Zubby Newsletter #26: Back to School

Hanging with movie-style Thulsa Doom in Atlanta.

After back-to-back four-day conventions, Fan Expo Canada in Toronto and Dragon Con in Atlanta, I immediately rocketed into the Fall term at Seneca. It’s my 19th year teaching in Seneca’s Animation program and the consistency of that schedule, semester after semester and year after year, creates a season-centric structure I enjoy. Each Fall there’s a brand-new set of students stepping into the program, bringing their enthusiasm and energy into the wing, reminding us why we do this and why it’s so satisfying.

At least a half-dozen current professors in the Animation program are also alumni, former students I taught many years ago, which feels extra-surreal even while my heart swells with pride that they’re back with us and excited to bring their knowledge and skills into the classroom to teach a new generation of animators, storytellers, and designers how it’s done.

I don’t talk a heck of a lot about my teaching career in interviews or other comic book press because most of that time gets spent promoting current projects or talking about the writing process. I also don’t talk a heck of a lot about my creative projects in the classroom. It’s not because I’m trying to hide it or anything, it’s just that my job at the college is focused on teaching  structural drawing (usually perspective drawing and environmental design) or film development (helping final year students put together their story pitches and film production teams), not promoting my work. The students pay tuition to learn specific skills, not be advertised to. Don’t get me wrong, when I have an anecdote or reference material that’s relevant I’m happy include it, I just try to make sure it’s appropriate to the lesson we’re covering or is after we’ve covered the school-centric lecture first.

Back on campus at York University, home of Seneca@York.

The start of the 2023 Fall term feels familiar, but in a way that’s far more reminiscent of 2019 than recent years of pandemic and transition. The halls and classrooms are once again packed with students just like the packed aisles of the comic conventions I’ve been attending all summer. Things aren’t 100% ‘normal’, but they feel closer now than at any other time in the past four years.

At one point on Tuesday there were so many new students chatting with each other, excitedly talking about movies, games, and comics before class that I had to use the authoritative “Okay, gang. Let’s calm down and get class started!” voice I haven’t used in years. The chatter was intense, but also oddly comforting compared to tiny Zoom postage stamp screens with muted mics and half the cameras turned off. I can hold my own in a loud room and it energizes me a heck of a lot more than the eerie silence of remote learning.

Two years ago, I had to complete a “Faculty Portfolio” that organized my thoughts and approach to teaching so the college would have access to it for future instructors. Here’s a small excerpt from that portfolio write-up:

Teamwork and community fulfill important roles in the animation industry. Very few animated productions are created by individuals working in complete isolation. Almost every production is the result of a robust team coming together to build films through a production pipeline – concept and story development, visual development, character and environmental design, storyboarding, rough animation, final animation, editing, compositing, and postproduction.

I strongly believe that even though students will choose one or two of these areas to focus their skills and portfolio when they graduate, they need to understand the holistic whole of how a production works, not only to make an informed choice about their future career path but also to better support people in other departments.

In a similar respect, I work to create a strong sense of community with students to remind them that their peers in the classroom will similarly become their peers out in the industry and that having a productive and positive environment in both areas will be needed for success.

Individual achievement is important, of course, but just as important is a shared learning environment.

respectfulencouraging, and engaging classroom is the ideal I strive for.

Creative Development

Most assignments in the Animation program are focused on deliverables – concreate drawing or animation output that demonstrates application of theory covered in the lectures. Discussion is valuable, but skill building through demonstration is how students internalize the learning process, taking these lessons from theoretical practices to instinctive approaches that become a regular part of their creative toolkit.

That said, teaching students any specific drawing method can easily lead to them not wanting to deviate from what they’re shown for fear of doing it ‘wrong’. Templates and demonstrations can feel like strict limits that funnel students toward an extremely homogenized output that has a veneer of learning but doesn’t encourage them to apply those theories outside of the confines of the assignment.

With that in mind, I try to give wider ranging ‘themes’ for assignments and show copious examples of student work that deviates from my demonstration, so students understand that they need to bring their own creativity into the mix.

Professional Examples

As mentioned previously, I’ve kept up with my freelance work while teaching at Seneca, which provides two types of professional examples in my classroom environment:

Quality: Students see exactly what is required on high profile projects working with intellectual properties they recognize and admire. The theory we cover in the classroom is directly linked to the deliverables I show in my own professional work.

Organization: The frenetic pace of the entertainment industry is reflected in my own work and travel schedule. When students see that I maintain a series of cascading project deadlines and industry events alongside teaching and grading expectations in the classroom, it gives them a greater appreciation for the organization and communication required to keep up that pace. I try to be as open and honest as I can about the highs and lows of it all – the pride I have in my work and respect I have for my collaborators along with the stresses that come from ongoing projects with a variety of clients.

Storytelling and Setbacks

Character and storytelling are fundamental to what we teach in Seneca’s Animation program, but also central to how we learn from each other and contextualize information. Reinforcing the theories covered in my lectures with stories – a quick joke, an aside, or an industry anecdote – has a huge effect on the way students engage with and remember the material covered. It makes the entire teaching process more personable, engaging, and meaningful.

This same concept works for both success and failure. When I’m honest with my students about struggles I had in school or if I discuss common pitfalls I have experienced in the industry, it humanizes the learning process and reminds them that it’s okay to make mistakes. What’s most important is the ability to keep going and keep trying rather than give up on a problem that in the moment seems insurmountable.

Professionalism and best practices must show a full range of experiences and include setbacks as well as successes. Yes, meeting deadlines and delivering on all fronts is what we should strive for, but even out in the industry there are times when schedules slip and situations spin out of everyone’s control. Normalizing those problems, stressing the importance of keeping communication going throughout, and showcasing that success can be found on the other side gives students more confidence to overcome issues that come up during their creative development.

As much as most of the above may seem obvious, in practice in the actual classroom it can be quite different. I’ve met quite a few people who are extremely skilled in terms of drawing ability and have extensive production experience but were unable to communicate most of that effectively to a class or mentor and encourage their students. Raw skill and experience are crucial components in teaching, but far from the complete package.

Links and Other Things

Since we’re on a roll this time talking about teaching art and animation, here are some rock-solid resources for drawing and art you can add to your reference pool-

  • I just discovered that Francis Manapul has a YouTube channel jam-packed with great material. He covers art techniques and career advice in a really appealing and effective way.
  • I’ve mentioned them before, but the Etherington Brothers have one of the most eclectic and useful art blogs on the internet. Their pool of drawing advice is vast and they’re always updating with new lessons.
  • The Proko team has some of the highest quality and most consistently professional art training advice you can find online. I worked with them on their recent Marvel Storytelling courses, but beyond that you can also find hundreds of other great free or paid resources on their site.
  • Another site I’ve mentioned previously is Love Life Drawing – their videos are brimming with classic art training tips that will change the way you visualize the human form.
  • Speaking of Life Drawing, my figure drawing instructor Werner Zimmermann is on Instagram right HERE.
  • VZA has a slew of great close-up videos where you can watch professional artists draw. Analyzing how artists make marks on the page can bolster your understanding of tool control and technique.

Okay, that should cover things this week. I hope September looks bright where you are!

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