Imagination Graphics: Computer Animation Offers Career in Film

By Franklin, Reginald | Diversity Employers, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Imagination Graphics: Computer Animation Offers Career in Film


Franklin, Reginald, Diversity Employers


Animation has come a long way from Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie cartoon in the 1920's. With films such as Toy Story, Jurassic Park, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and television shows like Babylon 5, classic animation has been jumped to warp speed by one indispensable tool -- the computer.

The computer has emerged as the one tool that can speed both the creative process of animating characters, as well as the time it takes to get a film or television project to the screen. California companies such as Industrial Light and Magic and Dream Works SKG, the film studio owned in part by director Steven Spielberg, have invested millions of dollars in computer hardware and software to be able to turn out amazing animated special effects in the film industry. They are also investing in another scarce commodity -- the computer animator.

A computer is just a tool. Without a skilled artist at the mouse or drawing pad, nothing can be created. The training and skill needed to be a successful computer animator can be found in special programs at a growing list of colleges and universities, including the art program at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson State's program offers students an opportunity to study the fundamentals of computer animation. It also provides students with practical, hands-on experience with several different computer platforms. Jackson State's computer facilities range from Amiga-based graphics computers to a $2 million Silicon Graphics main frame and computer modeling laboratory -- the state-ofizes in computer visualization and molecular modeling.

Dr. Richard Sullivan, director of the computational modeling laboratory and chairman of the JSU chemistry department, says the program offers invaluable opportunities.

"It gives [students] experience in an area not normally available to them," Sullivan says. "They have the opportunity to work with the visualization tools used by top people in the industry, the people who make the movies -- people like Industrial Light an Magic. The good thing is that kids get their hands on equipment and software not usually available to undergraduates."

Edgar Powell, the visualization assistant who oversees the SGI lab, says students are exposed to "high performance computer platforms and have the chance to broaden their horizons by learning to design everything from complex computer models to Web pages."

"We give the student access to the technology and the training to make contributions in all areas," Powell says.

The computational modeling lab is one that the Army has set up to do high performance computer visualization, and the lab is constantly working on projects for the government.

Jackson State's program is also unique because it is one of the few advanced programs at a historically Black college or university. Minority representation in the field of computer graphics and animation is severely low. At the 1996 Siggraph Convention, and annual event held by and for the Computer Graphics and Animation industry, African-American professionals and students were noticeably underrepresented. …

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