Back to School in the U.K.

The nurturing of new talent is vital to the continued success of the U.K. vfx industry. But just how effective are the lines of communication between the professional and education sectors? Mark Ramshaw talks to Seamus Morley at Techimage about the need to stay on course.

Seamus Morley, director of Techimage.

That the U.K. vfx industry continues to expand and increase its presence in the global marketplace can only be a good thing, but this accelerated growth inevitably brings with it fresh demands on the education and training sector. There are only a finite number of experienced hands out there, and the practice of enticing professionals from Europe and beyond just doesnt provide a large-scale solution.

The challenge then is to draw on the centers of education and training within the U.K. for the next wave of talent. But with an industry so young and quickly evolving its little wonder that that this puts further pressures on education. For one thing, U.K. colleges and universities, famously resistant to change because of tradition and/or bureaucracy, are used to servicing industries that operate using well-established practices and so the same coursework is relevant year after year. Tailoring longer term courses to the moving target that is post-production is quite another matter.

Clearly whats needed is close synergy between the education sector and the industry itself. Formal education doesn't give an accurate reflection of the real pressure of day to day production, nor does it give you an idea of a film production pipeline, suggests Lara Hopkins, producer with Framestore CFC. Also we find that the students have an ability to learn the high production standards required reasonable quickly, but they have to start in a relatively junior role so that the quality required can be taught. The students also rarely have a creative 'eye' for the high quality images required in film production. This comes with experience.

This is something Seamus Morley, director of Techimage (www.techimage.co.uk), fully appreciates. The company responsible for U.K. sales of industry standard applications such as 3D Equalizer, Houdini and Pixars RenderMan has long worked to help bridge the gap between these three sectors.

Weve always focused on trying to provide a complete solution for clients, says Morley. Dealing with the software side of things is obviously great, but what our clients need are people that can use that software. So for us it was just a short step to recognizing the benefits of working with centers of education.

Front of Poole Hall at Bournemouth University.

Its longest standing relationship is with Bournemouth University, whose computer animation course is widely acknowledged as the best in the U.K., and who Morley believe is most acutely responsive to the needs of the industry. In the early days they were working with a proprietary 3D system, which was quite procedural in nature, he recalls. Because of the similarities, Side Effects Houdini therefore appealed to them. Their adoption of RenderMan was then a natural extension of that.

Where Bournemouth has led the way, others have followed. Morley cites Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, the University of Teeside, the University of Exeter, Leicesters De Montfort, London Guildhall, Glasgow School of Art and the University of Dundee as others now producing well-rated 3D computer animation or post-production-related courses. This, in turn, has demonstrably given the industry a supply of better-prepared graduates.

Five years ago studios needed to take a chance on people who were perhaps not as well proven as new recruits are now. The quality of the people the universities are attracting is rising, too. They now have more stringent grade requirements, so theyre also operating as a more effective filtering system.

Students are finding that specialized skill sets can get them jobs right out of school. © iStockPhoto.com.

Filtering notwithstanding, the number of graduates outweighs the number of available jobs more heavily than ever. Nowhere is this more significant than in the field of animation. Students naturally see this as discipline as where the interesting work and the glory lies. But out in the real world its merely one part of the pipeline, and one thats rarely if ever handed out to recruits fresh out of college. Theres an analogy with acting, in the way that we have a significant oversupply, notes Morley.

And yet, while animation remains oversubscribed, there remains a skills shortage in other key areas. Not surprisingly, its the less glamorous but no less essentials skills that are required. Id say shader writers are in the shortest supply right now. That discipline would be my tip for the top for anybody in education looking to get into the U.K. industry. And it pays extremely well.

That said, Morley also believes a greater degree of adaptability is now required on the part of the graduates. With more competition that ever for the posts that are available, they need to be both willing to take what they can get before working their way up, and also to possess the skills necessary to tackle whatever initial role they do secure. Obviously people are going to have one particular technical or artistic skill or interest, but the best strategy is to have the best broad grounding possible.

