CalArts director of character animation Maija Burnett, Variety’s Animation Educator of the Year, has been on a journey to reshape and rethink the venerable department.
When she arrived at the Valencia, Calif., school in 2009, a big shift was brewing.

“I was really lucky that the timing was really good because right when I came in, our dean at the time, Steve Anker, proposed an entire examination of the curriculum and we ended up shaping it,” she says. “So within that first year of being associate director, with our former director Dan Hanson and Steve Anker, we really did put through an entire shift in the curriculum.”

One of the innovations was to introduce a class called film workshop. “In the past, the students would make their films without being in a class, without having a mentor or a teacher to guide them through, or being with classmates to actually share their work,” she says. “So at the end of the year they just presented their films, they hadn’t had the opportunity to workshop it. This class gave them that opportunity. It’s been very successful.”

They also brought in a more comprehensive CG curriculum. “That was a big shift. I think we taught it in bits and pieces before but this was more structured. I call it being fluent in both languages: the CG language and the hand-drawn language.”

She also notes: “Another important thing is what we’re calling digital 2D, which is hand drawn but directly into the computer. All the students draw on paper all the time — they have life-drawing classes every week — but digital 2D has become part of the contemporary workflow. So we introduced that in a more comprehensive way.”

While CalArts alumni populate a lot of the artists and directors’ chairs at Nickelodeon, Disney, Pixar, Cartoon Network and other animation powerhouses — and have garnered Oscars — teaching art and storytelling are still foremost in the school’s mission.

She notes that the character animation program has a very specific focus on fine arts, including life drawing, painting and sculpture.

“It’s really about the fundamental training and skills, and how to marry that with the contemporary digital skills that they need to know.”

Burnett also says she and the faculty keep an eye on new technology and how that impacts animation.

“The really exciting thing is that we have some recent alums and some not-so-recent ones who are going into these fields, like Glen Keane,” she says. Keane collaborated with Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group on the interactive short “Duet.” Other alum such as Jorge Gutierrez and Patrick Osborne have also done projects under the auspices of the Google banner.

“I’m equally interested in the continuing education of our faculty and staff. I organized a series of sessions here on campus for our core faculty and staff on VR,” Burnett says. “Although they might not teach it directly, and although some might, it’s about having that expertise so that they can be fluent in areas that may intersect. That was really fun.”