July 6, 2011

SCA Family Stories: Kathy Smith

A Conversation with the Chair of SCA’s Animation Division

Kathy Smith, the Chair of the John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts (Hench-DADA) at the USC School of Cinematic Arts is a respected artist and beloved educator whose work has been featured internationally and whose students have gone on to hold key positions in the animation and visual effects industry.

Kathy Smith, the Chair of the John C.
Hench Division of Animaiton and
Digital Arts

Smith became a tenure track professor in 2002 and has been one of the guiding voices of DADA since. The 2010-2011 academic year was a landmark year for DADA and SCA Family stories recently caught up with Smith to talk about what she looks for in a DADA applicant, how she stays current in the constantly shifting world of animation and how a willingness to compromise is what makes her division great.

--Let’s start by talking a little about your life before SCA. What was the journey that brought you here? Before I came to USC I was a practicing artist in animation, installation and sound and had already made eleven animated films, five of which were painting and installation works. My work had already been shown in festivals, galleries and museums in Paris, Sydney, New York, London, Florence and LA. I had also been awarded numerous grants and residencies to create these works. In 1996 I was awarded the Australia Council LA residency at the 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica to research and create a new 2D/3D animation and painting installation entitled Indefinable Moods.

So initially my journey to the USA had nothing to do with USC, but in 1994 I had met Christine Panushka at the Hiroshima Animation Festival and she suggested that I contact her to do a lecture at CalArts if ever I made it to the USA, so once in my residency, I contacted Christine. She suggested I also send my work to then SCA Animation Chair Vibeke Sorensen who subsequently invited me to do a lecture about my work at USC.
From there I was invited back to do a workshop. In 1998, I returned as artist in residence to SCA to create Indefinable Moods and teach a class each semester in animation and digital arts. In 2001 a tenure position opened up, I applied and was awarded the job in 2002.

--If you had to pinpoint one, what’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in your time at SCA? The advent of digital technology -when I first visited USC in 1996 I had been doing research in 3D animation and VFX at Silicon Graphics in Santa Monica. It really was the cusp of all the digital evolution that would continue to expand and evolve over the next fifteen years in the industry and at USC.

Animation and Digital Arts really led the way in this transition for the school due to the renaissance of animation through 2D/3D animation integration and the advent of digital VFX. The program paved the way in the adoption of digital technology production, creative networking and the creative digital process thanks to the work and research of the faculty and staff.

The new technologically advanced building has, of course, enhanced USC’s position as a leader in digital media education.

-- If you had to describe Hench-DADA to someone on the outside, what would you say? Hench-Dada is a creative and innovative program that pushes the boundaries of what animation can be in all its forms from traditional character animation, installation animation, visual effects, motion capture and stereoscopic animation, visual music, documentary animation and science visualization.

--Are there any common misconceptions about Hench-DADA that you come across when speaking to prospective students? We are both an experimental program and we are also a professional industry school; we strive to create the best and innovative work with the highest possible production levels. We continue to strive to get better and better and produce graduates that can excel across industry, academia or the arts.

--Is there anything in particular that you look for in applicants? Of course imagination, talent and innovation are key, but we have also had students in the past who have not been the top ranked incoming students but end up out performing their colleagues through sheer work, commitment, maturity, dedication, collaborative skills and strength of character.

We also expect all our students to be community oriented and socially aware individuals when they enter the program. We want to produce animation directors and great artists who will lead in the future.

In regard to the portfolio, it is a combination of elements that usually speak to us, but a great personal statement showing a knowledge and passion for the art form with a unique vision for your goals always impresses.

A strong portfolio with your best work, not necessarily all your work, is also very important.

--The world of animation has changed so much in the past five to ten years, what do you do at DADA to make sure that you stay up to date with the changing medium? Research is pivotal to this area. It is why we are part of a greater research university. Therefore, we depend on our faculty to innovate in their own work and bring their research and professional skills to the classes and work at Hench-DADA.

We also run a weekly animation and digital arts seminar where we invite speakers from industry academia or the arts to show their cutting edge work.

We also actively engage industry through technical workshops (which we run throughout the entire year) and we employ adjunct faculty to mentor our students and also maintain a close collaboration through education seminars with major technology sponsors of our program such as Adobe, Autodesk and GenArts to name just a few.

Finally, we try to run staff and faculty training seminars as much as budget permits to keep us abreast of the latest in digital technology evolution.

--Is there any particular lesson from your life before SCA that you find yourself using day in and day out? I am still learning every day but I would say be willing to take risks and immerse yourself in your work with all your passion and focus. Flexibility, openness to change and a willingness to continually learn are integral to being a successful artist/animator today.

--What do you see as the future of animation? I see that traditional and digital animation techniques and methods, structures and good storylines will always be there, be converged, and have an audience.

I also believe that the advent of diverse delivery formats, gaming, mobile media and immersive venues will drive new narrative structuring. For me personally the potential innovation in the art form is in the exploration of new narrative structures.

I also think that more cutting edge research in technologies such as animated holography and artificial intelligence software, which drives the animation of virtual characters, robotics etc. are key areas that essentially require the use of animation in all its forms to express the emotion, gesture and performance of the character.

Our graduates will always be learning how to animate, tell their stories, create and design immersive worlds but they will continue to choose and work with traditional media as well as new innovative digital technologies to explore and express these ideas

--What’s exciting coming up at Hench-DADA this year? We are launching several new classes this year including CTAN 499 Organic Modeling for Animation which is a class taught by artist Ryan Kingslien, this will utilize Z-Brush, a 3D modeling and animation tool that is integral to use in large feature animation and VFX projects for character and set design. Probably the best example of the use of this tool to date is the Na’vi characters in Avatar or Davy Jones’ character in Pirates of the Caribbean.

CTAN 435 Story Art Development taught by Professor Sheila Sofian is another great class which uses basic storyboarding techniques to develop a sense of character, plot and continuity.

We are also adding another core class to our VFX curriculum, which is the latest class developed by Professor Eric Hanson and co-taught by Houdini specialist Adjunct Faculty Debra Isaac entitled Digital Effects for Animation.

This class teaches students how to integrate dynamic visual effects into their animated and live action integration projects.

Thanks to Lisa Mann, our Exhibitions Director and Instructor of Cinema Practice, we will also be hosting our fourth successfully funded Visions & Voices event featuring the Japanese light animation group Tochka who will perform and host their workshop entitled ‘Pika Pika’.

Finally we are entering our fourth year of our BA semester abroad program in Florence, Italy, which is The only semester abroad at USC that employs our graduate alumni to teach it for us. http://www.saci-florence.org/

We are very excited each year to send off our BA students to experience this unique semester abroad and hope that more SCA students and faculty will take advantage of this opportunity to study and teach in Florence, Italy.

There is so much more as well. Each year is so busy but it’s full of so many opportunities.