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What makes a top animation school in 2017?

Tags: News Animation Education Harmony News and Opinion Trends

A career in animation has never been more desirable to young people. Consider these socio-economic trends: Generation Z, the adolescent cohort preparing for post-secondary education and the workforce, have distinct values and viewpoints. Born between 1995 and 2010, they are the first true digital natives, having never known a world without the Internet. This connected upbringing gives them a diversified, global perspective and a taste for travel and experiences. One study says 72 percent of them want to be entrepreneurs as adults. That's huge.

Animation offers Gen Z a career where they can work anywhere in the world, thanks to a translatable skill set and technology. The market is also increasingly inclusive of and reliant on freelancers, meaning it has never been easier for them to be their own bosses early in their careers. Pair that with the fulfilling benefits of working in a creative, celebrity-filled industry and animation becomes decidedly more appealing.

Students learn drawing on paper at AUB's animation course.
Source: AUB

It's a smart choice: the animation industry was worth $222 billion in 2013, and if massive, growing markets like China and India are any indication, it's set to skyrocket. As Generation Z starts to research post-secondary education options, Forbes notes their decision will be shaped by factors like if they are getting value for their dollar. Namely, an express trip to employment. They also have to be able to picture their future not only in the industry, but at their school. They want more than an education — they want an experience.

For guidance, prospective students can turn to lists like the Animation Career Review's 2017 rankings of the top animation schools in the U.S. and the world, including many Toon Boom Centres of Excellence. But what does it really take to be a leading animation school? To find out, we asked the experts.

Neil Hunter, coordinator and professor at Algonquin College's animation program, understands Gen Z's needs well. He tells Toon Boom, "[A top animation program] has to be something you can use right away. As far as students go, they want to see that what they're learning has value. They're very savvy — they come here for education because they want a job."


This may be why Algonquin starts with the fundamentals. (Yes, that means paper.) "We are very much a drawing school," says Hunter. "We do a lot of traditional animation in first and second year — the students have to develop their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. We use Harmony to primarily teach timing; in third year, they start to draw in Harmony and use rigs."

"I think our life drawing is unique compared to other schools because it is very animation driven. We teach anatomy as it applies to motion. We bring in animation discs and draw sequential actions, flipping the drawings and even filming them. It's very different from everybody else," Hunter explains.

Paul Ward and Peter Symons, who run the animation program at Arts University Bournemouth (AUB), echo the importance of teaching traditional drawing first, particularly in shaping 3D knowledge and perspective in animation. "I think drawing for animators means you learn to look and see, and then translate that knowledge into animation and layout," says Symons.

By contrast, Mauricio Ferrazza, animation department chair at Miami Dade College's Miami Animation and Gaming International Complex (MAGIC), tells us, "We go straight to digital — there's no paper. Everything is digital here. We do teach the fundamentals, but even figure drawing is done digitally."


MAGIC's mandate is to prepare students as effectively and efficiently for the animation workforce through a two-year program. Ferrazza elaborates, "I wrote the curriculum in reverse: I went to the industry and asked what skills they needed from talent and we designed the program based on that. Our curriculum is designed to adapt according to trends in the market."

He continues, "We know there is a global deficit of skilled, production-ready animators and want to meet that need. We prepare our students to hit the ground running after graduation — and they do!"

Though MAGIC may be different from AUB and Algonquin in the digital drawing respect, the three institutions agree on the importance of industry involvement. The Miami-based school connects students to the studios at Fox and Nickelodeon in their second year. AUB frequently invites alumni back as guest lecturers and mentors to current students. One such guest lecturer, David Blanche, co-founder of Small Fry Animation, tells us, "AUB is trying to involve more industry members, like myself, to give students greater context."

A rendering of 'The Brain' facility at Miami Dade College's MAGIC.
Source: Miami Dade College

In turn, this network of industry alumni connects recent graduates to jobs. Blanche says, "Jamie Badminton from Karrot Animation hires primarily from AUB. It tends to be a much more supportive system, which I really value. A lot of the work my friends and I have gotten has been off the back of other people from the course."

Algonquin has integrated industry into their board of advisors, with representatives from local and national studios like Mercury Filmworks, Jam Filled Studio and Guru Studio meeting twice a year to collaborate and strategize on ways to finesse the curriculum. They have a vested interest; most of their staff are alumni. Hunter says, "We get that regular feedback [from the advisory board] of what the industry is looking for and we can make changes accordingly. It's an important step in the process — we're not afraid to change things if they're not working."

Consulting active professional animators also empowers educators to teach adaptive abilities that not only get students jobs today, but ensure competitiveness for years to come. Known as future-proofing, these are evergreen skills with a low risk of becoming obsolete. In the case of animation, this means providing a foundation that can evolve with changes in trends and technology.

At AUB, Ward emphasizes the need to teach teamwork and impart the historical and theoretical underpinnings of animation. These skills, he notes, are timeless, "Getting the students to think critically about what they're doing and why they're doing it is absolutely fundamental to making them good storytellers, practitioners and rounded human beings, really."


Affirmatively listing the qualities of a great animation school is a difficult exercise. Ultimately, it is a moving target orbiting around the individual preferences and goals of the students. That said, based on our conversations with educational leaders, three factors seem to be imperative: the program should focus on the fundamentals, teach future-proofed skills and involve industry.

Teaching with Toon Boom is essential to realizing these goals. As Hunter tells us, transitioning from traditional paper drawing to digital is made seamless through Harmony, and allows for quick learning and feedback. Similarly, as the most ubiquitous 2D animation software in the world, Toon Boom is a future-proofed skill that will benefit students throughout their careers.

Integrating and involving industry is also paramount because they should be informing and helping to drive curricula. They know what skills will make students successful animators today — and continue to be tomorrow. With over two decades in the industry and connections at the world's largest 2D animation studios, working with Toon Boom can be the bridge between academia and the industry.

While we can't declare what makes a top animation school with perfect certainty, one that teaches with Toon Boom is a great place to start.

Explore our Toon Boom Centres of Excellence.