Neon Arts is a program of the NYC Department of Probation in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. Together, these organization endeavor to provide young people who have been in the juvenile justice system programs that explore and develop creative skills that build their capacity to fully participate in the workforce.
For example, the Animation Project, founded seven years ago by professional animator Brian Austin, teaches young men and women how to create professional level, 3-D animation with 3 Studio Max by Auto Desk– literally the same software that makes the games they play and the films they watch, such as Toy Story and Grand Theft Auto.
More importantly, youth participants learn storyboard development and scriptwriting from themes related to whatever is going on in their lives that they need to express. “It is a therapeutic and skills-based program,” said Austin, who, aside from being a professional animator is also a licensed therapist.
“I was always interested in art and psychology and art therapy, and then I just got turned on to computer graphics,” said Austin. “After 15 years of doing art graphics and commercials, I kinda burned out… I thought I would go back to painting, but I quickly realized that youth are really engaged with technology.”
Austin founded the animation project to give groups of kids a highly sought-after skill set they otherwise might never experience (basic animation classes start at $3,000).
Currently, every single kid enrolled in the program works with at least two team leaders (one trained animator and therapist) using top animation programs and technology. Kids come up with a story idea and then learn how to turn it into a video.
“We ask them what is the character doing? How are they feeling? Are they scared? And why? So they get to really start to think about the stories they’re telling… And the stories change over time,” said Austin. “The kids love the software, because it’s cool. They come away with really good technical skills and have the therapeutic benefit of getting to process some of the things going on in their life.”
The program is based in lower Manhattan but has sites across the five boroughs. In Brooklyn, there is a program that is run out of Brooklyn Democracy Academy, a transfer high school in East New York; there’s also a for-credit class offered at the Graham Windham Center on Ralph Avenue in Bed-Stuy. Additionally, they just finished a program with the Crown Heights Mediation Center; and there are two other active programs across the street from each other at P.S. 327 and the Crossroads Detention Center, both in Brownsville.
All the kids come through their community partners, such as the Department of Probation. Or a youth may be referred through the family court center. However, they do not recruit kids outside of their partnership. This year, they have enrolled over 500 youth.
“And the tragedy is, these kids can do it. And some of then become really good,” he said.
He added, quite a few have gone on to receive internships at established tech companies… and that just makes him happy! He’s thrilled to have found a career doing something that combines his skills to provide a real and lasting impact for others.
“It’s an expensive program, but I think it’s a great program– it’s something I don’t have to ‘BS’ about [when explaining it],” said Austin. “The best part about it is what the kids get to take away. Because with these skills, they’ll never ask where you went to school; they’ll just be like, show me your work.”
See below video of some student work: