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Does A ‘CalArts Sensibility’ Exist?

A minority of CalArts alumni take great offense if you imply in the slightest that the school’s illustrious Character Animation program has a recognizable sensibility. Of course, it’s a perfectly valid observation that student films from a particular school might look similar, and the observation isn’t unique to CalArts.

It’s easy to identify a lot of school’s films simply by the styles, themes, and lengths of their output. Schools like Royal College of Art, Gobelins, and Sheridan each have house styles that are copied by a significant number of their students. This echo chamber effect is understandable, and to a large extent, unavoidable. Artists are influenced by what’s happening around them, and in a competitive animation school, there will be a strong temptation to emulate the work of other standout students in the program.

Perhaps the reason that people don’t like to acknowledge the existence of a CalArts sensibility is that the observation is typically followed by a critique about the school’s detrimental influence within the animation industry—the derisive “CalArts style” argument. The school’s proximity to the Los Angeles industry and the prevalence of its artists in LA studios make it an easy target for such attacks, which are oftentimes unwarranted.

However, there is at least some truth to the argument, though it’s less about any particular style and more about the herd mentality of some of its grads. Historically, when a certain TV series or feature created by a CalArts student has been successful, other CalArts grads have jumped on the bandwagon and tried to replicate its success. An example of this followed the success of Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Lab. A full decade after its super-stylized look had been fully exhausted, Nickelodeon was still commissioning similarly stylized shows like My Life As A Teenage Robot, Danny Phantom, The X’s, El Tigre, and The Mighty B!. Not surprisingly, all five of those shows were created by CalArts grads.

At least one CalArts alum isn’t afraid to go on the record about the possibility of a CalArts sensibility. During an interview with, Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore (who we’ve already established isn’t afraid to speak his mind) was asked whether the reason his film felt so Pixar-ish was because of the “John Lasseter effect.” Moore responded that it had less to do with Lasseter and more with the fact that they both attended the same school:

I think it may be a CalArts effect because really the sensibility that the Pixar films have, is really, I believe, is a sensibility that was born at that college(CalArts). Where I myself  was a graduate of that school, Andrew Stanton is from CalArts, Brad Bird, Joe Ranft, John Lasseter.  So, I think there is a sensibility that comes out of that school that Pixar is kind of built on. So, naturally if I’m at Disney making a film, it’s going to have that feeling of our roots.

At least one other person agrees with Rich Moore. That’s the person in the CalArts publicity department who is promoting his comments and who sent me a press release with the title “Wreck-it Ralph Director Rich Moore sees a distinctive CalArts style in today’s animation.”

Someday, someone should conduct an examination of the school’s broader impact on the animation industry. Lots of fantastic artists have emerged from CalArts, and the school deserves recognition for the influence its program has had on the art form for the last three or four decades. For such an examination to occur though, more CalArts grads need to follow Moore’s lead and become comfortable with the idea that the CalArts sensibility doesn’t end when students leave the school, but is, for better and worse, a point-of-view carried by artists throughout their careers.

Here’s the entire interview with Moore:

  • I’ve always heard whispers of a “CalArts style” in smokey back rooms filled with folks who oppose the animation mainstream. It’s good to see it out in the light, if only for a moment.

    • Matthew Koh

      CalArts style?
      Wait ’til someone talks about “Gobelinism”.

  • Hey Now

    Let’s not forget the other CalArts export to LA studios: smugness and exclusionary cliques.

  • Matt Sullivan

    All I know is CalArts gets up John K’s pantaloons.

  • Pedro Nakama

    I feel a lot of animation that is criticized, is from creators or directors who didn’t come from Cal Arts.

  • davidbfain

    Let’s not forget that there are actually two distinct animation programs at Cal Arts (Character and Experimental). While I’ll agree there are certain artists who came out of the school who share certain aesthetic sensibilities, there are many who are coming from an entirely different place (Alison Shulnick and Kristen Lepore to name but 2).

    • Sah Wan Sun

      K i r sten

  • Drew

    i’m too cool for school anyway. just made my first animated movie by myself. I wrote, composed, lighted, layed out, painted, story boarded and directed it all by myself. it took me 180 years

    • NAveryW

      You may want to get advice from Bill Plympton or Phil Nibbelink on completing your next one man animated feature in less time.

  • Gina

    I will be the first to admit I do not have an entirely informed opinion. I work in the entertainment industry but not in animation (though I would love to transition into that, as I love animation). I saw this post and had to ask – really – who cares one way or the other?? Perhaps this is an extremely naîve question. But I personally would be proud to name myself among a slew of people making “CalArts style” films. If we’re talking about the Pixar library + Wreck-It Ralph, they’re regarded as the best feature animations being produced today, and I personally think their character designs are some of the best we’ve seen in the history of animation.

    Again – I CLAIM IGNORANCE about the inner workings of the industry – but I would love to hear more about why people think this “CalArts sensibility” is a bad thing.

    • Lola

      There’s nothing wrong with the style itself, it’s generally very appealing. But it makes it difficult for other styles from other schools to make it into features or television because most of the industry is run by CalArts grads and they tend to stick together.

  • Andrew

    The statement “There is a distinctive CalArts style” is false because its vague. There are SEVERAL distinctive styles which have been prevalent among CalArts alumni but there are also countless outliers that render this blanket statement essentially functionless.

    “Oh, CalArts is a bunch of Disney-lovers drawing Milt Kahl hands and Mary Blair legs! Everything they do looks like Iron Giant!” Okay, sure, that represents a lot of CalArts grads. It also describes pretty much everyone in animation. Tell me though, how does Pen Ward fit that description? Or Tim Burton? Moreover, how is the (undeniably influential and oft-imitated) Craig/Genndy style anything like the work of the Brad Bird devotees? Maybe you could lump Pen Wards Adventure Time and Regular Show into their own style/generational category. But how is this most RECENT CalArts “style” anything like the Craig era? How is Toy Story anything like Aaron Springer’s “Perriwinkle?” How is stuff by Max Winston anything like stuff by Nelson Boles?

    One need watch only a SINGLE producer’s show to realize the MASSIVE variety of styles at that school, this year or any other year.

    A test. Can you guess which one of these guys is the CalArts alumni?

