“Walking the Tightrope: Balancing Digital and Traditional Skills in Undergraduate Education” by McIntosh, Butler, Francek, Griswold, Lerer, et al. …

  • ©John F. McIntosh, Jeremy Butler, Kate Francek, Kathy Griswold, Jeffrey Lerer, Joel Sevilla, and Adrian Getzoff




    Walking the Tightrope: Balancing Digital and Traditional Skills in Undergraduate Education

Program Title:

    Electronic Schoolhouse (Classroom)



    Ground-zero: there is a collision between the visual arts and emerging digital technologies:

    It’s not “On The Road.” It’s “In The Studio” where streams of consciousness are running wild. Small animation teams hidden away in sprawling lofts. Clandestine jungles of endless cables, technology, and meteoric talent. Here, coffee is considered a vitamin supplement.

    Independent developers, outside providers of content sitting in nearly hermetic isolation. Quietly, they shuttle between home and studio. Much of their content transmitted via modem, they may never meet their clients face to face. Defying the 24-hour day,
    they have usually surpassed the 40-hour week by Wednesday morning.


    Game developers? We won’t even talk about THEM. Forget about it! Lunatics!


    Feature film production work. Four-year target strategies, two-year projects. Hundreds of artists pushing the stone and today only a few full-time contracts in the whole house.


    Independence! Experimental artists pursuing the festival circuit and grants. Perpetually plagued with no money, driven by an internal vision, sneaking around the periphery of a multi-billion dollar industry.

    These are a few examples of how digital technologies are redefining art and the role of the artist. A hyper-evolution of tools and concepts is underway, and academia must evolve to meet the challenge and adjust to the needs of emerging digital artists.

    The concepts of art training have been evolving for millennia. There is a continuity. Traditions handed down from one generation are broken by the next generation, and then juggled and revived by subsequent generations. Styles change, materials change, but the academic foundations that are most helpful to artists, in their formative years, remain unscathed. Identifying the critical foundations and insuring their survival in the digital environment are vital and essential.

    With the advent of digital technology, most visual artists found the digital medium too expensive, too hard to maintain, too complex, too slow, too visually limiting. Computers were anything but inspiring to most visual artists. Complicating the matter was the limited amount of training that was available, and most of it was geared toward basic computer competency and navigating software interfaces.

    As the computer has evolved into an affordable, user-friendly, outrageously powerful artist’s tool, the focus on software operation in the early years of computer education has endured today, at the cost of our students’ potential and the medium as a whole.

    First, Art; Second, Computer Art; Third, Industry Needs

    In the ever-increasing volume of academic programs based in digital media, a closer connection with the tradition of art school training needs to be rediscovered and re-established. It is not sufficient for a school to provide a software training site or even a level of proficiency for students to enter any of the commercial industries mentioned earlier. Our mission is to expose students to the values and concepts of art in addition to the mechanical mastery of computers and software.

    Have educators lost sight of their mission by focusing on vocational training in a response to the false challenge of an entertainment industry (promising to hire thousands of computer animators) to train artists as fodder for their now often empty production cubicles?

    New curricula in the digital arts will only be vital if all the major concentrations of a thorough art education are included and stressed. Certainly, a higher degree of critical rigor must be imposed on digital work. In recent years, the function of effective art criticism has been scaled down to make allowances for the fact that it was digitally generated, the aesthetic standard fuzzy, and lowered for the mostly non-artists driving the medium.

    Traditionally, one of the most valuable aspects of art school is the exposure to working artists. Students begin to understand first hand what a career in art means and what an artist’s identity implies by their contact with the faculty. Today, too many instructors are in fact actually not practicing artists, and they do not have the expertise necessary to be training in an academically rigorous environment. Talented, experienced digital artists are in great demand. Most schools do not have the ability, flexible schedules, or funds to attract the most experienced artists, even as adjunct faculty.

