Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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The Incredibles?” Yeah, you’ve watched it or at least heard about it, right? With “The Incredibles” grossing more than $70 million over the weekend, it’s taken for granted that computer animation is now a prevalent part of our popular culture. But have you ever wondered how such a production was created? Was it the work of computer geniuses? Or artistic gurus?

With computer animation growing faster than almost any other industry today, the education behind it is moving beyond the computer realm and spreading into other disciplines. Two departments at Northwestern offer classes in computer animation, allowing graduates to obtain a background that prepares them for the industry’s many facets.

For a computer animator, it would be a dream to get a job with a large production studio such as Pixar immediately after graduation. But, as with any job market, it’s almost impossible for a student to jump right into the major leagues.

Nevertheless, the industry is constantly reformed by successful, smaller-scale production companies, which can serve as stepping stones to jobs at larger companies. Far from merely stops along the way, these smaller production companies also handle major projects including rendering computer animated effects for projects such as Britney Spears music videos.


Northwestern students interested in computer animation can approach the subject either through the School of Communications’ radio-TV-film department or through the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Despite starting from very different places, students in both schools end up at a similar point: understanding both the complex computer coding, as well as the creative side of computer art.

In the film department, students take a sequence of animation classes that begin with 2-D flash animation and work into 3-D computer animation classes, such as Advanced 3-D Computer Animation. Film classes use Softimage software to render their graphics.

On the flip side, the computer science department teaches programming and coding with computer language programs such as C++. These prerequisite classes guide students into 3-D computer animation classes such as Intro to Computer Animation, which teaches the principles and processes of animation.

The computer science department uses Maya software to create its graphics, which is very similar to the Softimage software. Both products allow students to type in the computer code that creates their 3-D object and to then manipulate its behavior, color variations and other characteristics.

There are professional editions of both Softimage and Maya software, which computer animation studios use to create their visual effects. The larger production companies, however, usually develop their own software in-house. Pixar, for example, developed Marionette to model, Ringmaster to coordinate and RenderMan to process their computer codes into animation.

“With computer animation, the tools are all about the theory and the programming while the execution is all about the artistic aspect,” said Nathan Matsuda, a McCormick sophomore interested in computer graphics. “But for it to really work well there has to be some meeting points between the two.”

Northwestern purchased the student and teacher editions of Softimage and Maya to allow students free access. For a frugal computer animation student, this is a dream come true; the software can cost from $500 to a few thousand.

“Because graphics software has been prohibitively expensive, you need an institution like this that can buy it and allow students to use it,” Matsuda said.

Many Northwestern students choose to go outside the classroom for hands-on experience and to produce their own independent animation projects. Those needing financial assistance with such endeavors can submit petitions to Studio 22 Productions, a not-for-profit student production company that offers two to three major grants and several minor grants yearly for creative projects.


During their undergraduate careers, aspiring computer animators begin compiling reels, or portfolios, of their work. The reel is critical to landing students job interviews, as it is the only true indicator to the company of an animator’s skills.

“College degree doesn’t matter. Resume doesn’t matter. (The reel) is what matters,” Matsuda said. “That they can see you can create stuff that’s good — that’s what’s crucial.”

The types of jobs an animation student might pursue can vary from a basic storyboard drawer, who sketches 2-D scenes from the project, to a technological director, who writes the computer code dictating how characters will move. Therefore, students who have taken basic drawing classes along with their computer animation classes are better prepared for the varied demands of the career.

“Companies that are hiring are looking mostly for traditional animation talents because the computer animation is really only the final draft,” said Kevin Cannon, a Communication junior. “The whole movie is sort of drawn-out on storyboards until then.”

Being a part of a production company, whether small or large, entails extensive collaboration. Thus it’s essential for students to develop effective cooperative skills during college through group projects and personal interaction, whether in or out of the classroom.

Computer animation jobs are highly specialized, and usually the people who perform a given task are experts only in that specific task. With hundreds of jobs to be done, and several experts for each job, it’s not surpising that large films have anywhere from 100 to 500 crewmembers. The Pixar studio currently employs about 400 crewmembers.

“As an undergrad, it’s really nice to be able to try all different things,” Cannon said. “But you eventually have to find what your strong suit is and stick to it.”


Although the humorous and friendly children’s movies created by the animation industry may make it seem pleasant and welcoming, the large-scale production houses, particularly high-profile Pixar, are virtually inaccessible to anyone right out of college.

Aspiring computer animators must start at the bottom with smaller-scale companies, before gradually climbing toward the larger ones. For instance, “The Incredibles'” editor Stephen Schaffer began selling computer hardware after deciding he didn’t want to pursue a career in business. He got a job as a production assistant for “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” through his sister and worked his way up from there.

When seeking that golden contact who knows just the right person, students can start with resources such as University Career Services and expand out to professors, graduates and the internet to look for smaller-scale jobs. Trying to tackle the industry by immediately seeking out large-scale production companies can prove difficult.

“Everything in the industry is very secretive,” Matsuda said. “I’ve tried to go to the Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) studio and get a tour, but I couldn’t get within 10 feet of the building.”

Similarly, Pixar Studio declines such tours due to confidentiality and production demand issues. You’d be protective too if you’d worked for years to produce a mere 90 minutes of film footage. Pixar, for example, creates scripts several years before even beginning the computer animation process.

With companies like Pixar dominating the animation field, people are whispering that 3-D animation could eventually replace 2-D animation altogether. Despite these conjectures, most computer animation students and specialists highly doubt that 2-D animation will ever become completely obsolete.

“Thinking that only 3-D animation can sell is just like saying only Rock music can sell,” Matsuda said. “The two will always exist and different types of animation might come up in the future too.” 4

Medill Freshman Nina Kim is a PLAY writer. She can
be reached at [email protected].

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