    Here’s a hint: Both

    • Ira Owens

      The “Regular Show” is J.G. Quintel…but I’m sure you knew that. ;)

  • Bud

    EVERY school has a “style.” It’s just natural. The CalArts program was less about just “animation” than FILM MAKING–and the foundations which the Disney animators believed in and guided the original program to be (Life Drawing, Color and Design Theory, Storytelling, Staging/Composition/Layout, and even Basic Drawing. It’s transmografied over the decades to an incredible weatlth of diverse talent. The quality of the faculty has gone up and down over the years, but the percentage of high quality films produced by the students speaks for itself. I don’t have a problem with that!

  • Concerned Observer

    Keep in mind 80% of Cal Arts applicant process is determined by anatomy drawing, so many of the admissions are not looking at kids for their critical thinking or observational skills. They’re not looking at their ability to assemble a unique story, or create a series of identifiable characters that captures the attention of millions. They’re definitely not examining how kids could potentially standout from each other and make their own impact. So they’re not always admitting kids into that school who have a unique vision, or individuality. Also Amid what applies to Cal Arts is unfortunately the tragic story of most schools. The result is that these graduates are definitely not going to be another Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Hayao Myiazaki, Osamu Tezuka, and especially Walt Disney.

    They’re examining applicants based on their draftsmanship skill which makes up an insignificant part of what truly makes an ingenious film producer. Walt Disney hypothetically if he applied to Cal Arts today would be laughed at, and flounder in the category of draftsmanship, character acting, and anatomy drawing. He would have been thrown out onto the street because he didn’t have the proficient draftsmanship, or versatility as an artist. Just take a gander at Laugh-O-Grams and Alice In Cartoonlands you’ll see my point of his poor draftsmanship when you watch films that he actually had a hand in animating. Though despite his shortcomings as an artist he ultimately proved to the world and us that his genius far exceeds anyone in today’s industry and anyone at that school today or anyone that formerly associated with Cal Arts or any other animation school. So people have got to stop putting so much emphasis on drawing ability. Because that does not really tend to play a huge role in how someone will ultimately produce a unique piece of work that will be envied by all of their peers.

    Also Andrew, Kahl and Blair are not as pervasive at Cal Arts as they formerly were. I’ve taken the time to watch the younger alumni and in terms of influence those two have taken back seat to newer trends and styles which presence can be more clearly felt at the school. Trend’s like Modern Art, Anime, animated sitcoms, or Pixar. I actually wish Kahl and Blair were still followed they excelled in visual composition, character acting, anatomy. They also had a distinct style and didn’t feel the urge to emulate others because they felt inadequate about their own work. They acknowledged when they made mistakes but they still stayed true to their merits as an artist and didn’t jump ship to emulate someone whom they thought was better than themselves. The reason why those two and countless others have taken backseat to newer trends and styles is because a lot of the younger kids ageist attitudes. These attitudes ultimately put them in position of pandering to and emulating what’s new and relevant thinking their somehow going to unlock the key to being successful and well admired within the industry by doing so.

    Again draftsmanship is not the be all end all, and it’s purely asinine to even argue that its even the most crucial part when history has taught us otherwise Bill Hanna? Walt Disney? Tex Avery? these geniuses were not renowned for their drawing ability or being on par with other great draftsman, they had other aspects of ingenuity and creativity that they brought out successfully. Unfortunately proficiency is the mindset of most schools instead of students providing their own unique observations, point of view, and objectives as an artist. What history has exhibited to us that individuality, and unique observations are always more crucial than polished and well refined drawings.

    • Bud

      That’s a very convoluted and amateurish argument. Draughtsmanship is important, but not what true life drawing is about. It’s about learning how to SEE as much as drawing. And it’s NOT the final word on acceptance at CalArts. Many other factors come into play. And there are critical thinking components to the CalArts application program. Always have been.

      And how can any portfolio review weed out people who “can create characters that attract millions.” Oh…it can’t. They’re STUDENTS. Most of whom are just starting out in the field of animation. They’re just dopey kids trying to find their way in the world. CalArts expects individuality, and gets it, not by CHOOSING that, but by supporting it. As any school does. What portfolio reviewers look for is their ability to Commuinicate ideas. Clearly. Better draughtsmanship DOES help with this–an indisputable fact.

      CalArts producers show and the wide variety of approaches and statements by the students speaks for it’s self. Some years are better than others…as with any school.

      CalArts and Sheridan are unique among most animation schools as they focus on CHARACTER ANIMATION. And that doesn’t mean it’s just about the act of “animating.” At it’s best, CalArts helps students in how to THINK about approaching and solving problems from a CHARACTER point of view. This includes design, color, composition, timing, story, and of course, animation.

      As far as artists like Blair, Kahl, and the like, they’re wonderful, and it’s fun to be inspired by them. But emulating them is now tiresome, and it’s time to expand the base of inspiration.

    • If you want to work as an animator, then you’d better be able to compete with all the other talents out there, and that means being a solid draftsman. If you want to be the next Walt Disney, you’d better have writing skills, directing and story boarding chops and a smart business sense, among other things.
      Nothing stops anyone today from making films; the tools are readily available. It’s up to the individual. The distribution channels are there for the taking.

    • carol lynn

      … If you think that CalArts seriously accepts just based on anatomical quality of the life drawings students send in then you have never seen an accepted Calarts character or experimental student’s portfolio. Also if you understood how to DRAW you would also realize that drawing with accurate anatomy still requires CRITICAL THINKING and especially OBSERVATION because it is LIFE DRAWING. A character portfolio is also DEFINITELY not judged on accuracy of anatomy but on the student’s unique sensibility in the way they exaggerate the anatomy or the style they handle. Most student portfolios show a range of character and emotion in their life drawing. Also if CalArts was letting anyone who believed they were the only original unique individual in the world without a care to the quality of their draftsmanship and abilities, the TINY department would be overloaded and quality control would drop.
      Also if you think the students are not influenced by the old greats then you haven’t seen the numerous printouts of model sheets and sketches that are littered across countless student cubes.
      As a character student I maybe biased in my opinion but I would really like to disprove the idea that you get in if you can do anatomical drawings because most of us can’t and usually if you did a super anatomical drawing you wouldn’t get in anyway because they find those drawings lifeless and dead.

