School of Visual Arts Student Screening Review

I attended a couple year-end animation school screenings yesterday in Manhattan–one for NYU students and the other for School of Visual Arts students. The focus of this piece today will be on the latter school, which are called the Dusty screenings. School of Visual Arts has the largest animation program in New York. They presented forty-five thesis films last night. The films were a mixed bag, as most school programs are, but the gap between poor and well done was wider than usual, partly because of the size of the program, but also because the bad films were really bad and the good films were jaw-droppingly spectacular.

The weakest of the bunch made your eyes pop out. It made me angry to think how somebody could have just spent four years of their life and $150k, and not understand the first thing about filmmaking, storytelling, drawing or animating. (To be fair, I had the same reaction for many of the works at NYU’s screening so the reaction is not exclusive to SVA.) The bottom line is that something is clearly wrong, either with admission standards or instruction.

On the other hand, the good films coming out of SVA are outstanding. In a few cases, the films exceeded the quality of anything I’ve seen recently from schools like CalArts and Sheridan, which are considered the North American standard-bearers in traditional animation instruction. The most unique thing about the SVA films I saw is that they don’t rely on conventional student cliches like copying Disney-style expressions or Fifties-style character designs. These students have found their own groove and are exploring personal styles of movement and design not often seen in student films; their inspiration seems to come less from Milt Kahl and more from indie comic artists and illustrators along the lines of Ghostshrimp, Jordan Crane and Tom Herpich.

I was unable to sit through the entire four-hour screening, but I think I caught some of the most solid entries, which included Cat by Peyton Skyler, Metromorphosis by Mikhail Shraga, Juxtaposed by Alex (Wager) Myung, The Chicken Prince by Ioana Alexandra Nistor, and Fantastic Plastic by Lev Polyakov.

Another entertaining short, Metal Boot by Paul Villeco, has already been posted online:

There were two films in particular that floored me last night. The Terrible Thing of Alpha-9 by Jake Armstrong (first image below) and Singles by Rebecca Sugar (second image below). The visual inventiveness of both these films, and their sophisticated marriage of design and animation, was absolutely mindblowing. If Rebecca and Jake represent the future of hand-drawn animation, then the art form is in safe hands.

Jake Armstrong

Rebecca Sugar


  • Sara

    I think the case with any school, but especially art school is that it is what you make of it. There are kids who are bad, and SVA has a particularly high admittance rate. There are those students who are great and they go above and beyond and create great art because they want to. I think that talent and the ability to exceed at design and storytelling is a talent you are born with and have a knack for. You can take classes to make you a more refined artist, but if you don’t have the intuition, then it is difficult to succeed.

    Barely any students at art school are unique, original talents. Most of them a) are not very good b) simply do what is “trendy” (ie. b+w photos of converse sneakers)

    I haven’t heard of Jake Armstrong, but Rebecca Sugar is obviously very talented and she has her own style and the gift of being able to tell a great story. Pug Davis is AWESOME. She clearly wants to put out the best art she can.

    I think a lot of students in art school go on to be art teachers and they really just don’t care about their work in school as long as they graduate. Nothing against art teachers, obviously, but a lot of kids in art school today are there because it is “easy” and they don’t intend on producing their own work or making something of themselves.

    Also, I went to art school for a time before transferring out so I have first hand experience.

    But basically I don’t think the schools are at fault. It’s the students’ prerogative/talent.

  • http://kittyhasfleaz.blogspot.com/ Felicia Spano

    To be fair… some people have different experiences attending school.
    If you observe a variety of people attending SVA, you’ll find that everyone possesses different levels of skill. This is obvious. For example, I went into school possessing limited knowledge of life drawing and design. I had some form of talent, but I hadn’t taken any solid drawing classes before hand (which I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing). Regardless of how ludicrous it would have been to let me in, that’s what happened and it is what it is..

