Highly Animated

The School of Art and Art History’s new animation lab features state-of-the-art equipment and software.


Photo by Aimee Blodgett | USF News


By Barbara Melendez
USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 17, 2012) – A new state-of-the-art animation studio in the University of South Florida College of The Arts is the setting for training students on the latest generation of equipment and software. And it’s not just for art students.


Students can come from just about any discipline to apply the skills to whatever they choose to do.


Animation tools and technology are not only for cartoonists and filmmakers, though both are in demand in those areas more than ever. Architects, designers and even fine artists and engineers are using animation to great effect as well. Just about anyone with a story to tell, a model to create or an idea to illustrate might want to consider what 3D animation has to offer.


Mastery of the tools is a fundamental goal in the school’s animation courses. The professor teaching students the requisite skills expects even more.


“I’m also really interested in how this technology will enhance how students work with disciplines other than their own,” said Assistant Professor McArthur Freeman II, who is new to USF this fall. “These tools can extend what we can offer each discipline as well.”


An example of a software package available in the new School of Art and Art History animation lab, as used by Assistant Professor McArthur Freeman, who teaches a course in 3D animation.

An accomplished fine artist himself, Freeman practices what he teaches. These days, he says he finds himself using pressure sensitive tablets more than a sketch book.


“I’m able to work more quickly and with increased flexibility,” he said.


Born in Ft. Lauderdale, Freeman comes to USF from North Carolina State University. He received his BFA from the University of Florida, MFA from Cornell University and Master of Art and Design degree from NCSU. In addition to NCSU, he has taught at Clarion University in Pennsylvania and Davidson College in North Carolina. Freeman has also worked as an animator and designer as well as a concept artist.


The results of laser scanning and 3D capturing for surveying, mobile mapping and building information modeling suit the kind of manipulation animation technology offers, making the training Freeman is doing useful to geographers, historians, forensic scientists, archeologists, people who work for museums and even real estate agents. In some of those areas there’s a need for digital preservation of historic artifacts or even evidence.


With students drawn from the various schools in the College of The Arts, as well as the School of Mass Communications, the College of Engineering and even the Departments of Geology and Anthropology he hopes to see a lot of collaboration, a broadening of vision “and a lot of cross-pollination.”


Wallace Wilson, director of the School of Art and Art History and professor of studio art, couldn’t agree more. “This new facility and the course fit in so well with the new direction of higher education, which involves not only learning skills but also focusing on how students use the imagination to become true innovators,” he said. “And it fits this generation’s existing experience with an abundance of these types of tools from childhood. It’s already in their DNA. Now they can work with the upgraded versions here at USF.”


The Digital Video and Electronic Arts Program at USF, housed in the School of Art and Art History, has already caught the eye of Animation Career Review, which recommended it to its readers as one of the top programs in the country for studying the digital arts. The publication accurately describes it as a “course load that incorporates a multidisciplinary education into one rock star program.”


Noting the 24-hour availability of its labs, which the Review described as “enviable” for its “Adobe software studio, a 16-seat Apple studio and a ‘media cage’ (featuring top of the line cameras, recorders and more) where they can explore possibilities and develop their individual artistic voices.”


The new lab should blow them away. Hopefully the students’ work will do the same.


In essence, students can gain a full range of film and video art skills – both pre- and post-production.


Software programs, the likes of which any artist would be thrilled to work with, allow creative imaginations to run wild. Among them are Maya, 3D Studio Max, Softimage, Mudbox, Sketchbook, Zbrush 4R4, Cinema 4D, DragonFrame, Red Eye TrapCode, TopoGun, HeadUS and UV Layout. These titles are added to what’s available in the “older” lab, including Video and Sound Installation, Distance Collaborations, Narrative Video, Abstract Video and Web Art, to name a few. Both feature media cages with top-end cameras, microphones, tripods and accessories that students can borrow.


Arts Technology Administrator Don Corbin is the miracle worker behind the new lab. Building labs isn’t new for him. The best part is ordering the equipment and seeing it arrive. “It’s like Christmas morning several times over,” he said.


The space required the removal of old and outdated office furniture and equipment. Things are very different now. Corbin said, “When I show the room to those who saw it before, I usually get comments like ‘Wow, what a difference,’ and ‘Are you sure we are in the same room?’”


And he’s happy with the results.


“Our main objective is to give the students the highest level and quality of education that we can provide, and sometimes that takes high-end equipment.That’s what we have here.”


With everything in place, students look to be pointed in the right direction.


Part of Freeman’s teaching philosophy is to develop and nurture a sense of creative adventure while using theory, practice and study to help students “locate themselves historically and theoretically. Every student’s interpretation of the world is valuable and I hope to get them to see that their work has an impact beyond themselves,” he said.


“Quite a lot goes into visual decision-making. While the software and technology allow for an array of new creative possibilities, they are just tools that help to realize the students’ vision. As the tools become transparent through continued use, there’s more space for informed decision-making and self-expression. That’s something I work to help students with as they develop as artists and creative thinkers. Students should leave my course not only with skills and increased knowledge but also with inspiration, an enhanced perspective, and a desire to continue to question, study and create.”


The new animation lab will be an important complement to USF’s Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies (AIST) and its affiliated Advanced Visualization Center (AVC). AIST is directed by two research assistant professors in anthropology, Lori Collins and Travis Doering, who have helped to shape the new AVC which offers a high-definition3D projection wall and haptic devices for controlling 3D models. There are also workstations loaded with Geomagic and other 3D software are available for work on all kinds of 3D projects ranging from archeology and history to engineering and chemistry. Art and Art History Associate Professor Robert Lawrence was on the steering committee that founded the AVC. Art and Art History will now work with AIST to bring the animation lab and AVC together for even stronger learning enhancements.


Kinect integration for creating gesture-based controls is already in place in the AIST and Engineering labs. The latest 3D printers and haptic devices are on the “not-too-far-off” and wish lists, “that will soon let students interact with3D data in new and exciting ways – actually feeling and sensing 3D objects, for example,” said Collins. ”The AIST and the AVC are poised to change the way we teach, learn and discover. We are working with Art and Art History to bring these facilities together and make a stronger connection so that the two will strengthen and augment one another.”


Wilson says, “We may not be George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, but the training our students are getting and the equipment they’re getting experience on are among the best and world class.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.