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When Storytelling Came to Life

Almost 30 Years Ago, Three Gung-ho Professors Banded Together to Bring Animation to the College of the Arts
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In the mid-1990s, Dana Lamb, Don Lagerberg and Larry Johnson actually had to go back to high school to get the University’s animation program off the ground. With a solid art foundation and a strong emphasis on drawing skills already a tradition at Cal State Fullerton, the art professors, along with then-Dean Jerry Samuelson, chose to build a partnership with the animation industry to understand what was needed with the help of a high school teacher who was already knee-deep in the animation trenches. We spoke with some of the founders, alumni and students to find out just what has made this program generate such sought-after talent.

Dana Lamb ’75, ’82 (B.A., M.A. art), professor emeritus of art, Variety’s “Animation Educator of the Year”: We had a small group of illustration students who saw that entertainment was starting to hire a lot. Our first students were actually very good illustrators who then went back and started redeveloping their artwork for the entertainment business. I give them a lot of credit because they did that almost on their own.

Larry Johnson ’74, ’76 (B.A., M.A. art-design), professor emeritus of art, former chair: Don Lagerberg was probably one of the most critical components of what transpired because as a professor of drawing and painting with a focus on figurative art, Don also had an interest in popular culture. And we watched what was going on in the industry. Don, Dana and I were always paying attention to our alums who were in the field, and we were trying to figure out how we could develop something that could sustain a bigger pool of students toward a degree in that area.

Adolph Lusinsky ’93 (B.F.A. – art illustration), director of cinematography – lighting, Walt Disney Animation Studios: I was fortunate to go through the illustration and painting route. It gave me the basic tools that I needed to build on. It was great to have teachers that supported me. Larry, Dana, Don — those three I identified with the most.

Lamb: I had a good friend, Dave Master, who was teaching animation in high school. He had a regional occupationtraining program, and his students were getting hired by the studios literally out of high school. I brought my dean at the time, Jerry Samuelson, and our illustration faculty over to Master’s high school to show them what he was doing.

Octavio Rodriguez (art-entertainment art/animation), story artist, Pixar Animation Studios: I was there in the very beginning of the animation program. It was still almost a twinkle in somebody’s eye. I was at Cal State LA originally — a biology major, set to become a dentist.

Lamb: Dave Master gave me his training materials — what he was using to train artists in the industry — and so we built our curriculum around industry-based training methods. And it worked! It was kind of like magic.

Practice and Opportunity

Cal State Fullerton’s animation program began during what’s often called the Second Golden Age of Animation, a few years after “The Little Mermaid” opened the floodgates to a slew of financial and critical successes.

“We jumped on that wave,” says Lamb, “and let it carry us.”

Back then, the teleconferencing rooms in the basement of Pollak Library served as meeting points between students and artists at Warner Bros., Disney and other studios. These artists would challenge students to do professional studio work, connect back a week later and review it.

Lamb: Some of the best artists the studios had were working with our students, calling in during their lunch breaks. By the time we stopped teleconferencing, we were already in partnership with a lot of studios. We started building direct partnerships, especially through internships. The DreamCrit program is sponsored by DreamWorks Animation and is the closest duplication. Nickelodeon has students presenting their work to their people in what they call Master Classes.

Farnaz Esnaashari-Charmatz ’04 (B.F.A. art-entertainment art/animation), creator and producer, “Shimmer & Shine,” Nickelodeon: I was the first post-production intern at Nickelodeon. Had it not been for the internship, I might not be at Nickelodeon today. An internship is like the ultimate job interview. The reason I got hired as a production assistant was because they went back to the person that I had interned for, and he gave me a high recommendation based on my internship.

Victoria Gould (student, B.F.A. art-entertainment art/animation): I just finished a TV production internship at DreamWorks. I worked on “All Hail King Julien,” one of their first shows for Netflix.

Christopher McCoy ’15 (B.F.A. art-entertainment art/animation): Apart from learning from fantastic instructors, I’ve had the opportunity to head up to DreamWorks through the DreamCrit program. It was amazing to have one of their artists look at my work and give me professional advice.

Chuck Grieb, professor of art and coordinator, animation program: The students who get internships are more than just a resume to employers — they often get hired. The internships also give students the chance to meet the people who make the shows and to see what the demands are on those artists.

Lessons Learned

Storyboarding. Character design. Environments. The animation program is designed to challenge students to challenge themselves, says Grieb, but also to help produce portfolios that will demonstrate professional practice and a full understanding of the concepts and principles applied in storytelling.

Grieb: We stay focused on the principles of animation, storytelling, entertainment — and that has served us and our students exceptionally well over the years.

Justin Ridge ’03 (B.F.A. art-entertainment art/animation), lead director, “Star Wars Rebels”: What I got most from the animation program was developing a good work ethic — and learning teamwork. Okay, I know that’s actually two, but they’re both extremely important.

Rodriguez: The industry is changing ever so much. The core things — practicing, drawing a lot and writing — are huge. That never goes away.

Esnaashari-Charmatz: The animation program was not easy. It helped me realize my strengths and my weaknesses. When you get to postproduction, there is no such thing as missing dates. You have to do whatever it takes to get it done — and that’s what being in animation was like at Cal State Fullerton. Dates were hard, set in stone. At one point, I literally lived inside the classroom for two weeks until I made sure I hit my dates. That was a very valuable lesson.

Gould: I’d been so programmed in high school to think, “Art school’s my goal.” But I was offered a full ride through President’s Scholars, and I’m so glad I accepted. Dana Lamb personally took me on a tour of the College of the Arts, and I was sold. It’s one of the best decisions I made. I just wish I could go back to high school and tell myself that.

Brian Crawford ’15 (B.F.A. art-entertainment art/animation): I’ve always thought animated films were a special kind of art, capable of impacting a wide audience. When I learned at 14 that animation was an actual field of study, I decided to go for it. Cal State Fullerton was the only college to which I applied.

Rodriguez: I have a 20-year span working in animation, but my biggest thing in this business is being able to keep developing your skill set and grow in responsibility — however else you can. I’m working on “Dia de los Muertos,” a Pixar film that involves Mexican culture. It’s exciting for me, being Latino, being dominicano. I’m excited about letting my kids see it. Leaving that legacy is a big deal for me.

Gould: I always loved cartoons, which is part of why I wanted to get into it, but I really love the collaboration and creativity of it, which is different from other concentrations. In animation, there is a lot of creative bonding.

Lamb: Schools can put all sorts of glossy brochures out there and make all sorts of claims, but studios only pay attention when they realize they’re hiring a lot of people from a particular school. It’s a business, and it’s pragmatic that way.

Gould: So many Cal State Fullerton people are in the industry. At DreamWorks alone, I’ve met so many. We are everywhere.

Crawford: I chose Cal State Fullerton over other schools because I saw the talent coming out of it — particularly the student film “Flightless” by Raymond Fero ’08 (B.F.A. art-illustration and entertainment art/animation). When I started moving through the program, I became increasingly aware of how influential the faculty is to my understanding of the medium and its effective use. They take industry-seasoned methods and push our animation further.

Ridge: My classmates, most of whom are now in the industry in some form or another, and I knew we had to work together and push ourselves as much as possible to get a running start for when we graduated. The faculty saw this and really helped support our passion and guide us as much as possible toward our goals.

Lamb: Our students are very, very popular with the industry because they come with a real hunger. There’s no attitude of privilege or entitlement. They work hard, want to make a good impression and make great colleagues. That’s the nature of a Cal State Fullerton student.