Sheridan College: Animation Program Acclaimed

It looks much like any other community college: a low, sprawling complex of utilitarian concrete buildings accented with durable blue and brown steel siding.

Sheridan College: Animation Program Acclaimed

It looks much like any other community college: a low, sprawling complex of utilitarian concrete buildings accented with durable blue and brown steel siding. The casually dressed young men and women who drift through the halls and chat over coffee are enrolled in programs that reflect the range of southern Ontario's job market: health care, pollution technology, law enforcement - and how to turn simple pencil drawings into moments of pure magic. The last is not quite so out of place as it might seem. For this suburban campus in Oakville, half an hour by commuter train and bus west of downtown Toronto, is the unremarkable home of Sheridan College, one of North America's most highly regarded schools of classical and computer animation. In a judgment that may reflect a touch of bias, James Strauss, the Torontonian who created the digital title character for this summer's movie Dragonheart, calls his alma mater simply: "The best animation school in the world."

If that is a stretch, it is only a small one. Twenty-eight years after Sheridan offered its first animation class, Hunchback of Notre Dame producer Don Hahn lauds its graduates as "among the best." Adds the Disney executive, whose animation crew of 50 for Hunchback included a dozen Sheridan alumni: "We can't afford not to use their talent." The school's two generations of graduates, meanwhile, have been the main creators responsible for transforming an enviable artistic heritage defined by the National Film Board into an industry with an output that is seen around the world. "Sheridan pumped out the students," observes Michael Hirsh, chairman of Toronto's Nelvana Ltd., Canada's largest animation studio, "and the students created the industry."

No one would have predicted such a scenario in 1968, the year that Sheridan's founding president, Jack Parker, organized its first course in classical animation. At the time, there was little evidence of demand for its graduates. Outside the NFB, a Canadian cartoon industry did not exist. "Why he did what he did, I don't know," says Sheridan's current dean of arts, Don Graves, who taught acting technique to some early animation classes. "Parker was a visionary." Other initiatives launched by Sheridan's now-deceased founder have also matured, evolving into one of the largest college-level fine arts programs in North America, with 3,000 full-time students enrolled in 18 programs.

But it is in the infinitely elastic universe of animation that Sheridan has made its deepest impression. Each year, it receives 2,500 applications for the 110 entry places in its core, three-year classical animation program. Half of the students find the program's demands too great. "It is really intense," says 25-year-old second-year student Brenton Wilke. "You're pulling all-nighters all the time; people are dropping out and failing because of the workload."

But those who persevere to graduation, or who carry on through a one-year post-diploma course in computer animation, are well rewarded. Competition for Sheridan graduates is at least as intense as the demands upon them. Each year, between 25 and 40 animation studios send representatives to Sheridan's open house to view demo reels and assess candidates for hiring. "If you are capable of doing computer graphics for film and you're a graduate of Sheridan College," says Paul Donovan of Halifax-based Salter Street Films, "you will be offered a $50,000- to $75,000-a-year job - one year before you graduate."

Fame should help Sheridan's animation program, launched in an era when Ontario's economy was booming and its government was in a more generous mood, survive the frostier climate of the '90s. In a step that reflects demand for Sheridan's courses as well as falling provincial subsidies, the school has raised its first-year tuition for animation students to $1,558, from $1,307 last year. At that, Sheridan offers a bargain in contrast to the U.S. school with which it is most frequently compared, the California Institute of Arts in Los Angeles, where a year's tuition can cost more than $20,000.

Buoyed by a growing network of partnerships with leading commercial studios, including Disney, the college plans next year to add 25 places to its classical animation program and 20 to its sought-after computer animation program, first introduced in 1980. Ironically, though, its own success may limit Sheridan's ability to expand. With experienced animators commanding six-figure salaries in the fast-growing Canadian cartoon industry, Wayne Gilbert, Sheridan's senior animation professor, worries: "If the school were to add numbers, I don't know that we could find faculty."

Things have certainly changed from the early days, when Sheridan had instructors - but no one lined up to hire its graduates. That the situation is now the reverse testifies to Parker's early vision, and to the enduring appeal of celluloid magic.

Maclean's June 24, 1996