Bobby Beck Talks New Directions in Animation Education
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.