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Paper. Pencil. Imagination.

Sitting in a coffee shop and studying people—that’s all John McAmis needs as he presses his sharpened pencil to his sketchbook. As he draws, he tries to capture people’s facial expressions and hand gestures—essential details to an animator.


“I 100 percent believe that animation is the closest that humans will get to real magic,” said McAmis, of Tullahoma, a sophomore in the College Scholars program.

Through the College Scholars program, McAmis has become the only animation major at UT.

As a freshman he was an architecture major but knew animation was his passion. A session with his advisor set him on his current course.

“I just broke down and confessed I’ve always wanted to do animation even though I knew it wasn’t realistic,” McAmis said. “But the advisor told me about the College Scholars program and we kind of went from there.”

After being accepted into College Scholars, McAmis developed his curriculum, composed of independent courses where he makes his own syllabus. His advisor, associate professor of art and local filmmaker Paul Harrill, looks over the syllabus and approves McAmis’s schedule.

“With John putting together his own course of study he sees that he’s really responsible for learning, that an education is something you claim,” Harrill said.

McAmis has built his curriculum around what he believes to be the essentials of good animation—drawing, computer science, and filmmaking.

“Nobody on UT’s campus really knows animation, but Paul knows filmmaking and I think that’s really useful,” McAmis said. “Not many animators know filmmaking techniques.”

While filmmaking is useful, McAmis said he believes drawing is the most important skill for an animator.

“I did a lot of drawing when I was little,” he said. “I used to have this massive collection of those art set briefcases with the crayons and the crappy paper. But I let art fall to the wayside for a while until high school, when I picked it up again.”

He set his sights on animation after a lecture from his dad.

“My dad would say, ‘You need to find your passion. You need to enjoy your work,'” McAmis said. “I thought about that a lot, and I came to the conclusion that I would really like to work for Pixar. I can sweep their floor. I didn’t care what I had to do, but I knew I wanted to get there.”

john2The drive to work for Pixar fueled his ambition but didn’t stop him from exploring other aspects of animation.

“I love Pixar, and hopefully they are my future employer, but I’ve been trying to broaden my scope of animation,” McAmis said. “As I kid, I didn’t know what Dreamworks was or what Pixar was, but I knew that I liked A Bug’s Life infinitely more than Antz so even as a child I had this pull towards Pixar because their stories were more appealing to me.”

McAmis knows animation will be a challenging field.

“I know it’s going to be hard,” he said. “I mean you work on a film for five to seven years and the payoff is a ninety-minute film.”

McAmis will work as a caricature artist at Dollywood this summer.

“Caricature relates so much to animation,” he said, adding that the job comes with great perks. “I’m getting paid to draw—and I get to ride roller coasters.”

As he continues to pursue a career in animation, McAmis is excited about what the future holds.

“I believe that we’re just a small blip in the universe,” he said. “There have been people to make their blips brighter than others. I don’t want to be some famous person winning Oscars or anything, but I do want to make something meaningful and make my blip a little brighter.”

Note: This story was written by Jessica Carr, of Maryville, a junior in journalism and electronic media at UT. She can be reached at or 803-972-0496.

Photo credit: Ryan McGill, a junior in journalism and electronic media at UT.


Amy Blakely (865-974-5034,