AnimationMentor.com: Animation Education in Your Home

Alain Bielik dives into latest state-of-the-art fluid simulation advances and other CG modeling breakthroughs for Poseidon.

Patrick Kriwanek gives a streaming AV lecture/demo about editing and storytelling for Animation Mentor, a unique e-learning school. All images © Animation Mentor.

Once upon a time if your dream was to be a character animator your choices to achieve this dream were few and far between. You might have to save all of your pennies to move to California or New York to attend a premier art school or perhaps with lots of luck get a job as a P.A. on a production with, say, Richard Williams, and work your way up.

As time has gone on this process seems to have become more available and doable to those living in far off places with the growth of the industry and the influx of schools across the nation and the world offering animation programs. With the new era of technology and global community AnimationMentor.com, a character animation e-learning school, has taken it to the next level by offering a program that can be simultaneously attended by students in Dubai, Vancouver, San Francisco, or Scotland through video technology, and tools such as eCritique and public workspaces.

After just one year, enrollment is up to 453 students from 41 countries and there are more than 50 mentors who are working professionals from the animation industry. There are 35 fulltime and 18 campus mentors, which is a professional asked to visit the site, rove and comment on students work. The students are a cross section of complete rookies, animation and art school grads, engineers and even a police officer seeking a second career.

The program consists of six courses, with video training classes that give weekly assignments, live Q&As with mentors (from studios such as Pixar, ILM, Sony Imageworks, Disney Feature Animation, Tippett Studio, etc.), There are weekly deadlines to upload assignments, eCritique from mentors and a forum for public feedback from your classmates. Coursework includes basic foundations, principles of body mechanics, intro to acting, advance acting and then, ultimately, pre-production and creation of their own short film. The school costs less than a year at one of the top art schools, only $14,000 for the entire six sessions, which, if taken sequentially, would be about 18 months. Students can participate using 3D, 2D or stop motion to fulfill their coursework. The 2007 graduating class is currently entering into its fifth semester and members come from all points of the globe.

Using video and live interactive features makes the curriculum unique. We strongly believe you cant learn without quality feedback, says co-founder Shawn Kelly, who currently works at ILM but functions as director of the curriculum for AnimationMentor.com. All assignments are uploaded to public workspaces for the entire student body and mentors to review. Along with the mentor interaction, they incorporate guest speakers, such as Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and coming soon is a live Q&A session with five Blue Sky artists from the recent hit Ice Age 2. AnimationMentor.com also recently attempted a live improv session with remarkable results.

The idea of the e-school was born after Shawn Kelly, Carlos Baena and Bobby Beck (left to right) viewed many technically sufficient but dull animation reels.

The real life experience is really at the heart of the founders motivation for starting the school. After viewing reel after reel of technically sufficient but dull animation, they felt that students didnt seem to be getting what they really needed to succeed as a working character animator. Already having taught a bit around town, Bobby Beck (formerly of Pixar, now fulltime as ceo/president of AnimationMentor.com), Carlos Beana (concurrently at Pixar and creative director of AnimationMentor.com) and Kelly began to bounce around the idea of, wouldnt it be great if we could get into the heads of these students and give them what they need! Kelly in particular was very influenced in his career by mentors and felt a certain passion for this aspect of the program.

Hence, AnimationMentor.com was born. The curriculum was created with the collaboration of dozens of working artists and animators from the industry by utilizing a philosophy that character animation is a combination of story, acting, scene planning and a passion for the art form. I was skeptical at first that what we had to offer could replace a traditional brick and mortar experience, says Kelly, But I have been amazed to see how much better it has been than we imagined. Both Beck and Kelly agree that when they were starting out they wouldve died for this type of interaction with their heroes, animators working in the industry sharing their insights and techniques.

eCritique is the cornerstone feature of the program. Each students work is critiqued weekly via video by their mentor and then posted for the entire student body to see and post feedback. We realized that we learned so much more from each other as co-workers, seeking advice, tips, discovering things, or just sharing a cool film or book, says Kelly.

For everyone to be able to see each others work, it does give a real life feeling of being in a studio presenting to your director. Learning how to accept notes and incorporate them into their work is an important element for these students to absorb. And because of the lack of a physical classroom, this feature has created an atmosphere of community with public workspaces, forums and the critiques. The combination of these elements has become crucial to the success of the program.

Student Michael Plaisance lives in the Bay area and is in the fourth level session Advanced Acting. The best part of Animation Mentor has been being able to be in constant communication with my fellow students. We are all working on the same assignments. We can see each others work and have regular access to our mentors through e-mail, says Plaisance. We even started our own video chat room, once a week, where we can all get online together. Its like a great big Brady Bunch on the screen. The challenge is to live up to the expectations of your classmates everyones pushed to do their very best.

Animator Kenny Roy started as a campus mentor and now leads 35 students in advanced acting for the school. Being with these students, he observes, is like having a SIGGRAPH every week.

