Ringling College Animation Grads Walk The Red Carpet

The Oscar buzz circulating around campus at Sarasota's Ringling College of Art and Design may rival the anticipation in Hollywood as the date of the annual Academy Awards grows closer.

For more than a decade, scores of Ringling alumni have earned red carpet recognition for their creations and for their contributions to dozens of Hollywood blockbusters including "Avatar,'' "Up,'' "Shrek'' and the "Lord of the Rings Trilogy.'' Furthermore, each of the top 10 highest-grossing animated films in history credits the work of Ringling College alumni.

The Ringling College Oscar legacy also extends to the Student Academy Awards, where the work of Ringling students consistently stands out among the more than 500 short films submitted each year by students from colleges and universities worldwide. Since 1998, Ringling students have won nine Student Academy Awards, including three gold, two silver and four bronze medals.

"The high success rate comes from a lot of teaching methodologies that give students a deeper understanding faster, combined with the charm of the story and the quality of the production,'' says Jim McCampbell, head of Ringling's Computer Animation Department, of the student films.

"Unlike many other colleges, we make our students finish their films,'' he adds. "I've been shocked to discover that this isn't the case in so many other places. I can't imagine graduating someone who has been taught it is acceptable to ignore a deadline like that. In the process of completing the film, they learn an amazing work ethic that serves them for their entire lives.''

And The Winner Is ...

In accordance with tradition, Ringling College will be well-represented at the 85th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 24. Nearly every film nominated for Best Animated Feature -- including "Brave,'' "Frankenweenie,'' "Paranorman'' and "Wreck-It Ralph'' -- features the work of Ringling graduates. Special effects-packed nominees like "Marvel's: The Avengers,'' "Prometheus,'' "Skyfall'' and "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'' also credit the work of Ringling alumni.

McCampbell, attributes the prevalence of Ringling graduates in major motion picture studios to the college's unique curriculum, which is geared to equip students with the tools they need to make a seamless transition from the classroom to the highly competitive field of computer animation immediately upon graduation.

"Unlike most institutions, our graduates are good at nearly every aspect of the process. hey graduate from here in a fully functional condition. It typically takes them maybe two weeks at a studio to get acclimated to their unique production pipeline, and then they are productive,'' says McCampbell.
"They can design, paint, model, texture, animate, light, composite and edit a complete work of art. Many from other schools do one or perhaps two of those things. This versatility makes them more broadly employable, and also permits them to move between departments at a larger studio,'' he adds.

Since the introduction of the Best Animated Feature category to the Academy Awards in 2001, every award-winning film -- with the exception of the Japanese-produced Oscar winner, "Spirited Away,'' in 2002 -- credits the work of graduates from Ringling's specialized four-year computer animation program.

Oscar winners for Best Animated Feature that credit the work of Ringling graduates include "Shrek'' (2001), "Finding Nemo'' (2003), "The Incredibles'' (2004), "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit'' (2005), "Happy Feet'' (2006), "Ratatouille'' (2007), "Wall-E'' (2008), "Up'' (2009), "Toy Story 3'' (2010) and "Rango'' (2011).

Storytelling Is Key

McCampbell notes that with the evolution of animation over the past two decades and the rise of 3D animation studios like Pixar and Dreamworks, the playing field has changed significantly for young animators breaking into the industry, requiring them to enter the field with a broader skillset that includes a better understanding of storytelling and characterization techniques that were formerly left solely to the writers.

"The other unique aspect of the graduates is their understanding of story. It not only makes them better at all aspects of their work, it also gives them the ability to work their way into positions of creative authority in the future,'' McCampbell says.

"Animation has progressed now to the point where audiences expect that anything is possible -- anything. That means that simple technical voodoo to wow them will no longer get them into the theaters. It takes a great story to do that, and in that sense, things have finally progressed to the place where they need to be. Animation has evolved to the place where the method used to achieve it has taken a back seat to the story it is being used to tell. That's huge. It's liberating. We still need tremendous technology to achieve the task, but the technology isn't driving the medium anymore,'' he adds.

Moonbot Studios, a small Shreveport, Louisiana-based production company co-founded by Brandon Oldenburg, a Ringling College graduate and trustee, took home the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film for its first effort, "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,'' at last year’s Academy Awards. A total of 17 Ringling alumni and one student intern worked on the film.

Moonbot Studios' success signifies another shift in the playing field as smaller studios begin to step up to the plate as viable competitors for animation titans like Pixar and Dreamworks. McCampbell predicts that the future of animation holds significant opportunities for smaller studios that, like Moonbot, are based outside of Hollywood.

"With regards to animation, I can see a lot of potential changes. New studios that are a fraction of the size -- and cost and complexity -- of today's animated feature film studios will form and be able to produce content that rivals today's mega-studios,'' McCampbell said. Some of these studios, he hopes, will someday begin to crop up on Florida's Gulf coast.

"With regards to Sarasota, there are a number of possibilities. If we do nothing to promote and develop the business of art in our area, then we can expect nothing in return. However, if we decide to move forward to develop and market our reputation as the 'Creative Coast,' then a world of opportunities open up,'' McCampbell says. "Hollywood has already proven that films can be produced anywhere in the world. Why locate a studio in Los Angeles where property costs, state income tax, and union dues prevent them from maximizing their bottom line on a film?''

Marketing Creative Coast

McCampbell notes that opportunities for degree-holding computer animators extend far beyond the world of film and cartoon animation, and that it is often these opportunities that pull Ringling graduates away from Sarasota.

"There are thousands of opportunities all over the world. Nearly every company that produces content for film, television, and Internet uses animation as a key component of that work,'' he says. "Some students work in visualization areas, too. For instance, we have alumni working at GM doing automotive visualization, one at NASA doing spacecraft animations, and some doing architectural visualizations. There is one who was re-constructing crime scenes for courtroom cases so that a jury could visualize the specifics of a case.''

In order to keep grads local, McCampbell believes that Sarasota must bring these kinds of employment opportunities to the home court.

"My personal belief is that in order to attract the companies to our area, we will have to supply a tax-friendly environment like the one in Vancouver. The other critical component is an infrastructure that supports younger people. We don't have that at the moment in Sarasota. Once those two tasks are achieved, we can start to remove the stigma that we have where people believe this area is only for retirees. It seems a crime to export all of this amazing talent that Florida created to other states.''

In the meantime, as Ringling's Oscar legacy grows and students of the small Gulf Coast private arts college continue to blaze a trail through Hollywood, McCampbell remains optimistic about the potential for Sarasota to establish itself as a creative hub that retains its talent.

"Of course, it is important to note that the opportunities of the future depend on the choices we make today. Animation is all about telling great stories,'' McCampbell says. "Sarasota has the opportunity to make a great story of its own. I'm staying for the movie -- I hope it has a happy ending.''

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli.. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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