Monday, March 2, 2009

Thesis Films, Advisors, and Students...Oh My!

(Note: Image above from Chris Conforti's award-winning SVA thesis film, "Frog.")

The thesis film is an important thing. It is supposed to be the summation of a student's total animation education. Ideally, it also aides the student in discovering what it is they may wish to do in this industry. Its hard for anyone, student or pro, to make a really good animated film, so a student film's first objective should be to show effort. A lazy or sloppy student film suggests that the student might make a lazy or sloppy employee.

The big fear of this year's SVA thesis students seems to be on the content/subject of their films. Some of them are worried that their films may not be effective commercial samples after graduation. In truth, no one film can be all things to all people. An edgy and violent film won't assist you in landing a job on a preschool series, but, it might be just the thing you need to work on an Adult Swim series. Students have to simply make the films they choose to make. Super Jail co-creator Christy Karacas advises that students make films that reflect what they might want to be paid to work on. Playing to your interests seems like good advice to me and that might ensure that you make a film that is personal to you.

As a teacher at SVA since 2003, I've served as a thesis advisor four times. I am a very strict advisor. I only take one student a year, if any, and I try to only select students who's films match my own areas of interest and expertise. Two of my four students were fantastic. They were ready and excited to work hard. I helped them manage their deadlines and guided them through the creative process, and hopefully didn't get in the way of the films they sought to make.

After speaking to other thesis advisors, I can say that our bad experiences have a lot in common. All included students that did not, could not, or would not put in the time needed to make a thesis film. It is quite baffling, and no amount of patience, encouragement, inspiration, time, and advice from their advisors could change this. For an advisor, this can be very, very frustrating. One student actually broke contact with their advisor after the advisor confronted them with the reality of the situation. There was only six weeks left till deadline and the student was months behind schedule. After the meeting, weeks went by and the student would not answer the advisor's calls or e-mails. Finally, a meeting was set up with the SVA thesis department, and that seemed to do the trick. The student finally spoke to their advisor on the phone. "You didn't believe in me," was his explanation for the radio silence. Months after he graduated, the student visited their former advisor and apologized, adding, "You were right, and I was wrong."

"The advisor replied, "I didn't want to be right. I just wanted you to listen, understand, and have a shot at finishing your film."

Not surprisingly, the film was never finished and the student, who happened to be a nice and talented fellow, didn't work in the industry after graduation.

I think many animation students are shocked by how much work it takes to make a film. Once they are confronted with that reality, they have the choice of putting in the work or not. No advisor or best thesis program in the world can turn around a student that has decided not to put in the work.

Some students have a creative way of letting themselves off the hook.

Someone else's thesis student once remarked to me, "My advisor gave me a lot of notes, which I followed, but now I am not as into making the film as I was originally."

I asked, "So, what does this mean?"

The student replied, "I'm not working on it that much."

I explained to the student: "What do you want people to think when they see your film at the student screening at the end of the year? Are they to assume, 'Oh, I guess he wasn't into making that film because of changes that his advisor suggested.' Or, will they just see another student film where the student didn't put in the time required to make a good film. And, what will potential employers think after that? Who loses when a student doesn't do the work they ought to?

**on a side note: wanna check out a whole evening of animated student films? Join us for the ASIFA-East jury screening on March 10. For details visit


Michael Sporn said...

You had one of the best student thesis films that I've ever seen. It featured a story (which I don't completely remember) that had all of the characters riding piggyback on other characters. This forced you to do a lot of walk cycles, and they were all funny. Just as an animation exercise it couldn't have been better; you also built this all around a funny story.
Too bad student screenings I attend don't feature more films like yours. It showed a creative story as well as some solid character animation.

You showed that you had thought about the walk cycle and had done some work to get them to move well.

Elliot Cowan said...

Mate - I have some questions.
When I studied animation in Oz, it was only available as a one year post graduate course.
(This may have changed by now).
I studied at VCA which was considered at the time to offer the best animation class around.
First semester we did a bunch of animation exercises followed by a one minute film.
Second semester was concerned with making a 5 to 7 minute film.
We had 3 instructors who acted as producers who there there to guide and occasionally hinder the making of your film.

I'm not quite sure I understand the mechanics of the thesis film here in the US.
Are students left to their own devices to come up with a film?
If so, do they work on site?
Do they do classes during the production of the film?
If a professor/lecturer is advising only one student per film, who advises the others?
Etc etc.

I am very curious about this.
Schooling of all kinds appears to be incredibly different here.

David B. Levy said...