    • I review CalArts portfolios. I’ll be reviewing them tomorrow. We look for figure drawing, observation, skill, hard work, and creativity. One of the reasons we ask for sketchbooks to be included with portfolios is to have an idea of the artist’s creativity. There are several portfolios I can think of that wouldn’t have been accepted had they not included a wonderfully creative sketchbook. We’re only able to accept about one out of ten students that apply, so we’re very lucky that most accepted students are entering with exceptional skills in a variety of areas.

  • Gus Nularkh

    I work in the animation industry here in Los Angeles and to me CalArts is kind of a joke(but I wouldn’t dare say that out loud).

    You are talking about a school with a curriculum (animation) much too specialized and horribly deficient in the traditional liberal arts foundations of other leading art schools. Its probably the only school where people pay $39,000 a year (!) in tuition and walk away with a knowledge of art history comparable to most high school graduates. Those kids that go to CalArts to get into the animation field are being asked to really double down on their future, and lets be honest here, its not the most lucrative field. For every Brad Bird there are thousands and thousands of employees with a hard ceiling on their take home pay in a very expensive city.

    RISD is only a few thousand more and that degree buys a lot more varied of an education for success in any number of fields. Animation included.

    • Daniel

      character animation is a film school not a art school. There is a difference. I do agree that calarts needs a better art history course but I could also argue that the other “animation” schools are “horribly deficient” when it comes to the filmmaking foundations such as film history, animation history..etc.

      RISD itself is a prime example where it is extremely deficient in terms of students lacking knowledge in film history, screenwriting, editing..etc. Calarts has the advantage of having character animation under FILM not ART.

      • Concerned Observer

        Maybe the real issue is that these stereotypes wouldn’t exist, if these kids had a broader range of influences and had a more informed education of the overall history rather than constantly being force-fed a narrow the same group of artists and styles. People have stated people far more credible than myself, that many of these many of these schools teach a distorted view of the actual history of animation, and leaves out a lot of important styles, artistic philosophies, and people that helped shape the medium. Ultimately because their left out many of these kids wind up not knowing about them, and its proven to be a hinderence to their work. Because they don’t know about these magnificent styles and artists it makes them more prone to following what’s available such as leading house styles. These older classical influences could help them, ultimately elevate the quality of their work, and unlock new potential, though its been under the radar for a long time.

        Daniel I’m apologize for any bashing or vitriol, because I’m not disputing these kids talent, that’s obvious. You have to have talent to meet an astounding number of pre-requisites and expectations to get into this and other schools. What I have been disputing is that a lack of historical awareness and eclectic influence has shown to be detrimental to many of these students work and it shows in some of the films. If their was more historical awarness it could potentially elevate these kids work, because they’d have the opportunity to explore other ideas and concepts which have been neglected for decades. Though with all the ageist attitudes present in our society it becomes difficult for kids to rediscover the past which is the ultimate solution for people to get away from housestyles. I’m sure that my generalizations don’t apply to the whole school, but a lot of this comes from what’s been reported and examined from there from people who have seen it first hand.

        • Concerned Observer

          Sorry for the typos.

        • Daniel

          History itself is always “distorted” depending on who is writing it. You can’t get away from it. Look up Voltaire.

          You still speak on a lot of mis-informed generalizations, and it’s hard to take you seriously if you yourself haven’t actually gone to the school.

          .. and even if you did, that is still one singular experience. I am sure there are many others that would contradict your own..

          .. but it would still be more valid then having not gone to the school and making blunt statements like..

          “People have stated people far more credible than myself, that many of these many of these schools teach a distorted view of the actual history of animation, and leaves out a lot of important styles, artistic philosophies, and people that helped shape the medium. Ultimately because their left out many of these kids wind up not knowing about them, and its proven to be a hinderence to their work.”

      • Gus Nularkh

        Your argument is with liberal arts foundations as a whole, not with my post. You don’t think the the classifications or rigors for the established curriculums in accredited colleges are on point? Thats your opinion (and not a valid one). I’m sure RISD has an exceptional film history department.

        But the emphasis you make on CalArts specializedf curriculum furthers a view that I was reticent to state here; that CalArts is more of a trade school than a college.

        • Daniel

          I’m emphasizing that calarts is a film school not a art school. Too bad there hasn’t been enough talent at RISD or anywhere else for me to notice their success in education.

          • Gus Nularkh

            Your post isn’t even worth responding to.

            Every day in this country you see use or enjoy the work of a RISD grad. Go look at who their alumni are before sounding off. And shame on you for making me their cheerleader when I didn’t even attend their school. But I’m aware enough to recognize a good school. Obviously, you’re not.

          • Concerned Observer

            Its stereotypical behavior like this that reinforces my beliefs on younger animators. Yes I made some ignorant statements on Cal Arts but for you to come to Cal Arts defense by throwing RISD under the bus is not any more commendable than my vitriol. Also my laments on Cal Arts were for better or for worse, is that while the cirriculum is one of the best in the industry its unfortunately being infiltrated by kids who have difficulty finding their own voice as Jack put it there largely Finn and Jake/Anime Obsessives. The mindset of the younger generation is not about being the best artist but being the best anime artist.

    • Optimist

      If you’re in any doubt about whether you want to “make it” in the world of commercial animation, than no, Calarts is not for you. Yes, it definitely is a double-down program/school/proposition. It’s also arguably the #1 school in the world to ensure a job IF you bring the talent and hard work when you enroll and make your films there.
      On the other hand if a student or their parents want a solid “back up plan” for a career, figuring animation jobs might not be happen, it’d be foolish to apply, much less go(if accepted). The same holds true for the Yale drama school. A Yale degree with a concentration in acting isn’t going to be a great bet for any other kind of work, would it? Even from Yale. Ditto Julliard. Yet I’d bet they have no shortage of applicants, even in this lousy job environment.

      Bottom line is: you have to be committed.

  • Eman

    Is that specific style “Good”?

  • kwert

    Since when is having a fully developed story considered a style? Or one that’d be exclusive to the works of Calarts alumni? So many people are comparing Wreck-It Ralph to Pixar films simply because it exceeded their expectations as a computer animated Disney film, of which very few have been successful. It seems that those who say that Wreck-It Ralph is like a Pixar film have forgotten about all the other successful Disney films. While Disney Animation Studios does seem to be recovering from a slump from these past couple years, great films with entertaining and complete stories such as Beauty and the Beast, Lilo and Stitch, and Mulan were not made that long ago.

