WELCOME TO ROWLAND HIGH SCHOOL, WHERE ANIMATION AND THE AMIGA ARE JUST PART OF THE CURRICULUM
BEN AND JEAN MEANS
Rowland High School is not an impressive structure. There are no Doric columns; script, instead of ivy, cover these urban halls. But this seemingly average California public school houses one of the premier animation programs in the country. Here in Rowland Heights, just 40 miles east of Hollywood, high school students learn things beyond the grasp of most colleges: cel animation, claymation, model building, special visual effects, scoring, Foley, video editing, animatronics, and 2- and 3-D animation on the Amiga.
Year after year, Rowland High students win the top awards at national and international film festivals, even when competing on the college level. Once, judges disqualified a Rowland High student entry in a collegiate film festival. The judges said the film was obviously too high quality for a college student—the teacher must have done it. Animation teacher Dave Master hardly knew how to tell them that not only had his student done it all by himself, but he was a high school student to boot. Said Master, "If I had helped him, I would have just messed it up."
Competing head-to-head with colleges is nothing new for Master's students. In fact, Rowland won its first Amiga 2500 in a contest by tying UCLA and the Rhode Island College of Design for first place. Master says, "The judges liked the freshness of the films. Most college students unfortunately go through a period where they contemplate their navel, and the films start to look very similar because they're afraid not to look like they're thinking about all the major problems of the world.
"Our students aren't that sophisticated, so they deal with everything … the attack of the Hare Krishnas, the attack of the anchovies, revolting scary monsters, all kinds of crazy things. They're willing to try things out, plus they aren't smart enough to know that something is impossible, so they work on it 'til they make it possible. All these smart people realize what's impossible, and that's why they don't invent things. But you can't tell my students what can't be done; I've tried that. For 13 years, I've been trying to tell these students you can't do these things, but they keep doing them."
"A great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do."
— Walter Gagehot
The Amiga readily turns the impossible into the possible for Rowland High, and Master's program has grown from one 2500 to 13 Amigas in only one year. How did he manage this feat with a public school budget of $1,400 a year? He explains: "U-N-L-A-N-D—Rick Unland of Commodore. Either that or two of these computers got together one night and started producing 500s."
The studio also houses an array of IBM and Mac II computers, which sit glisteningly idle. Says Master, "The Amigas are definitely the most popular. Last year, we got 11 films done on the Amiga, but no other computer even got a film finished."
Getting the Amigas wasn't even Master's idea, he admits. "To be honest with you, the kids pushed me into it. They told me I was an old fogey and that I didn't understand this stuff. And they've proven the Amiga to me by doing all these great animations with it."
The students are the important ones here. "I'm a facilitator." says Master, "A lot of times, you can't teach something; you've got to just allow the kids to make it happen for them. The computers and video are what most kids want to create with. This is important. They're choosing the tool with the Amiga." On this particular day, 14-year-old Bert Klein polished a rough blue-line set of frames on his Amiga into a fully inked animation for use in a public service announcement for First Lady Barbara Bush's literacy campaign.
In this Amiga-produced spot, which will air nationally in November, a phosphor green bookworm pops up out of a book and describes the joys of reading to a real live boy while both 2-D computer and 3-D claymation characters pop out of the book to interact with him. Brian Master (Dave's son and student) comments: "Before Roger Rabbit, films mixed live action and 2-D animation with the camera locked down. Roger Rabbit added camera movement, but it was still only 2-D and live people. Our project combines 2-D Amiga graphics, 3-D claymation, and live people, all interacting at the same time with the camera moving. We talked to people in the industry, and they don't think anybody's done it before, so we're the first."
"I can only guess how I would have turned out if I'd had a high school like this. I took up metal shop, where I was making soup ladles with plaster casts. It's very hard to animate ladles."
