Sep 24, 2006

A Calarts Rumination

the cover of the Calarts brochure for the animation program; I've been told Disney would routinely send this to anyone asking how to get a job at the studio; I've also been told that the uncredited cover drawing is by Nancy Beiman, one of the earliest students

The main hallway of the character animation department, tidied up, cleared out and ready to start the fall semester of 1989

It's fall again; school is back in session. Although I haven't been back for years, lately several events have me thinking about CalArts: the Martha Baxton auction(Martha has been been den mother and stalwart backbone of the character animation program since before my time, when she also did duty in the film school proper); meeting up with some former classmates for a lively lunch; and my friend and colleague Dave Pimentel starting his first foray into teaching(story) there.

the interior spread of student work from the Calarts 70s-era brochure

At the time I went there, 1987-1990, there was nothing else in the country that offered what CalArts did: a course specifically geared for the art of character, "Disney" animation. Canada had Sheridan, as it still does, NYU had exactly one animation class until John Canemaker began his tenure there...UCLA had a well-known set of classes, even something known as a department, run back then by Dan McLaughlin, I believe. I'd occasionally haunt that area when visiting UCLA's Melnitz theatre for the open screenings of rare films they did and still do. The room held about a dozen animation desks and the usual ephemera of student work(stacks of animation paper, peg hole-puncher, a woody smell of pencil shavings), but its overall atmosphere was more akin to that of Jules Engel's excellent and unique Motion Graphics room at Calarts than it was to the buzzing, coffee-fueled ambiance of the two floors that encompassed the Character Animation department begun by Jack Hannah and Bob McCrea, at Disney's behest, in the mid-1970s. I went on a guided tour of the Calarts campus while in high school, returning afterwards on my own to prowl the rooms without the steely eye of whatever provost gave us a 20 second glimpse of real live animation students at work. This was a time when Hannah, Bill Moore(legendary design teacher of Chouinard), T. Hee and others of the original staff ran the program, and my memory is of gingerly and (I hoped) invisibly walking around the student rooms, accompanied by someone's record player set to 78 rpm, playing a helium-infused rendition of "I Wanna Be Like You" from the "Jungle Book" was heaven No one took notice of me or busted me(it was a Saturday). I chatted with Bill Berg, who was working on a film about a young kid playing jazz; he was friendly and encouraging when I told him I wanted more than anything to someday get into the school, and be an animator. Bill was obviously older than the mostly 19-23 year olds scattered around the area, and I remember being impressed that someone would commit to CalArts to be an animator after having lived an already full life(he'd talked of his own son, and his music career). Bill went on to Disney's and a long animation career, and I've never heard anyone say a negative thing about the guy, which doesn't surprise me).

Even though no one but Bill ever spoke to me or took any notice, I was ever conscious of trespassing through an inner sanctum I didn't belong to--one that loomed large in my imagination. It wasn't until about 6 years later that I myself got into the department. By then the staff was mostly very young and new, headed by Chouinard graduate and former Imagineering kid Bob Winquist. Bob had retired from running his own design firm, and sort of defaulted into taking over the character Animation department, having subbed for his old friend Bill Moore as design teacher(Bill had been terminally ill). Bob believed in having young, dynamic instructors, and we as a result got Mike Giaimo for character design, Joe Ranft for story, and Chris Buck for animation. They were all old friends who'd gone to CalArts at the same time about 7-8 years earlier, and between the three of them we lucky students had exposure to just about the entire panoply of cartoon design, idea and possibility. Which brings me to a common misconception about my alma mater that persists in some quarters to this day: the idea that there's some sort of "Calarts style", approach or "look". That wasn't the case when I was there, and I seriously doubt it's the case now. While many of the eager young faces in the first-year chairs are (understandably) in love with the legacy of the Disney studio that helped start the place, many, many others love--or prefer--everything from Hanna Barbera to George Pal to Nick Park to Warner Bros' most insane output, to UPA, to the NFB of Canada to...well, you get the drift. There are as many "Calarts styles" as there are people who've gone there--hundreds. It's just a school like any other school; teachers come and go, have a strong influence or not, students listen, absorb or rebel--it's the same everywhere.
Calarts is privileged because of its close proximity to and association with the Los Angeles animation scene, but it's really "special" because of the individuals who learned there, who come from almost every corner of the word, and who bring along all kinds of different ideas and yes, "styles".

