More creative minds drawn to animation
Buffalo News
August 24th, 2009

As her classmates worked on their projects -- a soccer ball crashing from the sky to explode by their Villa Maria College building, a skeleton coming to life, psychedelic dots and lines pulsing to music -- Ashley Kessman began to make her spiky-haired stick figure dude walk a jaunty walk.

It seemed too good to be true when she first discovered she could study animation for about $15,000 a year at Villa Maria, 20 minutes from home in North Tonawanda. She'd longed to make her creations move ever since she started drawing little pixel people she discovered on a Web site in the seventh grade. Her sophomore year begins this month, but even now after finishing one year, she can put the stories she imagines on the screen for anyone to see.

"I'm going to have him fall in a hole and meet Mr. Ninja Turtle," said Kessman, 18, before she began musing about her place in the first-ever animation class of 2013. "It's overwhelming really. There's so many possibilities. I can go anywhere with it."

Villa Maria is the first local school to offer a four-year undergraduate degree in animation with a focus on storytelling, filmmaking and computer technique. People at other schools say they see the same demand and opportunity, for their students and, perhaps, Buffalo. There is a new Web development minor at Canisius College, talk about more animation-related classes for communication design majors at Buffalo State College and a proposed new media study Ph.D. at the University at Buffalo.

"Animation is at the core of the multimedia revolution," said Vibeke Sorensen, chair of the U.B. department. Before coming here two years ago, she directed and created animation programs elsewhere, including one at University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.

There she said animation graduate employment was 100 percent.

She is glad for Villa Maria's new undergraduate animation degree. The two may compliment each other. Buffalo could get a reputation.

"I hope people will come here to find talent," she said.

While most classic movie animation jobs mean moving to California to be near studios, Ben Porcari, owner and founder of Buffalo's IBC animation production company, thinks more local animators could lead to more local businesses and more clients.

With the technology, you can essentially create anything. . . We're just at the beginning of it. From the creative side, it's only going to become more incredible. We're onto a new era here," said Porcari.

His company, now with a staff of eight, animated a real-looking room in a Harry Potter movie and a recent rabbit cartoon for a Trix cereal commercial.

"What's the next Picasso going to be like, or Salvador Dali going to be like, when they're using animation? It's exciting."

Porcari and others who practice the craft say demand for animators has been steady, but shifting. Advertising work has slowed with the recession, but possibilities of the digital age keep opening as animated media morphs and expands on Websites, TV shows, cell phones and in video game virtual reality and 3-D cartoon movies.

A feature film, like Disney's "Up" can employ 200 people, said Villa program designer Sarah Hanson.

"The jobs are there," she said. "It's, 'Are you willing to move?' And, 'Are you willing to work hard?'"

Hanson started her career as a Fisher-Price staff animator showing how yet-to-be-produced toys would work and making DVD movie stories sold with toys.

She modeled the Villa curriculum after her own training at Rochester Institute of Technology and observations of skills needed by Fisher-Price job candidates: classes in film theory, script writing, story boarding, basic animation principles and the related software. At the end of four years, students will finish at least three animated movies.

When Hanson chose the 25 members of the first class, she reviewed portfolios and looked for good grade point averages. She accepted unconventional students -- a graphic designer who already has one bachelor's degree and a self-taught artist who just earned her GED -- along with recent high school grads. The way some have interpreted her assignments has intrigued her.

"They come up with such fun, whimsical stuff," she said.

When she asked for a character walk, one turned in a pirate with a peg leg. Homework to make an animation collage from images found online led to a silent story of wind from an open window blowing pages on a book until a picture of a man inside came out, stood up and was swept away.

When classes start up again later this month, there will be a new group of freshman animators. So far, 15 have signed up.

As the first year of classes came to an end last spring, students at work on their final projects from a windowed computer lab had the pale looks of people who spend a lot of time working at the computer. Brandon Dostie was making a video he shot of a friend, kicking in the air, look like she launched a soccer ball into the sky, over a plane to land for a crash explosion by an aerial shot of campus he found online.

"Who doesn't want to do that, right?" he joked. Dostie, 19, of Clinton, thinks the work is similar to what his computer programmer father does, but he likes ending up with something people like watching. "It feels like more of a reward when you're done," he said.

Quiet in the room was occasionally broken when talk percolated into conversation about how glad people were for an affordable option to pricey out-of-state schools. Some wanted to work in California for Disney's Pixar studio. Or, create mini movies inside video games.

Even for some with yet-to-be determined career wishes, animation seemed like a good way to make a living doing something fun.

"I'd like to get a job that I actually want to do," said Jesse Przybyl, 22. Open on his screen was a software program with a gray frame and click buttons. He hit play and psychedelic lines and dots he'd made pulsed in sync to James Bond-esque music.

Across the room from him, Nick Ford worked out his blue man walking on a section of sidewalk that turned into a conveyor belt. He was about to abandon his first idea: to have a cityscape roll by while his man seemed trapped in place.

In the end, an old-time cartoon gag simplified: An X appears on the conveyor sidewalk and a safe falls from the sky and flattens the man.

"Usually most of us bite off more than we can chew," said Ford, 21, of Orchard Park, who enrolled at Villa after getting a multimedia associates degree at ITT Technical College in Getzville. "It's so complex, I'll never get bored."

He and the others in the lab that afternoon had the pale look of people who spend a lot of time working at the computer. Animating takes hours.

To better figure it out, Joel Murphy spent extra time working through morning and afternoon versions of the same animation class. At the moment, he was ignoring his computer, glancing at a textbook illustration of muscle anatomy and making pencil drawings of a skeleton turning into a man.

"I wanted to create a character teleporting," he said with smile. "The cloud swoops down and reassembles him."

His drawing paper had holes at the bottom. Sheets fit into pegs on a light board so he could see through the layers and make his sketches line up. To make an 18-second animation, he would scan 60 hand drawings into Photoshop, add color, and make another 250 computer-altered images of his clothes and a cloud of smoke. He made them move together in another program called After Effects.

Kessman was one of two in the room wearing a Pokemon character T-shirt. The cute big-eyed, yellow-eared creature was close to what got her drawing to begin with. When she was 14, she started making copies of little people she found on a Web site of quirky Japanese-style animation.

After drawing all the time, she is finally better than she was. It took longer than she thought. Animating is the same.

"You realize it's much harder than it seems," she said. She spent a long time getting her stick figure dude look like he was walking and not shuffling like a zombie.

In the end, her cartoon came out the way she wanted. Simple, short and silly. Her stick figure dude walks, gets an evil thought and then, with alarm, falls into a hole that, after hours of work, she finally figured out how to make look real.