    My thesis film wasn’t the best by ANY means. FAR from it! However, despite the crude clean up and perhaps, the other rushed aspects of the film, I worked extremely hard. I was juggling my own personal issues (anxiety disorder/OCD, family problems, etc) and juggling other classes which (correlating with my home life) didn’t make the film process any easier. I lost 25 lbs the summer before because my OCD was so bad — I could barely hold down food. It was a cavalcade of insanity — revising scenes to make them better and trying to complete the film. Luckily, I had an outstanding adviser (Don Poynter) to keep me sane the entire time.

    Another thing I should mention (and I had this discussion with my boyfriend last night) is that we only had approximately 9 months to complete the project. Although it SEEMS like 9 months is plenty of time, graduation hovers over the students’ heads and they have to take care of SO many things (credits, finances, etc). It can be stressful. And Yes… I have realized that there were some INCREDIBLE films and it may seem like I have no excuse for the quality of my film, but as I’ve mentioned, everyone is different.

    One last thing I’ll say before I finish this rant is that my mother was in C.C.U. at Brookdale Hospital, in a comatose state, two weeks before my film was due. My mother broke her arm the Friday before, but her congestive heart failure (along with other ailments) affected her in a very unexpected way. The doctors were pretty sure that she was about to leave us. Think about how that could possibly affect someone emotionally as they’re not only trying to COMPLETE a film, but prove themselves artistically.

    Finishing the film for my mother was an accomplishment in itself. Before the accident, I was ALSO my mother’s caretaker. I took her to doctor’s appointments, picked up prescriptions, made runs to the store, and more…all while trying to keep my sanity, finish my film and graduate.

    I understand your frustrations with students not finishing and some student’s quality of work…but everyone has a story. Heck, not everyone may have a viable excuse, but maybe those people do….

  • http://www.rauchbrothers.com Tim Rauch

    Metal Boot is a lot of fun, thanks for sharing! There are some sweet, sweet drawings in there. I’d seen Rebecca Sugar’s film as well, and that is just incredibly unique, lovely, wonderful, the whole bag of superlatives. The drawings and the music especially. Wish I’d caught the screening, guess I’ll have to bug Jake to see his latest.

    Cheers to the students! Now for the hard part: keep making incredible work.

  • http://kittyhasfleaz.blogspot.com/ Felicia Spano

    Granted, my film was completed LAST year, I felt like I had to mention this…

  • amid

    Sara: The schools are not completely exempt from responsibility. Frankly, a lot of those students should not have made it to senior year—at both SVA and NYU. Admissions standards for CalArts are a lot stricter, and a far greater majority who make it to senior year have their core competencies down. Regardless of whether a school is filmmaking-oriented or drawing/animation-oriented, there are certain basics that students have to know coming out of the program or they shouldn’t make it to senior year.

    Felicia: The hard truth of the real world is that audiences don’t care about the back story. The finished product on the screen is the only thing that is judged, regardless of budget, time and personal constraints.

  • http://kittyhasfleaz.blogspot.com/ Felicia Spano

    Granted! However, thesis films are required films that need to be done for the student to graduate. Personal films should be more subject to review because they’re done on the filmmaker’s own time and they abide by their own schedules. Many personal films actually TAKE people several years to complete because they’re actually trying to maintain the quality and show the world their personal views.

    Thesis films, like I’ve said, are MANDATORY films specifically created for the student to graduate. Many students don’t even know what they want to make a film about…they just have to make one. If one doesn’t enjoy the film that they’re making, then how can one possibly make an exceptional film.

    I respect you as an individual and I can respect your opinion. However, I couldn’t help but feel like I had to mention my viewpoints. I hope you can understand.

  • Arthur

    Pratt’s students this year managed to put together the most impressive student screening I’ve ever seen. Some really spectacular stuff in there. Two that could stand up in any “professional” film festival and a third that could with another couple weeks work.

    Maybe the problem of mandatory film reqiurements imposed on students who aren’t interested could be solved if students were just allowed to band together a la Gobelins. Some students are better storytellers while others are better compositors or animators. Giving students the opportunity to work together and to their individual strengths might produce more consistently good work and prepare them for the more professionally important task of making your team look awesome.

    Anyways, the highest compliment I can pay to these guys is that they’ve lit a fire under my ass to make better films this year. The competition for festival spots and awards is going to be significantly tougher in 2009 and 10.

