Academy of Art University occupies a series of separate buildings scattered throughout the steep streets of San Francisco near Union Square. I visited two of those buildings: the performance hall in a converted church, below, where I gave my Dinotopia slide presentation, and the illustration and animation building around the corner.
It’s a big school. In the illustration major alone, there are 900 students enrolled in the graduate and undergraduate levels out of a student body of 12,000. Every student and every teacher we met seemed to have a genuine zeal for their work and an affection for each other.
Like the other two west coast schools we visited, (Art Center and SJSU), AAU has responded to the growth of the video game and CGI animation business by building a first-rate course of study for animation, storyboarding, and visual development—or to use the current lingo: “vis dev.”
This cutting-edge curriculum is founded on traditional knowledge and skill at drawing and sculpting the figure, with an emphasis on story and character.
“The ability to think with a pencil is the core of surviving in a 3D world,” illustration director Chuck Pyle told me. “We’re not here to train them for today or tomorrow. We want to give our students the skill set they can use forty years out.”
We visited a class that was drawing from the costumed model in a high-ceilinged top-floor ballroom. Students clustered around a pair of models dressed in the theme of a doctor and his patient. They drew what they observed within the 20-minute poses, but also used their imaginations to elaborate the characterizations.
Other themes have included Knights, Witches, and Barbarians. Clothing and costume are a key part of the training, taught by Lisa Berrett and Barbara Bradley, the latter a veteran of the famous Cooper Studios.
There’s a class in maquette building, with gray clay models (above) of imaginative cartoon characters. We also looked in on a class of traditional drawn animation.
For those of you who are chemically sensitive to oil solvents, you might be interested that AAU has state of the art ventilation and waste disposal technology.
Students can take a sculpture course where they build the figure from the bones outward. Legendary ILM creature designer Terryl Whitlatch teaches animal drawing. Once she brought in live ocelots. European-trained figure drawing master James X. Barbour teaches a whole course in drawing the head and hands.
The school is particularly strong in teaching the history of illustration. Instructors can borrow original art from the teaching collection, which includes works by illustrators from the last five decades. Unlike many art schools, where the ability to teach illustration history is controlled and hampered by snobby art history department admistrators, AAU lets Steve Kloepfer, one of America’s foremost experts, teach a whole course on the subject.
As I signed books after my talk, I had a strong feeling that I will be hearing again from each of the students five years from now, from the point of view of their successful positions inside the industry or out there as published illustrators.
To all my new—and old— friends at AAU, congratulations and best wishes!