    • I agree with what you say. THOUGH I think a much more valid reason to compare it to Pixar films is simply that one of Pixar’s more recurring themes in there films is taking a contemporary element of human fabricated beings: Toys, Monsters, Cars, Robots, and giving them relatable personality traits, or showing them at a “day job” sort of situation. This is what Wreck it Ralph was with Video games. Not that both studios haven’t done that, or other types of stories, but it is is difficult not to associate Ralph with past Pixar films, in the same way Brave is difficult not to compare to past Disney films because it’s a fair tale starring a princess. Neither film I thought was overly derivative, just difficult not to compare or find occasionally familiar because of the genres.

      • Funkybat

        I’ve heard a lot of people compare “Wreck-It Ralph” to Toy Story, as well as some comment that it “felt like a Pixar film.” Despite Pixar’s track record, that comment seemed to be made by many as if it were a detriment. (Since when is being of Pixar-level caliber a bad thing?!)

        Personally, I have to say that I didn’t feel that “Wreck-It Ralph” was all that reminiscent of either Toy Story or Pixar in general. I thought the movie stood on it’s own as a fantastic film, and that it didn’t overwhelmingly feel like something associated either with Disney or Pixar. Sure, it had great visuals, an engaging story, relatable characters, and lots of heart, but somehow it still felt like its own thing, and I liked that. Much like “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Lilo and Stitch,” it was great to see Disney create a movie that was both great and unique in comparison to the “legacy” of Disney.

  • Mr Verde

    I’m not from CalArts, but it it does seem like each school has a style. By style, I generally mean way of solving problems visually. There is most certainly an Art Center style in the live action concept art space (slick, slick, slick!)

    That being said, as far as I’m concerned, there is a “big budget feature style” more than there is a particular school. Whenever an artbook comes out that is hot, you can bet there will be a ton of star-struck me too students jocking that style…because that’s what students do. How many Dices, Peter DeSeves, Nico Marles and Carter Goodriches do we need? Hopefully after the students have been out in the world beyond the bubble of school they are exposed to and incorporate inspiration from other interesting sources. I’d be less concerned with students and more concerned with experienced directors who haven’t grown more sophisticated since college.

  • Unknown

    Every studio in LA should say at the front gate: “Cal Arts alumni only, everyone else, go home!”

  • Mac

    The Disney Style is like a martial arts style, its not the aesthetic, which is what you see on film. It’s the life style, the philosophies of observation and drawing that drove the Disney Animators. They tried to instill this in a different environment, a college. Who wants to go to Disney college? In the First Wave, lets just say from 1979 to 2001, you’ve got the big divide in the types who go to CalArts Character animation. First you got your Looney Tunes Fans, and your Disney Fans. I learned this from listening to all those podcasts that came out like four years ago. Everyone I know from being at CalArts is totally different from those old nerds. It’s all about Star Wars. Character Animators Love Star Wars.

  • V.M.L.

    CalArts, in general, has always been considered an experimental or non-traditional art school. Just look at their class schedule. You’re going to find classes called “Getting Your Sh*t Together,” one about robotic women, and a masters one taught by James Franco. They like their animation students to be skilled at drawing weird stuff; it’s nearly a requirement and it’s not for people who can’t stand making grotesque things. If you’re thinking of making serious-minded animated shorts or features, you’re probably in the wrong place. (After all, a lot of people still treat animation as mere entertainment for kids, unfortunately.) Therefore, that CalArts sensibility is really old and it surprises me that people are only just discovering it.

    • AK

      using James Franco to boost your argument about CalArts is probably not a good idea.

  • Hey, I went to School Of Visual Arts in NYC; but heck, There’s probably more people from Cal Arts in the motion picture field than from any other school. I hear all the criticisms, but you can’t argue that some of the most influential and successful people in the Motion Picture/animation field came from Cal Arts.
    People like….
    Tim Burton
    Danny Elfman
    Brad Bird
    John Lasseter
    Glen Keane
    Genndy Tartakovsky
    Andrew Stanton
    and many, many others.
    Go to this link to see the staggering list of Alumni….
    I wouldn’t argue with that kind of success.

    • Concerned Observer

      I guarantee that Bird, Genndy, Keane, and Burton had to break many of the schools rules and guidelines in order to emerge into their own unique style. Looking at their work it’s obvious that they take little from what the school taught them. Even Bird who most closely resembles the Cal Arts style looked like he had to shed the bad habits he learned there, in order to become the successful name that he is today and he did. The names of graduates that brew posters list as a way to argue the Schools merits isn’t enhancing their cause, many of Cal Arts greatest broke away from the expectations that were set for them at this school and broke away from what the school represented. As they refused to conform and ultimately went their own direction. There is less of that happening now than there was back then, as students are taking what’s spoon-fed to them instead of trying to channel their own creativity. In addition to this generation buying into the trends in mainstream animation, Cal Arts itself is reinforcing this onto them and their not breaking away to establish their own style.

      Gus is also right, you’re paying excessively more for this school than almost any other known art institution, and for what in order to receive a mundane desk-job that you would probably receive from graduating from almost any other Southern Californian Art Academy. The reason why they charge so high is because of all this unwarranted publicity this school has gotten as being world renowned just because of celebrity teachers, guest lecturers, and notable graduates. Even with all the prestige they possess your experiences that you have with the celebrity professors can vary and are not always guaranteed to be successful. This is mainly because these professors come with their own set of beliefs and predetermined biases on animation that could conflict with many students. Each student could potentially have any kind experience with him or her no matter how qualified he or she is it varies and depends on the given scenario. Just because these professors had their name tied to a prestigious film doesn’t mean your experience will be good and that you will be bestowed invaluable information. All this greatness of Cal Arts is hyperbolized because what ultimately happens is that most of these graduates just receive nine to five jobs and inherit a narrow, selective, and biased set of beliefs on how to produce an animated cartoon and don’t become the visionary filmmakers that they hoped so hard to become. Cal Arts is a story of students who set their aspirations so high but don’t wind up accomplishing half the things they set themselves to do.

