The Animation Mentor CEO discusses educational philosophy and how his school’s new AMP fully distributed production pipeline meets a changing industry’s needs.
Since launching in 2005, Animation Mentor, an online animation school, has helped usher in a new digital age of education. Recent economic uncertainty worldwide has brought pressure on both public and private schools, in the programs they offer, the staffs they employ and the fees they charge. Always aggressive in their approach to education, their curriculum and the needs of their industry, Animation Mentor has been at the forefront of any animation education discussion since they opened their doors for business.
With the launch of their new AMP Studio Production Pipeline, brand new Visual Effects program as well as the restructuring of their flagship Animation Program, the school has made a huge investment in and commitment to a new education model, one focused on and driven by working studio production requirements.
I recently talked with Animation Mentor CEO and co-founder Bobby Beck to discuss his take on the state of education, how frustration drove him and his partners, Shawn Kelly and Carlos Baena, to start the school and how their new production pipeline and curriculum initiatives represent a paradigm change the industry would be wise to embrace.
Dan Sarto: What motivated you to start Animation Mentor? How did the very notion of a mentor-based animation school come about?
Bobby Beck: When I first started in the industry, I went to a four-year animation school. I went through the whole program, but I wasn’t really learning animation, and I got a little frustrated. So I decided to find someone in the industry who animated for a living and start learning from them. My best friends at the time were Shawn Kelly and Carlos Baena. Shawn Kelly had a mentor from ILM, Wayne Gilbert, so I kind of tagged along with him from time to time. It was cool. I felt like I was learning so much more from that dynamic than from anything else I’d done.
Years later, after I’d been working at Pixar for six years, we were just wrapping up Finding Nemo, and Shawn asked me if I wanted to come co-teach some of the classes he was teaching at a school. I said yeah, that would be great.
This was a senior level class. It was the last semester before these guys go out and get jobs in the industry. These students have been there 3 ½ years. I asked the class, “How many want to be animators?” All 30 of them raised their hands. I thought, “Great, let’s take a look at the work you’re doing.” So they projected their work up on the screen behind us and it was very frustrating because the same thing that happened to me 12 years before, when I was in school, was happening to them. Back then, I wasn’t learning anything about animation. It was the last thing I learned before I graduated. You learn all about art history and figure drawing and modeling and rigging and texture painting and then you finally get to your animation at the very end.
I was frustrated because that’s not how the industry works. In order to create something at the Pixar quality level, and really, all the studios are trying hard to achieve that level of excellence, you really need to focus and specialize in your craft. The work the students projected that night was just incredibly awful. Not a single one of them was going to go into the industry and they all were paying $80,000-100,000 dollars for their four year education. It bothered me like crazy. I felt like people were being taken advantage of.
As I drove home that night, I came up with an idea to create a mentor-based school for people who wanted to be animators. I pitched it to Shawn and Carlos and they thought it was great. We thought we could build it in six months and we could do it while we still kept working the studios. Well, it took almost two years to develop. We also realized we can’t support this and work at our jobs. That would be ridiculous. So with Shawn and Carlos’ support I decided to leave Pixar and start running Animation Mentor. I was a senior animator, there was a lull on Cars, and the time was right to leave. I have been running Animation Mentor now for about 7 1/2 years.
DS: Where does Animation Mentor fit within the animation education landscape? How does your program fit within the traditional 3-4 year college programs?
BB: I really think we designed our school and continue to design our school for what the industry needs and wants. We’re in the Bay Area and within 30 minutes from here, we’ve got Pixar, Tippett Studios, DreamWorks and Industrial Light & Magic. Pixar is 5 minutes away. We constantly go to them and ask them, “What do you guys need? Where are the holes in your hiring?” The gap between what they need and what they are finding is getting bigger and bigger. Their films are getting much more complicated to make. Each film they do gets that much more technical. And difficult. There are always new ways of doing things and the studios are just having a tougher and tougher time hiring students right out of school. It’s kind of a big gamble for them because students are used to working by themselves in their own little sandboxes. Even if they create something great, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be doing great work at a studio.
We always try to custom tailor our curriculum to what the bigger studios need, knowing these things are also what the smaller studios want. If we custom design a curriculum for the big boys, that is only going to help bring best practices to some of the smaller studios around the world.
We really want to give people what they need and cut out all the fluff. That’s really important to us. So, as far as observation and an understanding of film and acting and improv and beats and timing and making sure that your character pauses and has those moments where the audience can breath and all that structure that happens within a good film, that’s the stuff we teach our students. It’s not just, “Here are the buttons in Maya and move your arm like this and that’s how you create a perfect arc.”
Now we’re teaching visual effects as well in a similar kind of fashion. We designed our entire new VFX program around what the industry needs for look development, lighting and compositing, what studios need from that kind of artist, both for full computer generated studios or a live action integration visual effects-type studio. We've designed both types of tracks for exactly what those types of studios need. We teach in a real production setting now too, which is, for me, the coolest part of the whole thing.
DS: Tell me about Animation Mentor's new AMP Studio Production Pipeline and how it will impact education and hiring?
BB: When we created Animation Mentor in 2005, we wanted to create an online school that taught people by giving them a mentor. It felt like the right thing, and it was and remains very much the right kind of way for people to learn this craft. Our online campus was designed to be a learning management system, an online school.
Some time ago, we decided to step back and start over with knowledge of what the industry wants and asks for in student hires.
