flash exercises in timing and motion, before they move on to 3-D computer animation with AutoDesk Maya.
A drawing Character Design course is another important component of the program. "You have to bring a lot of information when you are trying to model a 3D computer character, and starting out with a well designed drawing can help a lot. A computer is a tool like a pencil, the artist must bring the creativity and talent to it," Trujillo said.
In the second introductory animation course, students practice team skills as they work in groups to come up with an idea, develop a plot and then pitch their project to their peers, who then vote on which projects will be made. "They pitch just like they would if they were trying to get a project made in the real world," Trujillo said. "And their fellow students are encouraged to give them real feedback on what they are doing."
After mastering 3D CG modeling, lighting and animating, students go on to an advanced-level concept development course where they develop their own individual animation project, which they then produce in their senior year.
She noted that some student projects often get a large following on YouTube and other internet sites, many times leading to job offers, as in the case of Dillihay. His "Hiphopolis" attracted attention when it was among the top five hits on Atomfilms.com.
Trujillo and her colleagues also screen students—review their portfolios and resumes, and offer suggestions for improvement—before sending them out for internships, many for college credit.
"We want to make sure that they know their stuff and are prepared for whatever they might encounter," she said. "The internship may start out with answering phones and working as someone’s assistant, but you never know who the students will run into or what next they’ll be asked to do, and they need to be prepared. There hasn’t been an internship that hasn’t been worthwhile."
Farquhar agreed that connections are important, noting that one fellow animator immortalized their friendship by naming a character, "Lord Farquaad," in the movie "Shrek," for him, even though Farquhar didn’t even work on the project.
Trujillo pointed out that CSUN is in a desirable position, situated so close to the entertainment industry. "We have regular requests, from animation studios to designers of video games, for our students," she said. Among the companies that have had CSUN student interns are EA Games, DreamWorks, Disney Feature, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.
Senior Andrew Hamilton, 26, is currently interning at Marvel Lions Gate and hopes to land an internship at a television cartoon studio next spring. He said his time in CSUN’s animation program has exceeded his expectations.
"The experience has been fantastic," he said. "The opportunities I’ve had here have been outstanding, including the one-on-one approach the teachers take with you. I know that when I graduate next spring I will have the skills to go where I want to go in animation."
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