When French production designer Guillaume Aretos moved from Paris to Hollywood in 1996, he was hired as a concept artist on the DreamWorks Animation film “Antz.”

“‘Antz’ was the first film that DreamWorks [Animation] made,” says Aretos, who would spend the next 20 years working at the toon studio. “My production designer, John Bell, was an alumnus from Art Center; Kendal Cronkhite, the art director, was an alumnus from Art Center; my co-worker Shannon Jeffries was an alumna from the illustration department at Art Center. Basically, my first job in America was being surrounded by Art Center people.”

It was a portent of things to come: since 2016, Aretos, whose kudos include an Annie Award for his work on “Shrek,” has served as chair of entertainment design at Art Center College of Design, where he oversees tracks in concept art, animation and game design.
But even before he was asked to be chair, Aretos knew there was something special brewing at Art Center.

“In 2015, when I was still at DreamWorks, I noticed there were some really great portfolios coming out of Art Center,” says Aretos. “So I asked the recruiter [at DreamWorks], ‘Do you know how many people from Art Center we have at DreamWorks in the concept art department?’ And she said, ‘Well, we have 102 in total and more than 80 of them came from Art Center.’ That tells you something about the caliber of the school. Even before I came on as chair, I knew that it was the best school for learning concept art.”

The College of Design is now celebrating its 90th anniversary (although plans were rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic), and true to Aretos’ experience at DreamWorks Animation, the Pasadena-based film school has long implemented an overarching educational model in which instructors view students as colleagues working in the field.

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Clockwise from Left: A student puts the finishing touches on a sculpture; students line up a shot in an advanced cinematography class; David Luce teaches a composition and painting class. Courtesy of Art Center/Juan Pablo Posada

From courses on business affairs and how to pitch studios, to lecture series featuring such artists as Werner Herzog and Jodie Foster, Art Center’s goal is not only to impart creative skills in its students, but also practical ones.

“They need to immerse themselves in this world so it’s their life,” says Ross LaManna, chair, undergraduate and graduate film. It includes undergrad tracks in directing, cinematography and editing. “We teach them how to sustain a normal life, how do you have a relationship, how do you put away [money] for retirement. You can’t be an artist if you can’t support yourself doing it.”

Per Aretos, 90% of the college’s faculty are professionals in the film biz. That, coupled with the school’s location close to such Burbank-based studios as Disney, Universal Studios and Warner Bros., enables its students to work alongside some of the best production designers in the biz.

“One of the first things I say to my students when they come into the classroom is they are now considered professionals,” he says. “There is a very strong alumni network and recruiting happens all the time wherein faculty members will hire students, and that is something that is very characteristic of what the school is about. On my last film, I had four of my ex-students working on the project. So there’s a very strong philosophy of professionalism. We want to send these students into the world after four years hitting the ground running.”

Ann Field, chair of undergraduate illustration at the College of Design, says: “The focus of Art Center’s illustration department entertainment arts track is educating students to become creative leaders in the animated feature film and television worlds.”

Even as COVID-19 has forced the school to resort to remote at-home learning, for the students this is yet another opportunity to emulate the film biz, an industry in which production and behind-the-scenes work is often done remotely — sometimes across oceans.

“The distance learning that we are implementing right now is literally mirroring what is happening in studios,” says Aretos. “Most of our friends and family and faculty and colleagues are working from home. Even before COVID-19, I was working with production designers based in Hong Kong and Brazil. So, in a way it’s an opportunity to present our students with at least one aspect of what our job can look like and what their job can look like, and it points to the professionalism that we are asking from our students.”

LaManna notes that the small student body size is one way in which the school has been able to maintain its commitment to shepherding its graduates into the workforce.
“We don’t even call them students,” says LaManna. “We call them filmmakers.

“Our ability to work with students as colleagues has been enabled by three things : First, we are very selective in our admissions to Art Center’s undergraduate and graduate film [tracks]. Even young people coming in right out of high school, you see a level of dedication and professionalism in the incoming portfolios. These students step up to the plate. The second thing is that we live and work in the 30-mile zone — or, the studio zone as we call it — so the instructors who teach and mentor students can bring them over to see their productions and hire them whenever they can. And the third thing is that we are essentially living in the future. Students at Art Center have ample access to affordable filmmaking gear. When I was at film school [in the 1980s] you wouldn’t have dreamed of owning your own movie camera. But today, students have a panoply of great equipment. But that also allows us to put the emphasis on the content of the story and on the character. Because that’s what ultimately matters.”

Art Center’s pragmatic approach to filmmaking instruction also keeps in mind how often the entertainment business changes. What’s taught in a digital arts class in 2020 will likely not be relevant the following year. Equipment becomes obsolete, formats are constantly evolving.

“Students need to be able to step in, do multiple things and be entrepreneurial,” says LaManna. “Ten years ago I would say to a student, you want to get in the business, write a spec script. Now I say, you want to get in the business, make a movie. Your point of entry isn’t production anymore, it’s distribution and marketing. Take advantage of the fact that you are able to do that. Students have to be professional from day one in order to be able to have the confidence to step out and actually be able to make a movie. And a number of our students have done that to that benefit. That’s why we do our student-as-colleague model. Because they don’t have time to just be mentored after school. It needs to happen now.”