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Jan Term class gives students insider’s view of animation

McDaniel students at Disney.
February 12, 2013

Disney has no secrets from the 20 students in David Petrie’s Animating Life class. In fact, through Disney’s Youth Education Series (Y.E.S.), the students went behind, under, over and through the scenes at Disney World to unravel the mysteries of animation.

They rode Space Mountain with the lights on, then off – and now know that the special effects in the darkness create the thrill.

They roamed under the Haunted Mansion to learn how Disney Imagineers use a very old magic trick to make “ghosts” appear.

They learned about audio-animatronics, the technology that synchronizes sound, music and movement in 3-D figures to make everything from the presidents to the pirates of the Caribbean come to realistic life.

The trip was even an educational experience for senior Shannon Savoia, marking her 20th visit to the Magic Kingdom – and her second time in the Animating Life course.

“I am a huge, completely obsessed fan of Walt Disney and the Walt Disney World Theme Parks. I took painting lessons throughout my childhood and became very interested in animation so a combination of both was very appealing to me,” says the Business Administration major from Holmdel, N.J. “Unbelievably, I actually learned things that I never knew before.”

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Even before they entered the Magic Kingdom, Petrie’s students were introduced to the history and the science of animation – and the 12 principles of animation, which included a brief introduction to human anatomy and biomechanics – courses Petrie, a lecturer in the Exercise Science and Physical Education department, teaches during spring and fall semesters. One of only four class periods is devoted to audio-animatronics and dimensional animation, including PIXAR, computer animation and motion-capture technology.

“Animation has become an important art form not only for entertainment but also in medicine, video gaming with Avatars, and forensics,” Petrie says. “Audio animatronics paved the way for creative theme park rides and also provided clues to instrumentation for prosthetics.

“And animation is used in medicine for everything from 3-D anatomy teaching software to diagnostic modeling technology.”

After four two-hour classes, the students spend five full days at Disney World, their visit enhanced by Y.E.S. tours on Energy and Waves plus the Properties of Motion as well as some lessons in animation. But the magic, as they say, doesn’t end there.

Petrie gives each student a three-ring notebook literally packed with information about animation, Disney, their trip – and even a Petrie guided tour of what to look for, brimming with nuggets such as:

  • “EPCOT: The sidewalks twinkle at night. Take the right-hand path after the Epcot ball. You’ll come upon them. Absolutely magical. And the fireflies in the trees!”
  • “African Outpost: Open the lids of the crates and see what happens.”
  • “American Pavilion: View the American Flag that was taken from the rubble of 9/11/2001. It will put a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye.”

It’s not surprising that Savoia, who wants to pursue a career in the business side of Disney, has learned something new during each of her two Animating Life Jan Terms – or that the class ranks among her favorite college experiences. 

“I take away from this class some of my favorite memories in college. I had the most amazing time both in the classroom and on the trip and I recommend it to anyone who is a Disney fan like myself, who has never been to Disney, or anyone with an interest in animation/audio animatronics,” she says. “It was also cool to go home and tell my family all the inside information and new facts that I learned, as they are also Disney addicts.”

Video by David Petrie.