Students combine animation, voice acting concepts in innovative new course

November 07, 2022

Students on University of Detroit Mercy's McNichols Campus are bringing digital characters to life through acting and animation techniques as part of a new course this fall. 

In Computer Animation and Voice Acting, students in the University’s Communications Studies and Theatre programs work together to create animated films using Adobe Character Animator. They’re tasked with handling a variety of steps in developing a short film, from scriptwriting to directing to producing to editing. 

There’s also no specialization in the course, allowing students to experience both disciplines no matter their background. 

“They’re required to do both computer animation and voice acting, so that they learn from each other,” Associate Professor Andrew Papa said. “It’s not just us lecturing at them about the importance of these skills, it’s them actually learning from each other in these group projects. They become more integral, collaborative and well-rounded in their work.” 

Papa is co-teaching the course with Associate Professor Jason Roche, building off a similar acting and film course that they taught together in 2017. Roche began experimenting with Character Animator during the COVID-19 pandemic and used it to liven up his virtual lectures. It didn’t take long for him to see value in bringing the software to students. 

“I just fell in love with playing around with the software,” Roche said. “It made my online lectures stand out and I thought, ‘I’ve got to incorporate this as a course. It’s so easy to use and it’s going to unleash an entirely new set of creative tools for our students.’ Being able to act with it, it seemed like a natural fit.” 

Character Animator captures students’ facial expressions, movements and voices in real time through a computer’s webcam and microphone. Students can use a wide variety of characters within the software, including spooky ghosts and goblins, Santa’s elves and humans of all ages. 

A grant from Detroit Mercy’s Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning helped fund the development of the course and purchase of additional characters from ElectroPuppet. 

“Body tracking changed my view of animation,” said Jahleel Hunley, a freshman studying Theatre at Detroit Mercy. “I’m starting to love it more, because there’s more things you can do with it, more freedom.” 

The opportunity to try voice acting made the course stand out to Communications Studies senior Lorenzo Izzi. 

“We haven’t done anything like that or have worked with the Theatre students,” Izzi said. “You kind of get both parts of it, the editing and voice work. That was pretty intriguing.” 

Students work on several projects in the course, headlined by a final short film that will be played during a showcase at the end of the fall semester. Because the projects being produced are original, students can include their work in digital portfolios when starting their careers. 

“When you have these individual skills on your resume, you can say to prospective employers, ‘I’ve also done some work with Character Animator.’ Not every theatre person is going to have Character Animator on their resume, but our students will,” Papa said. “It elevates the skill sets that make them more appealing to prospective employers.” 

“By the time they’re done, they’re going to benefit by having this in their portfolio,” Roche added. “They’re writing, directing, producing and starring in their own stuff that they’re going to animate themselves.” 

After just a few weeks in the course, Izzi believes the experience will benefit him as he pursues a future in production or marketing. 

“I think it’s one more thing you can put on your resume, and I think that helps a lot in a competitive field,” he said. 

Papa is grateful for the ability to collaborate with another program for a course within Detroit Mercy’s College of Liberal Arts & Education. Both professors hope Computer Animation and Voice Acting will be offered again in the future. 

“I’d say to a certain degree, a lot of colleges and universities don’t have the ability to offer things like this,” he said. “We’re kind of doing something that a lot of universities feel they can’t, whereas this is an institution that says ‘please, do that.’ Our world is becoming more collaborative and interdisciplinary, and our students need to be ready for that.”

— By Ricky Lindsay. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.