Visual Development Degrees Come to 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.
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.
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.