The One Lesson I Learned from Cal Arts

I never went to an art or animation college, but I do wish I had. I'm sure every artist wishes that they were given the opportunity to go to a school that was completely devoted to the arts, to fully immerse themselves in everything associated with drawing, painting, sculpture, history, you name it. I would've loved to major in animation, but things didn't go that way for me. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, I went to Georgia State University and, since they did not have an animation major, I went instead into Illustration. I focused my portfolio towards animation, and eventually got an internship doing what I love.

During the time I was at GSU, I did entertain the idea of possibly going to Cal Arts, regarded by many in the animation industry as the school to go to. I called to receive a catalog, and dreamed endlessly about taking all the classes I read about.

But that never happened, and I'm not at all glum about it. In fact, I'm very happy with the way things have gone for me.

Back when I was an animator at Click 3X, I believe it was somewhere around '98 or '99, a prospective young animator came by to show his portfolio and demo. He was still in school, and when he mentioned that he went to Cal Arts, well, needless to say, we were very curious. As he opened his portfolio, I was awestruck. I couldn't believe the gesture sketches that this guy was showing. Simply unbelieveable work - put us all to shame. (There was only 4 of us in the cel department.) I'll be honest with ya, I began to feel a little threatened by this unknown Cal Arts dude. I mean, who is HE to come into our little corner of Click and flaunt his exceptional talent like that? With work like this, there's no reason for Click to keep me around any longer! I was getting very envious as I stood there, silent.

Well, he then had his demo tape to show us, and so we all went into the conference room and popped his tape in. Again, I was silent at what I saw.

He was a TERRIBLE animator. His work was HIDEOUS. Absolutely nauseating.

I really couldn't believe it. How could this amazingly talented artist produce such "animated" crap like this? He couldn't even keep his characters on model if his life depended on it! Everything moved with such grotesque wiggling, that I just had to look away. It was like a car crash: I couldn't watch, but I couldn't not watch, you know what I mean?

It dawned on me what was happening. Could it be that all these schools were more preoccupied in helping students obtain the best possible portfolio, the best gesture drawing, the best figure studies, the best animal sketches - all to catch the eye of the Big Animation Studio, but all the while ignoring what should have been the most important factor in hiring an animator in the first place?: The ability to actually animate.

I'm sure that this is not the case for all the schools (and I'm not singling out Cal Arts here, either), it's just what I got from this one student. He fell through the cracks. Somehow his instructor(s) overlooked this young student and his lack of skills as an actual animator. And it further solidified the notion for me that animation is such a difficult thing to master. It's probably one of the hardest things to accomplish as an artist, because of all the things involved: design, physics, anatomy, weight distribution, draftsmanship, mathmatics, acting, the list goes on.

You may have the most amazing gesture drawings of the human figure, but if you can't make them move, then what's the point in hiring you? You're wasting our time.

So, anyway, we never heard back from that guy. I wonder what he's doing?


  1. He's probably working as an illustrator! Hee hee! It's interesting though, I had a similar reaction when I had the chance to review a SCAD graduate's illustration portfolio. His commercial/comic-oriented work was pretty good but something seemed a little off to me. The more I looked, the more I realized that this guy was really struggling with drawing figures. It's like, if they weren't really stylized human figures, then they just looked odd. When I saw his figure drawings I noticed that he had done these beautiful figure renderings but they were, most of them, missing hands, feet and faces. When he did draw them they were sort of "fudged" for lack of a better word. Sometimes there's just no substitute for drawing your ass off--especially those things that you are shaky on!

    Anyway, I thought back to our conversation yesterday and I realized just how much the animation process is about revision and going back and forth and erasing etc... It's really an evolution of process--if that makes sense. Basically building a sequence up from its most basic elements. It's a little like sculpting actually. Wierd huh?

  2. It is. It really is. Like a painting, piling on layers upon layers of paint and redoing certain sections, and trying again, animation is all about the process. And some don't have the patience to forge through that process. All they want is the immediate: the end result. But sometimes it doesn't quite go that way.

