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June 29, 2009

Different Strokes

Sofian Succeeds Smith As DADA Chair

By By Jimmy Kelly

Over the past 14 years the animation program at USC has gone from a handful of courses to becoming the first named division in the School of Cinematic Arts, offering both graduate and undergraduate degrees as well as a minor. This fall, that progression continues apace as associate professor Sheila Sofian takes over the chair of the John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts (Hench DADA).
Associate Professor Sheila Sofian, the new chair of the John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts.

"The evolution and impact of the animation and digital arts program has been phenomenal thanks to the efforts of the chairs, faculty and staff who have dedicated themselves to this division," said Sofian. "Naturally, my goal is to continue those efforts. I share their desire to collaborate with other programs and to further scholarly research in animation studies."

Sofian assumes the post from associate professor Kathy Smith, who began serving in 2004. Prior to Smith, Professor Christine Panushka chaired the program from 1999 to 2003. Vibeke Sorenson oversaw the inauguration of the division in 1995 and headed it prior to Panushka. (Sorenson also chaired the division for the spring 2004 semester).

Since its founding, the division has earned a reputation for training leading artists in traditional animation methods such as hand-drawn cels and stop-motion photography, as well as digital techniques. Besides offering the master's degree, landmark events in DADA's history include initiating an undergraduate minor and bachelor's degree programs; presenting animation student films in the school's Adobe First Frame film festival; and creating a performance capture class that features director Robert Zemeckis ('73) as a guest lecturer.

In 2006 the unit became the first named division in the school's history when the John C. Hench Foundation created a $5 million endowment gift to name the division in honor of the renowned Disney artist and designer.

In addition to teaching students, the division has also been at the forefront of developing new techniques and applications that transcend traditional concepts of animation and digital arts.

Associate Professor Kathy Smith, who chaired Hench DADA from 2004 to 2009.
"When I became chair, I felt it was important to push the boundaries of the art form and stay abreast of the media, in fact push it to such a degree that students will innovate across media utilizing the technology driven by the philosophy and conceptual thinking of the program and curriculum," said Smith.

Smith also ushered in an era in which student and faculty engaged in a number of high-profile initiatives ranging from creating public service announcements to promote AIDS awareness, to doing regular shows as part of the "Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk" series.

"We've exposed the program out to the greater community, as well as the university," said Smith. "I think that the community is much more aware of what animation is as an art form."

Smith pointed to the new animation building, due to open in the summer of 2010, as a source of great encouragement for the division to expand its reputation and better serve its students for years to come. However, Smith most encouraged the advancement of a larger faculty, led by Sofian, as the cornerstone of the future.

"It's great to have a new building, but it's people that make the program."

Sofian is used to taking over major roles in the division. When she was first hired in 2006, she served as the faculty replacement for Sorensen. Now Sofian will be looking forward to advancing what figures like Sorensen, Panushka and Smith have already put in place, including the division's role in scientific research.

"One thing that we've discussed as a faculty that we want to get off the ground soon is a minor in science visualization," said Sofian. "We hope to really establish ourselves as a research institute. Our program is kind of unique that way."

The Hench division has been working in partnership with the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies since Smith established this collaboration in 2004. Wrigley is a USC research base on Catalina Island specializing in marine and environmental science.

Sofian is also positive about the possibility to collaborate in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to provide further opportunities to animation students who are interested in focusing their talents in the world of science. If approved, the NIH grant would see Hench students working to visualize multiple genetic databases with collaborators in USC's Information Sciences Institute and the Keck School of Medicine of USC, as well as other scientists from around the country.

Though she's new to the chair position, Sofian brings a long record of achievement. Prior to arriving at USC, she was the head of animation at Philadelphia's University of the Arts and founded the animation program at College of the Canyons in Valencia. Since then, Sofian has worked with both undergraduates and graduates here at SCA, many of whom are both confident and optimistic about what’s to come.

"The one thing that anyone can tell you about Sheila is her hard work and dedication are endless," said Paul Shepherd, a member of the 2009 M.F.A. animation class. "I have no doubt that there will be countless positive changes."