Thursday, June 9, 2011

Seven Years

Here is a concise history of the Renaissance of the Animation and Visual Effects School at the Academy of Art University under Directors Vince De Quattro (Online), Chris Armstrong, Sherrie Sinclair and Tom Bertino. It's important that the legacy of those that helped contribute to its new national pre-eminence is not forgotten after my departure.

Ancient History: 1994

After the industry-changing release of Jurassic Park in 1993, AAU reached out to then ILM digital artist, Steve Williams. Williams can be credited as the Father of the Post-Production Visual Effects Industry, as he was the computer scientist/graphic artist who worked tirelessly (and mostly in secret) to show Steven Spielberg the value of digital "puppetry." Williams put together a demo in his small office in the basement of "D Building" of a skinned, shaded, rigged and animated T-Rex digital maquette and left it running in a loop on his desk during a meet with the studio execs. Spielberg was convinced. The "chance" demonstration led to the award of several dozen digital hero shots, which in turn contributed in a large part to the wild financial success of the film, and eventually to Hollywood's embrace of an alternative to analog puppetry (Stan Winston, Phil Tippett), an art form that had been around since the 1920's.

On the weight of the digital techniques he helped introduce, Williams was asked to lecture nationally about ILM's post-production work. Elisa attended one of his lectures and
expressed interest in bringing this new technology into an animation lab.

Steve put together an initial proposal for a digital lab, most likely comprised of a single SGI Crimson, and given the large investment involved (costs could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars at the time), Williams felt that his proposal was beyond the budget of the small beaux-arts college. He was surprised by a call from Elisa soon thereafter asking him when he could begin. The CEC (Computer Education Center) was born.

CEC: 1994-1997

Rob Gibson ran the CEC from a complex of offices in the basement of 79 New Montgomery. Rob left AAC in 1997 to helm the new digital facilities at Expression College in Emeryville. He would later come back to AAU as CTO of the CEC in 2001.

CEC: 1997 - 2001

CEC: 2001-2002

Ronn Brown assumed the role of MFA Director after leaving ILM's matte painting department where he had been working since 1993.


C. Andrew Nelson was asked to pick up the reins of the CEC after Brown's departure. In 2003, the CEC program was renamed Computer Arts (CA) after AAC became regionally accredited as Academy of Art University. The digitally animated short, Bert, (Moon Sung Lee) wins a Student Academy Award. It is the first time that an animation student at AAC/AAU is nationally recognized.


Lourdes Livingstone is named Interim Director. Livingtone's legacy is her suggestion that 2D Animation be moved from the Illustration School and combined with the School of Computer Arts. This partnership would later be called the School of Animation and Visual Effects. The only drawback is that 2D Animation stays in the Illustration Building at Powell and Kearny.


Chris Armstrong is hired as the Director of Animation and Visual Effects (3D) joining Director Sherrie Sinclair (2D). Doug MacMillan is hired as VFX Lead, but leaves after a semester to join a digital start-up, Element/FX, in San Rafael.


Vince De Quattro is hired as the Online Director. Tom Bertino comes aboard as the MFA Director. The ANM/VFX Program begins to rock.


The VFX sub-plan is expanded with the hiring of Catherine Tate as Compositing Lead. Sean Mitchell, VFX Cinematographer leaves for SF State.


The Production Track is introduced. The very first Production candidate, Elana Hokin, passes her final review. Tad Leckmann leaves AAU to assume the Chair of the Animation Program at SCAD. AAU is awarded WASC accreditation. De Quattro implements the fabulously intelligent BFA curriculum numbering system with some help from Denise Mackiewicz-Cottin.

Here is a brief history of the AAU Production Program, and the reasons why it came to be.

Further, inter-department collaboration wasn't supported at all; that is, students were not designing projects that required a group of sub-specialists that would provide models and others that would provide a rig and yet other that might animate, light and composite.

Instead, the program resembled a series of serial exercise routines, with one course covering some information and another some other information, often unlinked, often overlapping, but never consistent.

Worse, other departments that might link well with the curriculum (like MPT, ADV or ILL) were not mandated to co-mingle their BFA/MFA candidates in order to better represent the entertainment production model: a creative marketplace demand linked with creative production supply.

The Challenge

The solution was to create a network of student-volunteer producers in each of the departments which are interested in collaboration. The hope was that collaborative curriculum would follow. Once it was clear that student-based production overlays were the key to more realistic industry-style workflows and pipelines, projects would improve, student placement rates would improve, and the program would grow.

The other benefit would be that once AAU Production Track Graduates entered the industry, after several years working their way up the executive ladder, they would be able to influence the future hiring of more AAU graduates!

Recent Developments: 2006 - 2010

When I arrived in 2006, AAC had become AAU, and was granted University (MFA) accreditation, first through ACICS and later, through WASC. I argued for a collaborative MFA thesis project option, as this was my experience while attending USC Film School.

It worked this way: several dozen scripts would be presented to a faculty review committee, a few were chosen, the writers of those projects were assigned as Directors, and the rest of student community was then assigned roles on the remaining projects. Like the world.

However, after some discussion, it was felt that every AAU MFA candidate should be allowed to write, direct and produce their own project. Collaboration was put on hold in favor of the "one sculptor, one block of granite" model.

In the Spring of 2008, I began hosting informal production meetings in order to help support the many visual effects projects that we were bringing in from ADV and MPT through the curriculum in CA3D 626, the department's only MFA Visual Effects course offered at the time. Those meetings turned into impromptu VFX Club meetings and then later, in the Fall of 2008, I began providing basic production workshops to attendees.

With a surge in trained producers, collaborative projects began to get organized, succeed, and produce finished project work. Catherine Tate, VFX Compositing Lead, was able to accommodate more independent projects every semester, supported by producers trained from the ranks of the ANM/VFX study body.

Collaboration became possible, not only intra-departmental collabs, but independent film projects, AAU MPT and ADV projects, as well as MFA Thesis Projects! MFA Thesis collaboration became a reality.

In the Summer of 2009 I crafted the first ANM 499 Producing syllabus, and taught the class live for two semesters before handing it off to Gil Banducci, who implemented it for online and currently teaches it in-person. In addition to the Producing Course, I continued to meet with students every week during the semester to discuss basic production skills, producing concerns, internships, and other related issues.

Excerpted from "Painting the Roses Red," (c) 2011 Vince De Quattro. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic without expression permission of the author.

Excerpted from "Painting the Roses Red," (c) 2011 Vince De Quattro. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic without expression permission of the author.

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