CalArts FAQ

I preface this by saying that it has been some time since I was at CalArts. The information I have written up was valid at the time I was there (mid 2000s) and there might have been changes since then. However, since I still get asked about the best way to be accepted to the Character Animation program, I felt it would still be helpful to keep this information available.

How hard is it to get into the character animation program at CalArts?
It’s pretty difficult. I read somewhere that the acceptance rate for that particular program is 8-10% although I don’t know if those figures are still accurate. They only accept 40-50 new students a year though if that gives you an idea.

Holy crap! I better make my portfolio kick-ass; what should I put in it?
Since I can only speak from my own experience and observations, the first thing you should do is call the school and speak with someone in the admissions department (main number: 661.255.1050 and ask to be connected with the admission office). Another really great resource is to attend a National Portfolio Day. CalArts usually is one of the schools in attendance and it gives you a chance to get a dry run portfolio review. Bring your stuff and have them look it over; the CalArts reps will be able to tell you what you need to do to improve your portfolio (if necessary) for when the time comes to officially submit your application.

Now, as far as my experience goes, I submitted 20 life drawings. I know that some of my classmates submitted many more than that as well as some of their sketchbooks. CalArts isn’t so concerned with finished pieces (although feel free to include some in your portfolio) as they are with seeing that you know the body and how it moves. They like gestures. They like to see structure lines and how you figured things out. They like poses with a lot of movement (after all, you’re applying to a program that’s all about conveying life and motion). Here’s a quick list of DOs and DON’Ts:

  • DO submit life drawings
  • DO submit gestures
  • DO submit dynamic poses taken from life (not from photo reference)
  • DO submit work in a variety of different mediums (pen, pencil, charcoal, conte, etc)
  • DO submit works of varying lengths (30 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes as well as a few longer poses)
  • DON’T submit cartoons
  • DON’T submit cartoons
  • DON’T submit cartoons

Figure drawing? But I’ve never taken figure drawing!! What should I do?
Well, you need to refine those skills. Luckily, you have several resources available to you. First, check to see if any nearby schools–like a community college–offer life drawing classes. If not, check the bulletin board at your local art store (most of them have one) to see if there are any open figure sessions in the area. Sometimes a bunch of artists will get together and all pitch in for a model. If worse comes to worse and there are no classes or sessions in the area (or you’re young and your parents don’t want to expose you to naked people yet), recruit your friends and family. Obviously it would be a bit much to ask them to strip down for you but a model doesn’t need to be naked for you to draw them. If no one wants to sit still, go hang out at the mall or a coffee shop or something along those lines and just sketch the people that you see. You can also check out anatomy books or use photo reference but I would HIGHLY suggest that you draw from life. You really will get more out of it if you see how the body moves. Working from books or photos, you’re just learning how to copy.

Should I submit some of the animation I’ve done?
You can but their primary concern is that you can draw the figure. This isn’t a program that will teach you how to draw. They’re looking for people who can already draw. This is a program that will teach you how to take your drawing skills and animate with them. Some of my classmates already experimented with animation prior to attending; some of us (myself included) had never animated before starting this program. So you can include some of your animation in your portfolio but it’s not going to make or break the situation.

How much do grades and test scores factor into the admission process?
None. Zero. Zilch. Although they have you submit those things, they don’t even look at them until they’ve already accepted your portfolio. Getting into the character animation program is based solely on talent and skill.

Can I transfer into the program?
Yes and no. If you have attended college elsewhere, your credits will transfer over. However, this only really gets you out of taking critical studies classes (i.e. liberal arts classes necessary to graduate); it won’t advance you through the program. Because it is highly structured, it is a four-year program no matter what.

Can I attend part-time?
As far as I understand it, the answer is ‘no’. It’s a highly structured program and you take specific classes during specific semesters. However, I’m not 100% sure on this so your best bet would be to call the Character Animation office and get the answer right from the source!

I didn’t get in! Now what?
That’s okay, most people don’t get in on their first try. It’s pretty rare to get in straight out of high school and most people in the program already have a bit of college under their belt. If you don’t get in but still really want to go, consider a community college or a state school. Call the admissions office to get some feedback as to why your portfolio wasn’t accepted and what you should work on for your next year’s application.

I got in! What’s it going to be like?
It’s going to be awesome! You have teachers who work for Disney, Dreamworks, etc. All your classmates are kick-ass artists who are very enthusiastic about what they’re doing and are sources of constant inspiration. Sleep is a thing of the past because you are going to be busy, busy, busy! Studios pay a lot of attention to the school–they come by to give presentations, lectures, workshops, etc.

