The State of Animation

    It’s 12:30 p.m., and students are gathered at the front of Ryan Auditorium. Some are chatting in huddled groups, surrounded by laptops. Others put the finishing touches on their first project. The assignment seems simple enough — create a 2D drawing — but it belies the complex graphics the students must design by quarter’s end.

    McCormick sophomore Leif Foged hunches over his computer, presenting his project. As professor Jack Tumblin climbs over chairs to evaluate work, Foged shows his animated ferris wheel, in which a man flaps his arms and waves as the wheel spins. It fits the parameters and fulfills the specific requirements. Still, Foged leaves unsatisfied.

    The class, called “Introduction to Computer Graphics,” carries Foged into a virtual world he has sought to explore since he was 5-years-old, when his father purchased a Playstation. The first game he played, Final Fantasy VII, became his obsession, as well as his inspiration. With each relevant class he labors through, with every professor and colleague he talks to, he gets closer to achieving his dream: a job in video game development.

    “Being able to provide people with that fun experience is a rewarding task,” says Foged. “You think, ‘my work made someone happy today.’”

    Though Foged has learned the nuts and bolts of computer graphics, the class’s strict parameters provide little room for creative exploration until the course’s end. As the school looks to create an interactive arts and entertainment module next year, feasibility comes into question. There was once a curriculum that combined art and programming, where aspiring filmmakers and programmers united to create animations and explore a digital world beyond code. It lingers on the School of Communication website and on antiquated Wikipedia pages, created by former students.

    Abruptly, it ended, as if no one heard of it in the first place.


    It started in 2002. Ian Horswill, associate professor of computer science, and Marlena Novak, professor of art theory & practice, discussed the idea of an integrated curriculum in digital media between the School of Communication (SoC), McCormick School of Engineering, Bienen School of Music and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Horswill developed an intensive two-year program through the Center for Art and Technology, where engineers and artists would learn the fundamentals of interactive media.

    “It wasn’t a video games program, it was much more oriented towards fine arts,” Horswill explains. The progam would cover topics like visual and sound design, and film and art theory. Technical students would shift their artistic lens, while filmmakers would embrace programming.

    Three years later, the Animate Arts program was approved and slated to begin the next school year. But shortly after its launch, the hardships began. Horswill’s department, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) within McCormick, “decided it couldn’t afford to participate.”

    Despite being a co-director, Horswill was pulled from the program by EECS–he could teach classes, but would not earn credit toward his teaching license. During this time, he taught six courses for the program, in addition to two classes for EECS. But then financial concerns arose. As a pilot program, the funding for Animate Arts ended last year. Instead of asking Central Administration for a renewal, the schools decided to shift directions.

    “It seemed like the best course of action was to start to spin it down then,” Horswill says.

    The decision to end the program first reached its students last fall, and those in their second year needed to complete their senior projects. As an adjunct major, or a “minor on steroids” as Horswill describes it, students resumed their usual curriculum with little administrative problems.

    The program broke down into four core classes and a two-quarter senior project, in which students would work alone or with a partner on a topic of their choosing. To Horswill’s surprise, many students decided to take the route of the artist, individually producing their final project.

    “Probably, they reasonably decided, this is going to be my last chance to do something like this so I just want to go ahead and do it,” he says.

    This was where the magic happened. Alongside her partner, Weinberg senior Vanessa Shen used time-lapse photography to create a composition of people performing activities at different Evanston and Chicago locations on a digital background–pictures of people holding balloons united to form a photoshopped community.

    “It’s unfortunate that other students won’t be able to experience it,” says Shen, who completed her Animates Arts major last year.

    The news shocked her, since she hadn’t heard of majors being shut down. Her brother, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, participates in a similar program called Digital Media Design.

    “It was a really good opportunity for people to explore art from a variety of different mediums,” she says. “I understand there was a funding issue and you can’t really argue with that. When the money’s not there, it’s not there.”

    Discussions about her studies became awkward lapses in conversation, depending on the setting. Sometimes, she identifies solely as a Computer Science major; at more relaxed times, she adds on the Animate Arts tagline.

    Shen was one of 14 students in the final graduating class, according to Barbara O’Keefe, dean of the SoC. Another difficulty for the EECS department was a lack of faculty. There are a limited number of professors with the right qualifications for classes that need specific skill sets, and those professors were overloaded very quickly. Horswill will be teaching “Real-time 3D Game Engine Design” this spring for the first time, though he acknowledges the department might not be able to teach a year-long sequence in game design without assistance.

    “There’s a lot of students who are interested in computer science specifically because it has much stronger ties to entertainment and the arts than other engineering,” says Horswill, “so they come because they want to work for Pixar, or for Electronic Arts, or they want to build their own iPhone games, or they want to work for Facebook or whatever. We don’t really have the staffing in computer science to cover a lot of that.”