  • http://rauchbrothers.com Mike Rauch

    The group of films you’ve posted the video and stills from here were all extraordinary in their own ways. What a talented group of students! I hope they keep working off of each other and keep experimenting. They could do some really exciting things.

  • Jacob O

    I think this was a particularly exceptional year-end screening. I was amazed at how creative and well drawn some of the films were this year. There are not words enough in the English language to describe how awesome some of those films were. And even in the less accomplished films, there was certainly talent involved and the potential to do better. All in all, it was a great evening.

    And congrats to the graduating class of ‘09!

  • http://www.frankrause.com/franimation/ Fran Krause

    I’m with Arthur on this one. Already starting to figure out how I’m going to fit an intern in my home studio so I can get a film done over summer vacation.

  • http://www.stephenneary.blogspot.com stephen

    I think it’s important to know that nyu doesn’t offer a degree in animation specifically, but rather offers a large degree of craft and production courses towards a degree in film and television. rounding out the degree are healthy doses of required liberal arts courses–at heart it’s a university.

    Most of the students in NYU animation have applied based on a portfolio of live action film work, sat scores and all the usual.
    i’m not trying to make excuses for students, as i know i worked extremely hard to complete my thesis on time at nyu. but i think it helps explain the extreme range of levels. Some students are just taking animation courses for the first time, others should be concentrating on basics instead of trying to tackle a five minute film.

    as for me, I loved the independence and freedom of the animation department, especially after stumbling into animation from an intended career in live-action film. i thrived in a program that encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, for better or worse. this seems to be a reflection of the new york scene, where if you’re independent and driven you’ll land on your feet. Yeah, it’s not for everyone.

    “something is wrong with admissions or instruction”–try and fix that, and you’re going to end up killing a lot of the creativity we admire in the good films. sure, you could make the courses themselves more selective. I’m sure there’s a happy medium, but i am also sure it’s hard to find.

    in the end, somebody talented will probably excel no matter the circumstances, but school, and the kind of school, certainly helps. ideally, the right kind of school to fit the right kind of student. for me, nyu worked.

  • http://www.theamigounit.com Bone

    Excellent group of films – an MTV Renaissance – the gap was enormous as stated – being a recent graduate it gives me hope things are looking up – if this continues – which I hope to be true.

  • http://www.vitaminsteve.com Steve Flack

    As a survivor of the film department at SVA, I can tell you that the only real test for admittance to attend SVA is the ability to write a check. That’s not a terrible thing, since the school does need money to survive, especially in such terrible economic times. What that does mean is that an SVA diploma is pretty much worthless. But, again, in any art field, the diploma is indeed worthless, and the true diploma is the work you leave with. And if your work is worthwhile, then you will succeed. And if not, you won’t, regardless of the diploma you have.

  • http://www.rauchbrothers.com Tim Rauch

    I agree with many things Stephen said.

    Each program has it’s own strengths and ultimately the individual is responsible for making of themselves what they will. I went to a school without a single instructor with any experience in animation. What I learned from my instructors was conceptual thought, collaboration, the fundamentals of drawing and design and the most important principle of all: discipline. St. John’s is not the first place you’d think of going to pursue a career in animation, but it worked well for my brother and I.

  • Chappell Ellison

    I really don’t buy the idea that just because it’s your thesis film, means the end result might not meet a certain standard of quality, simply because its mandatory. Your thesis should show what the world might be expecting from you in the years to come.

    Amid, I had the same feeling at the SVA screening. The discrepancy was extreme. The reason people like Jake Armstrong and Rebecca Sugar stood out was not just superb animation, but a sense of overall design that made each piece cohesive and perfect. It’s not just about character design, but also layout, and color. That’s why my eyeballs were about to cry tears of joy when Jake Armstrong’s work come onto the screen. Such attention paid to color. From the first scene washed in red, I was thinking “He’s got it!”

    It was easy to see which animators really put the love into their films. And for those who did, it was wonderful. As someone who will be paying off student loans to SVA for the rest of my life, I’m happy to see students who aren’t wasting their time OR money.

