Frank Terry: An Interview at CalArts

Frank Terry at CalArts 19 September 2000

Animation producer and educator Frank Terry passed away on February 11th. I must admit to not having really known Terry, and would refer you to the Animation Scoop blog post about him here, which include comments from people who knew him, as well as the CalArts blog post here. However, I did have the pleasure of interviewing him for a story for Animatoon, the Korean animation magazine, in his role of Director of the Character Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts.  It was one of a series of stories I did on CalArts over the years on both the Experimental and Character Animation programs. The interview was conducted on September 19, 2000 in his office. What follows is an edited version of it. I started the tape as we began talking about the school’s Community Arts Partnership program.

Frank Terry: When I took over the directorship, I was extended the opportunity over the animation side of the Community Arts Partnership CalArts has with various partners. In other words, various community and cultural affairs sites who contract with CalArts, provide the space, go out of their way to attract the community. CalArts provides the faculty, the curriculum and the training at no cost to the community members. They can receive virtually university training, for heavens sake, for free. A lot of times, the programs are tailored to the age groups and experience levels

Harvey Deneroff: Are you having a session in Canoga Park, too?

FT: We used to have a session in Encino, at the Encino Media Center; in fact, we were the ones who put the Media into the Media Center over there. Which then became the bedrock, or the guiding principal for the Los Angeles City Electronics Arts Academy that they installed all over the place. But we have well regarded programs running at Inner City right now Mondays and Wednesdays for the elementary school kids; and then on Saturday as well down at Inner City for the high school students who are …

HD: My daughter’s 11 years old and there’s very little arts training available for kids.

FT: Extraordinarily little.

HD: She takes cello lessons and has a Russian émigré teacher who used to be vice president of the Conservatory, but you can’t get that sort of quality in art teaching.

FT: Yes and on top of that it, of course, impacts us here at the university level, because the portfolios that come to us reflect that absence of very early childhood training. And the students are working doubly hard to try to catch back up. In many cases, it’s an almost insurmountable battle, simply because of the fact that a great deal of foundation needs to be laid at in their childhood.

HD: Do Europeans do better at this?

FT: Much better, much better. The students that come from Korea, the students that come from Europe, so on and so forth, they’re always far better, as far as the product they’re offering for submission for entering the department.

HD: How early should students be training?

FT: Right from day one.  From the earliest day on they should be slowly but surely simply walking … more and more discipline, more and more control. There shouldn’t be a 6th grade start, there shouldn’t be a 11th grade start, or whatever. You just simply cannot start them too soon. The arts are a part of our natural self. We pay the penalty. We get a lot of portfolios that [where] you can see the desire of the student, but they have no skill. And we have such a large demand on such few spaces that even with the best intention, we simply can’t trust ourselves to them. So those folks are suggested to go back to the community college level or find art training themselves and resubmit their portfolios the following year. It’s a big problem and it it gets more profound every year as the students are really now starting to hit us from that period of time when American education completely ignored the arts.

HD: I’m lucky, in a sense, my daughter is starting middle school this year and is in a school where they have one period a day devoted to music. But art is not a full blown program.

FT: It’s a thorny problem, because eventually it’s going to affect everything that’s done. The justification for this was that old silly nonsensical thing where you really have to concentrate on the sciences, because that’s the primary sort of export, if you will, or the primary sort of reputation that the Americans have to the rest of the globe. They completely overlook the fact that entertainment is the number two export for God’s sakes.

HD: My wife is an artist who going for her Ph.D. in Science Education, but she feels very strongly that arts are extremely important for science education.

FT: Well, they are.

HD: There’s a lot of creativity involved in science.

FT: On top of that, it is such a predominant export now, that we’re having to turn to citizens outside of the United States to provide the technical support to get the work done, and that doesn’t make sense.

HD: Yesterday, I got an email from some parent whose son or daughter is going to go to college, and his main concern is which school has the best deal in terms of recruiting, to which I wanted to say, if that’s all you really think about, then you’ve lost it.

FT: Yes. Quite honestly, our response to the students now, as they come in, is simply, If you’re thinking of a good salary, then please go back to admissions and find yourself something else to do. You have to really enjoy the art to the point of loving it to be able to survive and advance and succeed, simply because it’s not money-based, it’s not these outrageous salaries.

