You don't need to have a goal to take an introductory animation course at Central Michigan University. Associate Professor Steve Leeper just wants you to come play.
"Whatever your point of interest is, that is where we want to meet you," Leeper said. "If you are into characters and drawing, come play. If you are geeked out about the computer, come play."
An introduction to animation
The Art and Design Department in the College of the Arts and Media began offering introductory animation classes in fall 2017. Those first two classes filled immediately, with 36 students eager to learn more about the ins and outs of animation.
One student was Maggie Buerkle of Plymouth, Michigan. After researching a variety of careers, Buerkle found her passion for telling stories was the perfect fit for animation.
With three semesters under her belt, Buerkle has learned a multitude of ways that animation can be created, from digital 2D animation to stop-motion using paper faces, to flip books and clay.
"It's all just a crazy amount of fun."
Between boot camp and kindergarten
The program goes beyond fun and games.
"We are making real art, for real audiences," Leeper said.
Leeper fondly refers to his classes as a cross between kindergarten and boot camp. While the work can feel like playing, students actually are building the necessary foundation to help them as they advance in their coursework.
"We work to grow you as an artist," Leeper said. "Whatever you don't know, it's our job to fill that in."
Due to this focus on foundational skills, projects and storyboards that begin in one class are often transferred and used as the springboard in another.
This system is similar to the process animated film productions go through, Leeper said: A gestation period for projects to surface and develop before production begins.
The process of using projects as a springboard also translates beyond the classroom. In July, Buerkle took home top honors in the Bumper Awards at the 2018 Traverse City Film Festival.
Her piece, "Photobomb," was originally a final project for that introductory animation course. But once the semester was over, Buerkle didn't want to end her project there.
Throughout the winter semester, she worked with Leeper and Chad Bierdeman, another faculty member in the animation program, to hone her piece.
"That's basically what animation is," Buerkle said, "working together, figuring out what ideas you have and the best way to turn it into a movie."
In the future
Leeper's ultimate goal is to have a Bachelor of Fine Arts of Animation in the undergraduate bulletin by fall 2019, with the first class of four-year students graduating in spring 2021.
Though the animation classes are already popular, there is still work to be done. The next step in the process is getting the final curriculum approved by the Department of Art and Design.
Until then, students will continue to work, play and explore the different directions an animation education can take them.
"There are so many things going on in animation," Leeper said, "and so many different skill sets that are needed. Will you be a set designer? A character designer? That element of discovery is really important."