  • http://dailygrail.com/blog/8389 red pill junkie

    I don’t know. All persons are different. I’m not happy with any of the projects I did when in college; but I feel that AFTER I went out of school I became pretty good at what I do.

    Of course, that’s taking the hardest road in life, because obviously a lot of doors were closed to me. But not everyone is cut off to be a young genius. Some of us need a couple of years to sharpen our skills ;-)

  • Chappell Ellison

    red pill junkie, what you say is true, not everyone finishes college as a genius. In fact, I look back on most of my undergrad work and just shake my head.

    But, after four years and thousands (THOUSANDS) of dollars, you should come out of undergraduate school showing that you possess the basic skills to work somewhat competently within your chosen field. If this basic requirement isn’t met, then there’s a problem with the student or with the system.

  • Mitch Kennedy

    YEEEAAA Rebecca Sugar! Pure talent. :D

  • http://www.elliotelliotelliot.com Elliot Cowan

    I can only echo everything Amid has already said.

  • Paul Villeco

    Arthur, SVA *does* allow for SVA students to submit a joint thesis. I’m not sure why no one has taken advantage of it (as far as I know.) I don’t blame them. I think everyone who finished was really excited to see their personal work playing in the festival.

    Thank you for posting my video (and my website, I guess. Fuck, I gotta finish that shit real fast!!)

  • Sammy

    I guess if you ask me, I enjoy the Disney 50′s stuff very much and Milt Kahl’s stuff as well. Except I don’t think many students today are able to replicate them 100% and tend to make it like a bad version of Kahl’s stuff. There are a few successful ones from Calarts and I still enjoyed them just as much, I didn’t get bored at them because they still have some new appeal to them with a little original element here and there, and most of all, the story was good.

    As for the ‘new groove’, I guess I am not entirely into them as much. It’s probably personal of course. I can’t really watch Ed, Edd, and Eddie, nor Teacher’s Pet style because they aggravate me. Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends appeal me more so it’s not just Disney’s stuff. To each it’s own, I guess.

  • http://venadoinstantaneo.blogspot.com diego

    rebecca sugar deserves FAME AND GLORY!

  • http://www.georgeconkin.blogspot.com george

    Amid why dont you teach a class. One at both schools. Actions speak louder than words.

  • http://www.elliotelliotelliot.com Elliot Cowan

    George – I’m not sure it’s possible to teach someone how to be dedicated, hard working and talented.

  • animation fan

    Are there any online clips from the films that you said weren’t as well made.

  • http://2dwannabe.blogspot.com robcat2075

    It would probably be useful to know how these “Final Project” tasks are administered and structured.

    Is there an advisor involved or is it a sink-or-swim situation? Sink-or-swim may be unrealistic since few new grads, no matter how talented, will be asked to helm a whole production. Some wise feed back at important junctures from an advisor could do a lot to keep a borderline project on track.

    Is the project part of the normal course load or in addition to it?

    Were there minimum or maximum scope limits?

    What is the teaching goal for this project? Is it just to fill the portfolio? Are there benchmarks each project is supposed to meet?

    Variations in any of the above could have a lot to do with whether mid-range students succeed.

    For $150,000 the school should be doing everything possible to squeeze successful results out of the students. I figure the higher tuition is paying for greater instructor contact and a superior curriculum. If not, what is it paying for?

  • Magnusson

    You prettymuch picked out the top films from the screening pretty close to what I felt. There were some that had great comedy writing but lesser execution in animation, and still found those entertaining.

    I think Mouse Reaper was pretty good and might deserve another look.

    As a student starting this fall in the SVA program, seeing the results of student work was valuable. Many kids these days take education for granted and will choose to coast if they don’t see the value in the work they’re doing. There are others who will put in extra work and find amazing value from the process.