HD: I think it’s the parents, I hope it’s the parents.

FT: So do I.

HD: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

FT: I came to CalArts simply at the invitation of the Director who was here at the time, because I had taught her — that directly. A young woman by the name of Rebecca [Becky] Bristow. I taught her how to animate. She came to me as a very talented student in a studio I was working at at the time. I sat her down and had a lot of work that was going on, sat her down and had her start animating, and suddenly realized that she had an immense amount of talent, but that she didn’t know how to animate. I spent quite a bit of time with her trying to get the conceptual idea of what animation is all about under the belt, so that she could really bring these characters alive, and especially in doing what I had done all my life, which is short film, which is television commercial work. And she did! Boy, one day she suddenly sat back and said, “I got it!” I understand what you’re talking about.”

So, she gave me a call and said, “I’m looking for somebody to do a character design class. Would you be interested?” And at the time it was just at an odd enough period where the workload at the studio was not so profound.

HD: What studio were you working for? Was it your own?

FT: At that time, I was working on my own, Terry X2.

HD: Did Marv Newland work for you?

FT: Yep. Marv came out of the Spungbuggy days, when I was partner with Herb Stott, as did Bill Kroyer, as did, oh, a whole raft of folks:  Randy Acres, who now is teaching at Savannah College of Art and Design, Gary Katona, who the last time I touched base with him, was still down at Disney Special Events, on and on and on. I mean, there was a raft of really bright young men that came out of that period.

I’ve been in the industry since ‘64. I spent a brief amount of time exploring TV production, but found that I really preferred being a participant with a lot of the shots that use up my time and ended up with a small commercial advertising production house in the Netherlands; actually, because I had started off doing work on the old Beatles cartoon series; actually, I was a student. The studio I was working with was picking up overload material from TVC [in London]. So, there were about 6 or 8 or 10 of  ‘em that were actually produced in Holland for London and subsequently for the Americas, out of which I got my fingers into about 4 of them.

Then I came back and spent virtually all the time since then exclusively doing television advertising work, out of preference. Preference because I like the pace; I like the design challenges; I like the sense of hand-on directorship that we used to have. It doesn’t quite exist anymore. And the studios we ran really attracted a lot of good people and that was a lot of fun.

Six years ago, Becky called. I came up and started teaching. Second semester, I ended up teaching two classes. Then she left and I was offered the directorship and I thought,” Oh, well, why not?” So, I have been running the shop up here for the last four years, this is starting my fifth year. So, as a professional educator, and I must admit that it’s getting to be that, because the demand in this office is such that I’ve had to almost completely ignore the studio, far more than I would like.  Somebody had to give and I felt a moral obligation to this place, for the students’ sake, rather than going back into the studio and trying to get it back up and running. So this ended up being a full-time preoccupation for me.

So, as a professional educator, I’ve got a grand total of 6 years, but I’ve always taught. Everybody used to always say, “Oh, you should be a teacher.” Nonsense! I’m not a teacher! But I’ve found, apparently, that I can indeed do that, have the the understanding that it takes to get that abstract information across. So, it’s turned out to be a very comfortable thing to do.

HD: How old is the Character Animation program?

FT: The program actually started with Jack Hannah, the first director in 1975.

HD: And everybody had to draw …

FT: … Donald Duck. Yes, that’s right, because he was a Disney shorts guy. That was 1975 to 1984. After him came Bob McCrea, who ran the shop until ‘86. Then from ‘86 to ‘91, Robert Winquist came on board and basically turned it around from being predominantly a training ground for assistant animators into more of a traditional art school environment that he was more comfortable with. (Actually, he was  responding to what the university was asking of him.) He left in ‘91. Glen Vilppu ran it from ‘91 to ‘94, and then Becky picked it up from ‘94 to ‘96. And I’ve been here since I started in that ‘96 semester. So, it started in ‘75 as a character and traditional feature …

HD: And it was the Disney organization that …

FT: Yes. It very definitely was. There were two and continues to be two programs here at CalArts. One is Experimental and one is Character. The differentiation between us continues to be there, although narrowed substantially. We’re not primarily a training ground for feature films anymore. Feature has been under such a profound pressure from the marketplace.

