California State University, Fullerton
California State University, Fullerton, uses Autodesk Maya software to help prepare new animation artists for the working world.
Established in 1957, California State University, Fullerton (Cal State Fullerton) enjoys the largest student enrollment of the California State University system’s 23 campuses. With about 37,000 students and 1,900 faculty members, the University runs under the motto Vox Veritas Vita, or “Voice, Truth, and Life.” If the institution’s department of visual arts is any indication, it is a motto that is taken very seriously indeed.
At 45, the visual arts department is just 7 years younger than the college itself and offers 3 bachelor of arts (BA) programs, 3 Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) programs, as well as Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs to 1,500 of the brightest artists in the country.
Larry Johnson has been teaching at Cal State Fullerton for nearly 30 years, the last 11 of which he has served as department chair. He has seen many changes during his tenure, one of the biggest being the launch of the BFA program in entertainment art/animation in 1997. Since then, the program has blossomed into the department’s second most popular, seeking to “provide students with conceptual understanding, technical skills, practical experience, and opportunities to explore the art of animation and to be successful entertainers, communicators, and storytellers with a focus on character animation.” An integral part of helping achieve that mission is the use of Autodesk® Maya® software.
“At Cal State Fullerton, we’re determined to provide our students not only with expertise in character animation and digital technology, but also with traditional animation skill sets, which we believe are vital to learning and creating art,” says Johnson. “The result is that today’s students have much more to learn than they used to, and in the same amount of time. Students must have a breadth of understanding that extends to core principles of animation as well as complex software. Autodesk Maya has been an ideal tool for teaching 3D animation to a new generation of artists.”
Originally a traditional artist and animator, Cal State Fullerton Associate Professor Chuck Grieb embraced computer-assisted animation and Autodesk Maya while working in the Special Projects division of Walt Disney Animation Studios in the late 1990s.
“Before I joined Disney, I was very skeptical of the computer,” Grieb admits. “But I fell in love with the computer, and my subsequent professional and teaching experience has always included Maya, so I guess it helped changed my mind.”
Arriving at Cal State Fullerton in 2002, Grieb was more than happy to teach the art and the tool to a new generation of animators. Grieb began to update the curriculum of the entertainment art/animation program with courses focused on character creation. By the time they graduate from Cal State Fullerton, student animators will have acquired a comprehensive understanding of character animation principles, concepts, and techniques for the expression of their personal visions. More important, students are required to create an animated work of their own, which not only starts their professional reel, but also demonstrates their understanding of the animation process as a storytelling medium.
“Autodesk Maya has fantastic tools for creating memorable characters,” says Grieb. “Maya is a great animation system overall, but it has really been designed to facilitate character animation, making it the obvious choice for a program like this one."
"That is one reason major studios choose it," Grieb continues. "Using Maya, we can teach digital animation in the classroom exactly as it is being used in the industry. If you are learning animation, you need character-driven personality innovation, entertainment, and storytelling. We deal with complex animation principles, and we do it through this very deep, rich software tool.”
With growing student enrollment and a long list of alumni now working in the industry, it appears that Cal State Fullerton’s curriculum is bearing fruit.
To name only a few, alumni of Cal State Fullerton’s entertainment art/animation program are now working at such high-profile studios as Disney Feature Animation, Disney TV Animation, Rhythm and Hues, Starz Media (Film Roman), Sony Pictures Imageworks, Cartoon Network, Blue Sky, Lucasfilm, and Oddbot. Alumni are also lighting up the games industry with work at Electronic Arts (EA), Pandemic Studios, Systemic Studios, Obsidian Entertainment, Sony Games, and more. Finally, former students’ work can be seen in productions including director James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Beowulf (2007), The Simpsons Movie (2007), Superman Returns (2006), and many others.
“We’re happy that a lot of our students have quickly found jobs in an increasingly competitive industry,” says Grieb. “After starting as a lowly trainee, one alumnus is currently head of CG at Nickelodeon. When you can help someone to make a living doing what they love, that is the best reward.”
Indeed, Nickelodeon Animation Studios has been so impressed with the knowledgeable, well-rounded talent emerging from Cal State Fullerton that the renowned studio expressed a desire to get more involved in the entertainment art/animation curriculum. One thing is certain, however, the program will continue to teach the essentials of traditional animation.
“Sometimes, our new students are surprised at the emphasis we place on traditional animation techniques and skills,” says Johnson. “Whether they know it or not, those skills are essential. Math and art are increasingly coming together. On a visit to a major studio recently, a student asked if they were looking for artists or mathematicians. The reply was that they wanted artists who like math. That speaks volumes about the art, science, and business of animation today.”