Culture

Animation, Gaming, and the Future of Art and Design at Otis College

Has anyone ever tried to question your dream with critiques like: What are you going to do with an art degree? Or, playing video games is not a job! Or, drawing cartoons is just a kids’ hobby, isn’t it? Well, Otis College of Art & Design has some answers for them — and maybe, for you. In January 2022, Provost Jiseon Lee Isbara announced that after 25 years, their Digital Media program was moving with the times, instituting separate, newly created Game & Entertainment Design and Animation undergraduate degrees. In August, they announced the new departments’ chairs — industry veterans Joffery Black and Ron Bernard, respectively.

While the school remains adamant in its dedication to core programs in art and design, including such indelibly analog, physical arts as ceramics, Otis College President Charles Hirschhorn makes clear that they are becoming just as committed to the digital realms. In one particularly interesting example of how expansive and interconnected this cluster of new media fields are becoming, Otis partnered with Activision, the game design company behind the Call of Duty, Tony Hawk, and Skylanders, for a project that also involved the Fashion Design and Digital Media programs. Taking inspiration from three Call of Duty games — Cold War, Modern Warfare, and Infinite Warfare — Fashion Design students developed a digital fashion collection and related visual environments for a high-fashion digital runway collection.

“It’s not just digital media, or video game design or animation — it’s also digital fashion, environmental, product and toy design,” Hirschhorn says, keenly aware that the Otis mission to prepare its students for practical, career-oriented jobs in the creative economy must, by definition, include the Metaverse — and equally aware of the fact that gaming is a multibillion dollar global industry, and that animation not only goes far beyond children’s entertainment at this point, but beyond the entertainment sector itself.

“Animation is a field that is always evolving with new techniques and software, so our program needs to prepare students to be innovative, flexible and adaptive with changing tides,” says Chair of Animation Ron Bernard. “I’d like to explore some of the newer, paradigm-shifting fields of virtual production, social media and augmented reality,” he says, touting careers in character and technical animation, motion capture, visual effects, games and advertising — in fields from entertainment to education, medical, military, and social media.

Ron Bernard, Chair of Animation at Otis College of Art and Design

“I’ve always been in love with animation,” Bernard tells L.A. Weekly. “I have very fond memories of spending my childhood watching all the behind-the-scenes and making-of movies of early Disney animation, Fleischer Studios, Will Vinton’s Claymation, and many more. I remember watching films like 1945’s Anchors Aweigh and 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and being enamored by the integration of live action and animation.” Bernard later studied traditional 2D animation from longtime Disney animator Larry Lauria, who encouraged him to further explore VFX. “This was a natural fit for me,” Bernard recalls, “as I have a background in computer programming, physics, and engineering. The blend of animation and science became a thrilling theme for me as I’ve dedicated my career to animation, VFX, and motion graphics.”

Things came full circle for Bernard when he was able to work closely with Phil Nibbelink, who was a supervising animator on the Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, in his animation studio in Beijing. “Life has an interesting way of boomeranging,” says Bernard. “I just hope that I’m able to spark an interest in students like Phil’s work was able to inspire me.”

Joffery Black, Chair of Game and Entertainment Design, hails from a long tenure at Heavy Iron Studios, working on games based on Spongebob Square Pants and The Incredibles. Black previously helped build and lead the Animation and VFX programs at the Los Angeles Film School. His experience as a modeler, texture artist, lighter and illustrator in games, features and animation, as well as in AR and VR gives. All of this gives him a unique perspective on the “What will you do with an art degree?” conversation. “The obvious careers are game studio jobs,” Black says, “but it doesn’t stop there.”

Joffery Black, Chair of Game Design Program at Otis College of Art and Design

Joffery Black, Chair of Game Design Program at Otis College of Art and Design

Black tells the L.A. Weekly how he came up at a time when games visually started to improve with the PlayStation 2 console, and superhero movies finally had the most realistic-looking effects of that time, such as 2002’s Spider-Man that starred Tobey Maguire. SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottoms was the very first game he created. “The impression I felt after that experience was,” says Black, “‘This is only going to get better, and I can’t wait to be a part of this!’ After 20 years, it still feels exciting and fresh as it originally did when I started!”

Black further agrees with Bernard and Hirschhorn that the skill sets in these new majors absolutely expand into multiple sectors of the industry. “The new BFA program in Game Design will give students an opportunity to learn practices and techniques that have become part of the game industry,” Black says. “The plus side of these skills is that they translate into careers for the next frontier of real-time development jobs, such as mobile and console games, virtual reality and augmented reality, virtual production, Web 3.0 and the metaverse,” plus AI and other hybrid experiences and interfaces.

Darel Carey Mural at Otis College

“It’s exciting to know that Otis, a historical institution in art and design, has embraced a vision of Game and Entertainment Design,” Black tells L.A. Weekly. “The upcoming program will usher in an exciting education that is currently happening, not only in the industry, but specifically in the industry here in Los Angeles. With games, virtual production, VR/AR [virtual reality/augmented reality], XR [extended reality], and continued emerging tech having tremendous growth over the next few years, I am truly excited to see Otis be a part of the education and foundation for our students!”

Student Mural at Otis College campus

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