There was an insightful thing that happened to me when I first took over the department. I was invited to go down to a fair that was being run at the Disney Studios. I saw the material they had on their development board, all the planned work that they had ahead for themselves. I realized that they were confronted, as advertising was, with having to come up with a different look, different feel, different image, different approach, etc., etc., that the marketplace would not tolerate. Just simply the same old product being produced. In that respect, it was a very comfortable environment for me. That’s exactly what I had spent all my life doing was finding and staying connected to what the society was doing and what it was looking at and how it would respond to certain imagery. So, taking over the directorship from that kind of a venue was an easy task for me, rather than having to come from feature and understanding what the pressures are and what the influences were. The pressures in feature is no different than in commercial work. In fact, animation is animation, period, whether you’re doing festival films or whatever, it’s identical. It really is.

So, coming up and getting started then was a fairly easy transition. The difficult thing, of course, was learning the school, the environment, the politics,  how the administrative aspect ran, and so on and so forth. But the differentiation between Experimental and ourselves really can be articulated more as to what it has evolved into for myself.

Character animation for me is not character animation so much as it is narrative theater. We really are here to help storytellers. We’re here to devise ways that stories work better. We’re here to literally have animation be not merely motion art, as perhaps Experimental would in its more traditional approaches. Experimental animation indeed comes out of the exploratory periods of experimental work, out of the ‘50s —  the whole intellectual exercise of image progression constitutes, and indeed it does, constitutes the appropriate process for the viewer. We continue to come out of the preeminent sort of reconfiguration of what it takes to tell a story.

While to tell a story, especially with a drawn image, is not just a simple thing where you just sort of write it and present it. You really do have to know what you’re writing. You do have to know how you’re going to illustrate it. You have to know the interconnectabilities of the process. In fact, we’re now getting to the point where I’m insisting that we reconceptualize where the idea of style or design comes from for narrative theater. Indeed, I’ve begun arguing that the design look for narrative theater comes out of acting, and that acting is a direct ramification of the story; and that is a direct ramification of the way you actually draw something. So, the interconnectability of these three indeed become where the style comes from. But in practical fact, it comes from acting first.

If you have a charming piece of storytelling and good acting, you could almost get away with any kind of style that goes along with it.

HD: Like reading the telephone book?

FT: Yeah. Right. So, it is indeed the energy of understanding how to make that thing come alive that is really the push this year. I have quietly challenged the students not only to stick their necks out to try different approaches, but very definitely get deeply into acting. Make the actors really come alive, so that we have an opportunity to see too much, too little, just right. As a department, we have the opportunity to explore the medium better than anybody else does. We don’t have the market pressures. We don’t have the fail/succeed pressures. This is a unique kind of lab configuration — any university is where things can be tried, so try ‘em. Get out there and help your industry along. Do some exploring. That’s really where we are at the moment.

HD: I’ve known Jules Engel [founding Director of CalArts’ Experimental Animation program] for many years and the last time I spoke to him about this, he  complained about the disparity; but he almost said the same thing as you, that the differences have become very narrow, which he thinks is for the best.

FT: Yes and they should be narrow. There really should be only one animation department. If you want to have two secondary configurations, that’s perfectly fine, and absolutely appropriate. A certain amount of festival film activity should be focused in on.

HD: It’s hard to break with a tradition that’s been around so long.

FT: Once it’s in place …

HD: I’ve seen it in so many walks of life, where somebody comes in and says, ‘”Let’s change this” and it’s institution, it’s in the bones. And you can’t break that.

FT: Too many agendas. Too many reasons. There’s too many this, that and the other thing. I’ve tried for three years now to put animation under its own roof, under its own guise, because I really have come out of a whole professional career that had been very involved with live action and animation; and quite honestly, as much as they deliver in the same medium, they are two completely opposed sides of the pole. And you can’t have one governing the other. As a matter of fact, the animation departments really need to be a school unto themselves [rather than being part of CalArts’ School of Film/Video], because they are such a profound different part in everything else.

HD: There’s too much water under the bridge.

FT: Much too much and everything else that goes along with it.