Thanks for the kind words, Michael. I worked on that film 60+ hours a week that whole year. It was a struggle and its certainly not a perfect film. But, I do think that when somebody puts in the effort it can go a long way to overcoming any limitations in a film.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Elliot,
The thesis film tends to be the graduation requirement for US animation schools. Usually in thesis (or senior year) the student has little to no classes other than the thesis responsibility.

At SVA, each advisor may have up to 5 students, but I have always limited myself to 1, if any. Otherwise, I don't think I could give the students the attention they need and deserve.

At US animation schools, the thesis film is usually anything the student wishes to make, although their may be recommended guidelines as to length, etc. I know that some great schools in France require students to pitch ideas, with only some students chosen to make films and the rest of the students enlisted to be crew. Some amazing films come out of that system.

Emmett said...

I was stunned to see so many people at Pratt who failed to put in the time to finish their films. Andy London was my thesis advisor, and every meeting with him included words about how hard and painstaking it was to make a short film. Always the immediate truth. Still, some great films came out in my opinion, and it was an honor to be a part of that group.

And I should think most former students have unease about their thesis. Because it was practically done on their own, there is always that lack of objective near the end, and you are not sure what kind of film you have on your hands. You could try perfecting it, but right there, you run the risk of not being able to finish it.

roconnor said...

I have a VHS somewhere of some of Mo Willems student work -great.

It's interesting to see how good student work evolves into an exceptional professional voice.

On the hand, there are some terrific films that just float away and we never hear from their creators again.

Elliot Cowan said...

"On the hand, there are some terrific films that just float away and we never hear from their creators again."

I studied for a year with a chap who had an incredibly, otherwordly aptitude for sand on glass.
He made an wonderful 1 minute piece then had a melt down mid year, left the class and was never heard of again.

stephen said...

i worry that I will never again have as much fun as I did senior year, working on my stupid thesis film. So much learned, so much still to improve. I wish I could do it again and again.

justsim said...

It can be very frustrating as a teacher when a student just doesn't do what is expected of them. I also teach, and last semester I had a number of students who never handed in their final assignments, and subsequently received a failing grade for the class. On the other hand, I did have one student who did a great job on their 1 min film, then spent the next 2 months after class was done to expand it into a 3 min short which he is going to enter in the ASIFA festival this year. It's those ambitious students who making teaching worth while and in my opinion are the ones I would bet on making it into the industry.

Chris said...

Interesting post, Dave!
Like Elliot, I went to a school that didn't do the full thesis year like SVA.
It was a 2 year program at the art institute of philadelphia with 3 month quarters instead of semesters.
Instead of a thesis class, there was a course called 'animation production' with the whole class working together on a single film.
The instuctors plan was to have the class brainstorm on a project that would be directed by him.
Fortunately, my friend had a story idea and 3 of us got permission to split off and do our own thing.
The class spent the first 5 classes brainstorming and finally started working on segments that were only loosely related in story and style. When we would go to class to check in, our teacher seemed frustrated that we had finished boarding and design and were already animating.
We spent 3 months at my friends apt working through the night and ended up spending two weekends at mtv using the ink and paint computers
(one of us was an intern and snuck the other two in on friday nights).
In the end, they never finished their film and we turned out a decent 4 minute short that helped us all get work after graduation.
The whole experience was amazing fun and I wouldn't trade it...
but I bet having a dedicated advisor who wants you to succeed is pretty awesome too.

David B. Levy said...

Hey All,

Interesting comments.. I'm never too shocked about the large number of students that don't continue to make films after their thesis.. maybe because to these students doing a film would be like doing homework again. A pity, because there are people I'd really want to see another film from.

Richard, good call on the Mo Willems student work. His student films are just fantastic. I think I've seen them all.

Justin, I very much agree that the students that put the time in are definitely the ones to bet on for making it in this career.

Emmett and Stephen, thanks for weighing in. You are the most recent grads commenting here and your perspective is very welcome. And, I've admired your films!

Chris, I am always wary of most such group projects. I think that kind of thing can go wrong very quickly unless properly managed. More often it represents a loose teacher making it easy for themselves and short changing the students.

Mark Mayerson said...

David, thanks for posting your experiences. Things are about the same at Sheridan. I've currently got 11 senior students working on films. I expect that 7 of them will complete. The other 4 are a mystery to me because I don't see the students despite regular hours of availability.

I've told my students before they hit senior year that an unfinished senior film is like walking into a job interview wearing a T-shirt that says "Can't hit deadlines." If they don't understand the importance of that statement, I tell them to think about being in a singles bar wearing a T-shirt that says "Lousy in bed." Neither of those T-shirts is going to produce the desired result.

