A mere five years old, the Game Art program at Laguna College of Art & Design may be young but it’s already established deep industry roots that feed its students and cultivate its approach. Required coursework in foundational, multi-disciplinary studies include figure drawing, anatomy, the liberal arts and more. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the program seeks to create generalists. The curriculum is designed instead to develop artists with marketable skills and a solid foundation to move the game industry forward. So far, it’s working with an enviably high graduate job placement rating and recent alumni in every major studio that you can think of.
To get the inside scoop, we spoke with the program’s founder and chair Sandy Appleoff. Devoted as much to her students and the program she’s helped to foster as to her own art, Appleoff’s excitement about the Game Art department is contagious. Perhaps it’s something about the sun and surf of Laguna Beach or the tight knit artistic community that LCAD has nurtured throughout its fifty year history that draws students from near and far. Whatever the reason, this is one game art program you don’t want to miss. (This interview, done via phone, has been edited for length & clarity).
ACR: Sandy, you founded the Game Art major at Laguna College of Art & Design. How did you pull it all together?
Sandy Appleoff: About five years ago, I put together a council of industry leaders in the SoCal area for our initial advisory board. Since then, we usually have five lead creative directors that help us custom tailor what we teach so that it aligns with the pipelines that studios are using now and into the future. We’ve had people on our board from Blizzard Entertainment to Sony and Carbine Studios. Our faculty meets twice a year with them to dovetail and finesse skillsets within our courses to meet what the industry tells us they need.
The Game Art major started with just five students, five years ago. We’re now at 120 students! LCAD only has about 468 students total, so we’re a large and growing component here which is amazing and terrific.
ACR: What do you attribute to the program’s rapid rise?
SA: I have a lot of people to thank who have helped to get the word out about our program, support us and help to move us forward. We are a hidden jewel in many ways… we’re a small school yet each year our department has been doubling in size! LCAD draws a high level of artists to begin with because of our rigid portfolio requirements, but I had never imagined we would become what we have so quickly with the talent that we have, as well.
ACR: You mentioned the stiff admission requirements at LCAD. Is it equally as challenging to be accepted into the Game Art major?
SA: We run an advancement review within the major. By sophomore year, students go through that review process to determine if they really have what it takes to be successful here and in their careers. We aren’t here to take their money… we really work to make it a win/win so that they have the skills they need to succeed.
ACR: What are some unique elements of the program that have been drawing so many students to it?
SA: We definitely stand on our representational art foundation. All students here go through the same classical art classes. Then, within our department every student must learn concept but a key to our success is that they can then focus on concept, character or environment. We aren’t creating generalists but rather a new breed of artists who will be functional throughout their careers.
We do some really exciting things, as well. Last year, we participated in USC Games’ Demo Day and it was a great success. So much so that this year, they are coming to us to get artists before they even pitch to elimination rounds (just to get into demo day). For our students, that’s great exposure right there for potential jobs. We’re also doing an educational game with NorCo College which is equally as exciting.
ACR: A career in the game industry hinges on your creative and critical problem solving skills, doesn’t it?
SA: You’ve hit my foremost attribute that you have to have to make it. Problem solving is taught in every class here. I always say the three elements that make a good class are practice, process and product! Whether the class is focused on team participation or assignments that teach process or give them a product, students’ problem-solving skills are always at the forefront. We also do workshops that are almost completely dedicated to problem-solving (development).
ACR: Women have always been a minority within the game industry. As an educator, do you see this changing- are more young women electing this major?
SA: Over half of our students are women! I think there are several reasons for this, and certainly LCAD being such a special environment is one of them. Students challenge each other in class, and it’s small and intimate. So everyone works together and helps each other to build upon their strengths. I think our girls lose any intimidation they might have had because of that. 12 graduates this year are girls and they’re going to do great stuff because they’re already doing great things.
Anessa Silzer is a graduate of our program and now works at Blizzard as an environment artist on Diablo III. Nicole Tan is with Crystal Dynamics as a 3D texture lead on TombRaider and she’ll be speaking at PAX this year. I’m really proud of my girls!
ACR: Given the very few years you’ve had graduates of the program, you have a quite a list of working alumni. Where have they gone?
SA: So many places! Our graduate placement rating is around 94% which we are so proud of. Wes Martin is now at Microsoft, Javier Lazo is at EA working on The Sims, Kyle Smotherman is on God of War: Ascension at Sony. Kevin Duong is working on the soon to be released Deadpool from High Moon Studios. The list goes on!
ACR: And on the faculty side?
SA: I have the best teachers in the industry right here that students learn from every day. Gavin Rich is a full time faculty member and Kurt Papstein is an adjunct zBrush faculty member- both of them will be featured in 3D Artist Magazine next month! Nathan Fowkes is at DreamWorks and has worked on so many titles. We have many more, too. One thing I love is that some of our first year graduates are coming back to teach which is incredible. So many of them are with studios all over the place as I mentioned, and it’s just a great honor and payback that they choose to come back.
ACR: Lastly, I hear that there will be a Game Development Camp this summer for interested secondary school students. Tell us a little about it.
SA: Our second annual Game Development Camp is coming up in July (9-18, 2013). It’s geared primarily towards high school and junior high students though we’ve taken a few brilliant grade school students in the past who blew us all away! They do a bit of everything- concept, game art, programming, story, music. What’s wild is no matter their age, they merge together without any hierarchy. It’s just wonderful to see. Interested readers can find out more and enroll on our site!
ACR: Awesome stuff. Sandy, thanks so much for filling us in on LCAD’s Game Art program!
SA: Thank you, Bonnie!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.