Course Missive

Course Missive

Hours and Location
Course Description
A Comparison to CSCI 1250
Prerequisites and CS Curriculum
Course Content Overview
Recommended DVDs and Online Tutorials
Attendance and Class Participation
Assessment and Late Policies
Time Commitment
Software and Hardware
Health and Wellness
Remote Learning


Instructor: Prof. Barbara Meier
CIT 401; office hours by appointment, just email me to work out a time


HTA: Monika Hedman
TA: Allison Yeh

TA Email:

Hours and Location

Class: M, W 12-1:50 in CIT 368,

Course Description

In this course we will continue work begun in CSCI 1250 with deeper exploration of the core technical and artistic aspects of 3D computer animation. In the first two-thirds of the course, students will do a series of tutorials and technical assignments in which they will learn basic character modeling, character rigging and skinning, animation, shading, lighting, and simulation techniques. The goal of the final project is to create a portfolio-quality visual demonstration of proficiency in some area of the student's choice. Students may work alone or in pairs on the project. Reading may include technical texts as well as works on artistic motivation and critique. We will view and discuss related animated films.

A Comparison to CSCI 1250

CSCI 1250 provides an overview of the animation pipeline including script/story writing, production planning, modeling, shading, lighting, animation, compositing rendered images with 2D effects, and editing. CSCI 1250 students apply this knowledge to the creation of a short film. CSCI 1280, on the other hand, has a narrower focus which allows deeper study of the core elements of 3D animation: modeling, rigging, animation, shading, lighting, and simulation. The project for CSCI 1280 is smaller in scope, but should be more polished than the typical CSCI 1250 final project. In short, in CSCI 1280 students will learn specific procedures and workflow. CSCI 1280 is an opportunity to learn in depth the things we glossed over in CSCI 1250. There are some policy and mechanics differences between the two courses as well, so please check the assessment and collaboration sections carefully.


This course has three specific aims:

  (1) become self-sufficient in learning the technical aspects of computer animation;
  (2) view the process and product of animation as artistic and personal expression, not just a technical exercise; and
  (3) develop your ability to critique and improve work in progress.


To achieve the aims above, students will be able to do the following by the end of the semester:

  • Model and rig a simple biped character
  • Create a biped walk cycle
  • Use lighting and cinematography principles to practically and artistically light a scene of medium complexity
  • Create shaders of medium complexity to depict aged and changing surfaces with art direction
  • Create a basic dynamic simulation
  • Create a portfolio-quality animated sketch or demonstration
  • Visually and technically analyze a work in progress, both orally and written, for your own and other students’ work
  • Develop problem-solving techniques for improving one’s work
  • Critically and technically analyze a work in progress, both orally and written, for your own and other students’ work
  • Further develop their personal relationship to the medium of animation both through expression in one’s work and viewing of other student’s and professional work

Prerequisites and CS Curriculum

Students must have taken and done well in CSCI 1250; students who have not taken CSCI 1250 but who have equivalent experience through self-study, a similar course, or a related job are welcome to submit a portfolio for admittance consideration.

This course is open to CS concentrators, non-concentrators, RISD students, and graduate students. CS students who have taken CSCI 1230 or CSCI 2240 will find this course to be a creative application of the graphics algorithms explored in those courses.

Course Content Overview

First section: 10 weeks

  • In depth study of character modeling, rigging, animation, shading, lighting, and basic dynamics
  • 1-2 week assignments in above areas

Second section: 4-6 weeks

  • Proposal for research and production in area of personal interest
  • Individual exploration in this area
  • In-class presentation to demonstrate area of interest and pitch final project concept
  • Final project: create a portfolio-quality visual demonstration of in-depth study area individually or in pairs


Some readings may be assigned from these texts, but relevant sections will be provided:

Jeremy Birn, Digital Lighting and Rendering, 3rd ed., New Riders, 2013.
George Maestri, Digital Character Animation 3, New Riders, 2006.

Oter useful resources include:
Richard Yot, Light for Visual Artists: Understanding & Using Light in Art and Design, 2011.
Chris Webster, Animation: Mechanics of Motion, 2005.
Chris Webster, Action Analysis for Animators, 2012.
Takashi Iijima, Action Anatomy for Gamers, Animators, and Digital Artists, 2004.
Ed Hooks, Acting for Animators, 2003. Dan Ablan, Digital Cinematography and Directing, New Riders, 2003.
Articles from Cinefex, a journal of visual effects, published quarterly (available in Rock)
Ed Hooks, Acting in Animation: A look at 12 films, 2005
Steven Katz, Film Directing Shot by Shot, Michael Wiese Productions, 1991
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life
Richard Williams, The Animator’s Survival Kit, Faber and Faber Ltd, 2001.
James Gurney, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, Andrews McMeel, 2010.
Tom Bancroft, Creating Characters with Personality, Watson-Guptill, 2006.
Adam Mechtley, Maya Python for Games and Film, Morgan Kaufman, 2011.

