Visual Development Degrees Come to Academy of Art University

Program Director Nicolás Villarreal shares his insights on the school’s new visual development degree program as well as the challenges of helping students become working professionals.

Nicolás Villarreal. All images courtesy of

Academy of Art University.

As Director of the new School of Visual Development at Academy of Art University, Nicolás Villarreal’s passion for design and professional approach to core fundamental principles is readily apparent.  From his own professional perspective to the underlying philosophy of the program, Nicolás emphasizes hard work, dedication and focus on practical skills.  Helping students reach their goals, to become creative professionals working in their desired area of industry, is his main challenge and the reason he has come back to build and lead the program at the school he himself graduated from a decade ago.

We spoke at length about the new program, the focus of study and the pressure students face preparing for a tremendously competitive job market.

Dan Sarto: How do you define visual development?

Nicolás Villarreal: Visual development involves three things.  Number one, it’s designing with a goal, usually in support of a story.  We base everything on a story or a script.  Number two is setting the style or visual identity of the project. Though they involve similar elements, projects may look completely different.  That’s because they have different visual styles.  And number three, which is very important, is creating appealing designs that at the same time are functional, that help the story move forward.

DS: How does visual development overlap with other areas of the creative process?

NV: Everything is constantly overlapping. Of course, design is always one of the first steps. Visual development can come before a script, during the “blue sky” design phase, or after a script is finished. It overlaps with various parts of the production.  For example, on a film, when you finish a character or setting, which then goes to modeling, or it goes to the art department for integration with other designs.  Everything overlaps and moves forward.

Student work - image by Young Kim.

DS: Why start a visual development program? What needs does it fulfill?

NV: Visual development has been growing over the last few years and that’s why Academy of Art University created this department to address the needs of the students. There are opportunities for work in live action, animated feature films and television as well as in social and console games. The production value of films, TV and games continues to get closer. This is in part because of the convergence of aspect ratios.  Before, TVs were 4:3. Now, in addition to movies, everything from TVs to computers to mobile phones is going widescreen. This gives the students a strong foundation not only in classical drawing and painting, but they can get exposed to so many different styles and platforms.

In visual development, it’s important to know where you want to work, so you can build a portfolio with that target in mind.  I’m not saying students should mimic a style. For example, if they want to work making family films at Pixar, Disney or DreamWorks, the style of the work is completely different than if you want to work for Ubisoft or ILM or Weta. A visual development artist should be able to switch styles. That’s why it’s important to study different platform styles, take different classes.

Passionate classroom instruction.

Sometimes students are apprehensive to try new styles because it is different from what they know and are comfortable with. But, for example, for me, when I studied at the Academy, classes in classical drawing and painting were crucial to what I do today. I always tell the students they need a strong foundation in drawing, painting and sculpture.  In visual development, they are using a lot of 3D software that will help them understand the internal structure of many design styles. It’s like when I was a kid studying math, my parents would tell me, “Don’t memorize the equations. Focus on understanding how they work.” In visual development, it’s the same. If you only focus on one style, it’s really hard to move away from that. But if you work to understand the concepts of drawing, of design, of structure, you can apply those concepts to different styles. 

DS: What are some of the key aspects of visual development your program teaches?

NV: We try to cover all aspects of visual development, from prop design to character design, concept art, backgrounds and everything in between. The goal of the program is to help them develop a strong, varied portfolio that will help them get a job.  We try to teach them not only fundamental aspects of drawing and painting, but the process of visual development, which is very important. All the classes are based on that goal.

All of our instructors, not just in visual development, are working professionals. We bring different industry standards into the program. For example, for a character design, we start with a round of rough thumbnails, based on the story. We narrow those down to a final design, trying to capture the soul of the character. Often, even with very rough designs, you can find the soul of the character. From there we do the final design drawings.  Based on those final drawings, if it’s a 3D production, we do the orthographics, which are the blueprint for the character. We show a front view, a side view, a back view and sometimes a three-quarter view. These help the modeler build the 3D character.  The last thing we do is a final 3D painting of the character, to show the volume and textures. We also create a shadow package, which shows the textures of the elements of the character for the texture team. If the character has a shirt, it shows the type of cloth. If the character has goggles, it shows the type of metal. There may be other drawings or studies needed to help the modeler, so the collaboration of the designer and modeler doesn’t end with the initial set of final designs.

Student work - image by Connie Kang.

DS: The job market is tough these days.  How do you advise students to best prepare for the rigors and realities of a career in entertainment content creation?

NV: When I graduated from the Academy ten years ago, the foundation I received was crucial for me to start working in this field. The job market is tough and very competitive.  But as cliché as it might sound, we teach students to treat their education very seriously, listen to their instructors, work diligently and be relentless when they apply for work. When they submit their portfolio and don’t get a response, they always get discouraged. But it’s important to learn that hiring is driven by production needs. That’s why it’s important to keep working on your portfolio and constantly send it out.

DS: Education is expensive and there is a lot of pressure on students.  This area of study is not easy and requires considerable dedication.  What are some of the biggest challenges you face?

NV: It’s always a challenge to help students keep updating and refining their portfolio so they can showcase their talent and capabilities in a way that best meets their career goals. We tell our students all the time how competitive it is in the job market. Our instructors share their own incredible work with students, to demonstrate just how hard you have to work in industry. We encourage students to go to different events, like the CTNX event in Burbank, which gathers together a lot of designers.  Not only do they get to meet designers, but often, they get to meet the directors as well as recruiters, people who have work to show you that demonstrates the level of quality and standards they are looking for. Our goal is to help students achieve their goal, which is always a challenge. But it’s an enjoyable and rewarding challenge.

Student work - image by Nathan Martin.

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Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.

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