New Class Brings Pixar Animator to Day School

By Josh Richman

Published June 02, 2006, issue of June 02, 2006.

California resident Josh Fried furrowed his brow and then laughed as the figure on his computer screen stood up from a bench, leaving his head behind.

“Uh, Josh, the guy’s not parented,” said Sam Seder of Berkeley, Calif., his project partner.

Fried, of Oakland, reattached head to torso with a few deft clicks of a mouse; the figure then glided whole toward an apple hanging from a nearby tree.

Fried and Seder were using Softimage XSI, state-of-the-art 3D animation software with which one should be familiar when seeking jobs at industry giants like Pixar Inc. in nearby Emeryville.

But Fried and Seder are not likely to have to worry about jobs for a while: The two are 11-year-old Oakland Hebrew Day School sixth graders.

They’re among 18 fifth through eighth graders in the school’s inaugural computer animation class, a weekly after-school effort led by computer teacher Rich Klein and Galyn Susman, associate producer at — yep — Pixar. Credited in such box-office smashes as “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters, Inc.,” Susman, 41, volunteered to lead the class after watching her kids and others use computers.

“They were basically just playing games, and that’s frustrating because there’s so much more they can do,” said Susman, who has been with Pixar for 16 years and was at Apple before that. Her son, Jake, is in the class.

Animation hones observational skills, she said: how and why things move, the lines and colors and textures defining appearance, and so on. Art, math and science merge.

“It’s a practical application of geometry, and they don’t even know they’re learning about geometry,” Susman said.

Students began by animating a bouncing ball, and then moved on to produce 20-to-30-second clips. Along with their families, they will view their work in a Pixar screening room June 8, the eve of the opening of Pixar’s new film, “Cars.”

“It’s pushing me to my limits,” said Klein, 39. “I used to do educational software development, but this is far beyond what I did.”

The teachers plan to expand the class to a full year — half the year spent learning the principles, the other half producing clips.

“It took us, like, a month just to learn how to use the program,” Seder said, rolling his eyes at a screen console that would make most adults quiver in fear.

Klein said that his students “picked it up a lot quicker than most adults would,” as “digital natives” raised on RAM and on gigahertz rather than as “digital immigrants” raised on paper, scissors and paste. “It also really makes us appreciate what goes into the animated feature films.”

That is, hours of work for each frame of film. High tech as it is, animation remains painstaking work.

“I like to run around and stuff, so animation all day would be tough for me,” Seder said. “I could do it three or four times a week… but not all week, all day.”



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