      Most Cal Art’s students tenacity should be admired but their belief that they will somehow receive this big payoff after graduating from such a school is ridiculously unlikely, its unfathomable for most of them to think that they’ll be the next Bird, Genndy, or Burton. Only a handful out of thousands of the schools hopefuls will ultimately wind up being the talk of the town or possess such a unique and envied art-style. It’s not just because of the competitive environment why so many students while wind up being cogs in the machine instead of leading visionaries. The other reason is that most of these students don’t stand out so how could they ever hope to propel themselves as a multi-million dollar animation director, when their just jumping on the next creative trend or bandwagon because they don’t possess their own critical thinking. If I was an executive I wouldn’t hand a multi-million dollar picture to an artist with that mindset. This is probably why many of them don’t take the director’s chair on some of the A-List films. A lot of Cal Arts Graduates don’t wind up following the footsteps of Burton, Bird, and Genddy and they scratch themselves on the head and wonder why. Its because they have no way of standing out from the rest of the competition and feel the urge to abandon any chance at being unique and superficially copy successful artists.

      Also in response to Brian and Amid, at the trajectory were heading are we really going to see another Burton, Genndy, or Bird? You guys mention that because the school produced such names somehow makes it seem that were going to witness more people like them again. Now more than ever Cal Arts has become a conformist culture with kids and teachers devoting their time to trying to find out how to emulate the masters instead of thinking on their own behalf. Even if Cal Arts produces another visionary like those people it will be literally one out of the couple hundred that attend there, and it won’t be every graduating class that will possess another one of these visionaries, that’s not a very good ratio. It’s like trying to find a needle out of a haystack.

      Again maybe if the portfolio review was less about life-drawing and more about examining an artist’s critical thinking, point of view, and observational skills, then maybe their would’ve been less of a need to write this article Amid. I think too many animation schools admit kids on the basis of draftsmanship rather than possessing a stand-out style or vision.

      • My point was regarding the sheer number of talent that is in the industry because Calarts is doing something right. It’s up to the individual to build on that core training afterwards and take it to new levels. Believe me, there are schools out there that give these kids an hours worth of training and then they’re on their own. Maybe an exaggeration but not too far from the truth.

      • Daniel

        Brad wears a Calarts hat. His son goes to the school. He supports the school.

        do you go to calarts? If not, stop making misinformed statements about a school you haven’t been to.

        and please stop making generalizations about the people who come from there. It doesn’t help people with intelligence understand your points.

      • Bud

        I don’t think I’d lump Gendy in with Brad Bird or even Glen Keane. Maybe in a decade or so when he proves he can tell a story well. But junk like clone wars and hotel transylvania just doesn’t compare with Iron Giant, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and MI4.

      • Optimist

        You have NO idea what you’re trying to talk about. None.

        • Concerned Observer

          First off I technically apologized for generalizations, “Optimist”. Secondly because I hadn’t witnessed the kids first hand than I did gladly admit to making an error of judgment. Though after witnessing the films produced there I have a right to say that I noticed similarities and a tendency to occasionally conform to certain ideas. Maybe if I said that than all this turmoil wouldn’t have taken place. That’s not unusual to happen in animation not everyone can always be unique.

          I made an error of judgment by underestimating the difficulty of the portfolio process, necessary pre-requisites, and damn good cirriculum this school posesses on teaching character acting, timing, and how to assemble stories.

          My problem is that I made an otherwise understandable arguement into a convoluted and controversial one. My argument pure and simple is that upon examining the work that is accesible through the internet, I noticed simlarities between work and kids having difficulty finding their own voice because stylistically I couldn’t tell some of the films apart.

          • Daniel

            some kids have difficulty, some kids don’t. That’s life.

            Having a artistic voice at the age of 18 or 19 isn’t the responsibility of the faculty, it’s the students. BUT I think the school does a damn good job to create a environment that nurtures it. *more then any other animation school in the U.S.*

            You obviously don’t know the school’s historical influence that started from Chouinard and even the Bauhaus; which had a tremendous influence on the artform of animation in America.

  • Roo

    Rich Moore slipped into a awkward place during this interview telling the world that CalArts can (still) be like a secret handshake on your animation resume. Talented animation vets and CalArts grads are these days teaching at different art schools around North America and even online reaching out to very talented kids across the world. These days the name alone of “CalArts” seems to be worth more than perhaps the financially draining education. There is not a CalArts style there is simply a CalArts entitlement style after graduation… and it is a bit embarrassing to watch here.

  • Not a CalArts grad

    CalArts turns out formula monkeys, not artists. Some artists transcend CalArts – and CalArts has seen some amazing talent, but I’m inclined to think those individuals would have done just fine anyway. The truth is that CalArts graduates usually produce the exact same poses, timing, expressions etc. You know what you’re hiring when you see CalArts on a resume.

    • Blues

      I would agree with you about the school during the 90s. But have you seen Calarts student films in the past 10 years? They encompass numerous drawing styles, story telling methods, and acting choices. Almost none of them look like Disney any more.

      In fact I think this “school style” stuff is becoming a little quaint. In this age of connectivity and easy exposure, you are free to draw influence from almost any source imaginable.

  • Anonymator

    How about this:

    Disney makes films.
    Kid watches and loves Disney films.
    Kid draws. A lot. Still obsessed with Disney films.
    Kid applies to the Character Animation department at CalArts.
    Kid gets really good.
    Kid graduates, gets hired by Disney.
    Kid makes Disney films for new kid.
    New Kid continues cycle.

    Make sense now?

    • Ron

      Amen to that!

    • Polecat

      Not exactly. Tim Burton broke the cycle because he found working on Fox and the Hound an excruciating experience. Leaving Disney seems to have been the best thing that could have happened to his career (and to a lot of animation fans as well.)

