Animation Academy trains young artists starting careers

By Lindsay Ivins

At Charles Zembillas’ Animation Academy, students learn the ins and outs of the business behind an animation career. (Lindsay Ivins)

The art of creating and bringing to life a new character, scene or backdrop is the job of an animation artist. But the success of these artists sometimes goes unknown when studios own the rights to their work.

At the Animation Academy in Burbank, Calif., students are being taught how to deal with the struggles of working for large studios and how to take ownership of the animations they produce, in addition to enhancing their artistic capabilities.

“Hollywood relies on animation artists,” said Charles Zembillas, founder of the Animation Academy. “But they are treated poorly. Artists need to stand up for themselves and embrace independence from studios; that is our future.”

With more than 20 years in the animation industry, Zembillas has created characters for video games and TV shows such as Spyro the dragon, Jak and Daxter and PlayStation’s mascot, Crash Bandicoot. With his experience working for studios, he imparts his knowledge on students to prepare them for jobs.

Zembillas started the Animation Academy in 1998 at the back of a small café. After teaching about 4,000 students, he opened up many career opportunities for his pupils, some of whom have gone on to work at Pixar with his teachings in mind.

One of his students, Chance Raspberry, now works as a character layout artist for “The Simpsons” after attending the academy from 2002 to 2004. In 2005, he was a character designer for Cartoon Network’s “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” and a sketch card artist for the “Family Guy” season two trading card series.

“When I was a baby, my parents started showing me all the cartoons from when they were kids like Max Fleischer, Looney Tunes and Tex Avery classics,” Raspberry said. “I was born drawing, and it was enhanced throughout my childhood through trips to the mall bookstore with my mom. I always found myself in the humor section looking at the comic strip collections of Bill Watterson and Jim Davis.”

Zembillas has taught about 4,000 students since opening his academy in 1998. Some alumni have gone on to work for the likes of Pixar. (Lindsay Ivins)

Part of Raspberry’s profession entails using the storyboard, script and voice dialogue tracks to create the scenes for “The Simpsons.” A director usually assigns him 15 to 30 scenes initially, adding more once the first are completed. He fine-tunes, fixes or creates key poses of animation before they send the animation to their studios overseas.

Zembillas created animations for Hallmark and Filmation, where he saw his work regulated by the companies, limiting his creativity. When creating cartoons such as “She-Ra Princess of Power,” “Bravestarr” and other Saturday morning shows, he discovered the power toy companies had over his cartoons and was forced to market them in certain ways.

“Artists need to have more creative control,” Zembillas said. “How do you expect viewers to be inspired and motivated if the artists behind the animations aren’t?”

Zembillas now describes himself as an underground activist, aiding other animation groups in reforming the business. In the late 1980s, he wrote letters and provided other activist groups with material as proof of the dysfunction in the animation industry.

This assistance led to the passage of the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which “increased the amount of educational and informational programming for children available on television,” according to the Federal Communications Commission website.

Zembillas believes animators are entering a second golden age because of the new opportunities to show animations on different platforms. (Lindsay Ivins)

The Animation Academy strives to get its students paid jobs and internships. As Zembillas has seen in the past, he said studios have taken advantage of students for thousands of dollars of work and fail to get the students noticed by larger industries, sometimes by refusing to pay them or give them credit for their work.

He said simple cartoons can run up to $10,000 per minute to create, and the students miss out on valuable opportunities when they are asked to do the animations for free.

Raspberry said he has encountered a few negative experiences in studios, like people trying to get out of paying him or getting him to work for free or credit, but has turned these instances into positive memories that he continues to learn from.

“Charles was the first teacher or person to ever touch on the extreme importance of being independent as an artist,” Raspberry said. “You don’t have to rely on your job or job availability in the studios. He always stressed the power of Youtube, Blogger and Deviant Art and the importance of creating an online presence and independent economy for yourself as an artist.”

Zembillas believes animation artists are entering the beginning of a second golden age with the creation of new platforms to expose new artists’ work and gain them notoriety. Kickstarter is at the forefront of his mind when getting students exposure; this website allows anyone to participate in “crowdfunding” where projects are proposed and gain funds from people who support the idea. Another site similar to this is Indiegogo, which Zembillas has been using frequently.

“We are not just teaching students how to draw, we are teaching them how to find their own way into the business,” Zembillas said. “We show them how to build a fan base and become an independent entrepreneur. Students have hope and self-respect when they come here. They come here for therapy.”

Raspberry was recently able to fund a long-time project of his on Kickstarter called “Little Billy: The Ultimate 1980s Nostalgia Cartoon,” the first animated series ever for kids with special needs. He was able to promote his campaign through his personal newsletter mailing list, Youtube, blogs, Facebook and Twitter and exceeded his $30,000 goal by more than $1,000 in 30 days. He now has the initial funding to start production of the pilot episode.

“Crowdfunding is the closing argument of the ‘do-it-yourself independent artist’ approach to the industry today,” Raspberry said.

Zembillas hopes to get back into the industry after he grows the Animation Academy to include new projects, upgraded equipment, online classes and a larger staff.

“I’m not just managing a business,” Zembillas said. “I’m creating through my students.”