Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Old School VanArts

VanArts, the school where I work, is about to enter a new era. We're down to the last few days of occupying the original building at 837 Beatty Street, and starting next week we will all be living at the new campus on Pender. A big part of me is looking forward to a change of atmosphere. The school is now offering more diverse programs and is no longer the tiny animation-only Termite Terrace it once was. I think there are many good things to happen ahead, but at the same time, it's kind of sad leaving behind such a legacy of great memories and the feeling of the 'old school' VanArts. So I thought it appropriate to dig through my photos and present here just a small slice of the history behind this place that changed my life.

I first found VanArts on the web while finishing up my BFA at UofM and working as an animator for Steve Stanchfield. I thought it would be a good way to focus my self-taught animation skills into just one year of formal training, so I could develop a demo reel and then get crackin' applying to studios. In Spring of 1998 I traveled with Steve and animator Kit Mobley to Los Angeles for the World Animation Celebration. I just had applied to VanArts, and they had a booth at the event. It was there that I first met Lee Mishkin, who was the founding director of the Classical Animation program. I saw him enter the trade show floor and recognized him from the VanArts brochure, so I rushed over to introduce myself and he responded, "Nice to meet you! Do you know where our booth is?"



Lee Mishkin, 1927-2001

At the end of that summer I drove across the country from Michigan to Vancouver with my friend Brandon Moses, who flew back home a few days later we arrived. That road trip is a whole 'nother story (documented on my old website), but the day after we landed, September 2 1998, we went over to VanArts to check it out. We were greeted by school president Alan Phillips who graciously showed us around. In those days, Alan did everything...there was no admissions department or many other managers. The school was only on the 2nd floor, with some additional 1st floor space in an adjacent building. The 2nd floor was shared by Soul 2 Soul Hair Salon, which blasted hip-hop music and emitted a 'wet dog' stench every now & then.

In a few days I started my animation classes with instructors Lee Mishkin, Charles Phillips, & Marcos Gonzalez. I made a few quick friends and got an apartment with another student from India named Rahul Dabholkar, who has since had an amazing career in animation. Most of the other students spent most of their time bragging about how drunk they got the night before and how sick they got. This disappointing turn of events I didn't try to let affect me too much...I just animated away and would then go home to watch more animation. On the weekends I would go to Stanley Park, walk along the seawall pondering my future, and take naps in the trees.


Our animation lab upstairs for the first half of the year. My roommate Rahul is in the right corner in the sweater. I sat a few seats away in the same row.

For the second half of the year, the big class was split into classical and CG, and us classical guys were moved downstairs. This space later became a plant shop, and is now a ticket place. I think the classical group (CA5 as we were called) started with 11 students. By the end of the year we were down to 4 or 5. One student ran away with some guy she met at a rock concert...several others got homesick or stayed up all night playing video games so they rarely showed up.


The new CG lab upstairs with the scary wood floor, after they built the wall dividing up the old life drawing room.


The late Lee Mishkin watches over us while Abdiel, one of our Mexican casualties, poses for the camera. I took over his desk after he dropped out.


Me at my new desk with my puppet friend Skraboonikus, who would accompany me to English Bay Beach on weekends to perplex young children.

When summer of '99 rolled around, things got really fun, because not only did we all get caught up in the Nerd Frenzy surrounding the release of The Phantom Menace, but the summer students arrived! I was asked to be a T.A. for them while finishing up my studies, and I instantly fell in love with teaching, and with many of the young students there who were so enthusiastic about the art form.


My good friends Nick D'Auria and Kate Freeman were kids when they first came, and years later they returned as college hippies, and then became animators.


Kens Unite! Our guest instructor, Disney/MGM/Hanna-Barbera veteran Ken Southworth. Ironically, I had already met Ken in L.A. previously because Steve hired him for one of the Tonka games we made together. I got to in-between his scenes!