Its here that the U.K. teaching institutions really excel. While I hear quite a lot of criticism of some U.S. training schools for focusing on how to use the software, Id say in general the U.K. universities do focus more on the fundamentals. I think it stems from the more traditional academic structure over here that people receive a strong grounding in the principles. And in the longer term, too, thats the most crucial thing. People with that knowledge invariably produce the best work. You can always learn how to use a particular package later. Its about understanding the whole process, rather than just pushing pixels around.

Morley points out that the U.K. industry thrives on this principle, having been built up by people who have applied more traditional arts training to the computer graphics field. At the top and middle sections of the pyramid in Soho, you find people who benefited from educational backgrounds that didnt totally focus on CG, and thats what gives the U.K.s work such a richness. As with any endeavor, its often those who can bring a breadth of knowledge and imagination to a subject that produce the most creative work.

But given that only so much ground can be covered in a three or four-year course, there is the worry that focusing on the basics comes at the expensive of imparting the practical skills necessary for working within a real world production pipeline.

If I was enrolling now the first thing Id do is to contact all of the places Id most like to work in, and ask them how many graduates they usually take on, suggests Shelley Page of DreamWorks. Id then ask the studio that hires the most what qualifications they look for. And do remember this is an increasingly specialized industry, so also find out what skills they require.

Yes, that is still a barrier, Morely believes. Relative to other industries were doing well, but in absolute terms we could certainly do better to achieve a closer match between the student skills and studio needs. Talking to Soho production houses I do hear that new recruits just arent ready to work as part of the pipeline immediately. Theres a need for them to transition from knowing the principles to understanding whats needed for real world production. But places like Bournemouth are getting better at tailoring their course content to the industrys needs.

Learning specific skills in modeling software like SOFTIMAGE|XSI can give students a leg up in the job market. Credit: Image courtesy of Softimage Co. and Avid Technology Inc.

Stephen Venning at The Mill agrees that academia needs to react more rapidly to structural changes in the computer animation industry. The industry is being pushed into specialization and that needs to filter back through to many of the universities.

He suggests one solution would be to introduce variants of a basic computer animation course. A system whereby students took on a general course, then later selected an area such as modelling or lighting to specialize would work well. At the end, the graduate would have their computer animation degree, but major in one particular area.

Bournemouth University offers an equally focused computer animation course. We get just over 400 students applying for 50 places, but only a small number have what it takes to survive the course, reveals professor John Vince. Thats not to say they wont become good computer animators. But were targeting technical direction. For many another institute, where their skills will be developed in a different direction, is likely to be more suitable.

The studios have also realized that theres a need to get more directly involved (something that helps with talent spotting as well as explicitly showing exactly what graduate skill sets theyre looking for).

Networking with the industry when youre a student is essential, so I appreciate it when colleges bully me into talking to their students, says Page. But youd be surprised that some colleges dont seem to encourage that more.

Page points out that the best industry relations are often forged by places that interface with the industry via festivals or other activities, citing Teeside, Swansea and Frances Supinfocom as prime examples of schools that go the extra mile.

But does Morley believe theyre doing enough to liaise with and exert an influence on graduate education? I think you can never be satisfied, and the U.K. is probably a little behind the U.S. here. We always encourage senior practitioners to visit the universities, so that they can demonstrate how the software is used for real productions, but I do think more could be done. The problem is that its a very difficult balancing act. Resources are limited, the bar is continually being raised for visual effects, the costs per shot are falling and studios need to get their work out the door. Theyre in a tough position, but it is crucially important we continue to play close attention to this issue.

Mark Ramshaw is a freelance writer. He has worked as a computer game programmer and producer and a magazine editor, but now avoids grown-up office work by writing about the visual effects, video game and music industries. He is also contributing editor for 3D World and editor of Criterions gameSTATE magazine.

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