Tags: Visual Development,  Alumni


Academy 4 Life

Argentinean-born alumnus Nicolás Villarreal, MFA ’02, came to Academy of Art University in 2000 as a 21-year-old with a degree in 2D animation from the Escuela of Animación y Cinematografía de Avellaneda. He pursued a custom master’s degree program in Animation & Visual Effects and Illustration, graduating with honors in 2002. Four years later, he returned to the Academy to teach in the Animation school, before becoming the founding director of the School of Visual Development. For Villarreal, the Academy is home. “Coming to San Francisco, and especially to this school, I became part of a community. I love animation, and I love teaching here."

Animating the World

Outside of school, Villarreal is the creative director of Red Clover Studios, a family business he runs with his father and brother. Among the animated short films the company has produced are Nieta (2014) and Pasteurized (2012), two titles that were featured in Court Métrage programs during recent editions of the Cannes Film Festival. Nieta tells the story of how an incoming storm helps transform a young girl’s view of the world, while Pasteurized centers on hijinks that ensue after a scientist receives an unexpected visitor on a quiet night of experimentation. The trailer for Red Clover’s third production, The House of Colors, recently debuted on the company’s website.

Nicolás Villarreal Gallery

Building a Program

“Imagine that the movie theatre screen is a white canvas,” Villarreal says. “Our job as visual developers is to fill up that space with functional and appealing designs.” To teach Academy students how to achieve this, Villarreal drew from his experience as a student to design a Visual Development program that is rich in animation, illustration and fine art. “A lot of those disciplines are crucial to the design of characters and environment, and familiarize students with structure, shape and form. As a visual development artist, you will work off a script or creative brief to design the look of a film or a style that moves and flows in a cohesive universe. Visual development applies to everything from film to animated film, TV, theater and even industrial design.”

Providing Experience (& Experiences)

As a traditional animator, character designer, sculptor and visual development artist for clients including Penguin Random House UK, TED Conferences, Amazon and The Jim Henson Company—and as the leader of his own Red Clover Studios—Villarreal is uniquely positioned to offer his students a wealth of knowledge and opportunity. Through Red Clover, he has provided invaluable mentorship and real-world experience to student-artists who have worked on two award-winning animated shorts, Pasteurized and Nieta, and who thus were able to create and produce visual effects, 3D models, motion graphics and designs, and composited shots for both films.

For Villarreal, the success of the School of Visual Development lies on three essential foundations:

1. The Instructors

Part of the reason Villarreal was first attracted to Academy of Art University as an international student was the caliber of its instructors. “They set the pace for an outstanding, current program because they are working in their industries and can teach students what’s happening now. That can create a seamless transition into the job market.”

2. The Program

Academy of Art University has a long tradition of maintaining its curricula at the forefront of trends and at the cutting edge of technology. “All of our classes are constantly updated, and collaboration is key,” he says. “Because of that, we work almost like a studio filled with young professionals. Barbara Bradley, the first director of the School of Illustration, always said, ‘Work hard, be nice, and never miss a deadline.’”

3. The Location

The Academy's San Francisco location is not a minor detail, Villarreal notes. “I came here when I was [21 and] very young - even though I didn’t know I was young at the time. The Bay Area is incredible, and San Francisco doubles as the best university campus you could want. Art and technology are everywhere here, so there’s a lot of opportunity to grow as an artist. You can always go outside in San Francisco and be part of the community; you never have to feel alone. That’s important for someone who comes from another country, from another place.”


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Have you ever wondered how elaborate scenes and characters are imagined for movies or how fantastical worlds are realized in video games? That's the job of the visual development artist.

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