  3. I swear, I have to supress a gag reflex every time I see the "zoo" sketch page in a freelancer's portfolio. I could give a damn if you can draw a tiger in repose; how are ya at stayin' up inking my cels until 4:30 in the morning for 3 straight weeks? Why don't these so-called "art colleges" teach important unspoken concepts, like endurance, drive, self-reliance, pride in craftsmanship, etc.?

  4. Endurance, perseverence, tenacity, drive... Recognizing that you constantly need to improve your skills... I sometimes get the feeling that some students feel that once they graduate that they no longer need to hone their skills. Sort of like a brain surgeon no longer studying the brain because, well, he's graduated from Med School.

  5. It's sad but true. A lot of graduates' skills just aren't up to par when they leave art schools nowadays. I think it is assumed by some students that "My degree from this 'prestigious' art school will get me into a studio" while others think that "since I'll be using a computer, drawing and traditional animation skills don't apply to me". Both are incorrect. To answer Robert's question, I think these things are taught in school, not in any one specific classroom. It's up to the individual himself to take the initiative to learn these things on his own. It's learned through the passion and toil of working on projects for class while working on your own stuff on the side. It's learned through not turning a project in until you are 100% happy with it and have done everything in your power to make it as perfect as it can be. A lot of the best things I got out of school came through moments like these in the early morning hours of the weekdays and weekends. Unfortunately, for some people, the commitment to times like these just isn't there.

  6. Hi all
    That was my reel actually. (sorry to say) I remember you guys. In that tiny little studio. But you know what, I continued to move forward with my great talent. Thanks to my Cal arts degree I got plenty of work, now I have a demanding executve position here at Viacom with my own office (About the size of your meezly little studio) Now I have people review portfolios for me. I hire some great talent sometimes just so I can comment on thier work and make them do it over to satisfy my tastes. It feels great by the way. I'm glad I didn't end up there in your small wretched town wasting my talent on crappy commercial spots for god knows who. Now I take talented people and put them under my thumb Where they can make me look good, and my pockets swell fatter. I actually should be thanking you guys. If you ever need work up in NY look me up, Robert Randell. (Viacom) I got plenty of room for interns.

  7. Uh, yeah. It's nice to see that our readers have a good sense of humor.

  8. There definitely is a grotesque problem with animation grads. At SCAD, the first problem is that the animation department is organized by people who know/care nothing about quality animation. They basically organized it so the only 2D class I took before my final project was Animation I. I got screwed out of some precious 2D classes because they insisted I needed to graduate with both 2D and 3D on my reel. ("But I don't want 3D on my reel, I don't wanna do it at all ever in a million years! If you make me take Maya classes, I'll just end up being mediocre in both mediums." "TOUGH! Now give us more money! BAH HA HA!") Incidentally, they changed the course content AFTER I completed the Maya-intensive Animation II. Also, I'm continusouly amazed at the number of animation students who don't have any passion for motion, or passion for image-making, and often, they don't like to draw at all. We have two or three excellent professors on the faculty, but few students take advantage of thier guidance. Most of the time, the kids whine about how long they've been animating bouncing balls, or about how they have to redo assignments because the teacher is anal. Or they resist critique of thier work, justifying the mistakes as "my style!". (Oftimes, thier "style" is anime.) Its an exasperating environment to try and learn in. The top two professors in the department are probably going to leave in the next few years. I can't say I blame them.

    -Joanna Davidovich

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  11. Dang ur little girl is a great artist..

  12. While it is valid to critique work you feel is flawed, I think it is a bit harsh to say someone is "wasting your time." Perhaps this person was still in the middle of striving to improve his skills. Were you all perfect from the get go? Doubt it. Since when is working to achieve one's dream a waste of time? Don't be so elitist.

  13. Perhaps you weren't there and don't know the entire story. This particular student was in his last year of studies at CALARTS -- in the character animation program, no less -- therefore should've been more skilled than this. That's the irony of this entire situation: that a student in his last year of studies at one of the most prestigious animation schools in the country, was able to slip through the cracks and emerge without any proper understanding of the art-form. Get it? It's IRONY. This is what I'm appalled by. That's why I reacted the way I did.

    And, please -- you weren't there to make any sort of dignified judgment.