I don't believe the character animation program ever stamped out anyone in any kind of mold. That's just my own opinion, but I can easily back it up with the example of many living, breathing animation artists working all over the world today--now joined by the graduates of over a dozen other terrific schools--Gobelins, Sheridan, Ringling, RISD, Art Center, many others--yet still, a school is in the end nothing more a set of rooms to learn in, filled with various people--the true quality of the school is up to them. My school will always have a special place in my heart because of the people I met and learned from while there--as much from my fellow students as from the teachers, which is how Bob wanted it to be, and how it always works out. Far from being in any way elitist, I found Calarts to be a place where we learned to look around, experience more than we might on our own, and pass it on.

ADDENDUM: I couldn't think of a way to work it into this post, but a piece on CalArts wouldn't be complete without a reference somewhere to A 113. So there it is.

the swanky accommodations of CalArts' animation department, circa Fall of 1989: you got an ex-Filmation animation desk and a chair. The formcore dividers, sheets and other bric-a-brac were up to you. This is my 2nd year space, the back wall of the overlooking mezzanine above the design room. I've got a video printout of Daffy Duck in Bob Clampett's "Book Revue", Ernie Kovacs, a drawing Chris Buck did to help me, and some xeroxes of Colonel Haithi on the back wall there, among other things.


Randeep Katari said...

Wow, Jenny, so eloquent...I totally, undeniably understand what you mean by this experience. I felt the EXACT same way when walking through the animation wing at Sheridan back in high school, and then later on as a fundies student. Just dying to be here. And now I am. Y'know, even with all the bureaucratic bull, you sometimes forget how lucky you really are to be doing what you's really great that there are people like you to remind us of such things. It's both inspiring and nervewracking at the same time...After all, who knows what will become of us once we're finished our schooling, I say schooling, as the learning will never end.
Hope all is well Jenny, give me a shout soon.


Fede said...

Hi Jenny,

Just wanted to thank you for such a fantastic blog, always my first click in the morning with my coffee. Living so faraway from all the wonderful institutions you have mentioned but not having the possibility to attend any, this blog at least provides a window into that.

Your stories are always well written, inspirational and adorned with awesome artwork.

Thanks again

Fed - Johannesburg – SA

MondayMorgue said...

hi Jenny,
wow that character animation brochure is so great. I was at CalArts from '99-'03, same time as Jeremy Bernstein, and 1yr. ahead of Dave Derek and JJ Villard.
While there I loved seeing past years' 'producer show programs' and party posters.
If you come accross some you have, couldja post them sometime.
great post.

J Hardy Carroll said...

Excellent post, Jenny... as usual. Clay at the Animation Podcast had a real jewel a few months ago, a taped lecture of Milt Kahl at CalArts talking to such students as Brad Bird, John Lasseter and John Musser. It was reaaly great to listen to Milt (bitching about the lack of story at Disney, ha!) and especially to the questions. Brad Bird, as you might guess, was very involved in the discussion. the tape seemed to capture a lively and challenging spirit... fun, but the sort of fun where mere excellence is not even close to enough.
Glad to have you back... very nice work.


Anne-arky said...

Damn...I wish I'd gone to a good animation school.

Thank you for the wonderful, inspiring post(s)!

Mark Mayerson said...

Hi Jenny. I checked with Nancy Beiman, who's having computer trouble, and who asked me to post this for her:

"Jenny is correct. I complained to Jack Hannah that all the artwork in the brochure was life drawing; there were no animation drawings. He said, "Okay, you have fifteen minutes to do the cover." It's my second-year characters, and not good drawings of them either."

"The interior artwork is by Jerry Rees and John Musker."

samacleod said...

Awesome pictures, so valuable and interesting to see. I'm a senior this year, and we ARE lucky to have Dave, he is very passionate. You should visit for fun sometime. I doubt much has changed. The fire is still blazing!

John S. said...

Hey Jenny! John Sanford here, 90-93!!! Your post brought back a flood of memories!!! I remember the first time I walked into the department and down that hall. It was Sept 4th or 5th, 1990, and the walls were covered with drawings the students had done the previous year. Character designs, storyboards, and design projects, all of them of professional quality to my freshman eye. It was so inspiring to see all of that great work, and intimidating! It really set the bar high. I knew I was going to have to work hard to make it in that place! Thanks for the post!

David Germain said...

An animation teacher I had was a Cal Arts graduate. His name his Steve Rabitich. Have you heard of him?

Amelia Lorenz said...

Jenny--Your blog is great! Thanks so much for your nice posts and pictures. If that picture of the animation room had been taken today it would look exactly the same!! Good times...haha

Hans Perk said...