    • You forgot a few extra steps:

      Kid graduates, gets hired by Disney.
      Kid makes Disney films for new kid.
      Kid gets bored with job making Disney films.
      Kid realizes he can’t leave his job at Disney because he makes too much money and has a family.
      Kid takes up expensive artistic hobbies, such as theater, novel writing, or gymnastics.
      Kid decides to write a children’s book with an idea he hopes to sell as a feature and become the next William Joyce.
      Kid retires from his job, takes up painting or sculpture.
      Kid has grandchildren.
      Kid discovers granddaughter or grandson has an interest in animation.
      Kid teaches granddaughter or grandson that while Disney is a noble goal, it shouldn’t be the only goal in life…because one can miss opportunities when they’re young and ambitious…one can end up searching their whole life when they’re stuck in that one job… without having any real means of expressing the voice they always had inside as an artist…they search their whole lives, trying to live up to the demands of the industry, never believing they might be the one who can change it and make things better so that not every film is a Cal Arts film, a Disney film, a Pixar film, but instead….your film….your vision of what animation can be… in such a narrow, niched field such as animation, you look back on the day you saw your first Disney film and asked…was it really Disney calling to me? Or was it animation itself that found me? That this was field of art I was destined to pursue…that Disney wasn’t the goal, but merely the kickstart to your life’s ambition…and when you discover your art form, you also discover you have a voice that wants to be heard, but its one that Disney can’t speak for you.
      Finally, Kid leaves the world knowing….that while his artistic voice may not have been heard throughout his career, it will at least be passed on to the next generation, who learned from his experiences, and who may yet learn to find and listen to that voice within themselves, and at all costs find a way to express it.

      This is the one thing Cal Arts can’t teach you.

      • Anonymator

        Inspiring yet depressing… But I agree with your story. This is why I graduated from calarts and have stayed away from Disney. :)

        However, you can replace “Disney” in my list with any other big animation company.

      • Daniel

        “never believing they might be the one who can change it and make things better so that not every film is a Cal Arts film, a Disney film, a Pixar film, but instead….your film…”

        dude, no one at calarts is stopping the students to make their own films.. It’s their own decision if they chose to make a “calarts, disney, or pixar” film.. and many don’t!!

        that Kid should stop whining and grow up! You either have a artistic voice or you don’t~ and usually the ones who do don’t whine about how calarts did or didn’t give them one!

        • @Daniel
          One thing most people don’t take into account is that there is a lot of competition put on students in Cal Arts Character Animation. It’s not exactly up front, but between the Producers Show and Job Fairs, it’s hard not to feel frustrated when you try and fail again and again in competing with your peers. The focus for most students is almost always THE JOB. Your right, Cal Arts doesn’t stop people from making their own films if they really want to…but come on, how often does that really happen, especially when the student is so busy getting a job, staying afloat with work, raising a family…it’s hard not to get trapped into a niche and get bored with your career. Animation is incredibly time consuming, especially if you have your day job you have to focus on, where does the time come in to do your own thing? You cant get distracted at work thinking about your own project. Even the superstar students end up struggling too when the majority of their time is spent working on somebody else’s project. It becomes unfulfilling after awhile. But students who go to art school are inbred to compete with each other and not rock the boat. I swear to you when I went to Cal Arts, the first thing we were told from day one was “don’t piss anyone off. The industry is small, you may be working for your peers…yadda yadda…” It’s a lot of nonsense. If you want to take a look at a superstar who may have become bored with animation, look at Brad Bird. Seriously, I speak about the one animator who has influenced myself more than anyone. Did he really leave animation for live action because he wanted to? Or is it possible he got bored with animation when he realized he couldn’t tell the stories he wanted to within the medium? Even after The Incredibes, you’d think they’d let him do anything he wanted, so why was his next film somebody else’s movie he was asked to save (Ratatoullie)? And why hasn’t he gotten to make another original animated film since, considering he just did Pixar a huge favor when the film was a success? I’m telling you it’s a screwy business even when Brad Bird can’t make the animated films he wants to. You can Ra Ra Ra Cal Arts all you want to, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of unhappy artists out there in animation who feel they are without a voice and are unfulfilled with their own careers.

  • Nathan Strum

    I’ve been in the Character Animation Program at CalArts 21 years, and have seen every student film many times. So what I would like, is for someone to explain to me exactly what the “CalArts sensibility” is. I have yet to figure it out, other than it having to do with a desire to make films.

  • AA

    How can it not exist? There is a sensibility unique to every school, and not just art schools, just like how there’s a sensibility to anyone from a particular region.

    It’s just a bit weird because this sensibility dominates the industry, for better or for worse. It’s just how it is, but would be nice to see more unique visions for animation as an art form. And students!!! YOU SHOULD KNOW. CALARTS. IS NOT THE END ALL BE ALL. Great school, yes, but it’s CERTAINLY not for every person. there are many other great schools out there.

    • Optimist

      It doesn’t exist because there is not one overriding design philosophy in the Character Animation program, or any one or two dictatorial, hugely influential teachers directing students’ drawing or filmmaking styles.
      When the program started, it was run by Jack Hannah & Bob McCrea. For obvious reasons, mainly the fact that the program was started by Disney’s, and that Disney’s was by far the highest quality animation being done consistently in the US, students were guided towards a “Disney” style. Yet the instructors were fairly diverse-if all Disney veterans. Hannah didn’t teach drawing-Elmer Plummer did. T.Hee is pretty far from “Milt Kahl”-yet he taught design. As did Bill Moore-who never worked at Disney but was the fearsome, famously acerbic design teacher at Chouinard for years.
      I’ve yet to read a solid description of a so-called Calarts style here, just the assumption that it exists. Any “examples” given, from Brad Bird Pete Docter to Spumco artists to today’s TV neo avante garde stylists all differ from each other. Yet all went to Calarts. It’s just a building with a history of Disney funding. What comes out of it has always depended on who went in and what they felt like doing. That’s all.

  • Jack

    Ok, ok, ok there seems to be a whole lot of CalArts bashing from people who don’t seem to understand anything about the place.

    First of all Calarts CHARACTER ANIMATION takes drawing into account over other skills because that is the bread and butter of a skilled animator. To say that Walt Disney would be turned away from the school today is completely irrelevant not the least of which being that Walt was much more of a businessman than an artist. There are many kids there emulating other styles yes but certainly not any more or less than any other school. That seems like a personal issue for those kids finding their voice it’s not like CalArts personified is standing over them forcing them to draw anime Fin and Jake all the time.

