September 17, 2012

SCA Family Stories: Sheila Sofian

Hench-DADA Associate Professor talks about new minor

Science and art are often put at opposite ends of the spectrum with little overlap in academia. However, starting this year, students can now explore both interests in a single minor with the Minor in Science Visualization offered by the John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts.

Sheila Sofian

SCA Family Stories recently sat down with Associate Professor Sheila Sofian to discuss the new minor and her advice for students who are interested in animation, science or a blend of both.

Let’s start with your name and your title. My name is Sheila Sofian, and my title is Associate Professor in Animation.

We’re here to talk about the new minor for the John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts. Can you tell us a little about the minor? Sure; this is a Minor in Science Visualization that basically gives an introduction to science visualization methodology and practices in any particular area of research that the student wants to focus on. Basically, students will  gain skills in animation and are required to take science classes as well, culminating in a capstone project of sorts in which you have both a science and animation mentor.

For those who are on the outside of the science visualization world, how would you sum it up? Well, it could be many different things, but the way we are approaching this is basically a way to not only illustrate science, but sometimes, you’ll have scientific concepts that need to be analyzed in which animation can help on the science end as well. The best result would be that not only would the animator be kind of working for the scientist, they’d be working together to resolve scientific concepts, whatever those could be.

Now, science could mean many different things; there are a lot of different areas. It could be engineering, it could be biology, it could be chemistry; we have a lot of different options in the science area, so it’s wide open. But it could also be basically trying to animate concepts that are abstract, so animation can serve the purpose of showing something that you can’t film or illustrate any other way. 

How prevalent are animation and animation-related skills in the science world? Is it something that USC is the frontrunner on or something that is already going on pretty widely? Well, the University of Chicago has a great program that works in science visualization, and MIT is doing some great work in the area, but it’s not that common.  Usually, you might find scientists and animators working together, but not programs where you can learn both at the same time. The animator really has to understand science in order to visualize it accurately, so to have someone that can do the visualization and the science portion is valuable. From our research, we haven’t found programs that do both, so it’s nice that we can draw on our wonderful science programs at USC and our strong animation program to create this minor.

For students who are just starting at USC or are looking into applying, who do you feel should be looking into this minor? It could either people who are majoring in a science or people who have an interest in science, because with this minor, you have beginners’ classes in both animation and science. They’re lower-level classes, so anyone can actually take them; you don’t need to have pre-existing knowledge, but a little pre-existing knowledge in science wouldn’t hurt, because you can draw and build on that knowledge as well. I would say that people who have an interest in science but also an interest in art and are creative, but I think that covers a broad spectrum of people.

A screenshot from the film Superluminal which was part of the
USC Science Film Competition.

Beyond this minor, let’s look further at animation. It seems like the Division of Animation and Digital Arts is going through some changes in terms of adapting to visual effects and new technologies. Have you noticed a change in the Division in the past five years or so? The biggest change is that we have two visual effects full-time professors, so that’s certainly true. We’ve always offered visual effects as a course, but now we have more professors, so we’re able to offer more electives in that area. As technology changes, we’re constantly updating our curriculum to reflect that. Animation requires you to learn so many programs, from creating the artwork, to making them move, compositing them, and doing the sounds as well. So it’s really technology-intensive, but we also don’t want to lose the creative aspects or drawing skills, so it’s a lot of demand on the artists.

What we’re trying to do is give options to students so they don’t have to learn everything; they can choose their own specific areas of interest. When we can’t fulfill all of their needs with the courses and electives, we also offer workshops to fill in those gaps as well. We’re constantly listening to students’ input and are making sure that we’re able to provide them with what they need, because it’s a constantly changing world and it’s really difficult to remain competitive.

When we talk to Hench-DADA students, it seems like they have to cut a balance between fine artistry and the technical demands. Do you have any advice for newer or prospective students on how to balance the two? One thing I can tell you, which is something I often hear in the industry, is that you can teach anyone to learn software but you can’t really teach them how to animate or to be a good artist. I think that the time in the University really needs to be spent taking advantage of every opportunity and everyone around you and really pushing your art form, because these are skills that you’re going to constantly need to update after you graduate as well. I’m constantly having to update - every time there’s a new version of software, we all have to learn it. Software skills are something you can always keep learning, and there are plenty of tutorials online, but to really know how to animate and to have a strong portfolio, that’s something that is not so easy to learn online or outside of school.

For students who are looking to break into the industry, do you recommend that they work on their portfolio first or immediately start interning to get their foot in the door? I think you unfortunately kind of have to do everything at once! As you’re going through your classes, you will be building a stronger and stronger portfolio so you can edit together your best work. We do require an internship in the undergraduate program, and that really is the best way to get your foot in the door. It’s really hard to get that first, entry-level position, but once you get there, so many jobs come from word-of-mouth in the animation industry. A lot of them aren’t advertised, so they’ll ask somebody who already works there if they know someone who has the ability to do such-and-such.

That’s why networking is so important. Of course, the USC network is growing stronger all the time as well, but internships are wonderful because you can prove that you’re valuable to a company. They can see how good you are, you can get to know everyone and they’ll think of you if a job opens up. So we do encourage internships, but we also try to avoid internships that take away from their program at USC, because everything is so work-intensive.

A screenshot from It's All in You Still from the USC Science Film

What is the piece of advice that you find yourself consistently going back to in your own career? Most consistently, I always go back to “do what you love,” because that’s where you will excel. Sometimes you’ll have pressure, say, “Oh, there’s a lot of stop-motion animation coming out now, I should major in that so I can get a job,” and by the time you graduate, that’s no longer the case. Every year, it completely changes. If you’re trying to do a CG-portfolio, competing against thousands of other people who are doing the same thing, unless your portfolio stands out among all the others, you’re not going to be competitive. But if you do what you love, that’s where your work will shine and that’s where you’ll succeed. It doesn’t depend on the market being exactly the strongest in your area if you’re one of the most competitive people in the area that you love.

Lastly, if someone’s interested in the new minor, where should they go for more information? The first person they’d need to speak with is Daphne Sigismondi. She’s our assistant director, and she has all of the information you need and will counsel students on what classes they need to take and how to apply for the minor.