— Mike Berro
Techno Wizard Mike Berro is hard at work installing the heart of Roland Height's new Amiga video edit bay: the AmiLink system from RGB Computer and Video, which will hook up their Amigas to videotape with SMPTE single-frame accuracy. The program formerly used Super 8 film for the animations, but when Kodak stopped producing Super 8 last summer, Master had only two choices: move up to 16mm or switch to video. "Sixteen-millimeter costs $800 to do one film, and I have 200 students. We do 90 films a year, so where am I going to get the money? Once you get the equipment for video, it costs six bucks. This Amiga system is going to look better than our Super 8 films, which we had to transfer to video anyway, so we lost a generation."
Master has four more AmiLink systems on order, and he says: "I like this system because it does the things we want it to do, and it's cheap. I remember a couple of years ago when Lyon Lamb systems that could only run a four-second test for you, couldn't edit or do sound, and couldn't be played back on anything but a Lyon Lamb cost $12,000. And it was only black-and-white. So when someone shows me a system like the AmiLink that's $16,000 (inlcuding the Amiga and VCRs), that can edit, that can lock sound to SMPTE time code, that can do stop-frame animation in full color, I think that's fairly reasonable."
"In most instances, the driving force behind the action is the mood, the personality, the attitude of the character—or all three."
— Walt Disney
Master recently took his class to Disney studios and found Rowland technology up to par with the industry leader. "They're using pretty much the same technology we're using here," says Master. "In fact my students felt that they were ahead because they didn't meet anybody at Disney that knew the whole animation process. Their people in charge of the computers knew what they did but couldn't tell you what happened after the art left their room. That was true of the animators, the writers, and of every single person we talked to."
Master makes his students learn the whole animation process. He says: "It pays to be well rounded because you never know what you're going to get into in this business. George Wong and John Ramirez both wanted to be animators, but now George does model-making and miniatures for Nightmare on Elm Street. And John just left for the Orient, where he's designing animatronics for theme parks in Malaysia, Japan, and Korea.
"They all knew how to do these things when they left here, but that wasn't the job they wanted. Like Mike Belzer, who wanted to work with Industrial Light and Magic and now does all the Pillsbury Doughboy commercials. The reason is that he heard every single other person who made a Pillsbury Doughboy commerical now works at Lucasfilm. Now they just hired him to head up the department. So it's going to be a little while before he moves on to Lucasfilm because he's got such a lucrative position."
"Sometimes I think Walt's greatest achievement was getting us to work together without killing each other."
— Marc Davis
These kids didn't start out at the top, says Master, "I've got kids who are gang members. I have to wean them off of plastic explosives before I can get them to ink paint. Scott Sirag just worked on Alligator 2. If someone asked him if he wanted to work up from Alligator 2 to a really good film, he'd probably say, 'I thought Alligator 2 was a really good film. The star of the film was a giant $300,000 animatronic lizard, what's better than that? Citizen Kane, huh? Nobody's head got chopped off? What kind of story is that?'
"If you look at it practically, there are more jobs in media in this town than almost anything else, including aerospace. What class prepares kids for more jobs than this class? I don't know of any.
"Mike Measimer is only 21 years old. He made $68,000 last year and just bought a house. Here's a kid who almost quit high school because he was supposed to be stupid. He worked on Critters 2, Gremlins 2, a whole bunch of horror films. That's his expertise. He makes really horrible creatures, and he's damn good at it."
"Artistry is only a footrace against yourself."
— Chuck Jones
Student Bert Klein seldom sleeps anymore since he discovered the Amiga, and Brian Master is quietly obsessed with the new AmiLink system. The crowded rooms bristle with energy as students learn the magic of animation. Says Master, "The process of animation is unlimited, and there are no boundaries. So right away you're starting off with a fantastic playground where nothing is impossible. You can do something that is going to totally blow other people away.
"My role is to present all the choices they have to make, which for good or bad is how the real world works. The students have unlimited freedom and potential, but now they've got real necessities that block the way—boundaries that are not set up by me, they just happen to be there, like gravity. I just tell them what their gravities are, and they decide whether they're going to invent something to get around them.
"That's what education is all about. That little kid who is sitting there and doesn't know a damn thing right now someday will rule the planet. I really think they have a lot of potential. These are great kids."
And the kids feel the same way about the Rowland High's animation program. Says animation student Bert Klein, "This is the best place in the world; it really is. It doesn't get any better than this."