Like mentioned, the program is very structured. Aside from your critical studies classes, your schedule is already set for you. They split the incoming class into two sections and one sections will get one schedule and the other section will get the other schedule. Therefore, you will have the same people in all your character animation classes. Classes meet once a week and everyone gets a cubicle with an animation desk in it (there are some singles but those go to the upper-classmen; everyone else gets doubles or triples). You can rent or buy an animation disc for your desk. This is an example of a freshman schedule (mine):

MONDAY
Video Animation 9-12
Basic Perspective 1-4
Beginning Story Development 7-10

TUESDAY

Color & Design I 9-12
Animation I (computer) 8-11

WEDNESDAY

No classes

THURSDAY

Figure Drawing I 9-4
Animation I (traditional) 7-10

FRIDAY

Story for Animators 10-12

Freshman are required to make a 90-second film (no dialogue, no choreographed music) by the end of their first year and much of your second semester will be devoted to making this happen.

What else can you tell me?
That I like cake? Ha! I think that about covers it. If you have a question that wasn’t answered here, feel free to e.mail me at: nina@ninae.com. Good luck!

19 thoughts on “CalArts FAQ”

  1. what about a illustration picture?(the character is not realistic but the picture does tell a story)

    • That’s fine — especially if it your own character (or your own unique take on an existing character). Just make sure it is supplemental to life drawings rather than in place of them.

      Good luck!

  2. Sooooo cool!! Thanks for the awesome tips:)

  3. So for the application process this year they ask for a filled sketchbook and an example of sequential art (storyboard or comic).
    You said don’t include cartoons… so what should I do for this? Obviously this part of it has to be fictional, what would you recommend?

    • When I say don’t do cartoons, I mean don’t do existing cartoons. It’s certainly okay to submit cartoon-y type stuff as long as they are original to you (or, at least, the character designs are). Basically, what I mean is don’t send them a bunch of drawings of Disney princesses or anime characters that replicate the original style. Just do something in your own unique style and you should be golden!

  4. SketchyCut said:

    I dont know if.yu will response to this, but I have a question about the portfolio… I am a senior high school student (12grader), and i LOVE and adore drawing. But, because of some superficial reasons, I obly have 3 minths until the regular submission for Calarts. My late realization of that drawing is part of my life has put myself into deep anxiety and frustation of getting a portfolio prepared. I love drawing, especially when it comes to creating my own characters (OC) and a fantasy (wutt??). But 3monnths, i have time, but they, the evaulators of Calarts admisson, dont know the aituation that i am undergoing now. I want to display my current drawing, to see what level i am.

    • SketchyCut said:

      (Accidentally pressed post button) I dont care how much time I spend at my desk, drawing and getting all the projects done, as long as those activities will guide me to reach my highest potential… Especially when i become comfortable at drawing and creating a world of my own. I will create a deviantart maybe. thanks for the time reading my long and monotonous post. thank yu

      • SketchyCut said:

        Could you please evaluate my drawing if possible? thank you. and sorry for some obivous grammatical errors. wrote it in a hurry.

        • Hi there! Sorry I forgot to reply to this! Obviously this advice will come too late for CalArts admission for the Fall. If you applied and got in: congratulations! But if you didn’t and plan to apply again:

          I actually realized I wanted to do art late as well. I always liked to draw but I was convinced that pursuing art would lead to me being poor and living in the gutter. So I didn’t take ANY art classes in high school. I just took a lot of math and science because I wanted to go to college for electrical engineering. My senior year, I thought that maybe I should put a portfolio together so I could apply to Rhode Island School of Design. I got in touch with the art teacher at my high school and asked for his help. He was willing to help me but, in the end, I abandoned that idea and stuck to my original EE plan.

          One doesn’t need to get into CalArts straight out of high school to be successful. In some ways, it’s better to go to another (cheaper) school first to not only get some foundation college-level art classes under your belt but to get a lot of your non-art credits out of the way. Even though you will be studying animation, you still need to fulfill your math/science/english/liberal arts credits to graduate. Once you are at CalArts, you are going to want as much time as possible to work on your animation and films — it’s best to not have to worry about studying for an anatomy exam and things like that.

          When I was there, I would say most of my classmates came to CalArts with at least some college experience. Some even had bachelor degrees from other schools and were treated the animation program as ‘graduate school’. There were a few kids in the program who were admitted straight out of high school but they were the exception rather than the rule and almost all of them had attended CSSSA (http://www.csssa.org/index.php/admissions/animation/).

          So yeah! If you got in for this fall, you basically are amazing! If you didn’t? You still are probably amazing but could use a little more experience. Don’t give up hope!

  5. Thanks for the information! One question, did you get in to CalArts straight from graduating high school? Dude to environmental factors I am quite positive that I can’t attend any colleges or additional program before Uni/School. And this really worries me because I heard MOST of the people who got in have experienced colleges before getting in to Calarts.Well, I did go to an Art Academy for a while. Would this help? (Ended up with 2 questions.. Sorry!)

