The Symposium -
A summary by Jayne Pilling
British Film Institute
Thanks to the efforts of the Centro Sperimentale, and the collaboration of ASIFA Italy, "Teaching Animation: an International Symposium" succeeded in achieving its highly ambitious remit. This was to bring together, for the first time ever, a large number of animation teachers, activists and animators to map out current teaching and training provision around the world, and to work to define key topics of debate in an area of film making that has developed at an unprecedented rate over the last two decades. A densely packed programme filling three days proved inspiring, exhilarating and highly educational for all invited.
As this report is necessarily a brief summary, it seems more useful to work through the vast areas covered in those three days by topic area, and to conclude with comments on how to build on the many initiatives and development needs identified. These comments are drawn from the formal presentations, discussion with participants, and my own observations.
International Survey of Animation Courses
Although the range of institutions represented was limited to some extent to those able to attend (financially or time-wise), and there were some regrettable absences, the number and diversity of courses outlined by participants was enormous, and gave much food for thought. For many of the delegates from western and eastern Europe discovering the very existence of animation courses in some countries was a revelation in itself. The fact that some presentations included extracts or compilations of students' films was greatly appreciated, especially in those countries who are relatively unknown in animation terms e.g. India, Brazil.
Presentations varied enormously in detail and approach i.e. from information on equipment, student numbers, content of courses, to wider, more philosophical talks of pedagogic approaches. Given this disparity, and limitations of space, it seems pointless to list that information; a survey is currently being carried out to tabulate this information for general disseminatory and comparative purposes.
One of the most cogent presentations, fortunately also available in written form, was by Raoul Servais, who combined fundamental questions about the teaching of animation with considerations of context, utility, and detailed arguments on the pros and cons of different approaches e.g. studio apprenticeship, and placements versus courses. His presentation also underlined the crucial importance of maintaining the current diversity of courses for the continued development of animation, technically and aesthetically.
From this mass of information, the following seemed useful areas for discussion...
The relationship of animation teaching to national production contexts and state policy for film are clearly key factors, and vary enormously from country to country. To take extreme examples: Canada's Sheridan College, which teaches traditional animation in a highly structured and disciplined way, is clearly geared towards producing well-trained animators for high quality commercial studios such as Disney or Don Bluth, whilst Vienna's Studio for Experimental Animation, situated in a country with virtually no tradition of commercial animation, lays emphasis on creative self-development and relating animation to other art forms. The course of Ghenk is another highly-structured one, right through to the specific demands of graduation films, and clearly responds to the range of needs of the TV industry - hence its Applied Arts context. Many art colleges are much more loosely structured, encouraging students to develop their own interests and specific talents. Countries formerly known as the Eastern Bloc have developed animation teaching in a context of state-subsidised production: this has allowed a rigorous insistence on technical as well as aesthetic standards, and comparatively longer courses that are often envied in the West. Other interesting relationships to national film and television industries were highlighted. Norway's More and Romsdale College is unique in being non-fiction orientated (as well as being the only institution in that country to teach film and video making to a professional level). The animation course at CFT Gobelins in Paris was established with support from a Chamber of Commerce. Ghana's National Film and Television Institute proved the only source of animation education for a large number of (Anglophone) African countries, most of whose students are sponsored by their national television companies.
The numbers game
The presentations demonstrated the enormous variations between institutions and countries. Annual student numbers ranges from 2-3 to over a hundred. The length of courses ran from a minimum of two years to the more average 3-4, to 5-7 years. A few were open only to post-graduates; a few were full-time dedicated (i.e. animation only) undergraduate programmes; many were related to general film making or fine arts courses (see below). Resources varied greatly: from the college which can process film twice a day on campus to another which increasingly has to rely on individual student fund-raising to make graduation films.
Film School, Art School
The impetus for this Symposium was partly due to the realisation that CILECT, the international association linking film and TV schools around the world, could help forge links and greater co-operation between their members and animation courses located in educational institutions such as art colleges, as listed in the ASIFA-compiled international directory. Several issues arose from looking at the differing educational contexts these institutions provide.
In most, though not all, Film Schools' live-action and animation students attend a common or core foundation course before they go on to specialise in their chosen disciplines.
There are some useful initiatives to bring live-action and animation students together e.g. involving live action students in script development, technical departments for, say, set construction in model animation; or to involve production managers and trainee producers. [Interesting to note in relation to the latter that a constant concern for the UK's Channel 4 Animation Commissioner (the main source of production finance for art animation films) is the lack of good producers in this area.] However, it is clear that these initiatives often encounter problems, and are an area that could usefully be further explored. (Perhaps, for Europe. this could be taken up via Media film production training (scripting, producing etc.), i.e. in addition to Cartoon initiatives.)
