Volume 19, Number 2
0 Under the Influence By Rhonda Schaller 0
Howard Beckerman
& Tom Sito

A look at the lasting influence of a longtime SVA faculty member.
Howard Beckerman, proposed character design Captain Bark.

Animator Howard Beckerman has been teaching at SVA for close to 40 years. Since 1972, he has helped thousands of students hone their animation skills by stressing versatility in drawing, design and storytelling. He has always tried to inspirethem to observe the world around them, sketch what they see, and broaden their understanding of the way things move and interact. No one has influenced SVA students more in building foundations for effective animation than has Beckerman. Just ask successful Hollywood animator Tom Sito, one of Beckerman's earliest students.

Tom Sito (BFA 1977 Media Arts) met Howard Beckerman in 1974 when he signed up for Beckerman's History of Animation class. "I was captivated by him as a teacher, a storyteller, and as an experienced animation professional," Sito says. "He was one of the first I ever met of the mysterious breed of artist who bring cartoon characters to life." Despite the difference in their ages, the two men hit it off immediately, and seem to have been great mirrors for each other from the start. It's a relationship that continues to this day. "I appreciated Tom's sincere interest in animation as well as his broad interest in other subjects, especially history," says Beckerman. "He could be funny and properly cynical when necessary. He reminded me of myself at his age.

Beckerman has been a definite influence on Sito's animation work and teaching style. "I was the son of a New York City fireman, working-class Brooklyn," says Sito. "What did I know about the world of art and artists? Howard taught me technique and a lot more. I learned about professionalism, meeting deadlines, networking with other artists as part of your job search, the importance of participating in the professional community by belonging to organizations like ASIFA [Association Internationale du Film d'Animation / International Animated Film Association] and the National Cartoonists Society."

Beckerman & Sito circa 1987.

Beckerman was the first to teach Sito some of the technical tricks of the trade; how to work with exposure sheets that instruct the cameraman on how the animation is to be shot, to work out camera moves, how to paint and work with multiple animation cel levels. "He taught me how to develop a professional attitude toward deadlines and projects," says Sito. As a budding animator, having a faculty member who can connect you with industry contacts is a dream come true. "Howard introduced us to his famous-cartoonist friends," Sito continues. "People like Burne Hogarth and Jerry Robinson, who created the Joker for Batman. Howard also introduced me to the world of international filmmaking, inviting me to a reception for the New York International Animation Festival in 1974, where I met animators from Russia and Italy and Canada.

When Sito graduated in 1977, animation was in one of its cyclical downswings, so it was difficult for him to get a job. "Howard coached us through the tough times," says Sito. "Even now, Howard teaches us by example. How to be an elder statesman of The Craft. How to keep your dignity in a field too often shortchanged and not taken seriously by the mainstream media.

Today, Sito lives in Southern California, but whenever he is in New York he tries to visit Beckerman. "Howard treats me as a fellow professional," Sito says, "and he makes no secret of how proud he is of me and all my classmates who went on to become tops of their profession in Hollywood—people like Barry Caldwell, Lennie Graves, Yvette Kaplan, Alex Kuperschmidt, Sylvia Hoefnagel, Kevin Petrilak, Russell Calabrese, and the late Prez Romanillos."

Tom Sito, storyboard from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1988.
© Walt Disney/Amblin Entertainment.

Sito teaches History of Animation and Animation Fundamentals at the University of Southern California and credits his becoming a teacher of animation, in part, from the experiences he gained from Beckerman. "I have taught workshops around the world, from Berlin to Beijing," Sito says, "and some of what I teach is still based on my first lessons from Howard. He had a great influence on my lecture style, and I still use many of the anecdotes he first told me about old 'Golden Age' animation greats like Bill Tytla and Shamus Culhane."

Beckerman is currently completing a short animated film and putting together a book on his experiences in animation. Reflecting on how far Sito has come, he says, "He could teach me many things now. His experiences since leaving SVA have been very broad and multifaceted. Actually, I'll bet there are many laughs we could share regarding the similarities in attitudes of people in the film business.

Sito says that meeting Howard Beckerman and learning from him was one of the most important early milestones in his career. "His stories remain with me," Sito says, "and I pass them on to newer generations, the members of which now look on me as the elder statesman!

Credits            From the President