One of the things that we've been trying to figure out is what’s the next level of our growth. I think it’s important for any company to constantly evolve and grow and change with the times. Studios were telling us they needed artists who aren’t just working on their own perfect little animations or visual effects. If you’re working on a film like Avatar or Transformers, it’s so complex that hiring a student out of school is nearly impossible. They just can’t cut it and studios can’t guarantee that the hire is going to work for them. They told us, if you create another school like you’ve done for animation and just teach visual effects, that won’t be effective for us. There are other schools teaching that and it wouldn’t be the most effective thing to build.
The idea came about to create a real production environment for students. An animator works with other animators on a shot and across cuts, working in a pipeline setting. That gets picked up by the lighter or look development, then kicked back over to animation to fix something. And then it gets kicked back to lighting, then into compositing and out comes this finished film that was touched by many, many hands.
So we decided to build an online studio into which we could wrap education. It's coming at the whole idea from a new perspective. Why not teach students “exactly” how to do what they will be doing when they get into the industry? This is nothing like GoToMeeting and a forum slapped together and called, "a studio-like experience," this is full, studio production education designed and built by top industry professionals from every aspect of production.
Of course, it’s not going to be at the level of Avatar or Transformers, but it is real production. Students come out with a credit, having done real action work they can put on their reel. They’ve worked with their mentor, who acts as their supervisor. Education has never been done like this before and now the studios feel like they’re actually going to be able to have a place they can go to and feel much more confident about the hires they bring in.
This is where the new Animation Mentor came from. We've been working on it for over two years now to get it dialed-in. Carlos, one of our co-founders, left for a year and a half to work on his short film, which is being created fully distributed and remotely with artists from all over the world using the AMP Studio Production Pipeline. We've been working with him to build, integrate and test the pipeline. He has people from every major studio working on this thing. So we've had crazy good input from the best people in the industry who know their stuff. They’re excited about the efficiency. We’ve hired full time industry pipeline engineers to design it and do the coding. They come from major studios, working with us to meet the challenge of how can this type of production be done in a fully distributed way.
There is no central location. Everything is in the cloud. Everyone can be anywhere in the world and put their work into the AMP pipeline. The next artist can access it, can check it out, load it in with just a mouse click. It pulls in all the dependencies and brings that file up for them. It feels like they are literally in the same studio.
We've launched several pieces of our Studio Learning Platform and will be interactively launching the full experience throughout the year. We couldn't be more excited to take this major leap forward. It’s not studio-like, it is real production.
DS: Why are "remote" and "distributed" concepts that studios are talking about and every student should want to learn?
BB: We feel that distributed production using talent in remote locations is the way of the future. I was at FMX two years back and there was a lot of discussion about having brick and mortar sites for companies in places like London, New York, Vancouver, the Bay Area or wherever. During one session, somebody stood up and said, “Have you thought about doing this work fully distributed.” At that time, we had begun working on our production pipeline, trying to figure out this challenge. I didn’t say anything, I just kept listening. It was so cool. It showed me that even though the studios are going to have a really hard time making that kind of shift, things were headed that way.
So part of the reason why the industry is changing is there are too many animators and the pool is too saturated in places like LA, the Bay Area, New York or Vancouver. There are only a limited amount of jobs in those locations, but there is so much work in this industry as a whole. There are so many job fields that you can suck talent into, maybe in a different country or a more remote location. For example, Reel FX has been doing that for years. They have a brick and mortar facility and they also do distributed stuff. I definitely feel that teaching our students to work in a distributed environment, how to handle that successfully, gives them not only real production experience but a leg up on how to be successful in a distributed production environment.
DS: With continuing economic uncertainty and upheaval in the visual effects business, how do changes in the business climate impact what you teach, how you teach and how you prepare your students?
BB: It’s especially tumultuous right now. We’ve been aware of that for the last three or four years. I remember back at SIGGRAPH a few years ago and it was crazy! Whoa, things have literally changed from one year to the next, quite drastically, in terms of studios putting a pause on hiring, freaking out and downsizing.
One of the first things that we did as a result of that changing job landscape, with decreasing salaries and benefits, was we changed our entire career services department. We used to do career services in the final class, to prepare students, get their reel and resume ready, that kind of stuff. When they graduated they had access to our career services talent and job boards. We still do that stuff but career services for us now starts in the very first class. We teach people right away that this is what the industry landscape looks like today. If you think you are going to go and get a job at Pixar or some studio like that, let’s be realistic and set expectations right. Especially if you live in another country. Here is what the industry landscapes are like in these different areas, and here are the types of things that are available to students in those areas. It’s not to say don’t dream and shoot for the stars, absolutely not. We are just trying to paint a realistic picture of what that industry landscape is and how it changes constantly. We have to be honest with our students.
We also chose to reduce our prices because we want to make our program more affordable, to show people that you can be in Mumbai or anywhere in the world and benefit from this education. For example, the Advanced Studies in Character Animation Certificate used to require 18 months of study at nearly $19,000. Now, an Animation Fundamental Certificate requires only 12 months and costs $10,400, a 49% price reduction. A second certificate for those looking for an advanced education in Production Animation is available for $7,600. Some individual classes, like Class 1 in our Animation Fundamentals, VFX Fundamentals, Animal and Creature Production track and Character Story track have been discounted from $3,325 to $1,999, which is a 39% reduction.
There is a ton of work all the over the world, all these opportunities, and we want our students to be as prepared as possible. Our hope is to really show people that you don’t have to spend $80,000-$100,000, or anywhere near that, to get the type of education you need to be super successful in this industry. That’s always been our thing, to figure out how to make this education affordable so our students could pay this back within the first year or two of their professional working career. Be free from debt and able to live their lives. That’s always been really important to us.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.