I think that it's a maturity issue. Some students automatically rebel against authority figures who try and steer them. I tell my students that if I'm concerned, it's for their futures, not for any teacher reasons. Some get it, some just flounder, avoiding me rather than allowing me to help them.

Some birds fly; some don't.

Nelson Diaz said...

Great post Dave!

The year spent on my thesis film was probably the most focused I've put into one project for that long. It was a blast. It was hard sure...but totally worth it.

Now that I've been working in the industry for a while finding the time to work on personal projects is a challenge.

I agree with mark about it being a question of maturity.

One thing that has always stuck with me is why some of my friends who went to SVA decided to leave animation or art altogether.

More often than not, it was because while they loved animation they never became comfortable with the amount of work it took to learn how to animate or make a film.

Kat said...

Great topic!

My graduating class had a ratio similar to what Mark mentioned above.

A number of my classmates had no idea of the amount of work needed to complete a film, because up until that point, they managed to skate by doing only the minimum. They were the ones who latched on to group projects and contributed very little. They repeatedly handed in mediocre assignments and often turned them in late. These were the warning signs.

Some students realized that they didn't really want to work in the industry, but just wanted to finish school and get a degree. For others, the individual responsibility and work ethic required to produce a senior thesis still came as a shock. As a teacher, should you address students when they display the warning signs (before senior year)? If so, how? It's such a delicate matter.

Out of my class of 16, 3 barely finished and 2 didn't make it. Today (3 years later), 6 of us are working in the industry.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Kat,
On your comment:
"As a teacher, should you address students when they display the warning signs (before senior year)? If so, how? It's such a delicate matter."

I have thought about this myself. Certainly their are teachers that try to get these messages across to students in those early years, but, students that are not ready to listen just brush it off.

Since I teach the career class to animation seniors at SVA, I can report a never-ending stream of students that express, "Gee, I wish this subject could have been taught to me in freshman year. I would have taken animation much more seriously."

To that I always respond: Why did you need someone to tell you to take your choice of life's work seriously? And, why would you spend all this money on school, and NOT take it seriously?

The truth is that there are a lot of immature students that don't even begin to understand how they self-sabotage themselves daily. In their actions they are saying, "I don't want a shot at this career. Count me out." The sooner they admit this to themselves, the sooner they can get on with their lives.

Unknown said...

Great discussion! I was baffled at school that some people didn't put everything they had into their student films.

Thesis year was the greatest school experience of my life - though i had a wonderful, compassionate and experienced filmmaker as a teacher so I am somewhat biased! *cough*

My second film is underway (after two years of not film-making and learning things in the industry). I think that some people may, like me, delay their second film because they are waiting for the right story idea and/or their skills to progress to a point where they feel confident they can tackle the story to the fullest.

Kat said...


"Why did you need someone to tell you to take your choice of life's work seriously? And, why would you spend all this money on school, and NOT take it seriously?"

You're absolutely right. As a student I was baffled by others that seemed oblivious to the amount of (usually their parents') money that they were wasting. On flip side, students who's tuition payment was based on scholarships or personal paychecks and loans were generally very dedicated. The direct link to their wallet caused them to be cognizant and prudent to learn the most from the experience.

Creating my senior thesis was both a joy and a struggle. For a while I was hung up on choosing a story that seemed worthy of dedicating that much time to. Thankfully, I found it and the rest of the process, though long, was very fulfilling.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Adam,

You wrote:
"...some people may, like me, delay their second film because they are waiting for the right story idea and/or their skills to progress to a point where they feel confident they can tackle the story to the fullest."

I followed the same plan myself. I started my first indie film, Snow Business" two years after graduating and it was the product of what I had learned to date.

I do want to give a gentle warning, however.. there is no way to ever say that we are ready to tackle our projects to the fullest. In reality, we continue to develop and learn year after year. So, jump in with the understanding that whatever you do is simply a record of where you are at that time.

Mike Rauch said...

Dave, that last comment is spot on. In fact, I'm of the opinion that you should approach each new film (or job, or any other life experience) with the mindset that you are NOT fully prepared. If you were, what would you learn in the process?

Approaching things thinking that you have past experience that will give you all the answers is likely to lead you down the path to old ways of doing things that may not be the most effective. In other words, each new project demands it's own unique solutions. That means there is no way to be fully prepared if you're going to do things right.

The idea (or excuse) that you're going start that project you really care about, "As soon as I (fill in the blank)," is what keeps so many projects from ever getting off the ground. You just start somewhere and figure it out as you go along.

tomatojones said...

