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A World of Digital Arts and Animation

Rachel Cooley '18
Rachel Cooley '18

Like a lot of students, I did not have a solid career plan when I graduated. My aim was to pursue a career in digital arts and animation. Unlike relatively clear-cut paths of medicine, finance, law, etc., the path toward a creative career is a bit indirect and unclear. I had a vague idea how to accomplish it, but in that moment in time, I was more concerned with completing the requirements for my majors and securing my degree. After that was done, I packed up my stuff and headed home to central New Jersey to figure it out.

Imaginative Inspiration

I have always had a deep admiration of animated cartoons. I appreciate the hard work and ultimate expression of creativity that makes them magic. I remember watching one of the first episodes of Spongebob Squarepants as a child in the early 2000s. My eyes were glued to our tube-TV screen while vying against my three siblings—with ready elbows and fists—for premium front row seats. The short episode was about the mundane and sometimes laborious task of acquiring a job, but was transformed into something new--something that was funny, exciting, and different—through the vessels of its characters and the world in which they lived. With a couple of sequential drawings, audio, and voice acting shaped by the artist’s imagination and unique vision, Spongebob and friends came to life. As a child and even now, that is remarkable to me.

My interest stayed dormant until my sophomore fall when I enrolled in “Introduction to Animation.” It was the first time this course was offered. Largely a traditionally-based artist in the 2D mediums of drawing and painting, it was the first time I was exposed to digital tools such as the Adobe Creative Suite programs and the basic principles of visual storytelling. Being exposed to the intellectual and artistic challenge of effectively telling a story via visual narrative was addicting to me. I wanted to learn as much as I could.

Unfortunately, that was where the “official” animation track stopped at Hamilton. Resources and courses available in the digital arts might have changed since I graduated in 2018, but at the time, there were no advanced classes in animation or clear track available to explore the discipline. Despite this setback, I forged my own unique path to develop and learn what I could within the confines of my available resources and limitations of my double concentration in art and biology. This path involved producing digital content for the Hamilton Annual Fund, self-instruction through books, YouTube, and purchased online courses, an interdisciplinary art course, an Emerson Grant from Hamilton exploring digital 2D animation, and my senior art project.

An Open Door

The Emerson Grant I pursued in the summer heading into my senior year was pivotal to the success of my senior art thesis. I created two animated shorts within that time and it provided a springboard to develop technical skills, learn new software, push through challenging artistic problems, and fully invest my attention to a single focus. With my summer preparation, I was ready for my year-long senior project, which culminated in the creation of a seven-minute animated short “Cordium.”

Though challenging and demanding, I loved creating those pieces and now I am energized and moved by transmitting experiences, feelings, stories through the medium. But in a much broader sense, I am also motivated because I believe art and stories can make a big difference in the world. I believe that any act of art—whether animation, dance, song or even a flawless auto body repair—is a true expression of someone’s inner life, and can be powerful and transformative. This power can be used to heal, inspire, and positively expand the collective consciousness of society.

With these experiences and a newly acquired Bachelor of Arts, I returned home after graduation. My plan was to go to graduate school for animation. Besides going to school for animation, there are other ways of making it in the industry, like working your way through the ranks of a studio from an entry-level position, learning the skills you need and building your portfolio as you go. But after much thought, I believed that a solid educational foundation in traditional animation, the professional reel/portfolio I would have, and the connections gained from attending school would help me tremendously and get  my foot in the door.

I did not choose to apply to school right away and sought to play the long game for several practical reasons. In the months after school, I dedicated myself to job searching, researching graduate schools, and creating art to strengthen my portfolio. In addition, I also contacted many local artists and animators in the tristate area to garner advice and tour their studios. Only a few did not respond, and most were happy to share their advice and encouragement, as well as critiques on my work. I discovered an overwhelming warmth of artists who wanted to share and offer the knowledge and experience they had within the industry.

Some of their advice included to keep making art and make your art as personal as possible. Every time you sit down at your desk, aim to always make your best work. Figure out ways to optimize your workflow and instill habits to increase your productivity. Share your art—at film festivals, conventions, crafts shows, etc. Have intention and goals to your portfolio pieces—don’t just make art for art’s sake, and lastly, be a good person. Not only is it internally rewarding to be a good person, but also, people generally like to help nice people. Always be gracious and kind.

During this time in the months after school, I also worked part-time at my mom’s office for some cash flow to purchase art supplies and began collaborating with a couple of Hamilton students on an animated show, which I am currently storyboarding (I had to push the stacked pages off my crowded desk to make room for my laptop to write this).

Moving Forward

After a summer of applying and interviewing, I landed a job as a content creator for an aftermarket automotive company that specializes in modifying vehicles for off-roading and overlanding use. In this position, I create content and manage the company’s social media pages. As I progressed in this role, I continued my research on schools and eventually applied to a number of MFA animation programs and a couple of interdisciplinary master’s programs in computer science and art. I have continued to produce art, enroll in online workshops (which has given me a great online community of artists to share my work and gather feedback), work on my collaborative animated show, and slowly grow my freelance business.

Currently, I have accepted my admission offer to Carnegie Mellon’s Master in Entertainment Technology program, which is a two-year professional graduate program for interactive entertainment applied across a variety of fields. The program was founded as a joint venture between Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science and the College of Fine Arts. The vision of the Entertainment Technology Center is to shape students into creative leaders who imagine and build exemplary experiences to entertain, educate, inform, and inspire. I am excited to learn and imagine new creative possibilities for myself within this program as well as prepare myself professionally.

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