Illustration of Coco
An image from Pixar Animation Studio’s award-winning fantasy film, Coco.

3D Graphics and Animation program breeds industry leaders

October 17, 2019

Two years ago, Paul Conner took a group of his 3D Graphics and Animation students to see Coco, Pixar Animation Studio’s award-winning fantasy film. At the end of the movie his eyes welled with tears.

“Four of my students were in the credits,” Conner, an instructor of visual arts in the College of Arts & Media, said. “It’s tough to see a movie nowadays and not have at least one or two students in the credits.”

Recognized as one of the top 25 national programs by Animation Career Review, CU Denver’s 3D Graphics and Animation program breeds digital content creators in film, entertainment, medicine, and science. The program, which turns 20 years old next year, is the brainchild of Conner, who previously worked in various animation studios across the country. When traveling became tiresome, he decided to open a training facility of his own in Denver. That’s when CU Denver approached Conner with the idea of starting a degree program.

Paul Conner in one of CU Denver’s visual arts studios.

What started as a small studio with eight students has transformed into an elaborate floor of studios in the CU Denver building on Larimer Street with industry-standard equipment and 120 – 140 students. Alumni tend to land jobs at leading companies in the animation industry, such as Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks and Cartoon Network, and in a number of other industries that require animation skills, such as construction, medicine, even law.

“They say students don’t get hired at companies right out of school,” Conner said. “And we keep proving them wrong.”

‘We love what we do’

Jeremy Brown, an instructor in the program, loves working with the “energetic, quirky and passionate” students in the program.

“I get to relive when I first learned this stuff and how good that felt,” said Brown, who previously worked as a visual effects artist for movies and TV commercials in Boston. “We love what we do, we love the subject matter. To get students to have that same passion is really magical.” 

Jasmine Cisneros

One student destined for success is Jasmine Cisneros, a third-year from the Denver area. She recently completed a summer internship at Pixar in San Francisco, where she put her skills to use and got a taste of what her future career could look like. Her dream job is a technical director.

Cisneros said her classmates in the 3D Graphics and Animation program feel more like family. Students spend hours on end with one another, working away at desks adorned with miniature cartoon characters. Some students can be found in the studio as late as midnight.

“3D is about creating something as a collective,” Cisneros said. “You would never imagine the things you make when you have so many minds working toward one goal.”

Gaining real-world experience

Students interested in the program may take an intro to 3D Graphics and Animation class their freshman year. At the end, they will submit a demo reel that will determine if they move forward in the program. Generally, about 80 students apply and 36 are accepted. Junior year is focused on pre-production and in their senior year students will produce a short animation.

In the 18-month capstone experience, students work across College of Arts & Media departments and with external partners to develop assets, soundtrack, sounds effects, and motion graphics. The animated short films produced have been featured in more than 300 national and international film festivals in 22 countries.

“From day one, we want to provide a real-world experience,” said Conner, adding that everything from the computer monitors to the chairs are reflective of industry trends. “That way it’s like they have production experience when they graduate.”

Paul Conner assists student Jasmine Cisneros in a 3D graphics class.

Conner said the skillset goes far beyond the keyboard. His goal is to ignite enthusiasm and foster collaboration among his students. “That’s our biggest job—I think all CU Denver faculty get that idea—and I think we excel at it.”