Rhode Island School of Design
Risks at RISD
Emphasizing concept over technique, many RISD films end up with a lo-fi feel. They are intimate, flawed, exploratory and engaging. Even missteps are often more interesting than some of the highest quality movies from other animation schools. While it’s misleading to group RISD films into cookie-cutter categories, dark absurd comedies and free-wheeling experiments are common.
The road to a more absurd tone arguably began in the late 1990s. Films like space war (Christy Karacas, 1997), Mr Smile (Fran Krause, 1999), Under! (Jesse Schmal, 2000), and red things (Max Porter, 2003) have been well received at festivals. They influenced future RISD films such as Purple (Ryan Inès, 2015), talking cure (Felipe Di Poi, 2016), Toto’s Tusks (Mehr Chatterjee, 2015), The big share (Brent Sievers, 2014), the films of Masashi Yamamoto, and arguably the greatest tragicomedy of them all, Lesley the pony is having an A+ day! (Christian Larave, 2014).
Comedy aside, RISD has always created imaginative work that leans towards non-linear storytelling and abstraction. On the construction frame (Greg Buyalos, 1993), Made in the shade (Takeshi Murata, 1997), Next to (Sandra Gibson, 1999), 12 balls (Ara Peterson, 1997), little savage (Caleb Wood, 2010), Ripple (Conor Griffith, 2015), Toro (Lynn Kim, 2014), Doxology (Michael Langan, 2007), and Most beautiful endless shapes (Meredith Binnette, 2020) all demonstrate a longstanding desire to encourage students to take risks with their work.
It’s a logical approach that too few schools seem brave enough to take. For many students, this might be their only opportunity to create their work unhindered by outside pressures. Education doesn’t come cheap, so artists are encouraged to let out what’s already inside them, rather than wasting time trying to impress someone else?
Overall, what separates RISD films from many schools of animation is a sense of playfulness and curiosity, an almost naive willingness to explore and experiment with styles, tones, techniques. Yet it never feels like RISD students adopt techniques and tones just for fun.
Each film has its own unique and authentic identity. In some cases, it’s an attempt to locate that identity or that voice and let it out, to let the world know: hey, it’s me (or a piece of me), warts and all.
Build a program
The RISD animation program is part of the Film/Animation/Video (FAV) department, which falls under the School’s Fine Arts tutelage. FAV currently has seven full-time teachers and approximately 21 part-time instructors who teach between one and four courses. The department has approximately 130 students enrolled over the three years.
“The number of seniors who specifically chose the Animation Diploma Project class — essentially a thesis class — is 22,” award-winning animation filmmaker Amy Kravitz told Cartoon Brew. But she says the number can be a little misleading, as “some students are doing animated installations and non-screen-based animation work in the Open Media – mostly video – area of our department, working between professors from animation and teachers from other areas of our program.
The roots of the animation program were planted in the early 1970s. The first animated films were made by students from other departments, including Candy Kugel and Karen Aqua. The program was not officially launched until the late 1970s, when Yvonne Andersen began teaching animation classes.
Andersen was, without a doubt, the main architect of the RISD animation program. As Kravitz, Steve Subotnick and Agnieska Woznicka wrote in a 2016 article for the Melbourne Animation Festival, “Adapted to finding simple solutions to complex problems, she believed in academic decisions by a democratic regime, and she always doing whatever needed to be done – whether it was cleaning up trash, fixing a camera, or writing reports, she was able to harness the creative and divergent energies of the FAV faculty into a powerful department.
Around 1980 Andersen invited Kravitz to teach a class and she is still an integral part of RISD animation to this day. Kravitz had been a filmmaker since he was 11 years old. “I was in a summer program in Newton, MA. Yvonne taught this program. I liked it so much that I started taking lessons at Yellow Ball Workshop [an animation workshop for children co-created by Andersen], who was in Lexington, Massachusetts. I started helping out in classes when I was 14 at both places.
The third part of RISD’s animation directing triumvirate came in the late 1980s. Acclaimed animator Steve Subotnick met (and later married) Kravitz while studying at Calarts. Later, he started teaching at RISD. “I started as an administrator managing their computers,” says Subotnick. “Then I started teaching part-time at RISD and the [School of the Museum of Fine Arts] In Boston.”
A deep artistic vocabulary
The RISD undergraduate program lasts four years. “There are graduate programs,” Kravitz explains, “but not for animation. So a student studying animation at RISD will spend the first preparatory year and then spend three years in the FAV department. students from all over the university take animation courses, sometimes even the animation thesis course.
Where RISD Animation sets itself apart from other animation schools is in its encouragement of multidisciplinary study and the compulsory first-year foundation year. “No matter what you study, everyone starts with the first year of foundation, all taking the same courses in drawing and design,” explains Subotnick. “You don’t enter a department until the second year. You are obliged to take whoever wants to enter the department. The students choose.
Due to this preparatory year, students enroll in RISD, not FAV. They submit a portfolio of their own work, essays and self-chosen visual solutions for assignments that vary each year.
“RISD also has liberal arts requirements,” says Kravitz. “The Admissions Committee reviews high school grade point averages. The admissions committee is formed not only by admissions officers, but also by various faculty members from across the college. The committee examines many things more and more important than technical skills [such as] original and creative approaches to problems, risk-taking, curiosity, genuine energetic interests, and thoughtful and original visual development. Simply put, the committee is looking for unique voices.
Once in the animation program, students should study live-action filmmaking, video-making, and animation. “When students explore animation, they have a deep artistic vocabulary to work with — their thinking isn’t insular,” says Kravitz. “Animation itself is a relatively small set of courses. However, students bring to it inventive and energetic thinking and rich skills, thus achieving excellent results. The classroom is an active laboratory and failure is seen as a necessary part of a successful journey.
The student’s voice is essential to the success of the program. “We try to have as little influence as possible,” adds Subotnick. “We try to encourage experimentation and the idea that each of them has a unique voice.” Subotnick thinks the freshman foundation is a key part of that process. “It’s a rigorous program, an artistic boot camp for their minds. It gets them thinking about what they can do in new ways. They come up with an idea of themselves, and by the end of the first year, they’ve given it up and opened their minds to all sorts of possibilities.
Pictured above: “Mr. Smile”