    • I just replied to the comment above yours in a similar vein. So read that one for more details!

      But no, I did not go to CalArts straight from high school. There were a few students in my class who did but they were in the minority. It’s not to say that it can’t be done but the character animation program isn’t there to teach people how to draw. It’s a program to teach people who are already great at drawing how to animate. A person certainly can already be great at drawing by the end of high school. But most students are served well to get some college-level instruction under their belt. I think the real difference between most high school level art classes and college is figure drawing. In animation, it is really important to understand the body and how it moves and it’s hard to really get that knowledge without studying nudes. Since most high school doesn’t want to be exposing minors to naked people, that’s study that can only be gained through either private study or college classes.

  6. I was just wondering, do you get anything from the portfolio submission back, like the sketchbooks?

  7. CalArts Hopeful said:

    Thank you so much for this blog, it is really, really helpful. As an amateur high-school junior, I don’t hope to get in right after I graduate (if ever, even), although I do have a few questions.

    How is the workload? I ask because on of my concerns is storytelling (I may be taking liberties in saying that I think that shines through in my artwork) and I want to know if there would be any spare time at all to practice writing.

    I’ve never worked with digital media before, is that okay? My experiences are mostly with pencils and paints, although in the future I plan to widen my artistic capabilities and improve my drawing. Is learning how to use computer programs and tablets very important?

    How good of an artist should you be? I know you mentioned in the blog that what they’re looking for is an understanding of the movement of the body and prospects in imagination, but how good should you be in terms of detail? Actually, let me rephrase the question: I can draw portraits, environments, and gestures, poses, etc. realistically but is it okay to submit original creative artwork in my own style?

    Thank you for the blog and for taking the time to read my questions!

  8. This helped me so much! As the other comments have mentioned before, it’s rare for someone to get accepted into calarts right after high school graduation. In my case, I realized I wanted to pursue art, specifically animation, during my junior year and decided calarts was a great choice. So far, I have been working on a portfolio which, at the moment, includes a couple drawings, paintings, and a sketchbook and storyboard in the making. This summer, I will be attending a college tradigital animation course to improve my skills and get a feel for the work cut out in this major. I will also take the online portfolio drawing course that calarts is offering. I am a little concerned that my timing is a little late to get into calarts, especially now that I read how selective the program is and how the majority of those accepted are not straight out of high school. Do you suggest that I wait a while longer, or really work hard and see what happens in the fall?

  9. Kevin Vega said:

    I feel like I became aspired to my true intentions in my life a little too late. As of right now,( August 30, 2015), and I still consider myself a pretty common leveled drawer. I really am just used to writing in pencil, and I draw(somewhat cartoonish) characters. Not like those wacky like cartoons, usually stuff similiar to animated shows nowdays, but not really much humans or of the sort. I really want to get into Cal Arts and I know that I need ALOT of more skills as a qhole to get in. I want to be a character and story designer(if thats really a thing) and I feel that its a pretty big obatacle to undertake in, and I fell Calarts is the best and maybe “only” way. Im nervous and Im afraid that if I do not get accepted, there will be NO chance to ever fulfill my design and morives as a whole. Oh, and I Also want to dsign toys. I really hope that I can get into Cal Arts and Im not really to interested in the type of drawings I Should turn in, whats your take?

  10. Thanks a lot for this post, I’m actually on 11th grade of school and I have had the idea of getting into CalArts since last year! I have a question: Is it an obligatory requirement to have had art as a subject in high school? The thing is that my actual bachelor is sciences and we don’t have any artistic subject (which is death to me lol) Thanks again and I hope you get to see my comment! :3

    • It’s been quite some time since I was at CalArts so things might have changed — your best bet would be to contact the admissions office to get the official word from them rather than just some random lady on the internets. However! I will say that when I was there, it didn’t matter what your academic background was — whether or not you studied art or what your GPA was. All that mattered as how good your portfolio was. If your portfolio rocked, then that is what mattered most!

      Good luck! <3

  11. Thank you so much! Your post is probably the most helpful I have seen on internet so far. I will be a senior this fall, and, unfortunately, I have recently realized that I really want to be an animator or concept artist. I have always loved drawing, but I never went to an art school or academy. I am in the process of learning digital painting and figure drawing to create a portfolio. I know that I am in an extremely schedule, but I am trying to make one. I am planning to apply to schools like LCAD, USC, and CalArts. From many posts like yours, I learned that one’s experience with animation does not really matter, but one’s figure or life drawing skill matters. I have about three to four months to make my portfolio. I just wanted to know if it is impossible for me to make a decent portfolio in three to fourth months. By the way, I just learn by myself watching youtube videos and reading books. I also signed up for 2D animation principles and life drawing classes for this fall at a local community college. Thank you.

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