New UI animation courses spark hope for full program


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The University of Iowa introduced animation courses to its art curriculum for the first time this academic year, and students and faculty hope to develop the new courses into an esteemed animation program.

UI Assistant Professor Peter Chanthanakone, the primary instructor of Animation I and Animation II, said he plans to offer more animation courses and wants to see an extensive animation program at the university.

“I definitely plan to expand the animation course offerings in the future where it becomes a strong and reputable animation program,” he said.

Fifteen students are enrolled in Animation I, five in Animation II. Each course is four semester hours.

In these courses, students learn how to use Autodesk Maya, the same software the gaming and animation industries use regularly.

UI School of Art and Art History Director John Scott said the goal of the animation program is to teach students animation as an art but also to give them practical career experience.

“The school aimed to … challenge students to create in the medium as a fine art while at the same time providing them with a highly marketable skill set,” Scott said. “It’s all about student success postgraduation.”

Megan Mathews, a UI graduate student studying informatics, said computer programming and animation are growing fields.

“I think it’s becoming a new form of literacy,” she said.

The next step, Chanthanakone said, would be to introduce an Animation III course that exposes students to technologies used in such movies as Avatar.

“[The course would teach] students new technologies in animation like motion capture, where you see people wearing dark jumpsuits with dots, and the system records their movements,” Chanthanakone said.

He also said the course would cover facial recognition software.

While there are no immediate plans to introduce such a class, Chanthanakone said he has seen an increase in interest since the start of Animation I last semester.

Scott said expansion of the program all depends on student demand.

And as far as Mathews is concerned, the interest is there.

“The demand is fierce,” she said. “The students want animation.”

Chanthanakone said he increased excitement by taking students to San Francisco in December to some of the most prestigious animation studios, including Pixar and DreamWorks.

“The students got critiques of their work from industry professionals and got to see the life and culture of the West Coast,” he said.

UI student David Senter, who went on the San Francisco trip, said it was a rewarding experience.

“We were surrounded by other artists, and speaking one-on-one with multiple studios was not only great networking, but it was good to hear some insight and have some of our questions and concerns validated by professionals,” Senter said.

Now back in Iowa, Chanthanakone will teach students to build realistic virtual worlds. This semester, Animation II students are building Iowa City from the ground up, and the only tools they’ll need are computers and accompanying software.

“It’s quite impressive to see work like this while using software they just learned over a short period of time,” Chanthanakone said. “It shows how hardworking the students here are.”

Over the course of the semester, students in Animation II will create a virtual world that mirrors Iowa City. This realistic 3-D world will assist in efforts to research how pedestrians and bicyclists  cross intersections.

“I’ve already seen them build their favorite restaurants, like George’s,” Chanthanakone said.

From learning the 12 principles of animation to learning to build virtual cities, students can apply these skills to their future careers.

“How many kids liked cartoons when they were younger but never considered it for a career path?” Senter said. “Just about everyone I know.”

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