It’s a welcoming summer morning in Portland, the sun still in the process of rising. A self proclaimed night owl, my brain is unaccustomed to consciousness at this early hour. Groggily chewing a piece of toast, I head to the car with my mother. Today is the first day of the Saturday Academy animation class and I couldn’t be more excited. Soon I am surrounded by the hum of computers and a small cadre of eager students, excited to learn the real world magic known to some as ‘animation’.
That would be the thrilling, slightly corny, opening paragraph to my Saturday Academy story. My name is Mac Kerman, I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and I’ve wanted to be an animator since roughly the age of six, and have a lot of feelings about the Saturday Academy. Nearly 20 years ago, I was a student at Saturday Academy’s week long, animation intensive, taught by Sharon Niemczyk.
The class was eye-opening, thrilling, challenging, and it helped shape the course of my entire life. In the class Sharon taught us the core technical and artistic principles that make up the fundamentals of animation that help drawings come to life. From then on, I knew for certain this is what I wanted to do with my life. I loved it so much, I would go on to take the class three summers in a row. The skills and principles I was introduced to in the Saturday Academy course are the exact same ones I now use every day at my job, in a major animation studio; leading a team of 20+ animators, creating TV shows for companies like Cartoon Network, Disney and Dreamworks Television. It’s hard to put into words the impact Saturday Academy has had on my life… perhaps that’s why I became an animator and not a writer.
That same, corny opening paragraph at the top of this page describes another very momentous day in my life, but this time rather than taking place in the mid 90’s, this day occurred only a few weeks ago when I had the honour to return to the class not as the student, but as the teacher.
After all these years, the class is still being run by my original teacher, Sharon Niemczyk (SA seems to have a habit of retaining talented faculty). We had stayed in touch over the years and when I heard she was looking for someone to substitute for one of her classes this summer, I leapt at the opportunity. After a whirlwind of activity and a pile of paperwork, in what felt like no time at all, I was on a train headed back home to Portland!
On the first day of class, the sense of dejavu hung heavy in the air, as I remembered the anxiety of trying to appear cool to a group of middle and high schoolers. Having just turned 30, I feared my ability to talk to teenagers was beginning to wane. Never being a cool teenager myself, I didn’t have much room to backslide.
As the class got underway, it didn’t take long for the initial, icy awkwardness to disappear as we went around the room and shared our names, and favourite cartoons. From that point on, it was off to the races. A five day intensive course may sound like a long time, but when it comes to the multi-disciplined art of animation, the time can pass in the blink of an eye. One of my proudest moments was when the students asked me if we could only take a five minute lunch break so we could get back to our projects. Balancing the myriad artistic and technical aspects, as well as a healthy dose of animation history, doesn’t leave a lot of time for sandwiches!
Starting on day one with animating a simple bouncing ball, a sacred right of passage for any animator, the students devoured their way through every lesson plan. Everything from rigging a professional level animation puppet, to animating character dialogue (voiced by a professional voice actor, no less!) to the principles of ‘smear frames’ and ‘squash and stretch’. Culminating on the final day with the students all collaborating together on a one minute film where every students’ segment flowed into the next. This film style, known as an ‘Exquisite Corpse’, was an exercise I had originally considered to difficult, but then had to reconsider after seeing how quickly their young minds thoroughly devoured all the previous lesson plan. The student’s stern lobbying to work on a group project may have also helped sway me.
At the start of the final days’ lesson, I warned the students: group projects like this aren’t easy. In order for this ‘exquisite corpse’ project to work, every single one of them would need to successfully complete their segment of the film in the short timeframe we had left. One break in the chain and the ‘corpse’ would fail to be exquisite and just be dead on arrival. Using all we had learned from the duration of the week, every student was able to complete their segment and the final film was cut together and completed five minutes before the first parents started arriving for the screening.
The average animator, at a professional studio, can be expected to complete 16 seconds of footage a week. These students after learning animation for four days, completed a one minute film in a day! Not too shabby in my opinion!
They had accomplished more in this week than I ever expected, yet had so much more I wanted to teach them. On the last day of class, I made sure to remind all of the parents and students that if any of them wished to continue their studies and continue to pursue animation, all they had to do was send me an email and we could pick things up where we left off in the lesson plan; because as much as I would love to say I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps to get where I am, I’m not afraid to say I did not. I had a lot of caring and loving people in my life to help me achieve my dreams. Most importantly, parents who cared enough in my interests to sign me up for Saturday Academy classes, followed closely by, if not equal to, a knowledgeable teacher to help illuminate the path.
I figure its about time I start paying it forward.
I’d like to end this unfocused diatribe by giving a most heartfelt thank you to Sharon and everyone at Saturday Academy who gave me the chance to pay it forward and share everything I have learned in the 20 years since they ignited the fire within me. I’ve worked on projects for just about every major studio out there, and few have been as challenging or as rewarding as this class. I only hope the kids had as much fun as I did.
View Exquisite Morph here.