Blending Art and Tech

CalArts’ animation programs are designed for students seeking to understand and meld the worlds of art and technology.

“CalArts is the principal thing I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures. If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something.”

—Walt Disney, a pioneer of the American animation industry.

Late in his career, Disney mulled over the idea of a utopian, collaborative environment for working artists to learn and share ideas, free from the conventions of traditional art schools. He and his brother, Roy Disney, began turning this idea into reality in 1961 when they formed the California Institute of the Arts by merging two existing art and music schools in Los Angeles. In 1970, the fully-formed CalArts college opened its doors to offer programs in art, design, film, music, theater and dance.

CalArts graduates have since then gone on to pioneer artistic advances and practices, from the high-brow to the most popular, often blending art and technology. These include computer game music, feminist design and art, conceptualism, the “renaissance” at Disney that brought animated classics like “Beauty and the Beast” to life, Pixar’s groundbreaking efforts in digital animation, and a little yellow creature who lives in a pineapple house under the sea: SpongeBob SquarePants.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has called CalArts “one of the truly successful experiments in American arts education.” It has six academic schools that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees: art, critical studies, dance, film/video, music and theater.

Animating the world

The world of animation begins with a solid grounding in the traditional arts and progresses to computer animation technologies and techniques. CalArts students receive comprehensive artistic and technical training to develop themselves as full-fledged animation artists. 

“Our graduates are talented and innovative,” says Maureen Furniss, director, experimental animation, at CalArts. “People have come to expect interesting work from the people who study here.” After all, the works of many of its alumni have won critical acclaim and international fame. 

The Oscar category for Best Animated Feature was introduced in 2002 for films released in 2001. Since then, 12 of the winning films have been directed by CalArts animation alumni. Animated features by CalArts directors have generated more than $46 billion [Rs. 3,26,600 crores approximately] in box office returns between 1985 and 2018.

While its alumni are said to be the generators of animation as the world knows it, its faculty members are industry leaders. Furniss, for example, is an animation historian, the founding editor of Animation Journal, and founding member and past chairperson of the board of the Society for Animation Studies, an international organization dedicated to the study of animation history, theory and practice.

Animation courses

CalArts offers a bachelor of fine arts (BFA) degree in character animation and both bachelor’s and master’s (MFA) degrees in experimental animation. “There are two animation programs at CalArts,” says Furniss. “One is mostly oriented toward 2D animation and learning industrial studio processes. That’s character animation, offering a BFA. The experimental program is broad in its focus, including stop motion, drawn and painted, virtual reality, interactive, installations and performance animation. It offers both a BFA and an MFA.”

In the character animation program, students focus on character performance and storytelling. They receive rigorous technical training in addition to building their artistic skills, from life drawing classes to computer graphics studies. Elements such as dialogue and sound effects are woven in as well.

The experimental animation program allows innovative artists to cultivate their personal aesthetic in a progressive, demanding atmosphere. Bachelor’s degree students study a range of animation styles, from 2D drawing to computer animation. They work closely with mentors and visiting artists. They are also encouraged to study abroad and take part in annual portfolio reviews by leading animation studios.

Master’s students delve further into their experimentation, complete a thesis project and receive training in the business side of animation. The training includes aspects like how to submit to film festivals and take advantage of professional opportunities.

“The experimental animation program brings together talented artists who have an interest in time-based media, specifically animation,” says Furniss. “They influence each other as they present their own ideas or work in progress, and critique each other’s works in classes. Our program is very competitive from an admissions standpoint. Every student is very creative in his or her own way. We have a very strong alumni network and a history of works that win festival awards.”

Seeking admission

To apply to CalArts, international students have to submit an application, translated transcripts, and proof of English language proficiency. One out of five students at the institute is international. Students from nearly 50 countries, including India, attend CalArts. Many faculty also come from international backgrounds. International students are eligible for competitive scholarships and/or work-study opportunities.

“Admission to experimental animation is granted to applicants who display a strong personal aesthetic,” says Furniss. “We discourage landscapes, traditional portraiture, architectural rendering, perspective drawing or any kind of generic character drawings. We look for applicants who have the potential to influence the art world.” The character animation program, she says, has different priorities. “It is very interested in life drawing, and applicants should be able to draw figures that reflect personal style and personality in some respect.”


Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.