My original plan was only to stay in Vancouver for 1 year of training, then return to Michigan and continue working for Steve until more animation jobs came along. But meanwhile, the studio back home had slowed down, so this was a big turning point when I made the difficult decision to stay. The school had offered me the chance to stick around for a 2nd year and make a film, while working part-time as a T.A. and assisting their new smiley admissions guy Chris.


My new 'desk' where I began returning to my stop-motion & puppet-building roots. Note the head of the Skeksis Chamberlain on top, which was part of a full body puppet I made for Halloween. I can't believe they let me set up shop here. I'm sure I freaked everyone out, which was OK by me, really.

I was well on my way now to becoming the Hagrid of VanArts. Lots of changes rapidly occurred thereafter, including the arrival of a new batch of animation students who came to my apartment a couple times to party.


A gaggle of animators! I'm still very good friends with many of these folks, especially the cute one on the right sitting on the floor in the red sweater.

Yep...this turn of events brought Jay into my life. Good thing I stuck around eh?


Romance blossoms at VanArts, complete with funny hand puppets.

The past few years at VanArts have become such a blur, really. I couldn't really tell you anymore what year most students started or finished, and some of their names are starting to fade from memory, but I really must emphasize it's only "some"...most of the souls I've had the pleasure to meet there are still very good friends and colleagues. And of course there were a few students who really freaked me out, not always in a good way, but you know how artistic people are. I haven't the energy or inclination to spill out every single memory I have of this place, as there are only so many hours in a day. There's mountains more where this came from, but here's just a sprinkling of images (hey, we're all visual people right?) from my archives...


Me and Jay with "Uncle Bill" Matthews, Disney Legend and dear friend.


"A Phone Call" director Chun-Sin Loh with "A Mano" directors Carlos Miranda and Jose Perez, all now making their marks in the animation industry.


Colby, Katie, Steph, Tomoko, Kristy, Carling, David & Josh pose with all the food collected for the annual Christmas Food Drive.


Allan Cortez, Clarissa Koo, Micah Baker & Nick again(see? he's a college hippie now!)...guilty, as usual. Crazy kids...


Me with Galen Fott and his family...who would have thought years later he'd hire me? (Currently animating freelance on another film he's directing!)


Christmas Party!


Mario is scary on Halloween, and Killer Bunny eats his head.


Me with the great Bob Godfrey!


Bob and Nancy Beiman at a Grad Show.


Birgitta Pollanen with one of her Layout classes.


The dark & mysterious Chris Woods ponders just how the phenomenon of animation is possible.


Several successful grads!

This barely stratches the surface and doesn't come close to doing justice to all the wacky stuff that's happened in that old building. As a job, it's had the ups and downs that any workplace would have...at times it was all-consuming. But overall, it's the dozens of talented artists, animators and co-workers I've had the privilege to know that has made everything worth it. Today was my last day entering the building to work, and then leaving it. Times of change are good and necessary, but they're sad at the same time. Leaky roofs and all, I owe a lot to this place and the opportunities it's allowed me to experience. Thanks to everyone who made VanArts what it was in the Old Beatty Place.

4 comments:

Pochat said...

Ken, this is so amazing. So many good feelings and emotions. I'm glad you're doing this.

I love the pictures! We were so young, its very moving.

Thanks for the post Ken!

Augusto said...

Great stuff Ken. VanArts was a turning point for a lot of us out here in the crazy business of it all. Thanks for sharing!

BHAVYA said...

hello sir ken,I'll also be joining Vanarts for march 2011 batch for game art.i have true faith in this institute......and i would love to learn from you.......

Jonah West said...

Thanks for posting this Ken! VanArts was such an exciting, enlivening place to be. Some many great times. I'm so grateful for my year there. Thanks for your inspiration! Here is a link to my current demo reel: https://vimeo.com/54745209 I'm running a successful visual effects matte painting studio in Taiwan, now going on our 9th year.