In the post-digital classroom, some students are taught creative career skills, including animation, using state-of-the-art tools like Wacom Cintiqs and professional software. Crash course: while talent is widely and evenly distributed, these learning opportunities are not.
Creator X was launched to bridge this gap between talent and opportunity in arts education, enabling students to pursue careers in Arts Media and Entertainment (AME). Based in Sacramento, California, the three-day annual summer camp connects 120 likeminded youth to network with each other as well as learn directly from industry professionals, workshops and keynote presentations covering six disciplines: story, music, traditional art, dance, performance and animation — entirely for free.
Camp alum Kristin Schueller recounts how this impacted her career, “Creator X gave me the confidence to explore different mediums to express my creativity. The instructors helped me to find a better direction for my future of attending art college. They also gave advice from their personal experiences in the industry that was extremely helpful to me.”
On top of these priceless life lessons, the students end up walking away from the camp with about $1,500 worth of tools and software. Much like the program itself, the story behind Creator X is almost too good to be true.
The men behind the mentorship
Creator X was founded in 2018 by Sheldon High School (SHS) animation teacher Shawn Sullivan and his former student David Garibaldi, who has since gone on to become an internationally famous speed painter. His accomplishments include being a finalist on season seven of America’s Got Talent, performing for the Obamas at the White House and he is currently touring with NBA half-time shows around North America.
While Garibaldi has become the face of Creator X, Sullivan has always been its heart. When he joined in SHS in 1998, he launched the school’s animation program — a feat that had never properly been done anywhere in America before.
“The big push right now is STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. There’s an area being left out, which is the arts and creativity. It’s great that we focus on STEM, but if we don’t teach and encourage kids to be creative, they’re just going to regurgitate what they’ve learned in a classroom as opposed to coming up with new concepts,” explains Sullivan.
He continues, “Art isn’t the only way to teach creativity, but I feel it’s one of the strongest. So teaching animation and creativity is very important, not just for the kids, but for the world in general. If we’re going to ask these kids to go forward and solve world problems, we need to make sure that they have the creative skills to do it.”
Today, the SHS animation program covers techniques across 2D, 3D and VR, teaching everything from the basics to basically professional. Sullivan has made it a point to incorporate talks and workshops from industry leaders into his K9 Studios, with the goal of reviving apprentice-style teaching that educates and empowers his students to work in the real world.
Much like the values of giving back and knowledge sharing he teaches his students, mentorship was essential to Sullivan’s own story. He graduated from UC Davis with a degree in fine arts under the tutelage of the international artist Wayne Tebow. When he was 23, he met David Feiss (creator of Cartoon Network’s Cow and Chicken), who introduced him to animation as a career just as he was getting his teaching credentials.
Instead of choosing between his love of toons and teaching, Sullivan resolved to marry the two. The resulting program has received top marks from students, parents and the industry. His pupils’ work has been picked up by HBO, won National Television Academy Awards and a Regional Emmy Award, and his course was named the best high school animation program in the world by the Walt Disney Family Foundation.
Sullivan says of the honour, “I didn’t know it was a competition. [The Walt Disney Family Foundation] kept showing up, bringing people to come see what I was doing. And then later they announced I was in the running against a program in China and another one in Southern California, and they declared mine was the best. It was a huge honour.”
Today, he is working with 13 different schools to replicate the program for them. Going back to the beginning though, Garibaldi was one of his first students in the late 90s — a core group Sullivan calls his “old men.” In those days, the prof barely had any equipment, software or hardware, and pupils often had to work from his personal home computer to finish films. When he first met Garibaldi, the latter was what Sullivan likes to call an “aerosol artist.”
Sullivan told him, “‘If you keep doing what you’re doing with the graffiti work, you’re going to pay for it eventually. But if you want to get paid for doing it, come see me.’ David followed me immediately into my classroom asking, ‘What do you mean get paid? What do you do?’ I told him, ‘If you want to work with me, you need to stop doing the illegal stuff and I’ll start showing you how to take what you’re doing and put it in a positive direction.’ Everything I taught him in my class, from animating to editing to sound to storytelling, is part of his show today.”
Sullivan continues, “He worked hard and eventually, when he graduated, he started trying to figure out what he could do with it. He kept creating and designing his work. Eventually, he started coming up with how to incorporate all those things I showed him and it’s in the show he does today. He would tell you he’d probably have been in jail; he changed his life by walking into an animation class.”
Taking Creator X from X-tracurricular event to X-traordinary impact
Over the last 20 years, Sullivan’s mentorship has evolved into a partnership with Garibaldi — and thus, Creator X. In fact, as the program has grown, it seems the roles have occasionally reversed.
Hesitant about taking a leap forward with the program, Sullivan recalls how Garibaldi used his own words against him, “‘So what’s stopping you? What’s holding you back? You need funding and what’s stopping you? Why is funding stopping you?'”
“He’s like, ‘Hey, if you really want to do this, you find a time, we’ll find the funding and we’ll make sure this gets out to the kids.’ And so he came in and did seed money for us and got us up and running.”
Together, they are leveraging arts education and animation to make a difference in the lives of students in the Sacramento area, though they aspire to see it replicated around the state, country and world, eventually.
“If you go to my classroom, it’s outfitted like a professional studio with software like Toon Boom, and then I have full-sized Cintiqs and students have all this high-end computer stuff to work with,” says Sullivan.
He continues, “But if I drive two miles in any direction, I’m in the boundaries of a whole other school. And when I went to go visit those teachers who wanted to start animation programs, their kids were drawing with a mouse and they didn’t have any animation software. So the idea was to start advocating to ensure [proper] tools got into other schools and in other programs.”
Art isn’t the only way to teach creativity, but I feel it’s one of the strongest.Shawn Sullivan
This classroom work is done under the Animation Intern Program, a separate initiative Sullivan set up. He aims to provide his fellow educators with training, curriculums and lessons, workplace learning opportunities and access to industry professionals. Given the red tape many teachers face, Sullivan has also found loopholes to get his program into other school districts including creating a company to make it easier for schools to bring in animation pros.
It’s this determined boldness from Sullivan and Garibaldi that’s given Creator X its X factor. And while the results of the program speak for themselves, students are always happy to say something as well.
Recent Creator X participant Aiden Petersen reflected, “Creator X helped me become more confident in my art. It taught me how to get more into character, and become more expressive so that other people could appreciate my art — how to create a good story, that people would understand and enjoy. I learned to be loud and excited and to have a good attitude about everything. I don’t think I just learned art skills at Creator X, I also learned life skills.”