Other resources

The Autodesk Maya help pages can be useful for learning specific functions in Maya. The Arnold help pages are excellent and provide succinct explanations and tutorials. Many Maya training resources are online for free or subscription. You are welcome to view these on your own. Beware of random free tutorials you find online; the quality of these has high variance! Brown provides campus-wide access to tutorials on LinkedIn Learning and some will be pointed out at the relevant time. Go here to get started.

Attendance and Class Participation

This is a studio/seminar course. The success of the class depends on your participation in discussions, projects, and critiques; therefore attendance is mandatory. You must email me before class if you have a legitimate conflict or are sick in order to be excused. Students who have more than two unexcused absences class may not pass.

The class participation grade will be based on attendance and participation in discussions, critiques, in-class exercises, and presentations. Please note that it is a large part of the grade, and can raise or lower the final grade significantly.

Assessment and Late Policies

The following is an approximate breakdown of the contributions of the course components:
First section assignments: 48% (6 projects) (2021: 45% 5 projects)
Proposal, Presentation, and Final Project: 37% (40% for 2021)
Attendance and participation: 15%

Feedback will be provided orally during class critiques and through written evaluations. Each project will be graded by the professor using a rubric that shows how well the design and technical criteria for that project have been met. The rubric will be available when the assignment is handed out. Most projects include one or more guided tutorials in addition to a standalone project. Tutorials are not graded in CSCI 1280 so students should do as much of them as needed to learn the techniques. Some tutorials provide a context to follow along with an example while working on your own project.

In real-life production, following your supervisor’s artistic and technical direction is key to getting projects done to a successful level within a time budget. Accordingly, we place emphasis on following the directions of assignments in this course. If you want to explore an alternate path or otherwise “show us your stuff,” do the regular assignment first and then play to your heart’s content. We love to see what you can do.

To receive a passing grade in this course, students must:
  1. Participate in class critiques and discussions on a regular basis. I expect you to come to all classes having prepared assignments for critique and/or to have read and considered reading assignments carefully.
  2. Complete all assignments and the final project.
  3. Submit a written evaluation for all assignments and the final project.

Assignments must be handed in by 2am on their due dates. In-progress works are not graded, but if work is not presented on a critique day or is handed in after 10am, the assignment will be marked down 1 letter grade. Late in-progress assignments (turned in from 2:01am to 10am) are marked down 1/2 letter grade. Assignments turned in after 10am will not be critiqued during class. Final assignment versions are marked down 1/3 letter grade for each 24-hour period late up to one full letter grade. You may not hand in a final version for critique and then hand it in again late after receiving the in-class critique.

For final versions of assignments, students have three “free” late days. These will be applied for maximum benefit in calculating final grades, but will not show up in grades for individual assignments. Free late days do not apply to progress handins or the final projects. Late final projects will only be accepted with a Dean’s or doctor’s note.

Extensions on an assignment will only be given for valid medical or personal situations, and must be supported with a note from Health Services, your doctor, or a Dean. The note can be retroactive. Our goal is for you to complete this class and we can work out alternate schedules if needed. The free late days should cover an occasional concurrent deadline or short illness. Occasionally, there may be opportunities to earn more free late days.

In this course you will be learning new skills. Some would argue that letter grades are not appropriate during this process. You are welcome to take the class S/NC, but the same passing grade requirements apply. All final grades are assigned by the professor.

Assignments are handed in with the CS dept. handin script. The TAs will provide info on how to do this. This process can take up to 10 or 15 minutes if you have big files. The time stamp on the file is used to determine the handin time.

Time Commitment

There are two 2-hour mandatory class meetings per week. There are six projects that typically span about two weeks (some are slightly shorter) in addition to the final project. Each project covers a phase of the production pipeline and offers students an opportunity to practice the creative and technical processes of that phase. Each project also includes guided tutorials that explain the details of using the software to achieve the project goals. The time required to complete the tutorials and projects varies widely, but most students report 10-20 hours per week. Depending on the chosen topic, the final project may require more time up to 20-25 hours/week in the final 2-3 weeks of the semester.


In the real world of production, nearly all work is collaborative and there is almost always more than one way to achieve the same goal. In this course, we encourage students to discuss approaches with each other. Unlike CSCI 1250, students will often be pursuing the same project and therefore the collaboration policy is tighter. Students may help each other with general concepts or software questions, but may not verbally or manually debug another student’s work. For example, it is okay to help someone figure out what boxes to check before running a Maya tool. It is not okay to tell them how to lay out and name joints in their character rig. One student may not “drive” the software for another student. Students may critique each other’s work outside of class, but students whose work is being critiqued should figure out how to improve their own work.

Students may not use third party solutions to any assignment with the exception of sound material, images, or movie clips that are incorporated into a larger piece. This includes downloads from the web and scripts, recipes, etc. from any outside source whether they are published or not. Students may not hand in tutorial solutions found on the internet, DVDs, or any other source. You are welcome to use tutorials to learn a technique, but you may not hand in the results of a tutorial as an assignment. For further information, please refer to Brown's Academic Code. If you are not sure about something, see the staff before proceeding.

It may be possible to use external assets on final projects. This is decided on a case by case basis and must be approved before the asset is used.


