California e-school prepares students for professional animation

By U-Wire

BERKELEY, Calif. – In September, a Berkeley, Calif., animation school graduated its first class of 89 students with the help of 50 instructors – but no actual classrooms.

AnimationMentor.com, an e-school based in a West Berkeley office, allows students to learn all the different stages of studio animation with just a computer and a few clicks.

Set to graduate another 63 students next month, AnimationMentor.com has students in more than 50 countries, including one University of California at Berkeley alumna, said Lleslle Aclaro, the school’s operations vice president.

“By having it online we’re opening the door for students from all over the world to be able to have access to professional animators,” Aclaro said.

Mentors working for animation studios like Pixar and Blue Sky can use webcams to reach their students, who are located in places such as the United Arab Emirates and Spain, said Shawn Kelly, one of the school’s co-founders.

“The fact that it’s online allows people all over the world to have access to one grade-A animation education,” Kelly said.

UC Berkeley alumna Elaine Wu is enrolled in the program after completing her undergraduate degree in molecular and cellular biology. After working for a pharmaceutical company after graduation, she decided she was more interested in animation.

“I can’t say I grew up wanting to be an animator,” Wu said, “but I’ve always been inspired by the way they can think outside of the box. When I found out about the program, I was excited because I wanted to become a part of that community.”

Wu dedicates about 20 hours a week to her current course, mentored by Dave Vallone, who was an animator for “James and the Giant Peach,” and is currently learning how to make characters act realistically when talking. Wu expects to graduate in June and hopes to make feature films.

Though the program may seem intimidating at times because it is online, Wu said the fact that all mentors are working professionals is appealing.

“It’s a really nurturing environment,” she said. “Everyone brings something else to the program.”

Classes for Wu and other students consist of viewing a video by the mentor, completing an assignment to be electronically critiqued by the mentor, and attending a weekly live question-and-answer session with classmates and the mentor via webcam.

“You get very focused attention from the mentors,” she said.

After teaching in an art school in San Francisco, animators Kelly, Bobby Beck and Carlos Baena felt that aspiring animators needed to be more prepared for the industry and began their program in March 2005, Kelly said.

“It’s exciting for (students) because they are learning from the person who has their dream job,” he said.

Some of the school’s graduates have already found jobs at studios such as Disney, Industrial Light and Magic and Dreamworks, and they are working on projects such as “Pirates of the Caribbean III,” Kelly said.

“We wanted the best animators,” Kelly said.