Donovan Howes is currently a senior attending Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham campus, and is focusing his efforts into becoming the best computer animator he can be. He is also an amateur comic artist and writer on the side. Besides animation, he is also building a general skillset in learning how to code websites, how to make his own video games, and is also teaching himself how to write music for said games. While he has yet to do anything in animation professionally, he is always looking for job opportunities!
College is a huge investment, but it’s also an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything else in the world. There are already plenty of other articles about the best things a freshman could do, how to register for classes effectively, how to make peace with roommates and suitemates (I shouldn’t be talking about that anyway since I always lived in a single room), what you should do after college, whether or not you should join a sorority, how to avoid turning your favorite white shirt pink in the laundry, and all of those other things… so instead I’d like to talk about my own experience as an animation major, which I feel is something not a lot of people even think of when it comes time to start considering college. Don’t get the wrong idea; you may not be studying to become a doctor or a rocket scientist, and it can be difficult to find schools that offer it, but animation is a legitimate thing you can major in, and there is a strong demand for animators out there. Just look at how many people enjoy Disney movies and you’ll see what I mean!
I was lucky because I already knew full well that I wanted to be an animator before I even began college, so the stress of picking a major was virtually nonexistent. Although it wasn’t my first choice, I picked Fairleigh Dickinson University because they were the closest to where I lived that still offered animation classes, it was home to a smaller community, and the beautiful campus didn’t hurt, either. I was also lucky because while I only applied to two colleges, both of them were happy to accept me thanks to my all-around good grades, club involvement, friendly attitude, and the two unpaid internships I did during my senior year in high school. Being chosen as the valedictorian also helped, even if I didn’t even realize that sort of position even existed before I was picked. The point is that high school was not easy, but now I’m a college senior, and Fairleigh Dickinson’s animation department has taught me just about everything they know at this point. I really enjoyed my time as a student here, so I’m a little sad that it’s almost time for me to move on.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; I should tell you about what I’ve learned in my time here, and let you decide whether or not animation is for you. It’s true that academics and essays are a large part of what college is about, and when college life is shown in TV shows and movies that’s how the work’s usually presented, but working in animation is a different beast entirely. Instead of fretting over finishing that ten page essay about quantum physics (or something) while simultaneously attempting to finish those five pages of mathematics you didn’t even bother to look at until the night before it was due because you were too busy partying again, you’d be spending your nights making 3D models of scenes and characters, getting them textured and animated, deciding where to position the software’s cameras, and also setting aside enough time for the animation to render… and that’s just for one project, and not taking post-production editing into account! It’s not uncommon for you to have to work on multiple projects for different classes, so naturally you’d be spending a lot of time working. Don’t fall into a false sense of security from the huge gaps of time between the deadlines; waiting until the last minute to start a project is the most foolish thing you could do as an animator.
There will be times where you’ll need to spend entire nights in the animation lab just to finish one aspect of the project on time, and by that I mean the sun would be rising by the time you’ve kind of finished (I am not making this up, it really happens). With that said, it’s still much more fun than writing essays summarizing the morality of War and Peace (or something), and there are very few written exams if any, but animation still takes a lot of time, dedication, and hard work to pull off successfully. While many of the classes use the computer and the assignments rely on your own artistic sense and experience with the software, I found that bringing a notebook to take notes with does help the same way it would in any other class. There are no tests in the traditional sense, but when you just can’t remember how you did something in class and you’re trying to replicate that in a homework assignment, you’ll be glad you wrote down a cheat sheet somewhere.
Although you do learn a lot from the professor’s lectures, you can learn even more from what other students use in their own projects. In any other class it’d be considered cheating if you copied someone else’s work, and it could also be grounds for expulsion, but in animation the reverse is true; utilizing techniques you learned from other people can only help the quality of your projects and, ultimately, your grade. Other animation students won’t literally give away their assignments, but they are always happy to help others up by sharing what they know, which you could use to improve your own work. This is also a great way to network and also make friends with other students. Since you’re both animating you’re already bound to have similar interests anyway!
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of networking with others (including fellow students), especially in a field that relies heavily on projects. Many of the best and even the most infamous TV shows, movies, and video games you might look up inconsequential trivia about, they all started out as an idea in someone’s head. When it comes time to actually begin working on the project, it takes a team of people with different skillsets to finish them, and your goal would be to make a name for yourself and find teams of people who need an animator to work with them. You would preferably start doing this once you’re confident in what you’ve learned and have a portfolio, but still before you leave college. Your entire career as an animator also relies on the people you know, so the next time you hear a prolific franchise creator say, “I would be nothing without your support”, remember they aren’t just saying that.
Again, animation is fun, but it’s also a lot of work. You’ll need patience, true dedication, artistic ability, unrivaled attention to detail, and humility… but most importantly, you need to have a genuine love for the artform to keep yourself moving along. It’s not always easy, but seeing someone laugh because they just watched an anvil that you made squash a character that you created is an unbelievably satisfying feeling, and makes it worth every bit of trouble. And just think: once you get your degree, you’ll be that much closer to bringing your imagination to life for a living!