Oh, I guess I should elaborate on that.
A few weeks ago I made a post about art degrees in a forum I visit. If you're looking to become an artist, I think it's very important that you give this blog post a read. Much of it will be a rehash from the forum post I made, but I want to be as sincere and as frank as possible here, because I hate to see art students make the same pitfalls over and over. I'm making this post specifically about animation degrees, but it applies to pretty much any artist wanting to get into the industry.
So, back to the question. Is an animation degree important? Short answer: No. Long answer: Not at all.
Like I said, I'm going to be harsh in this post. Let's clear something up right away.
An art degree will not help get you a job in the industry
I see this a lot, and I've been there, too. You find a college art program that looks interesting, and it promises a degree. In the classes, the instructors will keep telling you that getting an art degree will significantly improve your chances of getting a job in the field. What they fail to tell you is that that is a dirty, dirty lie. You aren't hired as an artist because a piece of paper from a college says you can animate. All the degree says is that you were able to complete the course. It says nothing about your skill, which is the most important thing to employers.
So what is important to employers?
Your portfolio is your most important asset when getting a job. It shows the studio what kind of work you can produce. But there's another factor that is taken into account in the hiring process:
My school uses the phrase, "practice, perseverance, and personality" to know what a studio wants. The first two get you the skills to get an interview, and your personality gets you the job. I definitely know of cases where a studio has hired someone who wasn't necessarily the best applicant skill-wise, but who meshed really well with the rest of the studio.
But now on to my real criticisms
College/University art programs are pretty much considered a joke in the industry
I've never in my life seen an art degree posted as a requirement in an art job. The reason is that art programs that offer degrees tend to completely miss the point entirely. For one, since you're getting a degree, you're forced to take many general education courses which are completely irrelevant to art in every single way. (Example, when I was still in college trying to become an animator, one of my required classes was geography. If there's one thing that's the least relevant to animation, it's gotta be geography.) Now, I'm not saying that being knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects is bad. But I am saying that, when you're an art student, you're trying to grow as an artist. And these gen-ed courses hinder your growth because they distract you from honing your craft.
College/University art programs tend to not be about art
This one dumbfounds me profoundly. In college, I took 2 modeling courses, a lighting/rendering course, and an animation course. And the nice thing about them is that they were all content-free.
Imagine that you want to be a draftsman and you get into art school. Years later, you've gone through the course, gotten your certificate of completion, and it turns out that all you know how to do is use a pencil. Oh, you'll be able to draw a good enough cube, but mostly you'll know the difference between a #2 pencil and a #3. You'll know the composition of the graphite, and exactly how long it takes to sharpen a fresh pencil. But try to draw a human, and you realize that you still can't draw.
That's what these college programs tend to be. In the animation program, for instance, I learned how to use the Trax editor and the graph editor, and how to move keyframes around. But we never once heard mention of the 12 animation principles, and we never once had to do a bouncing ball. But, hey! We learned how to do cloth simulations! Well, rather, we learned how to apply a preset cloth material to an object and then hit play... but at least we didn't have to worry about whether or not it looked good because...
Colleges and Universities are hesitant to criticize your work
This is a biggie, and it might be the thing that makes attending a college art program stand out among the worst things an artist can do. Let's dispel another myth right now: natural talent does not determine how good an artist you will be. Talent can only get you so far, but you need to always practice and try to get better. If you're not constantly reminded how badly you suck, you will never improve.
But this is what college professors do (except in a few cases with mind-numbingly stupid results). I'll give you another example from personal experience, though I've read countless other stories just like this from other people.
In those CG classes I took, there was this guy who really sucked. I mean, let's face it, we all sucked, but this guy took the cake and had no intention of giving it back. And thinking back on it, it's sad, but of course I didn't see it at the time. Whenever we'd show our work in class to the instructor, when this guy's came up, he'd only say reassuring things. "Yeah, man, that's a cool model." Or, "That's a cool effect." But that's what he said to all of us, no matter how good or bad it was. And that is a serious, serious problem.
And here's the mind-numbingly stupid part. I've also read stories of professors who legit have tried to criticize their students' work, the same way they'd be criticized in the industry. What happens to these instructors? They get reprimanded because the student called and complained that he was being too harsh. Well, dumbass, if you can't take criticism, you need to find another career.
Criticism is NECESSARY to an artist. You can't grow if the only criticism you get are pats on the head. And I keep seeing this happen. Friends I had in those college courses are graduating and can't find work. They have degrees, but their portfolios are awful. Art is a skill-based field and if you don't have the skillz to pay the billz, then no amount of degrees will make up for that.
To wrap this whole thing up, I'll talk about what you as a wide-eyed prospective artist should be doing.
Say "fuck you" to degrees
I've covered this enough, but I want to pound it into you (no homo). Don't be lured in with promises of a job. You'll get out of school with tens of thousands of dollars of student loans and you can't get work because your portfolio sucks. Although, don't take this to mean that a program that offers a degree is inherently bad; just that degrees themselves are not important, and you shouldn't worry about what kind of degree you're going to get.
A school is only as good as the portfolios its students produce
Shop around for a school. It's an important, life-changing decision. When you find a school you think is good, find some of the student's portfolios. If you're into animation, go to Youtube and type in "animation demo reel." A lot of them are shit but if you find a student's reel that looks really good, try to find out where they went to school. Here are probably the two best animation schools in the world:
CalArts - Walt Disney founded this school in the '60s to train a new generation of animators. Quite a lot of the most well-known animators and animation directors went to CalArts.
Animation Mentor - AM is an online character animation school. They produce the most consistently best student work, even when compared to CalArts.
And last but not least, here's probably the important thing to keep in mind, and it actually might be the dealbreaker for some.
Be brutally honest with yourself and be your own worst critic
Here's a harsh reality. There are millions of artists in this country. Hell, there are at least a hundred thousand in California alone. But there are only a handful of great ones. And YOU have to compete with them. But you won't stand a chance unless you constantly push yourself to do the best you can do. As I've said, colleges and universities almost never push you like this. It's up to you to heed all the criticism you get and not to take it personally. It's there to make you grow as an artist. It's not there to hurt your feelings. And I know it's hard to hear someone tearing apart something you put your heart and soul into, but it's the reality of being a good artist.
Another thing to think about is that art is really hard. Great animation, in particular, takes a long time and a lot of really hard work to produce. And some people can't handle that. So it's also important to try to stay inspired and motivated and to disconnect yourself from your work every now and then.
The conclusion of this post is to remember that studios look for people who make great art. And it takes an artist years and years of constant self-doubt and self-criticism and really, really hard work to become great. But the worst thing you can do as an artist is to become complacent and then lie to yourself that, because you have a piece of paper saying you completed a course, you'll easily get a job.
From my experience, and from the experiences of loads of people I know, what you learn in most colleges or universities amounts to what you'd learn from a software manual. But learning Maya or Photoshop or Zbrush cannot replace just simply being self-critical and wanting to do better. The software is only a tool. Maya is only a very, very intricate pencil. YOU are the one holding the pencil. You can tell me everything there is to know about that pencil, but it is wholly irrelevant if you can't draw. Don't ever forget that.
It isn't the degree you have, or even your natural talent. It's about your passion and how far you're willing to go to be great.
And, one last thing.
Practice, practice, practice
There's an old saying that every artist has 10,000 bad drawings in him before he makes a good one. So try to get them out of the way as soon as possible. And. Never. Stop. Learning.