USC Class Gives Students Inside Look at Disney TV Animation

Disney Television Animation wants to make sure there’s a steady stream of talented animators in the industry pipeline who may one day come up with the next “Gravity Falls” or “Star vs. the Forces of Evil.” So it has sponsored a course at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.

The Master Class Character Design Workshop was taught by former Disney animator Caroline Hu and featured weekly speakers from DTVA’s large bullpen of showrunners and creators. It took the students from the inception of their big idea to their big pitch. The course just finished for the fall semester. “What I’ve been doing is very collaborative. (At the beginning of the semester,) the students come up with their ideas. They pitch it in front of the class, every class, as it develops, and they get feedback from each other every class. And they get feedback from the Disney people. It’s been very collaborative, and because of that, everybody’s projects have been improving,” says Hu.

Speakers included “Gravity Falls” creator Alex Hirsch, “Wander Over Yonder’s” Ben Balistreri, “Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero” showrunners Sam Levine and Jared Bush and the team behind the DVTA’s upcoming new series “Tangled”: Shane Prigmore, vice president, creative affairs, Disney Television Animation, and Chris Sonnenburg, executive producer and supervising director, among others.

“The class is centered around developing a show for television,” explains mid-term speaker Sonnenburg. “What most students think it is to develop a show for television or film is very different in reality. There are a lot more elements and politics and collaboration and notes and on and on that you have to deal with when you’re trying to develop something, or pitch something, or get ideas across. I think this is a little bit of the voice of experience. We’re here to share our actual experiences of moving from conception to development to green light, and understanding those steps.”

It’s not the first time USC has collaborated with Hollywood studios for classes, according to Tom Sito, chair of the John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts at USC. “The USC film school’s had a relationship with studios like Disney going back to the ‘30s. As a matter of fact, I think around 1935, Walt Disney used to come down and hang out at the campus and interact with the students,” he recalls.

So when DTVA approached USC about sponsoring the course, the school was on board. “We’ve done work in the past with studios like Nickelodeon and DreamWorks and so on, and the Disney people wanted to do something with us, specifically on the idea of television and online content because that’s the new thing nowadays,” says Sito. “It’s a chance for our students to interact with professionals in the industry and get that creative edge from being at a research university in the center of Hollywood.”

Prigmore, a DTVA exec as well as a showrunner, says he wishes there were more classes like this. “It’s an amazing step forward in educating the world about the medium of animation and production, and the process of making a show: how to make deadlines, how to work with other people,” he explains. “A lot of students have an idealized idea of what it’s like to work for an animation studio. But if you want to get into animation, it’s hard work.”

For student Matthew Torres, the experience has been invaluable. “It’s an incredible opportunity. Listening to Alex Hirsch and these guys, I’m just sitting there with my mouth open,” he says. “They are just so encouraging. I don’t think there’s any way I can write down what I’m learning from them. There’s so much insight and so much knowledge.”

A complete, professional pitch is the ultimate goal for students in the class. “The object for the students is that they’ll be able to present professionally to all the executives who come to hear their pitches,” explains Hu. “I think some of the students had ideas that were outside of the Disney world, and I told them ‘That’s fine, but I think you need to consider that this is another challenge for you. You’re not pitching to Fox, or somebody else; you’re pitching to Disney. You have to pitch to a specific studio for this project, so you’ve got to have something that’s going to be family friendly. You’re not going to have mayhem. It has to be within certain parameters.’ Whether Disney picks it or not, they did something from beginning to end.”

It’s not clear yet if the course will be offered again in the future, but Sito says he hopes so. “This was sort of a trial run to see how this works out. We certainly had enough students. We actually had to turn students away,” he says. “This class, specifically, is for people who are very interested in a full-time job in the animation industry. A lot of times some of the more interesting ideas for TV shows started as school projects. In the past, TV series like ‘Johnny Bravo,’ ‘Powerpuff Girls’ and ‘Dexter’s Lab’ began as student films. So seeing the next big talent come up is exciting when you can spot them. Getting encouragement and professional experience from a group like Disney is invaluable to emerging students.”

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