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Domee Shi Oscar win adds to storied legacy of Sheridan College animation program

Domee Shi, director of the Pixar short film "Bao" poses for a photo at the Shangri La Hotel in Toronto on Monday, June 11, 2018. The latest Pixar short is packed with firsts: the first directed by a Chinese-Canadian, the first directed by a woman, the first helmed by an all-female writer-director-producer team and the first to be set in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Toronto-raised director Domee Shi’s Oscar win for the Pixar short “Bao” on Sunday had Sheridan College’s animation program celebrating — and added yet another notch to its stellar legacy.

Shi and Hamilton-born director Trevor Jimenez, who was nominated in the same category of best animated short for “Weekends,” are both graduates of the Ontario-based program that was feeling “a deep sense of happiness and pride,” a representative said Monday.

They’re among several Academy Awards-recognized alumni of the program that’s been called the Harvard of animation schools for its reputation for producing top-tier talent.

“Our program has always been very connected to the industry, very industrially minded,” said Christopher Walsh, a professor in the honours bachelor of arts animation program.

“One of the modules I teach is Canadian animation history, and Sheridan College animation is actually a part of that history. And I make it clear to students that this program helped to build the Canadian animation industry.”

Shi’s film, about a Chinese-Canadian woman who dotes on a dumpling that springs to live, reflects her Toronto upbringing and heritage. And Jimenez’s Toronto-set story, about a young boy who’s shuffled between the homes of his divorced parents, was inspired by his own experiences with his parents’ split.

“In both Domee’s case and in Trevor’s case, they’ve worked very hard not just to get ahead in their particular disciplines but to find themselves as filmmakers,” Walsh said.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the program at the Oakville campus attracts students from around the world and offers a four-year degree in both classical and computer animation, which evolved from a three-year diploma program in 2001. It also offers one-year graduate certificate programs in computer animation, visual effects and digital character animation.

Alumni have gone on to work at major studios, including Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Nelvana and Guru — sometimes within days of graduating.

“I did the summer school classical animation program for three years, from 1988 to 1990, and it was an amazing experience,” Dean DeBlois, an Oscar-nominated writer-director behind the “How to Train Your Dragon” films, said in a recent interview.

“You got to do everything, from conceiving of your story and storyboarding all the way through to the final editing, and you’re working with all the equipment. So it gave you a broad sense of filmmaking and did not put you in a box.”

Other alumni who have won Oscars include Jon Minnis in 1985 for “Charade,” Chris Williams in 2015 for “Big Hero 6,” and Alan Barillaro in 2017 with “Piper.”

“It’s a great legacy,” said DeBlois, who was hired to work for acclaimed animator Don Bluth just a month after finishing the program.

David Quesnelle, a professor in the B.A. animation program, said they prepare students “to be work-ready, work on any production, work in any position on production.”

They also “push the drawing skills and the creative skills and the storytelling skills — and the cinematic and acting skills,” he added.

“Because animation is really about acting. We’ve always called ourselves ‘actors with pencils,’ and now we’re actors with computers and pencils.”

That approach stretches back to when the program first started in the 1960s and recruited instructors who had worked in the industry, at major studios including Disney and Lucasfilm.

“They wanted people to develop skills to become artists and auteurs of their own, and be able to be a contributing member within a studio system,” Quesnelle said.

“And to fall in love with the artform, where you’re always constantly trying to improve yourself, you’re always constantly trying to learn new things, you’re always constantly trying to experiment but also to be a very strong co-worker.”

Shi and Jimenez embraced that mentality when they were in the program, he added, noting they were both inquisitive, wanting to improve their own skills and contributing ideas and drawing skills to group projects.

The two, who now work at Pixar, are also examples of the program’s emphasis on telling stories that strike a passion within the filmmakers.

“I said to the first-year students, ‘Look at this as an example,’ pointing to the importance of making good, short films,” said Walsh.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press