CMU animation faculty submit curriculum to become official major


Chad Bierdeman demonstrates the software used in graphic animation on Oct. 9 in Wightman Hall. 

Room 125 in Wightman Hall is filled with creative minds molding clay into figures that may one day see the big screen.

Central Michigan University's animation program began developing in the fall 2017. Nine students have showed interest in joining the program that same semester, and eight more in the spring. Since then, about 40 students have said they will sign once the program begins. 

“I have always wanted to do something artistic,” Sterling Heights senior Jordona Harkow said. “I decided to sign an animation major because I heard CMU was starting a program, and I have always loved animated movies.”

There are four animation classes offered this semester, including 2D, 3D and beginner animation. There are three animation faculty members: Steve Leeper, David Bierdeman and Jeremy Catarino. Because the program is still in the developing stages, it has taken until this month to submit new course requirements and syllabi. Leeper said he sent 21 new animation classes on Oct. 12 to get approved by the department of art and design. 

Students who showed interest in the program signed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and may be able to sign an official animation degree as early as fall 2019. The first graduating class will be in the spring 2020, with an estimated six to eight students graduating. Some students have decided to stay longer to receive the full four-year experience.

Leeper said the program could not have been created without the support and guidance of Department Chair Jonathan Russell, and faculty members Greg Stahly and Rachael Duncan. These faculty members helped give Leeper a clear understanding of what is expected of him and the program.

Leeper's favorite part of starting the program is the students. He said it "slipped his frontal lobe" when he was building the labs and realized students would fill the room. 

The animation labs are filled with new equipment like double-monitor workstations with 27-inch iMac computers and full-screen Wacom Cintiqs for digital drawing, sculpting and animation. Bierdeman uses this technology when he does freelance work for companies such as Netflix and Disney. The computers are equipped with Adobe software systems, Tune Boom, and a 3D animation program called Maya.

“I love messing with the different mediums,” said Kalamazoo senior Makiyah Alexander. “The new technology is really cool, and I love working with it.”

The animation program is filled with experienced faculty members. Leeper received his Master of Fine Arts from the Art Institute of Boston, and taught at Huntington University in Indiana before coming to CMU. He also worked for Big Idea production, and worked on the animation staff for "Veggie Tales." Some of the "Veggie Tales" animators also voiced characters on the show, including Leeper.

“When I came into class one day my students began singing the Veggie Tales theme song,” Leeper said.

When Leeper was teaching at Huntington University, Bierdeman was one of his students. Since graduating, Bierdeman has done freelance work for Netflix, Hulu, Disney and Disney XD. 

“I have been in the animation industry for a while so being able to teach others is very enjoyable,” Bierdeman said.

Leeper said the biggest challenge of a brand new program is that there isn't a standard of work yet.  At colleges with established programs, seniors' work is used to measure the success of the program. But, Leeper has good reason to believe that the program will progress quickly due to the enthusiasm of students, and the support the program has received.