In the glamorous, high-stakes world of Hollywood animation, Dave Master is an unlikely legend. He’s never earned a dime drawing a character, painting a background, or speaking in funny voices. Until two years ago, he’d never spent a day working for a studio. Instead, for 18 years he was a teacher at Rowland High, a public s school in a small, low-income community 25 miles east of Los Angeles.
So why is Master, 47, so prominent? Because he understands — perhaps better than anyone else — how to turn young people into great animators. Disney alone employs more than 50 of his students, and Rowland alumni have worked on projects from “Aladdin” and “Pocahontas” to “The Simpsons” and “Gumby.” “My slogan,” he quips, “was, Give me your tired, your poor, your restless yearning to be animators.”
In October 1994, Master left teaching to become manager of artist development and training for Warner Bros. Feature Animation. It was a difficult change to make. “I lost sleep over the decision for many months,” he says. “But animation is exploding. There’s a renaissance in this art form that might not happen again in my lifetime. I wanted to be part of that.”
Michael Laney, senior vice president of operations at the Warner Bros. unit, was determined to bring Master to his company — and to let him keep a hand in the Rowland program. “Dave has a passion for excellence in teaching animation that I haven’t seen in anyone else,” Laney says. “He inspires people. He inspires me. He is the master teacher of animation of the last 20 years.”
Every company struggles to grow talent. But Hollywood animators face a talent shortage of the first order. The runaway success of Disney’s animated features has persuaded more and more companies, from established giants like Warner Bros. to high-powered newcomers like DreamWorks, to enter the business. That’s a problem, because feature animation is extraordinarily labor intensive. It took a team of 600 Disney animators three years to create The Hunchback of Notre Dame. There are, quite simply, not enough great animators to go around.
Cut to Dave Master. Under his leadership, Rowland High became one of the country’s top sources of animation talent. Many of his students went directly from high school to entry-level positions in the industry. How can people so young have such an impact?
“I don’t think it’s that extraordinary,” Master says. “Someone who starts playing a musical instrument at age 8 can be very accomplished by the time they’re 18. These kids started drawing when they were 12 or 13. They put in the pencil mileage and got to the right level of proficiency.”
Master is being modest; he rewrote the rules of how to educate young artists. Rowland felt more like a Hollywood studio than a classroom. Students had access to $500,000 worth of computers and video equipment. They didn’t just worry about report cards; they created portfolios of their work. They didn’t just take classes; they made short films and competed for awards.
“We had them doing physics, calculus, animation, sculpting, and working with computers, all in the same setting,” Master says. “They learned management skills, how to have a vision, how to pitch their ideas and get other people behind them, how to manage equipment, schedules, and budgets. They learned things as they needed to know them, which is the best way to learn.”
Now Master is transferring his model to Hollywood. His unit offers five drawing classes a week, plus weekly classes in acting, improvisation, and cinematography. The background department takes field trips to paint outdoor scenes. All these classes are voluntary, he reports, and all are filled to capacity.
Four core principles animate Master’s approach to training. The first is speed. Much of his work at Warner Bros. involves developing “foundation skills” in acting, drawing, and writing. But even basic training, he believes, should reflect the industry’s fast-paced environment. Recently, for example, the company faced a shortage of special-effects animators. Master organized a portfolio call, recruited young artists, and designed a boot camp to train them. “Our job is to put out films,” he says, “to ramp people up quickly and get them working.”
Master also believes that people learn best through action, not instruction. At Rowland, he says, “students learned to make animated films by making animated films. They learned by doing.” He’s using the same approach at Warner Bros. One of the virtues of action learning, Master argues, is that it requires a range of skills: “From birth, people learn by using all their senses — seeing, hearing, touching. We’re just continuing that approach. We ask people to perform a task, then we ask them to explain it — to analyze and verbalize what they’re doing.”
Master also believes that doers make the best teachers. He is adamant about the virtues of mentorship, especially in a business with well-defined career paths. Most animation recruits start as interns, become trainees, and then earn formal apprenticeships. And most choose a specific discipline early in their careers — background painter, layout artist, postproduction specialist.
“Mentorship is the best way for someone to learn as quickly as possible,” Master says. “You have real people teaching you. And those people aren’t just teaching you technical skills, they’re socializing you into an environment.”
Finally, Master says that evaluations should accelerate learning rather than pass judgment. At Warner Bros., animators-in-training face a rigorous schedule of reviews. They’re evaluated informally by mentors and have formal reviews with senior artists. These reviews are not designed to create an up-or-out atmosphere, but to maximize learning.
“Reviews should move people forward,” he says. “That’s why senior artists look at people’s work. These are animators with great skill, people who’ve been around. They can identify problems or indicate when it’s time to raise the bar.”
Dave Master has set the standard for training in animation. Can his principles work in other industries?
“Animation is an art,” he concedes, “but animation studios are meritocracies unlike anything I’ve ever seen. That’s why I love working in this environment. It’s very clear who can do the job and who can’t. We know whether the people who work here meet the needs of our organization. That’s something all companies should reflect on.”
Debra Feinstein (email@example.com) writes on technology and innovation from Topanga Canyon, California.