Who knew Nashville was an animation destination?

In the seven years since Lipscomb University launched its animation program as part of the Department of Cinematic Arts within the George Shinn College of Entertainment & the Arts, the school and the city have attracted national attention for their thriving growth within the industry.

This year, for example, Lipscomb added a master’s degree to its program, which began with eight students in 2015 and has more than 115 next-generation animators. And not only are several major projects planned here, but Nashville’s growing industry seems to be drawing animators to live here.

Former Disney animator Tom Bancroft, Lipscomb’s artist-in-residence, has assembled an all-star faculty team that includes fellow Disney legend John Pomeroy and “VeggieTales” co-creator Mike Nawrocki to take the school and city to a higher degree of animation production.

“When I set up this animation program with Lipscomb, very quickly I discovered, one, I love Nashville and that I didn’t want to leave Nashville to pursue my animation (dreams) for the last third of my animation career,” said Bancroft, whose credits include working on Disney classics like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and many others. For “Mulan,” he created the character Mushu the Dragon.

“Very quickly, within the first few years, my sub-goal that I didn’t tell anybody was to help develop the animation industry of Nashville,” added Bancroft, who recently launched the crowd-invested Pencilish Animation Studios. “I really feel like we’re at that point now where we have an animation industry here in Nashville.

“We’ve always had a couple of small studios (notably Nashville Magnetic Dreams Animation Studios, IV Animation and Fivestone Studios), but now we’re adding to that — about three or four more studios that have popped up just in this last year, all with major projects.”

Kristen Breshears, a Lipscomb senior majoring in animation, likes what she sees for Nashville’s future in the industry and plans for a career in Nashville rather than Hollywood.

“A lot of people from California have come here, and they really like what Tom is doing. They really see a lot of potential for a new hub here, and it’s really exciting to see that,” Breshears said.

Pomeroy, whose credits include everything from “Winnie The Pooh and Tigger Too” to “Pete’s Dragon” to “Pocahontas” to “The Simpsons Movie,” says Nashville’s growing stature reflects a worldwide appreciation for animation.

“There’s just a plethora of students that are interested in getting involved in animated movie making, whether it’s for commercials, whether it’s for game design and game concept, whether it’s for feature animation, whatever. There is just a huge, huge appetite growing here,” said Pomeroy, who in June launched Pomeroy Arts Academy to train future animators. He is part of the adjunct faculty at Lipscomb.

“It is very exciting, and I do think the students here feel that excitement. They’re looking forward to being involved. We had one or two of my students from my classes being hired by DreamWorks or Disney, so they actually leave Tennessee and go work in California, which is terrific. That’s wonderful. And some stay here. They find commercial work, they find long-distance work like I’ve been feeding them. So it’s been terrific,” added Pomeroy, who is working on a sequel to the 2007 Disney film “Enchanted.”

Nawrocki, a visiting professor of cinematic arts who lives in Franklin, cites several examples of Nashville’s growth in animation.

“There’s just a lot of talent here, and what we’re doing is growing more talent with the university. A lot of the students coming out are being trained by some of the best folks in the industry. We’re hoping that we’re building a workforce here that can sustain more and more projects as they come true. I’m just starting to see a lot of folks moving out from L.A. who just love living here in Nashville, love the culture, love the artistic culture itself,” said Nawrocki, whose current project “The Dead Sea Squirrels” has been fully funded for 13 episodes that he hopes lands on a streaming service in late 2022 or early 2023.

The pilot for “The Dead Sea Squirrels” cost about $120,000, and 20 Lipscomb students worked on that episode. Between the Tennessee Entertainment Commission’s tax incentive program and two private investors, $2.5 million was raised to fund the 13-episode season, Nawrocki said.

Each episode runs 22 minutes, with three minutes being produced at Lipscomb and the remaining 19 minutes produced in New Zealand with partner Mukpuddy Animation.

“(Nashville’s) just a great place to live and work, so I’m hoping that the industry can grow more and more, and we can just have more projects coming out of our city,” he said. “I mean, the talent base is here, and the state is doing a lot of great things to incentivize that as well.”

Like Lipscomb, Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro has a booming animation program in its Department of Media Arts, part of the College of Media and Entertainment.

Kevin McNulty, an associate professor at MTSU, points out how the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped animation and why Nashville is attracting people to live here.

“A lot of the industry in general, just because of the pandemic, it has evolved dramatically, people having to work from home remotely. That’s actually opened up a lot of avenues for our industry, in particular right now. The animation industry is booming, and a lot of that was spurred on because of the pandemic,” McNulty said.

“When a lot of live-action stuff had to shut down, (studios) realized, ‘Oh, well, animation can still happen’ because they don’t physically need to put an actor close to another actor,” he added, noting that one of his adjunct faculty members teaches remotely from California.

“It’s a changing, evolving time right now. That’s a benefit to all of us. Usually, Middle Tennessee is dominant with music, so for getting more of the visual people here, all the better.”

Other faculty members in Lipscomb’s animation program include industry professionals James Elston, Eric Stars, Mike Meredith, Victoria Thornberry and Diana Coco Russell.

“It’s really been, I think, a God thing that has led all of these people here to make this amazing program that really doesn’t deserve to be at a small little school here in Nashville,” Bancroft said.

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