Animation students build portfolios with real-world clients

  • Students in Wichita State's School of Digital Arts get hands-on learning experience working with real-world clients, like Spirit AeroSystems and Sonic Boom. 
  • The partnerships teach students how to implement client feedback, understand the design process and solve problems. 

After working in research and technology at Spirit AeroSystems for 11 years, Greg Balandran knows it’s easy for technology to get lost in translation.

“It can be really hard to communicate how certain technologies will positively impact the way we work today,” said Balandran, Spirit’s R&T manger.

While it’s one thing to explain why a technology is important or necessary, words often aren’t enough. Artistic renderings, graphic design, and animation can go a long way in bringing a technological idea to life.

Balandran was in the process of looking for a full-time animation artist when he heard about Wichita State University’s Shocker Studios and the animation program. After touring the state-of-the-art facilities in 2019, a partnership was born.

“Since then, we have been extremely satisfied with this collaboration partnership and have created six animation videos. We plan to continue this collaboration,” Balandran said. 

From high-tech aerospace engineering to movie theater popcorn, Shocker Studios’ animation students are building diverse portfolios of work. Through Wichita State University’s partnerships, animators-in-training have been able to gain practical experience with industry leaders, such as Spirit AeroSystems. 

Animation program director Timothy Babb said the student team helps breathe life into proposals that were initially being presented via PowerPoint.

“Spirit thought it might be a good idea to show the end product of what they're trying to do through animation, and everyone could actually see what they're trying to create before it's even created,” he said.

Take, for example, Spirit’s Kobi robot, which moves along an aircraft to find errors in rivets or some other component of construction.

“They had the designs, but they hadn't actually built it or programmed it, but they knew essentially what was going to be created,” Babb said. “We made it in 3D. It showed the different functions and the animation helped the team visualize it.” 

The students on the animation team were able to experience what it’s like to work directly with a client on a real project.

“The Spirit project has definitely given me a taste of what working for a client in a real-world setting is like,” said Daniela Diaz-Sustaita, senior in animation. “These opportunities have been great to prepare me for life after graduation since it allowed me to see how fast-paced the process is.”

Jalen Cooper, a senior in media arts, edited videos, worked with model conversions, created motion graphics, and learned motion capture workflows. He said not only did he have the chance to learn more about software and industry standards, but he gained important soft skills as well. 

“I learned how to communicate effectively with clients and implement their feedback and the ability to quickly and effectively plan and stay organized. This also helps deal with deadlines, another aspect of this work that cannot be taught in the classroom,” he said. “The project also made me much better at receiving criticism and not taking it personally. Sometimes, it’s just business.” 

The executives at Spirit are taking notice of the students’ work.

“The quality of work the Shocker Studios team has provided is superb,” Balandran said. “They have demonstrated flexibility and professionalism in their quality of work. The work they have provided Spirit has been used to demonstrate concepts to Spirit’s executive leadership team and board of directors. Not only is the quality superb, but the Shocker Studios team also delivers their professional product on time.”

Babb and his students have also had some lighter projects popping up on their radars — specifically popcorn. When the owner of Sonic Equipment wanted to create an animated character for his new popcorn brand, he turned to Shocker Studios for help. 

“The students get lots of exposure on this because it's going to be shown around quite a bit,” Babb said.

The plan is for Sonic Boom popcorn to be advertised in movie theaters as part of the pre-movie highlights.

Unlike projects for clients like Spirit, which might involve more proprietary discretion, Babb said Sonic Boom “is giving them an opportunity to work for a client and then get to show off what they’ve done.”

Real-world learning

More than providing a paycheck or applying the knowledge and skillsets they’ve learned in the classroom, Babb says these real-world work experiences are teaching the students the process of working in animation.

“We’re teaching skills and tools, but you've got to be able to use those tools innovatively to problem solve for what a client needs,” he said. “You can never be fully prepared for every single job that you're doing, and you have to learn how to problem-solve, research and experiment.”

Diaz-Sustaita said she’s learned all that and more while working with clients.

“Shocker Studios has allowed me to gain the knowledge I needed to send me down the correct path within this field,” she said. “The collaboration made the community feel like it was unique and welcoming. As a Latinx woman, I admire that the studios have given me multiple opportunities that allowed me to grow professionally. I’m excited to see how the program grows after my departure from Wichita State.”

Cooper appreciates the guidance and opportunities his Shocker Studios instructors have offered.

“These opportunities don’t simply fall into students’ laps,” he said. “Reach out to the instructors and peers and network with them. If you don’t show that you possess the drive to learn and improve, it’s difficult to keep moving upward.  That said, the staff and faculty here are incredibly helpful and kind. They are wonderful mentors and advisors — you just merely need to ask them.”

Read more stories like this