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HBCU Education

Bowie State to offer one-of-kind courses in animation

The university to partner with Laika to train and develop Black students in the industry

Bowie State will become the first historically Black college and university (HBCU) to have a stop-motion studio on campus in spring 2022, with the goal of creating more opportunities for students aiming to break into the animation industry. This is the result of a partnership with Laika, the Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning production company.

Laika will donate an undisclosed sum to upgrade Bowie State’s 15-by-25-foot green room studio in the Fine and Performing Arts Center. The curriculum is under development and talks of acquiring materials for the studio, including general equipment, software and cameras, are ongoing. According to Laika, Bowie State is the only school it has partnered with in this way.

“We’re excited to partner with Bowie State University, Maryland’s first HBCU,” said Arianne Sutner, Laika’s head of production. “Laika’s recruitment team is committed to finding the best talent and developing an equitable hiring pipeline. We’re continuing to explore additional ways to bring more BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] students into the animation industry.”

Bowie State offers students a bachelor’s degree in visual communication and digital media arts (VCDMA), with a concentration in animation and graphics, one of the university’s fastest-growing programs. According to the enrollment report, 157 students enrolled in the major in 2016. By the fall of 2020, nearly 250 students had enrolled.

The program teaches 2D animation, which is artwork that is hand-drawn to create the illusion of movement in a two-dimensional space, and 3D animation, which renders movement of computer-generated shapes, objects and characters in a three-dimensional capacity.

The Bowie State program also includes a stop-motion component, a more hands-on and skill-intensive art form that involves sculpture, design and fabrication. This will allow students the opportunity to diversify their skills, which is vital to finding success in the marketplace today, especially for Black people.

“When it comes to us looking to get in the industry, or even when we’re in the process of looking for a studio to hire us, we have to be a jack-of-all-trades,” said James Young, a junior VCDMA major from Denver. “So, I think this gives us a leg up on the competition.”

Students will also have the chance to tell stories and network through a medium in which many cannot.

“I think the collaboration will be a great thing,” said Ronald Palmer, a senior VCDMA major from Waldorf, Maryland. “Not only will it give future Bowie State students the opportunity to perfect their craft in stop-motion animation, it will give students who come from marginalized backgrounds an opportunity to tell their stories through this platform. The partnership will also help students get their foot in the door, talk with the right people and make connections.”

Tewodross Melchishua Williams, chair of Bowie State’s department of fine and performing arts, engineered the deal with his background in stop-motion animation, coupled with his desire to bring the component to his department.

Williams is the person responsible for creating the VCDMA major years ago after the state’s public education system approved the concept.

Bowie State student Angel Tillery (left) works with professor Tewodross Melchishua Williams (center) on animation concepts.

Bowie State University

“They just kind of called me [to say] we’d like to partner,” Williams said of Laika. “We didn’t initially say, ‘Oh, we must have a stop-motion studio.’ It was more about the fact that we noticed we weren’t making much use of our space. So when Laika approached me, I said, ‘Well, we have a green-screen studio that would make a wonderful stop-motion animation studio, and the conversation just started from there.”

Talks gained traction last summer via Zoom when a representative from Laika, members of Bowie State’s Division of Institutional Advancement and Williams met. The discussion began with the possibility of having internships. Then talks centered on Williams teaching a stop-motion class at the university, until the Laika representative presented a great all-around idea: “Hey, why don’t we try to help you all build a studio and maybe talk about a course in stop-motion animation?”

Williams responded by saying: “That’s perfect. I’ve been wanting to do that for years and this is the perfect time.”

The stop-motion course will be available for students to enroll in the spring 2022 semester, when the animation studio opens.

Two Bowie State students convert a sketch into a digital project in the animation studio.

Bowie State University

Addressing a lack of diversity in the animation industry will require more work, but Williams says the partnership is a step in the right direction.

“Yeah, I definitely think the animation industry in general is definitely underrepresented when it comes to people of color,” Williams said. “So, this is a good start. It’s certainly a way to level the playing field and get the animation industry to not only focus on stories from Black people, but also think about partnering with more HBCUs.

“And since we are not always at the forefront of these types of partnerships, it makes this exciting. We want to provide a balance in terms of the types of films and television shows we see today. That’s our goal here.”

Kevin is a 2019 Rhoden Fellow and a junior mass communications and print journalism major from Baltimore. He's a reporter for The Spectrum student newspaper and is a big fan of the Washington Wizards.