A common complaint from film schools was that of animation being marginalised in relation to live-action: sometimes in terms of access to equipment, but more crucially via reluctance/inhibition of live-action teaching staff to be involved with animation. (see conclusions for suggestions.)
Art schools can often provide more specialist courses and teaching. Because of the nature of fine art degrees, which introduce students to a range of art-forms, art students may discover a vocation for animation they have never considered previously; this also happens in some media studies courses in the UK. Art schools can also help develop the medium's aesthetic potential through contact and collaboration with other art-forms in innovative ways.
Some feel that art schools can be seen to encourage unrealistic expectations, an art for art's sake approach which is difficult to realise in the cold post-college commercial world.
Specific individual presentation and general panel discussions raised several issues in this area.
An increasing tendency to elide, or conflate the specificities of animation and live action through the development of special effects and virtual reality was noted, which has implications for the teaching of animation, and of computer animation. On the latter, many felt that students must be taught the basics of traditional animation first; but as Peter Bardazzi commented (in another context), there is a whole new generation of computer and computer-game literate adolescents who are experimenting with animation on home-based computers: it is questionable whether they are likely to go through traditional animation training.
Inter-continental joint projects are also an exciting new possibility via electronic technology.
A reiterated concern for teachers was that of keeping up with developments in computer animation hardware/software, on top of their regular workload. Regular in-service training was seen as an urgent need, but again it is questionable how this is to be achieved, given the implications for time off on course budgets. And of course this is compounded by the rapidly developing rate of specialisation required.
Bardazzi pointed up the usefulness of institutional computer science departments when linked to animation teaching in this area e.g. the potential for 'in-house' software modification. The benefits of using computers to save time, drudgery and perform try-outs were highlighted: e.g. electronic story boards can test out structure and rhythm.
A very useful feature of the conference was the inclusion of several former students from a variety of animation courses (e.g. film and art school), from the newly graduated to more established and internationally recognised animators. The fact that occasionally their accounts differed somewhat from those given by their respective teaching institutions enlivened debate, and further justified the organisers' initiative. A general observation, drawn from these contributions and discussions with other students, is that it is important that colleges make their individual approach quite clear, particularly their courses' orientation to what their students might expect in terms of prospective employment in industry. Again, this information might be usefully included in a directory of animation courses.
Current and Desired Curricula
These panel discussion focused on specific topics, and proved some if the most lively and rewarding for participants, allowing more in-depth exploration of the differing pedagogical approaches presented in the International Survey. Unfortunately, as they were scheduled against each other, they also proved somewhat frustrating - although the report-backs remedied this to some extent. They were also cross-fertilised by the general presentations e.g. Bob Godfrey's comments on scripting and student exercises fed in to the specific session of Writing for Animation. The latter included discussion of written scripts versus purely visual story-boarding; differences in testimonies (e.g. synopsis, treatment, outline) which are both culturally and commercially determined; pros and cons of involving non-animation scriptwriters. The relation of teaching dramatic structuring to that of script or story-boarding is an important issue, and was highlighted with reference to non-narrative action experimental film. It was felt that short intensive courses specific to different forms would be useful e.g. series as compared to auteur films. A useful related point was made about the need to distinguish between the different needs of different animation forms in teaching e.g. model animation compared to drawn.
Direction of production took a wide-ranging approach, and covered many areas. The question of (commercial) ownership of student films is increasingly important given the development of theatrical, TV and video distribution of student films, and also highlights the necessity for the inclusion of legal and business aspects of production in teaching e.g. copyright clearance.
The pros and cons of learning step-by-step or process were discussed: teaching through self-contained exercises leading ultimately to production of a film versus teaching basic animation techniques leading to students learning through the process of making a film.
The importance of teaching students to budget for time was stressed and related issues of self-discipline, and the role of intervention on the part of teachers in this area.
As many teachers are also practising film makers, different experiences of how personal work related to teaching responsibilities were shared.
The detailed discussion following lecture/demonstrations by distinguished practitioners in Different Techniques and Sound and Music were much appreciated by delegates, both for technical tips and for raising wider pedagogical issues. The latter also highlighted the lack of attention paid to music and sonorisation in much animation teaching, and linked into Edward Nazarov's presentation which came at it via a particular film as an example.