As an untrained 15-year old, in 1977 I received that same CalArts folder (and a purple folder about the Disney studios) from Don Duckwall. I cringe when I see the mini-portfolio I sent to them back then. It seemed so far away, me being in Holland - so after finishing school, I went to work with Børge Ring instead. But gee, how many hours I stared at the images as I read the requirements over and over again! Thanks, Jenny, for refreshing my memory!

MisterZoobadoo said...

never fear about people not browsing. Its very informative hearing about your experiences and observations. art school is a great experience, and I feel like i was pretty lucky to have gone through it with the classmates I had, but -like with all education - you get out of it what you put into it! Thanks for the inspiring story!

Jenny Lerew said...

Tom--man, you're right! Damn! SFA is a's been a force since back in Chouinard days, hasn't it? I didn't know it had structured animation classes, but it certainly had as many critical drawing teachers as Chouinard ever did...thanks for bringing it up!

David Germain: I don't know your friend Steve--but my time at Calarts was just 3 years, with the overlap that happens when you know the people that came before you or were a year or two behind you...(Brenda Chapman graduated 3 mos before I started, and her film was among my favorites, for instance).
Mark, I've always liked Nancy's drawing and she was right--the brochure did need some animation stuff; her little piece meant "animation student" to who knows how many aspiring Calartians and others? Wow! I'd add that at least one of the interior drawings is (I'm pretty sure) by Ruben Procopio, the one of the man on horseback; when I first interviewed with Jack Hannah while still in high school(he wisely told me "go to junior college, take art classes"--I went to NYU instead), he pulled out xeroxes of Ruben's and held him up as the thing to shoot for for a portfolio...I still have those xeroxes somewhere. He also said "this kid is so good, he bypassed coming here[to Calarts]and went straight to the studio!" Interesting that Procopio, whom I would hear about every so often afterwards, became a sculptor like his father, not an animator. And he's an excellent sculptor, from all I've heard.
Hans, Amelia, John, Ann, Josh, Randeep, Fed--you do me too much honor. : ) I'm so glad you like the blog...I had a heck of a time writing this entry--there's really almost too much to say about the Calarts/school experience. Thansk for coming by and letting me know you're reading it.

Alessandra Sorrentino said...

Hi Jennifer, thanks for this awesome blog, it's so interesting and full of beauty. I linked you on my blog ;)
Congratulations and keep up,

Tom M said...

Hey, I'm a first year character animation student here at Calarts. Reading your blog here has reaffirmed my belief that I'm going to love it here. Even within the first few weeks of being here, I feel I've improved more than ever before in my schooling. I really like reading what other peoples experiences were like.

Kt Shy said...

Wonderful post, very loving! I felt the very same way for Sheridan, you've made me remember back to when I first nervously entered the animation wing about four or five years ago...

Geritopia said...

I also received the same "Character Animation Program" pamphlet and met with Jack Hanna at CalArts during my senior year in High School ('78). Looking over my portfolio, which I'd naively stocked with "cartoony" drawings, he reminded me of how the school was looking for quick-sketch anatomy drawings and how I should go off and study "and mature a bit". I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut, because I'd already been toiling away for a few years making my own animated films top to bottom and buying supplies from Cartoon Colour, etc.

Coincident with this experience, I recall that animation was in serious doldrums during those years. People were telling me how animation had seen it's day and how it was a career with a grim future --or so I was told by a couple jaded animators I'd met working in a boiler room on a "Count Chocula" commercial.

As it turned out, I never did go back, nor did I wreak my revenge on the world, or become a Fascist dictator like another art school reject. Rather, I became more diversified in my interests --for better or worse. But I'll never forget that watershed day at Cal Arts.

Thanks for the posting. Great stuff here.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

Your post makes me nostalgic. That first photo of the main hallway of the character animation dept. was tidied up in time for my first year at Calarts.

I also agree with you about the myth being created about the "Calarts style".

Chris Sobieniak said...

For someone that only had CalArts in the back of his mind back in high school while seeing the usual application/brochure posters up on the wall, I knew neither I or my folks would ever get the kind of wad to go to such a fine place as that, but it's nice reading up and seeing much of what went on there during those early days of the character animation program.

Andrea said...

Oh god, the nostalgia. I fell in love with CalArts at CSSSA Animation 2004. That summer of Animation kept me going!
This blog is amazing.

Anonymous said...

My son was accepted to CalArts, RISD Ringling Scad Museum school in Boston...He wants to be an animator.Loves2D.