As the Academy Award winners were announced in February, some folks in Sarasota had particular cause to pay attention—specifically the Computer Animation department at Ringling College of Art and Design, which saw 13 of its graduates working on Pixar’s Oscar-winning film, Inside Out. With the film ultimately pulling down the award for Best Animated Feature Film, SRQ takes a closer look at the program helping make Pixar gold on the Suncoast.

A four-year program, students actually won’t touch a computer for nearly their entire first year, instead taking classes on figure drawing, composition and even traditional animation. “Technically speaking, ‘computer animation’ is a misnomer,” says Ringling’s Jim McCampbell, head of the Ringling Computer Animation department. A dichotomous pursuit, budding computer animators must become proficient in techniques both old and new, establishing first a strong foundation in the fine arts before learning how to wrangle such visions from new technology. If they can’t create a character without the computer, how can they be expected to do it with one? As McCampbell says, “The computer doesn’t animate anything. It takes an artist to do that.”

Not until their second year will students become familiar with Maya, the animation program of choice at Ringling, sculpting characters from code on a digital canvas, and begin to craft storyboards in PhotoShop. “You need a strong foundation to keep going in any field,” says Luiza Alaniz, a senior in the Computer Animation program and Ringling trustee scholar. It’s over the course of the second and third years that students learn computer animation proper. Once created, characters are “rigged” with “joints” that allow the figure to articulate, and “controllers” are affixed to the creation, so when the animator moves the controller, the character moves accordingly. “It’s essentially a puppet,” says Alaniz, “and you move it on the screen frame by frame.” As students receive this technical training, they round out the curriculum with liberal arts courses to “give them insight into human behavior, a perspective on the world as a global marketplace and historical context for their work,” says McCampbell.

As a senior, Alaniz’s final year is dominated by her thesis project—an animated film about a confused bear trying to befriend an inept hunter—that she hopes will be her calling card as she pursues a career with industry powerhouses such as Dreamworks, Pixar or Walt Disney Feature Animation, companies that frequent Ringling’s campus to recruit on a yearly basis. Seeing previous graduates working on Oscar-winning films has its impact. “It tells me that Ringling knows what it’s doing so they can keep pushing the students to greatness,” she says. “But it depends on you as well—you have to push yourself.”