    These, and more, are the challenges facing technology-driven programs in undergraduate education. But these are only the philosophical or administrative concerns that will haunt the educational process for years. In the meantime, we still are trying to provide the best education possible to our students. We point, where we can, to the skills that will serve our students best and over the longest time.

    One truly visual skill that artists share is their ability to translate or interpret what they observe into a work of art. In animation, observation is paramount. The first phase of the translation from the world to the computer most often lies in a drawing
    or a sketch. Capturing texture, tone, gesture, expression on paper to be used at first to remember or explore, then as a character sketch to reference while building a 3D model and animating it on a computer.

    The creative process of moving from observation to drawing to computer animation can take as many unique turns as there are artists who attempt it. Depending on the skills of the artist, any single element of this process can be critical. Imagination vs. observation, quick sketch vs. detailed drawing, the decisions and the style of a mature artist are the important discoveries for a talented student. It is the student’s perspective we wish to explore in this panel. It is their process of discovery and knowledge that is our concern and our reward. Here are some comments from two graduating seniors from the School of the Visual Arts.

    Observation in Computer Animation
    Jeremy Butler

    “The importance of observing a motion, or performance, for animation purposes is essential for capturing true life in motion. Almost all animation, whether cartoon or realistic, relates to real-world physics and the laws of motion. The process of computer animation is not as simple as making a 3D character move. The true art and goal of animation is to bring the character to life. The animator wants the viewer to know, without question, that the character on the screen is moving on its own with its own motivation and purpose. Part of that believability comes from observation.

    “Observing from life gives clues to the subject’s manner, it’s habits, and most importantly the distinctive motion that defines it. These clues are vital to the believability of the character no matter how stylized the final output is. Observing from life is ideal, since it’s easier to see how the form relates to itself in three dimensions. Video reference is valuable because the actions can be repeated infinitely for longer studies.

    “The notes from my studies are generally a mix of words and sketches, with the notes being similar to captions for the drawings. Besides the notes and sketches, the process I go through is aided by acting the motions out myself in a mirror. Acting out the
    motion is probably the best way to ‘feel’ it.This brings me to a better understanding of the motion, and from there I form the basis of my animation.”

    Animation through Observation
    Joel Sevilla

    “Because we all move, the ability to animate should be relatively easy. If you can get yourself into a position or pose, then putting your character into the same position is a piece of cake, right? Wrong! It is the understanding of how you got into that creation position that makes animation fluid and believable. Weight shifting, hierarchy of movement, and bone structure are important elements of animation.

    “The best way to implement these elements and to understand them starts with drawing from life. Being able to put your ideas for an animation down on paper before ever touching the computer is infinitely important. It not only helps in understanding what poses and actions your character must perform, but it also allows for the building of personality for the character. Would the character be able to do backflips, or is the character someone who likes to spend hours in front of the tube with a bag of chips?These are questions that are answered in the development stage through writing and drawing.

    “Observing emotions and feelings is also very important in the animation processes Showing a character go through a cycle of emotion will make that character believable. What does it look like when someone is worried, happy, or mad? These feelings are not only conveyed in one’s face but in their body language as well. This coincides with the performance that the character must give. The animator becomes an actor who is giving a performance through the character. Like an actor, the animator takes his or her observations, feelings, and experiences in life and uses them in the performance.”

    The Panel

    This panel features aspiring animators Joel Sevilla and Jeremy Butler, independent animator and faculty member Jeffrey Lerer, and the chair of the Computer Art Department of the School of the Visual Arts, John McIntosh. The panel presents a no-holds-barred conversation and debate on the experience and challenges of balancing digital techniques in a fine art curricula. Illustrations from the faculty and students demonstrate the creative advantages of applying traditional skills in developing the most elaborate computer animations.


    Jeremy Butler
    Kate Francek
    Kathy Griswold
    Jeffrey Lerer
    John McIntosh
    School of Visual Arts

    Joel Sevilla

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