    Second of all there is another animation major that apparently doesn’t exist in any of your radars and that is EXPERIMENTAL ANIMATION. CalArts is one of the only schools to make the distinction, much to its benefit. While Character Animation is concerned with tradition and exquisite craftsmanship, (and yes gasp! that means sometimes using other peoples’ styles because maybe you work for them) Experimental is concerned with expression, the pushing of artistic boundaries within the medium and developing unique style. Hmm… seemingly the opposite of a “house style”? This program is one of the most fertile for serious and inventive art making in the realm of animation, and it has garnered as much prestige from the fine art wing of animation as character has from the commercial side. To disregard it would be a serious discredit to the breadth of animation that can exist.

    The school has good years and bad years as does any place, but there is very little arguing with the sheer number and magnitude of the alumni from CalArts. A lot of the argument here seems to be that because not every single kid coming out of CalArts is Tim Burton or Gendy Tartovsky that it’s a creative wash and that you might as well just sign up for a job in the mail room of DreamWorks because that’s as far as you’ll get. Anyone who believes it’s the school pushing students into stale formula and copying of style, and not the students struggling with finding and acheiving a unique voice, or that it’s by definition impossible for every single graduate to be a defining voice in animation probably doesn’t understand much about the creative process for most people, and definitely not the attitudes of innovation that CalArts tries it’s best to impress upon students.

    • Concerned Observer

      Thanks Jack for providing such an eloquently stated arguement. I have to apologize because I didn’t want to come off as a basher even though my posts obviously imply that. When I was writting them up I was just sick of how pretentious the school comes across occasionally thinking they have bragging rights as the premiere animation college. Because from what I’ve examined the kids that wind up going to that school are no more qualified or talented than any of their peers that attend other programs or schools. They seem to be just like any other student at any other school enthusiastic, eager to learn but still seriously in need of expanding their artistic horizons in order to help them find their own voice. Which most artist in their late teens and early twenties still have yet to find. Though because of the publicity the school received by being tied to Disney and prestigious graduates they can easily make it seem their a step ahead of other programs. For people to say that its the greatest animation school is certainly a hyperbole because like any school peoples experiences there would vary. Like any school they don’t cram all the necessary tools to become a master animator some of that is up to animator themselves as the schools can’t provide everything. Though places like Cal Arts can still provide a foundation for you to get to your ultimate objectives, so I’m sorry for my laments.

      I guess what I have to ultimately understand is that the cirriculum and falculty ultimately have no control, over the students personal artistic preferences some of which become tiring after awhile, because a lot of their films seem to run into certain cliches, and that is largely the basis to my lament. The whole Finn and Jake argument you brought up is where much of central argument was, those students reinforce the stereotypes about these schools,and are largely why the bashing takes place. Though thanks to your wonderful post its been easier to determine that Cal Arts doesn’t force a house style or particular mindset onto any student and they ultimately started the Experimental Animation program to get away from such a stigma.

  • I’m a bit surprised at the comments stating that studios only hire CalArts alums and CalArts alums have some sort of exclusive clique. I went to Cal State Fullerton and I work in the industry as do several of my fellow alums. I know for a fact that at least 2 fellow CSUF alums worked on Wreck-It-Ralph and a fellow CSUF Titan is a talent recruiter at Disney. So I haven’t seen any barriers set up by CalArts grads to keep anybody out.
    The only reason why CalArts has so many professionals in the industry is because they have a tried and tested program set up to teach how to be commercially successful in the industry, as well as a pool of determined and talented students flowing in every year. Every kid in high school that has an interest in pursuing a career in animation has heard of CalArts, especially if they have an interest in working in feature animation. It’s the reputation the school has built over the years. So it’s really no wonder that many walk away from the program with a certain style when so many go there with a desire to learn that style (and just as many go there to build the basic skills so they can better develop their own style). But I’ve never seen any nefarious scheme where only CalArts grads may apply. All employers ever want to see is if you can do the job well, on time, and have a collaborative mind. Even if you went to state school.

    • Bud

      “because they have a tried and tested program set up to teach how to be commercially successful in the industry”

      HOGWASH! That’s pretty silly. Especially since a majority of the grads struggle to find work.

      But the high regard for the work at CalArts, it’s connections to the industry at large (most teachers work in the business still).

  • Julian

    You know I was considering Sheridan and it’s so funny, people make the exact same complaints about it. I really don’t know what to say on the whole thing. So many people are saying it all looks the same and follows the same patterns. Personally I think animation has never been bigger and more diverse. It used to be so concentrated in Hollywood, now, all these indie people are popping up, technology is evolving making it more practical for those outside the corporate net, other smaller companies outside Hollywood are able to make feature films, and so many perspectives and genres are afloat it seems like it’s own art itself. Now does Hollywood still have a staple influence with animation? Yes, so it seems. Are there groups of people in Hollywood and other areas who seem to have similar styles with one another? Yes, it’s called influence. But that seems to evolve and new styles spawn out of that. So is that such a bad thing? I really can’t say. It’s too much of a loaded question to say yes, it’s all this, or no, it’s all that.

  • Dry Bones Films

    well, of course there’s going to be divergent styles between schools, because the few instructors at each school are the ones that teach those students their how to problem solve (be it draftsmanship, style, movement, story, color, composition, or anything else), that ultimately define how you work beyond the school.

    If you have ex-disney or CalArts professors, you’re going to learn the Disney full-animation way. If you have professors from TV animation backgrounds, you’re going to learn snappy economic answers. If you’re professors are independents (like mine), you’re going to learn limited, but unique techniques that don’t stifle you’re vision, even if the story, quality, or the scope of the project suffers.

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the combined zeitgeist of the instructors at a school will influence those who study there under them. Anyone else is fooling themselves, and potentially shooting themselves in the foot.

    • Dry Bones Films

      I’m surprised that people who claim that there isn’t a “Cal-Arts Style” also try to argue that learning animation under anime or manga instructors wouldn’t infuse those styles into your work either.

      Your instructors’ influence has no less impact on you than the very medias you try to emulate, and maybe even more so because it’s not as apparent to you because it’s not directly in front of you on a TV.

      • barney miller

        I’m surprised that people continue to talk about the CalArts “style” and yet refuse to define what that style is.

        • tim

          For one definition of the CalArts style, you could start here:

          • Although this interesting too—->


            There’s so much I learn from there. Every day I type anatomy-life drawing-colour concept-character design-pinks and purples-caricature and learn something new. He even posted a reply of mine once!
            I think we owe him too much…

          • Polecat

            OK, so I’ve read Kricfalusi’s posts on what he considers to be the CalArts style from these links.