Creating an inclusive educational environment that embraces diversity is a matter of utmost importance. We want to ensure that all students feel welcome and capable of excellency inside and outside class despite differences in race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, physical or cognitive abilities, economic background, military experience, political ideology, and many other dimensions. You are encouraged to discuss any issues of inclusivity or the lack of it with the staff at any time during the course. You may also contact the CS Department’s Diversity Coordinator ( if desired. While we aim to do our best, please remember we aren’t perfect. Feel free to mention or send a quick email to say, “I felt weird when….” to help our community create the best learning environment possible. CS Dept. inclusivity resources can be found here.

Software and Hardware

We will be using Maya 2020 and Arnold 6 to complete most assignments and students should have previous Maya experience equivalent to that acquired in CSCI 1250. Students may also use Adobe AfterEffects and Adobe Premier Pro or other compositing or editing software to provide the “glue” for projects. Additionally, we have three Houdini licenses. Maya, AfterEffects, Houdini, and Premier are available in the MS Lab, CIT 167. You may acquire your own copies of this software if you wish. Students may work on their own computers or other university computers where they are permitted, but projects must be handed in to the CS Department file system. If you use your own copy of the software or work outside the MS lab, you do so at your own risk. Any conversions are your responsibility and your results must work in Maya 2020.

Students are given some disk space for work in this course, but it will not be adequate for storing all of your work for the semester, so some personal disk space will be necessary, either on your own drive or in the cloud. Files that reside on the CS Department file system are backed up every hour and many students have been saved thanks to this feature. If you work in another environment, take care to backup your work often. No accommodation will be made for computer problems that occur on non-CS Dept. equipment.

Health and Wellness

CSCI 1280 students will be spending most of their course work time using computers. Check here for best ergonomic practices to safeguard your health and well-being. We want you to work hard, but not suffer to a detrimental level. Students who would like consideration for disabilities should register with SAS.

The department's Health and Wellness advocates have been working on a document of resources specifically tailored to people in the CS department. The resources guide is a living document here.


Making animation is fun, but as you know by now it takes a lot of time to do great work. As you approach the technical exercises in this course, maintain focus of why we are doing all this work: to tell great stories and/or show great imagery. As you do each assignment, imagine the bigger work that it might be part of and use the same test you learned in CSCI 1250: everything should contribute to the story or the concept. With greater technical knowledge and skills, you will be that much better at expressing your ideas.

Remote Learning 2021

Instead of changing everything on this page that relates to the pandemic, we'll address issues here.

Barb's office hours: Please email me if you'd like to have a zoom meeting.
TA Hours: All TA hours will be remote
Assignments: Due to a shorter semester, there will be one fewer assignment, so five plus the final project. It is likely that students will be able to choose from several projects ("do two out of these 3-4").
Course communications: Important announcements like changes to course policy, deadlines, or clarifications of assignments will be sent via the course listserv email. The course will also maintain a Slack for announcements like TA hour changes, pointers to additional material, fun social interaction, and most importantly, for seeking help outside TA hours. Each student will have a private channel with Barb and the TAs to ask questions in addition to more public help discussion channels. Students should understand that their Slack questions cannot always be addressed quickly, especially near assignment deadlines.
Class meetings: This course will meet synchronously at the scheduled time. Attendance is mandatory. We ask that when students attend remotely, they keep their webcams on for class discussions and critiques except for brief breaks. If we are allowed to meet in person, some students may occasionally have to attend remotely if in-person enrollment exceeds the room limit. Class meetings will be recorded and links to the recordings and other materials will be provided on Google Drive. For class meeting with remote guest speakers, we may make the entire meeting remote since it may be more difficult to interact with guests who are not in the room. If the in-person class experience is not above threshold, we will meet only remotely.
Computers and Software: Students in this course typically download Maya and some of the Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Premier) to their personal computers or they use the MS lab computers. For Spring 2021, the MS lab is not available for in-person use, but if a student's personal computer is not adequate for course work, they will be assigned an MS lab computer that can be accessed remotely. In addition, the office of the Dean of the College can loan computers if needed. They write:

Students who do not have a computer that meets requirements may be eligible for a long-term loaner laptop or laptop replacement assistance based on their demonstrated financial need as determined by the Office of Financial Aid. To ensure your privacy, please know that informing the course staff is not necessary if you do not have a computer that meets requirements; the E-Gap Advisory Team will directly contact all students enrolled in this course who have exceptionally high demonstrated financial need to assess computing needs and discuss available assistance.
Houdini: SideFX offers a free version of Houdini to students, but you can't render high-res images without a paid license. Students can access the three paid licenses remotely, but this does take some time to set up and test, so plan accordingly. The licenses are shared with other CSCI 1280 students and independent study students.
Computer mouse, external storage, and backups: Even if you have your own laptop, you may want to purchase a 3-button mouse (2 buttons and clickable scroll wheel is fine) for using Maya. As noted in the hardware section above, you will need a minimum of 8-10 gigabytes of storage on your hard drive for class work, and another 2-4 Gb for the software. You are responsible for backing up your work to another disk: to the Brown CS filestystem, to another drive, or to the cloud.