Global collaboration aside, still, you are learning on your own and this type of schooling requires a certain amount of discipline and motivation. No sleeping in or skipping classes here. Late assignments will affect your grade and not utilizing notes given from critiques can also be a huge downfall. We really considered how much time people would have to dedicate to achieving graduation some students put in crazy amounts of time. But you get out of it what you put in, says Kelly. Mentor Kenny Roy agrees, Im a tough grader! I want them to be fully prepared for the real working world!

Plaisance says he spends about 30 hours a week devoted to his schoolwork and, after only nine months in the program with a relatively limited background in animation, is already working on multicharacter/multishot scenes and preparing for the next step a short film. You need to be focused like a laser beam to really get the most out of what AnimationMentor.com has to offer, you really have to be able to devote the time to it. You cant go in halfway.

The mentors are all working professionals from the studios with familiar names like Burgess and Sweetland. They are paid for their time, but all seem to be eager to be part of the process of helping the next wave of animators come along. Kenny Roy started as a campus mentor, now he is leading 35 students in advanced acting. Roy is currently directing Nike commercials and spent a year at WETA Digital working on King Kong. I love to talk shop, and be in the thick of it like at SIGGRAPH. Being with these students is like having a SIGGRAPH every week. Week to week it is really exciting to see everyones work and see them get it!

Each mentor has their own style, but enthusiasm and passion are clearly necessary requirements. Most of the mentors are former or current colleagues, friends or referrals of the founders and they are put through a fairly rigorous application process. They must submit a reel and résumé, they will do a live q&a/online interview and their backgrounds and referrals are thoroughly checked. This is a pretty small industry, says Beck. Its not hard to start asking around and find out what kind of person and artist they are.

Mentor Cassidy Curtis (Madagascar, Shrek 2) answers a question posed by Animation Mentor student Ricardo Villa during the weekly realtime, online classes.

In the early days, chat room buzz ranged from explosive excitement to skepticism and doubt about this new endeavor. Could someone, living in Nova Scotia, with relatively few animation skills really have an opportunity to pursue my dream and perhaps work as an animator someday? Beck says, Yes, it can happen. Weve seen amazing work come out of our students and have had a couple get hired at major animation studios.

Completing their freshman year, the founders have learned a lot about what their mission is and have kept an open forum with their students to make improvements. They recently developed Version 2.0 of the site that includes upgrades that were a direct result of the students feedback. Theyve been able to support a larger load of data and made the program much more efficient and user friendly for the students. The workflow is very tight, says Plaisance.

There have been a few naysayers. They tend to be those who have taught in universities for many years and this might be too radical of a concept for them, says Kelly. They dont deny that if you are interested in more technical areas such as rigging, lighting or rendering or backgrounds, coloring and compositing, than this school is not the place for you.

Kerry Shea, head of digital production at Henson Studios notes, I think the online mentorship is a very progressive idea and I am impressed with the wealth of excellent talent contributing to the success of the program. She hesitates though, But for anyone truly interested in really succeeding in character animation, not just landing a job, I dont think that online mentorship should completely replace traditional academic study. Shea continues, But what Animation Mentor will provide is real world career guidance from working industry professionals.

Statements like this dont shake them though. AnimationMentor.com makes no false pretenses about who they are. We dont claim to be a full fledged art school. We specialize in character animation, says Kelly. The school is accredited for certification in post-secondary and vocation education and they understand that sometimes traditional study is not a realistic option for many students. They have found a way to include everyone that has the passion and desire to learn, no matter their background or location. We focus on the art rather than the technology and do incorporate drawing elements and require thumbnails and sketching as a necessary part of the curriculum, says Beck. Students are encouraged to pursue life drawing classes and utilize other resources on their own outside of the classroom.

After just a year, the future still seems bright for AnimationMentor.com. Partnerships are a big part of the next phase of their business plan. They are pursuing relationships with organizations like AnimationRigs.com, in order to try to incorporate those with an interest in alternate specialties. Clearly, keeping up with the demand of the ever-growing student body is a major focus as well as finding ways to include those already in the industry trying to make the transition from 2D to 3D. Upgrades will need to be made as technology improves and the students demands fluctuate. Im excited to see Version 3.0, says Roy.

Certainly, the anticipation of what the first graduating class will produce is growing. I cant wait to see what these students will accomplish, says Beck. The triumvirate of Beck, Kelly and Baena still fervently believe in the mantra posted on their site: the three ps: practice, perseverance and personality.

Passion seems to be what it is all about and these guys simply love to animate. We just wanted to create an opportunity to help other people like ourselves with that same passion, says Beck. So, for those who always dreamed of a career as a character animator but never thought it even a remote possibility, come prepared with the ps plus a whole lot of passion to AnimationMentor.com and perhaps this dream can become a reality.

Marisa Materna has worked in the entertainment and non-profit industries as a special events coordinator and recruiter and is a freelance writer for online publications and a variety of educational materials. Marisa is based in Los Angeles.

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