            First of all, I think it’s just too broad an umbrella term to apply to all the different studios he named in one of his posts. I can see some pretty significant stylistic differences between Pixar and Don Bluth.

            And second, I don’t quite understand just what’s wrong with this style. Maybe it’s just a matter of taste. I haven’t kept up much with Kricfalusi since Ren & Stimpy in the 90’s, but when I remember that cartoon and contrast it against the style used by a lot of the studios Kricfalusi indicts, I prefer the “CalArts” method of rendering facial expressions and making characters more relatable. (But I don’t know if Ren & Stimpy were ever supposed to be relatable anyway.)

            Finally, I don’t see why a person can’t be influenced by the CalArts style and still be original.

            Any thoughts?

        • Concerned Observer

          Anime conformity.

    • Nope… sorry, I believe it doesn’t work like that.
      I learned a lot more on High School, Art history class + home than in any uni. BUT that doesn’t mean that happens to every single creature in the world, right?
      Every school contains its program + its prices. But you’re the one to create the filter and decide what gets in and what gets out.
      Unfortunately on CalArts they don’t make you that clear. They make you think that only Disney exists. But you can’t blame them, really. After all, it’s a business- a theory which turns them into just another “business program w/ lack of appreciation to what creativity really means”

  • What and how and how much you learn at art school (and maybe other schools. I don’t know, I didn’t go to them) has everything to do with the lecturers and almost nothing to do with anything else.

  • axolotl

    Every art trend will go away if you wait long enough. If you don’t like the ‘Calarts Style,’ do something in whatever style you want. Get a day job or move back in with your parents if you have to…
    I do agree with some of the previous posters that Calarts Char. Anim. students need to stop looking at just animation, though. They should be looking at live-action movies, and they shouldn’t just look at movies, they should be reading. And studying art history. And general history. And they should be going outside and observing nature, not just because it’s inspirational, but because it’s good for them. You don’t want to draw from a shallow inbred little puddle of influences.

  • I have not read all comments but….having had the great privilege of teaching at Cal Arts for 6 years I would just like to throw in this consideration. The portfolio review consisted of going through up to 600 applicants, was global in scope,took several months, and when I was there Corny Cole and Mike Mitchell were aboard. This vast number was finally narrowed down through a process to 40 -45 acceptances. The sheer amount of talent seen was staggering, Talent in , talent out.
    The students were competitive with, yet supportive of each other, became a unit. Always good after graduation. An amazing place, a post baccalaureate program which was of most use to those who had received their “college” education in the liberal arts, at least to the AA degree level, so when at CIA they could focus on their purpose, the opportunity to find their abilities and vision. Unlike an Art Center grad in Illustration where there is a Art Center style of laying down an image , viewing the open show tapes or Producer’s Show discs does not indicate to me there is a “style” as much as there is a passion for the art form. These artists wish to extend the possibilities of it by the technical necessities it demands.

  • mcrane

    See examples of work from CalArts’ Character Animation Program here:


    Miss the days of T.Hee, Card Walker etc….
    Dare to be different… But different does not always mean better…

  • I have no idea what you are talking about :)

  • Tin Man

    Hey! It’s Bang On Cal Arts Day – take your best shot everyone! After all, negativity and divisiveness are in such short supply these days – more! more! Thanks for providing such a clearly needed catharsis for the haters Amid.

    As a happily indebted graduate of the Experimental Animation department, I can’t help but have a laugh at most of these comments (and article). I’d pay it all three times over again to have one last morning coffee with Jules.

    As for the Character Dept, let’s not forget it’s an undergraduate program – YOUNG kids – FRESH out of high school. I was always welcome to sit in on classes and interact with Chara Anim profs & students – learned a ton. However, I never got the conformity/hive download. Must have missed that day.

    It’s a big bold world people – lots of different approaches. Animation isn’t defined -will NEVER be defined! Let’s try to support each other. No?

    • GW

      I’ll give it a shot, but you’ll have to give me lenience to go longer than the typical dictionary definition. Animation The creation of the illusion of movement, usually through the use of film or video, through means analogue/digital in respect to the change of an image in time and the image shown at any point in time. This is distinct from one motion which represents another but takes place in a specific recorded time, whether or not the time is sped up or slowed down. In as far as this technique can be distinguished from live action will be called Motion Mimetics. But only distinct so far as the two are not made to consciously overlap. Animation is not always a mutually exclusive category, often blended live action or recordings based upon it such as rotoscoping or motion capture. Animation, when presented in a film or video format, often includes sound.

      That’s about as good as I can do, and maybe I’ve left the definition too open. At best I’ve probably shifted the debate from whether or not something’s animation to whether or not it’s primarily animation. Motion mimetics is a big problem, because we normally think of puppetry or animatronics when we think of alternatives to animation. And as you surely know, it’s impossible to fully sort out the distinctions between formats. When it comes to different media, I try sorting it by dimension, generally 2D or 3D, maybe 2D representations of a line count if you’re a stickler for accuracy. I came up with another category, virtual 2D or 3D.

      I could go on trying to isolate it further, but after considering the distinctions I’d have to make for 3D cinema, I decided I’d save myself more useless work.

      But ignoring all the technical crap, animation is generally undefined because people want to leave it undefined in order to be able to subtly redefine it when it suits their purposes. If it weren’t that way, people would just come up with a new name for whatever comes afterwards. When it comes right down to it, we make up categories that are more popular than others and people try to get into the popular categories in order to gain recognition. If you called yourself a ‘rhythmic verbalist’ and tried to sell your CD in a store, it wouldn’t work. So we come up with broad categories and people argue over narrow and broad definitions. It’s the map maker’s dilemma. Maybe I should write a short book because it takes too long to explain everything in a blog comment and I’m getting too off topic.

    • Roo

      When a director (who worked on the Simpsons forever) is asked why now his feature movie is just like PIxar films and he says Oh… CalArts. It is not just a nothing. It creates a big question mark. Who are you really talking to Rich Moore?

      In the latest Pixar shorts DVD, director’s student CalArts films are included as a “bonus.” So it seems alumni are trying to create a case for a “style” and are trying to help foster a storyline of animation success. It therefore gives people something to talk about when they see it in an awkward interview.