Okay, enough failure. Anyone have any feel-good underdog stories about students with troublesome thesis projects who eventually got their ducks in a row? Against all odds, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

If there's one thing that my thesis year taught me, it was that not everyone is a filmmaker. Many people who graduated in 2008 realized how difficult and strenuous it was to create a film. For some people -- it meant a complete change in career choices (or hopeful career choices).

My experience, however, was a the opposite. Although incredibly stressful (And yes, sometimes agonizing), animating my thesis film made me want to do with more as a filmmaker and do more FOR the animation community. I felt like I became a stronger and more whole person upon the completion of my film.

About 2 to 3 weeks before the official due date, my mother was in critical condition at Brookdale Hospital. This left me with a major predicament. Either I catered to my mother or I finished my film. Problem was....there wasn't much I could do with my mother in CCU -- it was in God's hands. With that situation happening, I felt like it was my MAJOR and PERSONAL goal to complete my film for her. Before those events occurred, I hadn't fully appreciated and embraced the massive amounts of work I put into my film. When my mother came out of her coma, I took a few steps back and realized all that I had done that year. Granted, my film wasn't the BEST looking in the world, but I learned SO much from the process and it made me a stronger individual. I forced myself to finish that film and I am SO glad that I did. The whole process of making that film only made me want to create MORE!

The cool thing about making a thesis film is that (although personal), it IS just a student film. Not a student film for kicks or to throw around, but a stepping stone -- something to look back at and learn from. Now I know what and what not to do with the next film I'm working on now. For example, gaining more insight from other artists is something that I have and will continue to do.

By the way, when are you going to post your thesis film? Judging by the screen shots in your book, it seems like a pretty neat film. :)
What can you say YOU learned from THAT process, David?

Joseph said...

It doesn't surprise me at all that some students have trouble finishing their films. When I went to undergrad for fine art our four years of study were expected to produce a "senior show" of our best work.

Years later I went to SVA to learn animation. I studied with people of all ages from early 20's to 40 year old students. Many of them did not have the tenacity to finish projects given weekly or even for the semester. I believe students must see some personal growth in their work and not everyone is capable that.

It's was sad, but many artists with whom I graduated never went on to work in the industry. Some had real talent.

I'm sure many of us would love to see your student film. You should post it.

David B. Levy said...


I don't think we are meaning to come across negative... but, we are trying to be realistic. I do know if some thesis students that pulled it together after being counted out. But, those are kind of dubious tales to be telling. What message would that send? It might encourage more students to freefall in hopes that they could pull it together at the end. We are all pleasantly surprised when that happens, but, I don't think its a responsible plan for all students.

But, in answer to your question, the all-time greatest last-ditch thesis film story is Marv Newland's Bambi Meets Godzilla. He was a film student and when his live action thesis film went sour he found himself in need of turning something in with only a week or so of time left. He rallied by coming up with Bambi Meets Godzilla and turned that in as a replacement thesis. The plucky little film has gone on to earn over $100,000. Its the most successful indie animated short of all time.

Unknown said...

I completely agree, with your response to my statement - in fact it is exactly what i meant to say! I guess i should have had a disclaimer that i am not a wordsmith :).

The Ivanator said...

For someone who is not in the art school and trying to pursue the career in animation, how does one get the feedback and direction from mentors for one "group" project?

I guess that's the benefit of going to schools.

The Ivanator said...

For someone who is not in the art school and trying to pursue the career in animation, how does one get the feedback and direction from mentors for one "group" project?

I guess that's the benefit of going to schools.

The Ivanator said...

For someone who is not in the art school and trying to pursue the career in animation, how does one get the feedback and direction from mentors for one "group" project?

I guess that's the benefit of going to schools.

Mike Rauch said...

"The big fear of this year's SVA thesis students seems to be on the content/subject of their films. Some of them are worried that their films may not be effective commercial samples after graduation."

It seems to me that the content/subject while important, shouldn't be their first concern. Certainly I would love to see a student film that had it all-- great story, great animation, high production values. But after watching a lot of student films last night at the ASIFA-East jury screening, it seems like students should be most worried about the (often sadly lacking) quality of craft-- basics like line, form color, composition, etc. Seems like people are using the computer as a crutch and half-assing it to the finish line thinking the computer will do the heavy lifting. If somebody had the basics down, I'm not sure it would matter to me whether they had a thesis film that was adult or preschool oriented.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Mike,

I totally agree that some students use the computer as a crutch, but, as someone who has been attending these jury screenings since 1995, I can tell you that there was the same percentage of bad work back then... and that was when animation was usually shot on film. Now, there are MORE student films but the percentage of bad work has remained relative within these numbers.

Others may disagree with me, but this is how I have observed it.