In certain ways, the May 2 CalArts Character Animation Producers’ Show resembled any number of other year-end showcases of undergrad work held by art schools nationwide. Students gathered to cheer on their classmates, as 22 student-created animation shorts were screened, with four of them winning special awards. Alumni and faculty mingled in the aisles, using the event as a de facto reunion.
Of course, most other schools’ programs do not fill up the DGA Theater in Hollywood, and most mingling alumni do not include the likes of Pixar’s Pete Docter catching up with students and offering notes afterward. And it was hard to miss the entire rows roped off for representatives of every major player in animation: Disney, Pixar, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, DreamWorks, Netflix, Bento Box …. Begun in the 1980s, and slowly expanding in stature starting in the mid-’90s, CalArts’ showcase has evolved into something resembling a friendlier version of an NFL combine, offering sneak peeks at the next generation of talent in animation. If you were around for the 2006 show, for instance, you would have gotten a very early look at the work of Oscar winner Adrian Molina (“Coco”), Daron Nefcy (“Star vs. the Forces of Evil”), J.G. Quintel (“Regular Show”) and Oscar nominee Minkyu Lee (“Adam and Dog”).
“It’s definitely increased over time, and quite significantly these last few years,” says Character Animation program director Maija Burnett of the studio presence. “I think there are a variety of things happening: They’re scouting for talent, and they keep up with the students’ work year to year. … And I think it’s also a case of taking the temperature on a new generation and seeing what this group is doing creatively, where their interests lie.”
Drawing from 192 submitted films, this year’s show featured four award winners. The Peer’s Pick, voted on by students themselves, went to Yden Park’s “Goodbye Galaxy Girl,” a dreamlike, quietly heartbreaking story of a lonely woman who finds escape in cartoon clips online. Vimeo served as the jury for its namesake award, which went to Alex Avagimian’s vibrantly drawn slice-of-life “Little Bandits.” The Walter and Grace Lantz prize winners, decided by faculty, were Anchi Shen’s “Barry,” a wry vignette about an anthropomorphic goat attempting to become a doctor; and Gabby Capili’s “Dennis the Dinosaur,” the most daring of the evening’s shorts. She brought the house down when she ran on stage to engage in a perfectly timed dialogue with the titular animated brontosaurus, a diva-esque children’s entertainer, as he pouted and argued with his creator from the screen. (Remember that name. Capili also had another short, equally well-received if less meta, later in the program.)
“Women’s work has had more of an audience online than we were afforded in the past.”
Judging by the other 18 non-winners, the competition for those four prizes must have been fierce indeed, and student projects assayed a wide range of tones and styles. Family themes were particularly prevalent, from “Polaris,” Hikari Toriumi’s heartstrings-tugging tale of a teenage polar bear leaving home, to Li Wen Toh’s Pixar-esque “Then and Now” and Noor Rasoul’s tender “Jido,” dedicated to her grandfather in the UAE. Ning Cheng’s “Such Is Life” and Hanna Kim’s “I Didn’t Have Any Ideas” both took very different looks at artistic frustration. And Rhea Dadoo packed a truly impressive amount of narrative and world building into her black-and-white detective short, “Merryweather Fox and the Baron of Burrow’s Bend.”
CalArts’ character animation program includes a substantial alumni roster. With Docter, Brad Bird, Brenda Chapman, Don Hall and Chris Buck among its Oscar-winners, and such Emmy-winners as Craig McCracken, Lauren Faust and Alonso Ramirez Ramos. Watching the show, it was difficult not to ponder who might be joining those list of names a decade hence. And it wasn’t hard to notice that the night’s program, like the makeup of the program itself, was overwhelmingly female, a trend that seems broadly reflected in the emerging generation of animators in general.
“It’s not just CalArts, I think other schools are seeing the same thing,” Burnett says. “With Tumblr and Instagram, there’s much more visibility of student work, so women’s work has had much more of an audience online than maybe we were afforded in the past when there were more gatekeepers. I guess we see that in our own students, just the phenomenal amount of interaction they’ve had with people online. So maybe with more female role models, maybe that’s just given them that jolt of inspiration, and jolt of possibility to say, ‘OK, I want to do this too.’”