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Toons catch Continental drift

Paris, Stuttgart schools creating Siggraph buzz

When DreamWorks Animation rookie Olivier Staphylas started at the Glendale, Calif., facility, the young Gaul might have expected to feel homesick. But far from it: He speaks enthusiastically of the ambiance of his workplace. It’s no surprise he feels so at home, since quite a few of his colleagues attended his alma mater, Gobelins in Paris.

The connection with the school, famed for its character animation, dates back to when Steven Spielberg was recruiting for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Among the Gobelins grads to join that team in London, and subsequently Amblimation, was Kristof Serrand, animation supervisor at DreamWorks and a visiting lecturer at Gobelins.

The involvement of industry professionals such as Serrand in the students’ education is key to Gobelins’ success, says Eric Riewer, animation department chief at the college.

This year it has five works screening at Siggraph, one of which, “Le Building,” was the work of a team that included Staphylas.

The emphasis on teamwork is another characteristic that distinguishes the school, says Shelley Page, DreamWorks’ European rep, who ranks it among the leading sources for animation and visual effects talent in Europe, alongside Filmakademie Baden-Wurttemberg in Stuttgart, Germany, and Supinfocom in Arles and Valenciennes, France.

Headed by Thomas Haegele, Filmakademie has established a reputation for producing animators of high technical expertise. The school has nine works at Siggraph, four in the prestigious Electronic Theater section; one of those, “458nm,” will receive the special jury award.

Many alumni from the school have been snapped up by visual effects facilities in the U.S. and the U.K., including Conny Fauser at ILM, Piotr Karwas at Digital Domain and Matthias Zeller at Framestore.

Karwas’ short “Masks,” which he made while studying at the Filmakademie, won the jury award at Siggraph and the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1999. He returns to Siggraph this year with “Do Robots Dream of Bunnies?”

Karwas says the European filmmaking tradition gives students something different to offer Hollywood: “Cinema in Europe is treated slightly differently to the U.S. It is as much an intellectual approach as an entertainment approach, and the Filmakademie merges those two worlds.”

Fauser praises Haegele for keeping the students up to date with the latest trends and software in the biz. “He’s always had his finger on the pulse,” she says.

Other Filmakademie students have stayed in Stuttgart and established a vibrant visual effects community there. Among companies created by former students are animation outfits Film Bilder and Studio Soi and visual f/x facilities Elektrofilm and Unexpected. Many of the school’s grads are now at work on German action feature “The Red Baron.”

Like Gobelins, the Filmakademie uses professionals who are active in the industry to teach their students, rather than academics.

The Stuttgart school is set up like a visual effects or animation facility, not as a university, with students developing projects rather then studying theory.

“It means people are used to working in a very professional environment with a similar kind of pipeline to our own,” says DreamWorks’ Page.

For the first two years, students receive a thorough grounding in general filmmaking skills and then study the gamut of animation from puppetry to photorealism.

Getting a place at Filmakademie is “as tough as you can imagine,” says Zeller.

The same is true of Gobelins, which recieves up to 1,000 applicants for the animation program’s 25 places.

Both schools run exchange programs with each other as well as with North American schools such as CalArts. “That’s a huge advantage because you end up with really rounded individuals,” Page says.

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