  • http://thefightnerd.com Matthew

    I graduated from Pratt in 2006, and you forgot to check out their animation show in your review. not sure of the dates for it, but they do it at BAM every year around this time. Anyway, I do agree with your sentiments of mediocrity in art schools. In my senior project class, I had some absolutely amazing kids who you could not really teach anything else to, and then we had kids who must have been there purely because mommy and daddy were donating tons of cash. it was shocking. but on the plus side, we know that they wont be able to get jobs once they leave school and we will soon see them working at wal-mart, if theyre that lucky, and never touching a pencil again unless its to write customer complaints over their bad service.

  • http://www.youtube.com/kustomkool Kevin Dougherty

    S.V.A. is a mixed bag, but if you’re self-motivated and disciplined, it can be a great opportunity. It’s not a place that turns out generic designers and illustrators for san-serif type foundries and Scandinavian furniture outlets. It’s kind of gritty and D.I.Y.

    S.V.A. was founded as a school for cartoonists (by cartoonists.) A wonderful -if dubious- distinction.

  • http://cartoonelectro.wordpress.com Novid

    One of the things I realized over the years (I have a friend from Sheridan) when it comes to these art schools, and especally from New York that there is these certain cliques many students (im not talking the Phi Cappa and the like) and their parents belong to.

    $150,000 for a education and most of these folks (with the execption of the several who made Amid’s cut) cant understand one aspect of what their professor taught them. But that dont matter – just get that piece of paper and the parents will do the rest. And there is another thing i noticed, could it be that most of these students (not unlike what Miyaki stated in a recent article) given all the tools, dont have a story to tell or better yet only have a generic view of the world given by the media, poltics and so on. New York has so much wealth of art almost to the point of the whole city being one huge mass of color, that it makes no sense to me that those students who just did the thesis half assed would even be allowed to show that work to the judges.

    I think the problem has become that the students that did not inspire were in the wrong class or in the wrong school. Times have changed and I cant understand for the life of me why these kids belittle themselfs. They say they have talent. They say they want to be cartoonists. They may have the actual skill but they are not self disciplined and they dont want to know about the actual nuances of what makes a great cartoonist/animator. They just want to make money.

    I think its been high time for these students who cant reach the standards set by the judges to look into a Trade. Their grandfathers were plumbers and there grandmothers were stylists/hairdressers and maybe for these folk there is nothing wrong with doing that type of work. If they are only there because it easy, then maybe its high time to give them the easy way out.

    And as for those that have a backstory, its like Amid stated before the Audeance dont care for it. Never did. Why would they care? Leave those things to take care of themselfs. And because some people refuse to do so it makes the whole work at the end of the day seem second handed and forced.

  • Not an Animator

    “The weakest of the bunch made your eyes pop out. It made me angry to think how somebody could have just spent four years of their life and $150k, and not understand the first thing about filmmaking, storytelling, drawing or animating. ”

    Heh you think you’re angry :) If these students didn’t have what it took to become decent animators then did it really take 4 years and $150,000 for the teachers to figure that out? As a casualty of an animation school that shall not be named I feel that the *freedom* they gave you to work at your own pace on your own projects was just a lame excuse to not get down and dirty with the students, see what their strengths and weaknesses are, and actually *teach* them. Teaching the most rudimentary basics of animation and then just giving people a semester and a desk to make a cartoon isn’t good enough. There has to be structure and discipline on the part of the educator-like a boot camp. Most people will *not* have the discipline to learn animation on their own, that’s where the obscene amount of money comes in. From my personal experience the good cartoons that I saw at these student screenings were a result of the talent that the student brought with them, not the influence of the teachers, so it’s unfair to look at the other students and say they just didn’t want it bad enough. We wanted it, but looking back we were paying people to tell us we had to teach ourselves.

    But I’m only going from my own example. For all I know there may be animation schools out there that actually teach the art…

  • http://mayshing.com Mayshing

    Oh, too bad you couldn’t sit through all of it!
    You probably missed the most spectature 3 films link into one story right after Rebacca’s film “Singles”

    Three students of SVA this year decided to link up their psychotic films together and make it into one giant thesis. I think that’s one thing not many seniors could have done no matter what, their interests, styles, and story telling all fit one another to a T. I was totally blown away by that. :D I wish our school SVA makes DVDs out of this year thesis, (except a few bad ones.) I would totally buy them even if they sell them!