COVID-19 Points of View: Christopher Oakley, History of Animation Class Makes History

April 20, 2020

Digital Revolutions was the topic on the syllabus for Associate Professor and Chair of New Media Christopher Oakley’s April 8 History of Animation class, but this spring semester it was a digital revolution of its own, becoming the first class session offered via Zoom webinar in UNC Asheville history. The reason was the COVID-19 pandemic, during which all classes are offered remotely, and the results have given Oakley new ways to think about his teaching.

“The students are really engaged and asking questions,” Oakley said of the webinar format. “It’s much more discussion than we’ve ever been able to have before. Usually if I’m in the classroom and there are so many questions, we only have five or ten minutes at the end of a film. Now [since we’re not watching a full feature film,] I’m showing longer clips that illustrate what I’m trying to say and we have time for in-depth discussions.”

Oakley has a lot of experience to share with more than 25 years as an animator, screenwriter and director in the film, television, commercial and game industries. After several years working as a stop motion animator and director he was recruited by Walt Disney Feature Animation where he spent four years on their pioneering computer-generated film “Dinosaur.” Since then he has worked on films for such companies as DreamWorks and Rhythm & Hues. He also spent several years directing animation for EA Games, where he served as a hiring manager giving him insight into leveling the playing field in the industry.

The role of gender in the animation industry is one of many topics covered in the course, which also examines how animation is used in advertising, experimental animation, anime, propaganda, and the demise and rebirth of racism and bigotry in animation. In addition, it offers an overview of the history of animation, focusing on the influence of studios like Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Bros., Studio Ghibli, and Pixar.

And it’s proving popular with students. Each semester that Oakley has offered History of Animation: From Pencils to Pixels, the class has grown in size. It started with 25 students. Then grew to 50 the following year and 75 the next. This spring 2020 semester it’s the largest class yet, with 132 students enrolled, making it one of the largest classes on a campus where the average class size is 20 students. Until spring break it met in the Rhoades Robinson Hall lecture room 125 – befitting the film screenings and presentations that make this class a crowd favorite. (Also of note, there’s no final paper assignment, as it would be too many to grade.)

The webinar format brings the course to students’ small screens, still at the same time on Wednesday evenings, with fun features such as class polls and online options to raise hands and ask questions. Oakley records the lectures in advance – each one takes nearly two days to produce –  so students can pick a movie-night or day of their choice prior to the class discussion.

The course also fulfills diversity intensive and arts & ideas requirements, and it’s offered every spring and summer. With just 40 seats in the upcoming summer 2020 session, it’s likely to fill up fast. See the schedule and sign up at