Some of the best short films we’ve watched in the past years have been produced at The Animation Workshop. The school is located in the city of Viborg, Denmark, and in its 27 years of existence it has experienced steady growth, becoming one of the top animation schools in the world and offering today a variety of animation and CG-related degrees and courses.
The way the institution supports artists and fosters creativity draws attention. There are no sugar-coated films coming out of the school. Many of them have experimental elements or a rather strong flavor. This has resulted in the production of films that consistently show high quality and originality, such as The Saga Of Biorn, Tsunami, Untamed, Under The Fold and many others. This raises the obvious and necessary question: how do they do it?
After studying and analyzing many of the school’s films the time has come for us to focus our X-ray machine on the school itself, and study its production system. For this purpose we had the pleasure of interviewing The Animation Workshop’s Center Director and founder Morten Thorning and the Director of Animation and CG Art Michelle Nardone, who have generously opened the doors of the school for us and answered our questions.
Morten Thorning, Center Director = MT
Michelle Nardone, Director of Animation and CG Art = MN
The graduation shorts produced at The Animation Workshop (TAW) are noted for their creativity. How does each team come up with and decide the idea it will be working on?
MN: A pitch takes place where all the students can voice their ideas. Usually, it is two ideas per student but not everyone chooses to pitch. Afterwards, the students vote on which films they would like to work on. Once the students have voted, we usually see that we could actually make ten different films but we only have man-power for five. This is when a panel of teachers and staff select those projects that will best facilitate the learning objectives throughout the year and that will also create the most interesting films.
The teams that produce the films are usually composed of 6 or more students. Why does the school use teams of this size for producing the films?
MN: We find that teams of 6 to 8 students is usually the best way to go. This way the students can specialize in specific roles. Also, it just works with our time format.
What are the basic restrictions defined by teachers for the graduation shorts?
MN: Timewise, the shorts have to be five minutes. Alternatively, the students have to show that they can do less or more through proof of concept. Usually, we have to hold the reins because the students are pushing to create the most elaborate and sophisticated animation they can do. That’s why we have to have a time constriction.
During the fall, they usually make a slice of their film, a so-called look test, where we can see if they’re achieving the look they want and how long it’s taking them to get that output. Based on this, we judge if they have to cut their film or if they can make it longer.
The shorts show sophisticated use of filmmaking techniques. This means there are experienced teachers guiding the students. How do the teachers strike a balance between guiding the students and letting them fly with their own ideas?
MN: It’s really important that the teachers ask the students – and especially the director – what they want to tell. Because obviously, filmmaking is very subjective. So we ask all the teachers to ask the students what they want to achieve, what the intention with the film is and what they want the audience to feel. Then the teachers can give them the tools to be able to create their film.
We also ask the students to get feedback on their assignments from not only the teachers but also from fellow students and outsiders through screenings. This way they can get less of a subjective perspective and really test if the feelings they’re trying to cultivate actually work. The students are able to do this kind of analysis themselves to see whether what they’re trying to achieve is getting through.
How does this film production relationship between teachers and students work?
MN: The teachers usually work as consultants or supervisors. They have various meetings with the different production teams throughout the week to see their progress and give input. We also ask the students to tell the teachers what kind of input they want so the students can cultivate a real team where they’re able to express their needs, when they’re stuck and what they’re trying to do. So really, what we try to do is get the students to lead their team and for the teachers to act more like consultants.
How much emphasis is placed on script development?
MN: There is some emphasis placed on script development throughout the spring and summer, and then a final bit in the fall. But the students often stray from the script when they get into the storyboard and editing. What they write may not be exactly what we see on the screen but still, we try to get a solid beat outline of the narrative structure.
One always finds great aesthetic work in films produced at TAW, be it 2D or 3D. Please tell us a bit how this knowledge is transmitted to students at the school.
MN: First of all, we have guest teachers throughout the students schooling, during the first and second year. Most of the first year focuses more on 2D, while most of the second year focuses on 3D. The teachers share their experience from the industry, from theory and give the students assignments to practice on. Afterwards, the students get feedback on those assignments.
Each year, the students have a production. First year, they spend a month working on a TV spot aimed at children. Second year, they work on a thirty-second spot for a NGO. Then finally, in their third year, they make their graduation film. During these projects, they get to develop various aesthetics.
We try to take the students in different directions with their aesthetics so they can have a broader experience and develop their skills for different needs. The CG-artists, who also do a lot of designing for assignments, also get to design shorter individual projects. We try to make sure that the students touch realism, stylization and creatures for visual effects so they get a broader scope of designing for various contexts.