HD: What’s your enrollment these days? It’s mostly an undergraduate program, isn’t it?

FT: Character Animation is totally an undergraduate program. We have been trying to conceptualize and put together some sort of a graduate program, because we’re slowly getting to the point where it can take the Character student, as it does the Experimental student, on into a masters’ degree program.  We do have students right now in the Experimental. We do have students right now in Directing for Film, which is kind of character or narrative theater in live action. And their programs, in many respects, are live action extensions of the ones we have here. So, it is that kind of natural progression for some of our students to attempt to get their masters’ through that, rather than through Experimental.

Currently, our enrollment is very much the way it has been, the mid-150s to the very low 160s. But I must admit, and this is completely unofficial, I really would like to see the department drop down to about 120 people, 30 to a class. Simply so that we can increase the instructor-to-student ratio to the point where you do have real close one-to-one contact.

Right now, if you look at the roles, we probably have the best student-to-instructor ratio going, but to me it’s still too distant. Classes are still just a fraction too big. So, I really do want to get the size of the department down. We’re trying to do something that will take an undergraduate student and really turn them into a very valued employee when they leave here. To do that, requires us working very closely with each one, because each, as good as they may be to get in here — and the portfolios have to be exceptional — each one is different; and each one needs a different amount of focus from the faculty. And you can’t do that when you have a class of 30 or more students around. You can’t see where their weaknesses are and be able to spend the time to get them to strengthen those areas. I do really want to increase the skill level, as well as the conceptual level of the graduates. The program really is an odd mixture between the practical training as well as the conceptual; an odd configuration between the arts school and a trade school.

HD: Any art school has to do that.

FT: Yes. We cannot turn our back to the trade. At the same time, to focus only on the trade is to do the students a disservice, because then why are they spending the money when they could go to Sheridan for a fraction of the cost and get the same training and the same opportunity. We’ve had to really seriously analyze where we were, what we were structuring. So, it’s really important to us to stress both sides of it. It’s also a nightmare to do it that way. We walk away from a formalized way of doing it — this is what layout is, this is what a field chart is, this is where your margin notes go, and so on and so forth.  What are you doing with that picture? How are you telling a story? How do you get it to cross? Why are you going to cut to a close-up? You walk into a form of education that is less able to pin something up on the wall and say, Look how brilliant we are!, which a trade school can do, because everybody is following the regimen and the program, to something where you’re trying to pull out of an individual a real serious core understanding, a centrist understanding, so they can be creative. That doesn’t necessarily always lead to an easy way for the instructors or the students. I honestly believe and the majority of the instructors agree with me, it does deliver a better student to the industry. We have a few instructors who really think we ought to be stressing the trade side of it far more and ignore the rest.

HD: You can have an evening school for that.

FT: We definitely do have an evening school. We have an evening school and a day school. In fact, the curriculum here is exhausting. It starts at 9:00 in the morning and goes to 10:00 at night. And therein lies the conundrum of this department, because it really does put a strain on me trying to keep day and night school as one school, without it suddenly becoming separated. It’s real easy for the student to think in terms of the day school being the art and the night school being the trade. What I’m trying to do is get even the instructors to reinforce the conceptual, reinforce the thinking, reinforce the fact that [you] draw a square around us, but what does that square represent and how does this scene going to affect the viewer? Think about it. Don’t just simply learn the processes of story morning, noon and so on and so forth. It is a profoundly complex curriculum because of the daytime/nighttime. The nighttime is here specifically to draw the best out of the industry to teach, because I have found that when you find academicians trying to teach, they’re not necessarily aware of what’s going on in the marketplace as acutely as somebody who’s trying to survive there.

The way the first year curriculum is constructed is to try to give the student as a broad a base exposure as possible. The second year we start tightening them up a little up on skill level. By the time they get to the third year, they not only should have mastered lip synch, better acting and more profound storytelling, but they’ve also got to be able to apply that to somebody else’s character.

You take a tramp, or whatever character you want. Go to the book of character models that we’ve got, pick a character. Now you have to animate that character. The same assignment that an animator would get in a real place and make it believable, make it convincing — do the acting, do the storytelling, stay on model, etc., etc.