Animation in a digital world

Katie Jacobs Bohn
October 05, 2015

Animation has come a long way in the past 80 years. 

When Walt Disney started production on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1934, more than 300 animators, artists, inkers and painters had to hand draw the 1.5 million cells that make up the film. But when Disney animators sat down more than 75 years later to work on “Frozen,” the pencils and watercolors on their desks had been replaced by a suite of sophisticated computer graphics technologies.

Animation (along with many other art forms like illustration and video game design) has become very high-tech. A degree program in Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture — the Interdisciplinary Digital Studio — is devoted to teaching students the technical and creative skills they need to succeed in the field. 

But one group of senior undergraduate students wanted a way to go a step further in practicing their networking skills and getting more professional development. Thus, the Computer Graphics Club was born.

“We wanted to create a club that would allow us to have fun while also boosting our professional skills,” said Megan Koren, the club’s president. “Some clubs focus more on being social, but we wanted to spend more time developing our technology and networking skills.”

Although the students are all working toward the same degree, their specific interests — and the technology needed to practice them — vary. Koren says she’s most interested in designing and creating 3-D virtual characters, ideally for a gaming company someday. To bring her characters to life, she uses programs like Autodesk Maya and Pixologic ZBrush.

“ZBrush is a great program for detailed, organic modeling,” Koren said. “It’s comparable to molding virtual clay.”

The other students use different programs according to their interests. Koren says she knows students who use Photoshop for digital painting, Illustrator for character design, and Unity for platform videogames. 

“And, of course, traditional art still plays a role in graphic design, as well,” said Koren. “We still use hand-drawn, 2-D animation, photography, drawing and painting, too.”

Because they also wanted to practice networking and learn more about the professional side of graphic design, the members decided one of their first big goals would be going to the Association of Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques conference, better known simply as “SIGGRAPH.”

SIGGRAPH, which took place on Aug. 9–13 in Los Angeles, brings together tens of thousands of computer graphics professionals every year, offering exhibits, poster sessions, demonstrations and opportunities to rub elbows with industry experts. The club members volunteered to help staff the event — which had them explaining displays, checking badges and enforcing the event’s no photography rule — which gave them free admission.

Koren says that while the conference largely focused on the latest technologies in graphic design, there were also plenty of other innovations to see.

“During one of my volunteer shifts, I worked with a man who was developing edge-detection software to help visually impaired people,” said Koren. “So the conference wasn’t just about entertainment, it was also about technology that helps humanity.”

But the students didn’t just learn more about the latest technologies, they also got the chance to network and gain insight into the creative processes of industry leaders.

Ethan Jones, the club’s vice president, remembers hearing one of the team members who helped create “Inside Out” — a Pixar 3-D animated film in which emotions become their own characters  — describe building a scene in the film as being very frustrating.

“It helped me realize that no matter how high up you are, no matter how successful, there’s always a struggle,” said Jones. “You’re always going to have those moments creatively when you’re just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”

Now that the conference is over, the students are hard at work on their senior year. And as they prepare for life after Penn State, they already have big ideas about what they eventually want to do. Club member Caleb Yoder is specific; he says his dream job is doing animation with DreamWorks, the film production company behind such films as “Shrek” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” Others have broader ideas.

“I’d like to do more with illustration, specifically character design and world building,” said Matthew Morgan. “I really enjoy bringing imaginary worlds to life.”

And although a lot of emphasis is put on 3-D animation in the computer graphics industry, some of the students — including senior Nikki Tatsumi — still have a soft spot for classic 2-D animation, the technique Disney used for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Tatsumi says that after graduation, she’d like to eventually move to Japan, where she has family and where 2-D animation is more popular than it is in the United States.

“I really enjoy the more traditional aspect of 2-D animation, even if it’s more labor intensive,” said Tatsumi. “You have to do each and every frame, without filling anything in automatically with digital tools. It really gives you a bond with your work.”

So no matter what interests students most, the Interdisciplinary Digital Studio and the Computer Graphics Club are making sure students have the tools needed to thrive in the industry. And be sure to scan the credits of big animated films in a few years — you just might see some familiar names.

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  • 3-D figure of a wizard character

    A 3-D wizard character created by Megan Koren in the program Autodesk Maya.

    IMAGE: Megan Koren
  • 3-D lego figure

    A 3-D Lego figure created by Megan Koren in Autodesk Maya.

    IMAGE: Megan Koren
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Last Updated October 07, 2015