Summer 2011: v.07 n.01: Under Fire: 3D Animation Pedagogy
Associate Professor of Fine Arts
School of Design, University of Pennsylvania
For the last couple of years I have been working on an animation and sculpture piece called International, that brings together two historical figures, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek and American builder and philanthropist George R. Brown (of Brown and Root).
In the animation I’ve used oral history recordings of Brown and Hayek to create a conversation from their complicated perspectives on how markets should work and how a nation should develop. Their theories outline how a society should deal with this negotiation between being fair and equal and finding social justice, and how going too far with these concerns can lead to inefficiency, misdirection or in total a weaker economy and nation.
My research on the ideas of Hayek has influenced my thinking about my teaching. I teach at the University of Pennsylvania in the School of Design. In addition to teaching animation, I advise graduate students in all disciplines. Hayek the libertarian economist’s most basic idea was that changing prices are signals that enable individuals to coordinate their own plan. The most efficient market is one where the larger system is not controlled by a mediator, but by a system of free enterprise.
In addition to his thinking about economics and many other subjects, Hayek wrote The Sensory Order, where he described how the physiological connections relating to perception can not be explained in physical terms. His research led him to the conclusion that naturally created systems are efficient and not necessarily understood; and that is okay.
I have three types of students. I have students that are interested in being artists. They are working on their independent work and have the intention of going to graduate school, or they are in graduate school, and they would like to become working studio artists. I also have students who are working on animation as an extension of their other major. And the third category, are joint-degree engineering and art students who expanding their education by gaining hands-on experience using tools that are similar to those that they will develop as technical directors.
When I step back and look at what my role is as a teacher, my role in the human context, I am forming mentoring relationships with the students who are making a transition from adolescence to adulthood, or from adults to adults who are rethinking their approach to their professional work. In either case, I try to focus on skills that will help them as professionals.
The skills these students need most include learning patience, learning to work with people, how to direct their enthusiasm and energy, how to deal with uncomfortable situations, how to manage projects, how to maintain stamina, how to create and use new combinations of tools that will interlink with ideas. It is also important to project to those students that they will have social relationships outside of their jobs and responsibilities as artists.
In terms of teaching ideas, I like to let this conversation evolve slowly. I like to let the students start wherever they would start. Once they can see their ideas clearly, they can become better editors of their ideas.
Quote from a student in my animation course (Jason):
Like futuristic, kind of, guys, and they’re all, well I have lots of futuristic ones, but then I kind of, just went by memory on, kind of, mythological organic shapes…He has made choice between earning respect and honor by going and doing this, whatever he’s doing, or staying at home and living a long and happy and peaceful life. Which is kind of the story of the Iliad, and Achilles, but I’m kind of working on that.
Jason was working on this idea about Achilles. I asked him how he came up with this idea, and he had no idea. I asked him if he played sports. He said, yes I play baseball. Then I asked him if was injured, he said yes I have had surgery on my arm. I asked him what his goal was after school – he said he wanted to be drafted. Finally I asked him if he thought his situation had anything to do with Achilles, he said no it has nothing to do with it, and then there was a long silence.
I think the stories that the students come up with, no matter how general they seems, there is some way to find that autobiographical story that is in the basic idea.
Many times when I’m thinking of this phenomenon, I remember Pixar’s and Monster’s Inc, because the story of Monsters Inc might just be a story about the way that Pixar educates their interns and the expansion of their company. It’s about finding this young and malleable talent that can mature on the job and creating an idealistic and creative community that they can live in .
I like to keep in touch with students who have entered the workforce. When I visit them on the job, it is interesting to see how much they have grown professionally. It is also always surprising that they haven’t kept up their social life outside of work. The fine art alumni tend to be the opposite; their social skills increase much more quickly after they graduate and usually it takes a while to develop their professional skills because they are have a difficult time finding a job.
It is also clear that graduates that go to production companies and work in technical departments or in animation learn a tremendous amount from their work in the years following graduation. They also engage in as much or even more experimentation as their counterparts who choose to pursue careers as independent artists and start to establish themselves after school.
In most ways, there has been much more experimentation in the technical departments of the animation industry than there has been in experimental animation in the past decade. The innovation that we once saw by artists at ISEA, at Siggraph, in Leonardo, at the National Film Board of Canada, has fallen behind, and the technical directors and larger companies of animation production are at the forefront of experimentation in animation systems.
It is important in this paper to distinguish between pedagogy and andragogy. Andragogy is a term used by Alexander Kapp in 1833 to describe the distinction between child learning and adult learning. Our students have many of the qualities of adult learners. They need to know the reason for learning something. They learn from experience and error. They need to be responsible for their decisions on education and they respond better to internal motivators.
In writing this I should acknowledge that there are many challenging aspects regarding the quality of jobs and the ethics of content in large sectors of the game and the animation industries, although returning to the concept of free enterprise, when a young artist decides how to orient themselves in a career in the arts, they should go where they find the work to be most interesting.
1. Pixar images were requested for this article, but were declined.