Arts Beat: Learning next generation animation

Dec 7, 2018

In the earliest days of cartoon movies, hopeful artists had to make their way to Los Angeles studios to learn animation. Now, digital tools let students learn the basics in far more places—including Allan Hancock community college in Santa Maria, which offers an associate degree in the field.

Ken Cope—who worked on Disney’s "Beauty and the Beast" early in his career—teaches students two and three dimension animation at Allan Hancock College. Students start out in 2D, making pencil-drawn balls bounce, for example.

But when they transition to 3D projects, it opens up a world of new tools. Along with 3D animation computer programs, Cope’s students also try out virtual reality in an Oculus virtual reality headset on campus.

“Nowadays, what’s exciting is the extent to which virtual reality is a production tool, not just entertainment, or a fad,” Cope said.

Exploring virtual reality games and programs is fun, Cope said, and it can also give animation students a better sense of the characters and scenes they’re working on.

“It’s different when you see the character you’ve worked on your size,” Cope said. “How big should this be? Well, does it come up to my eyes? OK that’s right. You can move in a space with your character.”

In a recent class, animation student Devon Flores demonstrated a drawing program within the virtual reality environment. Instead of using pencil and paper, or stylus and tablet, he built up a 3D character by moving his hands through the air.

Cope affectionately called the program “drawing with shaving cream” — and that’s pretty much what it looked like.

To draw, Flores held a small controller in each hand. But within the virtual reality environment, those controllers became tools—the instrument in his right hand looked a bit like a hot glue gun. At the touch of a button, virtual material sprayed out of the tool, allowing him to sculpt whatever he liked.

There’s one Oculus headset at the school—they’re pretty pricey. So while Flores demonstrated the virtual reality drawing, other students worked on separate projects in a computer lab, a sea of giant monitors surrounded by an assortment of 2D and 3D printers.

Cope sees 3D printing as yet another avenue for students to assess and adjust models they build in computer programs.

Having worked on animations for video games and theme parks, Cope is certain that students will benefit from detailed understanding of the virtual characters and objects they design. He also points out that there’s more to the field of animation than entertainment. Battlefield simulators and corporate training programs need good animations, too, he said.

Video games and films seemed to be a big draw for the students in class.

Some students, including Flores, are most excited about 2D animation, similar to the classic Disney films. Still, they’re enthusiastic about learning how to work in 3D.

Like Flores, Jessica Dugan sees herself as more of a 2D animator. But working in a 3D space has made her more attentive to a wider range of details, she said.

“With 2D you can draw it once and it looks fine,” Dugan said. “But with 3D, if you draw it from the left side and you turn it to the right side, it could look entirely different.”

Other students are angling to join the gaming industry. Robert Newlin has wanted to work on video games since he was a kid, and he’s watched the industry grow up as he has.

Video games used to be seen as toys, but “they’ve evolved into a real art form," Newlin said.

Newlin also knows how much work goes into video games—someone has to create every single item in a game, from blades of grass to beams of light, he said.

Between programs like the one at Allan Hancock, and the resources available online, Newlin thinks anyone who’s interested in animation could give it a shot.

“The best way to learn is to just start doing, playing around, get your hands dirty. Virtually,” Newlin said.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.