Teaching Animation History was poorly attended: a combination of unfortunate scheduling (it clashed with Sound and Music ) and the fact that there is relatively little of it in most animation courses. Yet it's an important issue: apart from the fact that it can stimulate students' imagination by inspirational example (and counteract 're-invention of the wheel' syndrome), and be a form of cultural history teaching for general development, it is needed to develop the academic study and appreciation of animation as an art form. But it's a chicken and egg problem: there is so little historical, critical and aesthetic work in this area compared to live-action cinema that it can be difficult to find good written teaching material (although video and laser disc distribution is now developing, albeit on a small scale). Again this also related useful back to some of the questions raised about the lack of general and critical awareness of sound and music in relation to animation: clearly an area of work to be developed.
A useful aspect of Vimenet's presentation highlighted an innovative approach to the role of written work in animation courses, with students whose strengths are in the visual arts hence often lacking verbal and written skills, or confidence. His course offers students the opportunity (and technical back-up via other departments in the college) to offer their written work as visually designed/presented. Also raised the possibility of compiling registers of interesting student theses for bibliography reference.
It was regrettable that there was no contribution covering current work in interactive educational laser-disc production.
Another problem raised is that often animation history teaching is done by those of a more technical background, whilst some academics and historians are not particularly good at teaching. Yet the conference itself provided inspiring demonstrations of the contrary (perhaps the truly exceptional prove the rule!): John Canemaker's lecture on Winsor McKay, and, although in a different context, the lecture/discussion of his work-in-progress, by Yuri Norstein. Similarly, the two slide-lectures given by Yoresh, on Character Design in animation and Manipulation in Visual Communication proved fascinating and pertinent, the latter also because it demonstrated the value of cross-disciplinary teaching - in this case, graphic design.
Teaching Animation in the Third World was somewhat problematic in that Australia did not seem an appropriate geographic region: although the presentation, recognising this, did provide a highly informative history of Australian animation. A debate might more usefully have been sparked by including the Ghanaian representative to discuss common or different experiences with that India.
Training animators, training animation directors
An emerging concern highlighted by many delegates is whether there ought to be more distinction between, and appropriate curriculum developments to match, the different needs of animators and animation directors. The pilot courses being developed in Denmark should provided useful pointers, and the suggestions in Servais's well argued paper are also relevant here. Given the slight unease expressed by some at the direction of Media Cartoon's initiatives in training, these developments might provide a fruitful solution, and is clearly an area demanding further research.
Obsessed, possessed: group encounters
Many or most forms of animation can be done by a solitary individual, and there is a long tradition of considering animation as a form of personality disorder (the obsessive recluse syndrome). A frequently expressed concern was the need to counteract this tendency in students, both for their creative development and in terms of the working reality they are likely to encounter after college. A range of useful models and experiences about how to develop creative collaborations, and how they can also help develop self-discipline were mentioned in various presentations and in informal discussion, including the production of weekly animation newsreels, the intensive weekend locked in a room with no escape until the film is finished; peer group evaluation of story boards (although the potential dangers of this were recognised).
The Symposium's ambition and scope, and the amount packed into each working day, tended to leave little time for debate after presentations - and there was little in the way of a concluding agenda. This would, however, be perhaps premature, given the amount of information and wealth of ideas generated by the sessions and informal discussions , and the need to reflect on how these should be developed.
A paper from Peter Blumel was circulated suggesting the need for set of common European standards in animation education was tabled, though there was no time for discussion. Standardising recognised course specifications and graduating criteria would seem somewhat utopian, not necessarily desirable, and quite impractical given the differences in educational structures and government funding. However, his paper had useful suggestions for sharing course materials, and trying to establish exchange programmes.
Some suggestions have been mentioned above in relation to specific topics.
The desirability of guest lectures and workshops by animation artists as regular components of animation courses was keenly felt by all delegates, although financial constraints were a source of concern. There are several practical ways in which this could be developed e.g. closer co-operation between festivals and cinematheques, or variations on the Animator-in-Residence scheme at London's Museum of the Moving Image, could perhaps lead to shared travel and accommodation. On the academic side, some form of co-operation with the American Society of Animation Studies could be examined, as ASAS is keen to extend its international membership and interests.
It is clear that this symposium has generated enormous interest and excitement, and all delegates felt its initiative should be further developed. By the end of the three days, it was also clear that informal discussion, opportunities to meet so many fellow practitioners and discover new ideas for teaching techniques and strategies were all bearing fruit in terms of planned exchanges and projects. If this impetus is to be maintained, swift action is imperative. A publication is an obvious first step, but it would also seem worth considering a range of approaches to the issues raised.Urbino was an idyllic setting, and it was gratifying to see the Symposium's concerns actually impacting upon the town itself, via the Animation project: a mobile van involved 90 local young people in making their own animated films: which in three days were drawn, filmed, processed and finally projected!