Sheridan College animation students Maxwell Racz (left) and Ksenija Pluto work on their stop-motion animations at their internship this past summer at Toronto’s Cuppa Coffee Studios.

Sheridan College animation students Maxwell Racz (left) and Ksenija Pluto work on their stop-motion animations at their internship this past summer at Toronto’s Cuppa Coffee Studios.

They are sought after the world over — they are graduates of Sheridan College’s animation program.
They end up working in studios producing major motion pictures, cartoons for Saturday morning television, late night programming, video games for the most current consoles and computers, in commercials and more.

After 40 years of producing animators ready to take on the challenging and constantly-changing industry, it’s hard to argue with Sheridan’s track record.

And certainly, none of the biggest players in the industry do.

“Talk about Sheridan in Oakville, Canada, who would have thought. How does that happen?” asked Marilyn Friedman, head of outreach for DreamWorks Studios, one of the largest players in the animation world.

“Somehow there was critical mass over the years that ended up at that school and I’m sure it’s a combination of, historically, the faculty, and the fact that Toronto’s so close and there’s a strong animation community in Toronto. You have a lot of influx from the industry coming through the school.”

DreamWorks is just one of many places Sheridan animation graduates end up in when they finish school.

Others include Walt Disney Pictures and its subsidiary, Pixar Animation Studios.

In the world of video games, Sheridan graduates end up with such key game makers as Electronic Arts, Microsoft Games Studio, Blizzard and Ubisoft among others.

And this doesn’t even include any of the smaller players in the animation industry where former students of the Oakville college can make a big splash in the industry.

“There has never been a production (at Cuppa Coffee) that hasn’t, in some way, shape or form, tapped into Sheridan talent,” said Adam Shaheen, who founded the Toronto-based stop-motion studio in 1992.

Shaheen said there are numerous reasons why the Oakville program is so successful.

“What makes them so special is that it’s a very intensive course,” he said. “They have some good professionals who teach the stuff and where else do you go? It’s definitely filling a niche of kids who are now from a very much gaming background who are interested in that sort of field. I can only see that school growing in size, not shrinking. It’s uniquely placed for Toronto, there are tons of production here. It’s a good thing they’re here.”

Friedman, of DreamWorks, agreed with those sentiments and said the school has produced many excellent character animators over the years, many of whom DreamWorks now employs.

She said DreamWorks currently employs more than 40 Sheridan graduates, most of whom are working as animators. The company has 2,300 employees.

A number of those Sheridan graduates have risen in the ranks of the animation studio. Among them is David Soren who is currently directing the studio’s upcoming feature film, titled Turbo , scheduled for release in theatres in 2014.

Additionally, key creators on the recently-released Madagascar 3 included former Sheridan animation students Robert Koo, who was head of story, and Rex Grignon, head of character animation.

“Your people are everywhere. They’re not just at DreamWorks. They’re all over the industry,” Friedman said. “It’s really amazing. It’s like a little gym, like a centre of excellence or something. I cannot explain it.”

DreamWorks has been hiring Sheridan grads since it formed 17 years ago, but its subsidiary company, Pacific Data Images, was hiring Sheridan alumni before that.

Part of the work Friedman’s department at DreamWorks does is to ensure the new hires are ready for the work they will be facing.

“(Sheridan graduates) absolutely are ready as much as they can be coming out of school, but walking into a studio like DreamWorks is daunting,” she said.

“It’s a lot of pressure right out of school. We try to cushion it and make them understand how to behave, we give them extra supports for their first six months and then they really are ready.”

For the first six months at DreamWorks, the studio provides what it calls onboarding for each new employee. This means the new staffers are supervised more closely and meet with supervisors regularly to ensure they are learning the craft and how they can improve.

“We work with about 50 schools and we know, generally speaking, the kind of individual that’s coming out of Sheridan, coming out of CalArts, coming out of Texas A&M. We know the curriculum so well, we know many of the faculty, we kind-of know what we’re getting in an individual coming out of a certain program. So when they hit the ground with us, we know what they don’t have. We’re already augmenting that so they’re set up to succeed at our studio,” Friedman said.

And DreamWorks helps grads prepare even before they get hired.

The studio has representatives on Sheridan animation’s program advisory committee (PAC) and at least twice a year, its representatives meet with Sheridan faculty to discuss ways to improve the program. Friedman has been doing the visits personally for about 15 years.

Maintaining a relationship between the school and the production company is important, Friedman said.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” she said. “It keeps us supporting the school. The school is developing the right kind of talent and not just for us, but for the industry. The whole industry needs these programs, and not just Sheridan.”

Supporting the school is something the Toronto-based Cuppa Coffee Studio is familiar with. The company, which is recognized as the largest stop-motion production studio in the world specializing in TV production, sponsored to construct a stop-motion studio right at Sheridan College.

Stop-motion, Shaheen said, has been largely ignored by schools; however, it is still a popular form of entertainment.

“Stop-motion goes back to the turn of the century – the 1900s – so it has a long tradition,” he said. “There are plenty of stop-motion shows, even relatable shows like puppet shows. Those kind of things, to me, are popular still and warrant having instruction.”

So when Sheridan approached Cuppa Coffee approximately seven years ago to see if the studio would get involved in the program, Shaheen decided to become a contributor.

“Rather than donate a cheque, that’s when I suggested, ‘How about we build a little studio? Do you have space?’”

Additionally, he asked the school to add stop-motion courses into the program.

“They embraced that. We sponsored the studio and we donated equipment and since that time we’ve had students arrive here from the stop-motion perspective,” he said.

Shaheen added its still difficult to find workers right out of school who are ready to work at a stop-motion studio, but it was even tougher before his studio made the contribution to Sheridan.

But there are also many other aspects to animation beside cartooning or animating. When people enter his studio, they can become animators, designers, or work in the production side.

“Some people don’t really want to animate. They love design and want to be background artists or character designers,” he said.

“All those things are invaluable skills that are not just about animation. The wonderful thing about animation is that there are a million things in the animation field that you can do that is not necessarily about drawing or animating.”

So, when an animator enters Cuppa Studio, he or she receives training and can end up working at a variety of areas on a production, such as doing junior level work on the puppetry side or drawing 2D backgrounds or something completely different.

However, thanks to Sheridan’s programming addition in the last few years, he said students of the animation program are better prepared than most to enter stop-motion studios.

At Cuppa Coffee they also receive additional on-the-job training.

Having made that partnership between Cuppa Coffee and Sheridan is a plus for the entire industry, Shaheen said, not just for his own studio, as it helps prepare more people for the workforce.

“It’s a win-win because Sheridan wants to find placements at good studios. I think it’s good for their resume,” he said.

“And I need places to start prepping people to come into the workplace and be not just stop-motion animators, but 2D animators and designers and the million and one things that go into it.”

Dominik Kurek can be reached at dkurek@oakvillebeaver.com or followed on Twitter .