The diversity of the animation industry is reflected in the wide range of courses available to postgraduate students. Options range from traditional drawing-focused MA programmes to highly technical MSc options looking at game-engine design, and 3D computer modelling.
Full-time courses are spread over one or two years, depending on the establishment (some part-time courses are also available). More than 30 institutions offer some form of animation programme at postgraduate level; titles and qualifications vary from the simply named animation MA offered by (among others) the Royal College of Art, University of West England or Edinburgh College of Art, to more specific options such as Bournemouth University's computer animation and visual effects MSc, or Teesside's digital character animation MA. Other possibilities include the computer animation and visualisation MSc offered at both Liverpool John Moores and the University of Dundee.
With such a broad range, it's hardly surprising that students have a mixture of artistic and technical backgrounds. Entry is certainly not limited to those with prior experience of animation, says Sofronis Efstathiou, joint associate dean and postgraduate framework leader of the Computer Animation Academic Group at Bournemouth University. "Our students may have just finished an undergraduate degree or they may have been working in the industry for a number of years. They might also have been graphic designers, architects, 2D animators, scriptwriters... it's very mixed."
Donald Holwill, head of animation at the Edinburgh College of Art, agrees: "Our students might come from a photographic background, while others come from an animation area and have a hankering to do a piece of personal work."
There's no one way of getting on to a course, says Efstathiou – what's more important is technical and creative ability, a portfolio that shows potential, and a real interest in animation. "We want students to go beyond having a favourite Pixar movie. We want them to have favourite artists or directors on those movies, to be interested in what inspired those artists; we like to see how much they know about the subject."
Courses tend to be very student-led, but whether aiming for an MA or an MSc qualification there are certain universal benefits to studying for a postgraduate qualification, says freelance animator and film-maker David Bunting. "A course can open your eyes to what's possible with animation, and you can explore the medium. It's the balancing act of giving you technical skills and widening your artistic horizons as well."
For those moving on to employment within a studio (as many do) there are additional benefits, Bunting continues: the collaborative nature of the projects set on many courses will prepare students for working in the industry. "A studio is a group environment," he says. "You have to be able to work through a problem together."
It's helpful to choose a course that has good links with industry, he says, and Efstathiou agrees: "We try to give students as much knowledge as we can about both the industry and the actual subject matter they're studying." To achieve this, Bournemouth has regular guest speakers from across the animation world, including those who have worked on major films such as Inception, which won Bournemouth graduate Andy Lockley an Oscar for visual effects.
Of course, visual effects is just one route for graduates seeking employment. Some students might start their own companies, while others might find employment in studios all over the world. However, as one of the largest employers of UK animators – from 3D modellers to scenic artists and programmers – the computer games industry is the one to watch. "Computer games are going to be an extension of the storytelling we see in books and films," says Bunting, "and that's going to be very exciting over the next 10 years."
For a successful career beyond the intense experience of a one-year animation MA or MSc, students need to be flexible, explains Holwill. "We want our students to be adaptable, and not afraid of tackling new challenges. Technology is changing all the time and will bring opportunities that we can't predict."
Whether through technological or artistic innovation, animation has always been at the cutting edge of creativity and will continue to be so, according to Holwill – which can only be encouraging for prospective students. "Animation is endlessly fascinating," he says. "It's never going to dry up, because it's about ideas, and our relationship with the world. It's full of potential. Everything's possible."