What About Apprenticeships in Animation Instead?

So there was a bit of a furrow last week as a post by Brodoof on Tumblr concerning the various “Art Institute” colleges run by the Education Management Corporation made the rounds (itself brought on by another story of an Art Institute teacher facing termination because he refused to comply with a policy to require students to purchase books). Anyway, it got me thinking about animation and education and whether or not it is being taught in the right manner. That is to say, is a degree or other kind of formally taught certification the best or even right approach to take and would apprenticeships work instead? Let’s look at the facts.

Animation Isn’t A Formal Skill

Now when I say ‘formal’, I mean in the very strictest sense. You can go to school and study animation. You can be called an animator by the studio or Guild and have a cert to prove it. But in the legal sense, there is no such thing as an ‘animator’. I draw this conclusion because as a civil engineer, that is considered a formal skill; one that is legally recognised when you become Chartered, or a Professional Engineer (PE) in the States.

Why even mention it? Well as the recently departed Tissa David once famously said, “Animation is….animation.” Absolutely anyone can be an animator, or a concept artist, or a background artist or a prop designer. Yes, you need the artistic abilites and some experience before you can make a career out of it, but the point is; you do not need a formal, legally recognised qualification to become an animator.

Now this isn’t to look down the nose at our favourite technique, but it does lead to the next point.

Certifications Are  Worth Much Less Than What They Are Sold At

If you receive a formal education in animation, you normally receive a sheet of paper saying as much. This piece of paper is accredited by someone so it guarantees a minimum set of skills to potential employers. So why are they almost worthless?

Well, this is America, where a degree from CalArts is ostensibly the same as a degree from another art school but in reality, the two aren’t even close. Pile on top of that the fact that portfolios are also a must for any graduate, and you have system that more or less cranks out graduates but leaves them little notion of what to do next. (I’m keeping in mind Elliot Cowan’s advice to graduates that quite frankly, should be known to them before they even receive their mortarboard.)

The real issue here is that employers like to see degrees and certs because it gives them a quick and dirty way of classifying job candidates. “You want this job? Sorry, you need a bachelors. Why? Because we’re too lazy/understaffed/pressed for time to properly grade you based on your employment history/portfolio.” This leads nicely into the next point.

Climbing the Ladder With Experience

Experience counts for a heck of a lot in the job market. Naturally graduates have next to none, so their options are extremely limited.. However, plenty of people (in fact, most of the really successful people) start at the bottom and work their way up the old-fashioned way. It’s tougher than slogging through 4 years of school, but the results are just as good for those who truly work at it. Once you get even a short way up the ladder, experience takes precedence over education in any job application.

Moving Away From The Current Approach

The current method of hiring a team for a project and letting them go once it is over is tremendously inefficient. Think of all the hiring and firing that must go on for such a system to function. How many man-hours and HR resources are spent acquiring workers, potentially training them and then letting them go just to repeat the cycle again.

Now think of the old days, when someone might enter the door of a studio and stay there for 20, 30 years or more! That’s unheard of today, but that person not only acquired a ton of experience over the years, they were normally pretty eager to share it to! The same practices continue today, but it is hard to build a rapport with someone if they are switching jobs every few years.

So what’s the solution?

The Proposal

The solution is a return to apprenticeships. The notion that younger animators and artists are trained by the older ones is a tradition that has dated back centuries. It might be tricky to implement, but there are numerous benefits for all involved.

 Why People (and Studios) Benefit

Firstly, the people. That should be obvious. Learning in a practical setting from someone who’s worked in the industry for years can’t be overlooked.

Secondly, studios benefit because they have a set of young artists who are trained and familiar with the studio setups, systems and methods. This is a priceless asset to have. Think of all the know-how that remains within the studio!

However, some sort of formal system for all of this to work. There needs to be set, recognised steps in the process so everyone knows where they are, how far they have to go and what is expected of apprentices. Furthermore, there needs to be mutual recognition among all studios for the system and its skills. Why do this instead of keeping everything in-house? Well the days of the career job are long gone. People will move around between studios as a result of the nature of the business. Wouldn’t it make sense if they all agreed on common skills to have? They stand to benefit too as they will be able to quickly tell what skills animators have.

Ah, but I hear you say, isn’t that what a degree does already? Well yes, but the difference is you must go to school for a couple of years and then start working. Sure, the likes of Disney run summer apprenticeships, but they are too short. Think about the old Disney days, when students might have worked during the day, gaining practical experience and then attended night classes to learn the finer techniques and concepts.


Art in any form is an astonishing skill to have. It’s an innate skill as much as it is a learned one, but with the recent controversies about art education, it makes more practical sense to acquire or hone skills based on an apprenticeship approach. At the end, not only will apprentices have the skills, they’ll also have the personal relationships, the work experience and a qualification to prove it all.

5 thoughts on “What About Apprenticeships in Animation Instead?”

  1. Pingback: The Significance of 'The University of DIC' - The Animation Anomaly

  2. Yahoo ! I agree totally !

    Now, where can I find such an apprenticeship ? Hopefully, if ther aren’t any yet, there soon will be !

  3. This is beginning to happen in the design field with Till School of Chicago and a new outfit, Praxis, is training new entrepreneurs the same way. I am now looking for possible animator apprenticeships for my 15 yo son who is just beginning to learn animation with Blender. He absolutely loves it and has storylines in his head that he can’t wait to have enough skill to tell. Online classes for kids that are supposed to take weeks to finish, he eats up in non-stop fashion over several days. It would be great if studios took young, eager people who show promise and trained them. Afterall, this medium isn’t going away and it’s expanding all the time. Not to mention an aging workforce that will need well trained young employees to take up the mantle. Great idea. I hope you get this idea around.

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