    At a time when the number of computer science majors has escalated dramatically, the path to exploring one’s artistic creativity within the EECS department narrows down to one course: EECS 399, in which students pair with a professor to explore their own interests. For McCormick senior Ryan Reid and his mentor, Horswill, it gives him the chance to explore video game design, the career he hopes to pursue.


    Reid, who completed the Animate Arts program last spring, labors to create a video game engine with Flash. He is fluent in Actionscript, carrying an array of languages in his back pocket. He works in his room, during class, wherever and whenever he can. His independent project will feature shape-shifting companions in a two-dimensional space, who must solve spatial puzzles to advance through each level. With his friend Sisi Wei–who, along with Reid, has worked for North by Northwestern interactive–he edits each interface under Horswill’s direction to create a user-friendly environment for gamers of all ages.

    Reid started his independent study as a creative escape from his work in educational animation development. The past two summers he worked with Robert Chang, professor of Material Sciences and Engineering, to create educational games to teach elementary school students about size and scale, as part of the National Center for Learning & Teaching in Nanoscale Science & Engineering (NCLT).

    When the educational video game work didn’t apply directly to his aspirations, he found different mediums to express his desires. He learned about the Animate Arts program from Horswill during New Student Week. Reid calls it luck, since it wasn’t a very well-advertised adjunct major at the time.

    Due to McCormick’s strict scheduling requirements, Reid began the program his sophomore year. The foundation for the rest of his college endeavors arrived during the third core course on interaction and interactivity. There, he learned the art of Flash, which he now works with non-stop. Although it’s not the most powerful tool for programming, Reid says he prefers it for prototyping since it allows him to see results right away.

    The next year, however, came the bad news, as the program shut down.

    “Very early, everyone was excited about it. All the other schools had a lot of their professors invest a lot of time into it,” says Reid. “But I guess when time went on, for some reason they started pulling their professors out, teaching more classes in their respective schools.”

    But through the whirlwind came a sense of solidarity. He finished the program, capping it with a Flash-based comic entitled “Re: Little Red Riding Hood.” The strip shows Red at home, where she tries to contact her grandma over the Internet. But when she logs on, a big bad wolf virus takes control of her computer and deletes all her information. Undeterred, Reid independently uses what he’s learned and chooses classes that relate most to video game design– though that may mean taking sparsely offered 395 classes.

    “I have a feeling if somebody came to Northwestern trying to get into video game design, they’d have a hard time finding exactly what classes would be useful,” says Reid. “I’ve had to design my own major in that I’ve really had to pick and choose to get anything related to video game design.”

    After college, Reid hopes to get involved with smaller independent game companies. In starting small, he wants to gradually gain recognition before moving forward in a profession filled with programmers.

    “I wish I had a lot more time to work on things I actually care about, rather than things I don’t,” he says with a smile. “But that’s kind of like how every student thinks.”


    On the second floor of Frances Searle, Foged walks toward the couches. He works in the Collaborative Technology Laboratory, or CollabLab, a research group that studies and designs systems related to group interactions and communication. Foged’s hectic schedule disallowed him from exploring Animate Arts before the program’s collapse.

    He now works 11 hours in the lab between classes, doing research on human-computer interaction (HCI). As a programmer, he works more on the day-to-day technical challenges of projects that include a study on massive multiplayer online games, the science of Wikipedia and eye-tracking technology.

    “With things like game development human-computer interaction, your work is more geared toward ‘people are going to actually use this’ so you have to maximize their enjoyment,” says Foged. “The human element is definitely an appealing one.”

    Since his father had fostered a similar love of video games, Foged’s elementary school days followed a pattern: school, homework, video games. Online PC games became his mode of expression and interaction with friends. Now, he concentrates on melding his creativity with methodical programming.

    Prior to his freshman year, Foged modified games and spent valuable time immersing himself in the environment, rather than learning how to create his own from scratch. It took an inspirational lecture on artificial intelligence to solidify his dream.

    “Whenever [the lecturer] was describing what it’s like to create artificial intelligence that’s fun to interact with, that’s when I was thinking ‘That’s legitimately awesome.’ It was a level above what I thought before,” he says.

    Foged hopes to take the game engine design course this spring, putting him one step in the right direction. As options for specialty classes lessen, RTVF department chair David Tolchinsky, who led the committee that designed the Interactive arts and entertainment module, seems to be paving the way to reintroduce interactive media at Northwestern. Though the search for staffing remains, the “major on steroids” that once was has transformed itself into a more concentrated curriculum–a module of what could have been.

    Correction: Vanessa Shen was incorrectly listed as a McCormick senior. Ian Horswill was reported to say a “major on steroids,” instead of a minor. Thanks to Vanessa Shen for pointing this out.


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