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Massive Goes to School

Karen Raugust reports on how the famed AI-based 3D animation system is being adopted by key VFX/animation schools.

Massive Software makes its first foray into the higher education market, offering special pricing and a curriculum to colleges, universities and vfx training schools, including SCAD (pictured above). Courtesy of SCAD.

On the heels of its new Windows version, Massive Software is making its first foray into the higher education market, offering special pricing and an educational curriculum to colleges, universities and vfx training schools. "We've had a tremendous response and requests from students for years who wanted to get their hands on Massive," says Diane Holland, the company's CEO. "It's a new way of animating and they want to get on the curve of what's new and forward-thinking."

Holland notes that the Windows version of Massive, the award-winning artificial intelligence-driven, autonomous-agent 3D animation system, has allowed the company to move into educational institutions, as well as smaller production environments and post houses. "We thought it was better to support it with vfx institutions initially rather than a free version as a PLE [personal learning edition]. They have the staff and infrastructure to really commit to it," Holland continues, adding, "Our overall goal in education is to get Massive in the hands of as many students as possible."

As one indicator of student demand, Gnomon School of Visual Effects' first class in Massive, being offered this spring, is full. "It's always the question with new classes: 'Hey, is it going to do well?'," says Darrin Krumweide, director of education. "This one filled up pretty fast."

Gnomon's student body is comprised of both students enrolled in the full two-year program (about half of the total) and people in the industry who take individual courses; Krumweide speculates that industryites will account for the bulk of the first Massive class. He notes that, at Gnomon's twice-per-month industry events, a lot of artists have been asking about classes dedicated to this package.

From Training Classes to Independent Study

In addition to Gnomon, schools using Massive include the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Ringling College of Art & Design, USC School of Cinematic Arts, Drexel University and Coastal Carolina University in the U.S.; Bournemouth University, Architectural Assn. and University of Teesside in the U.K.; ETH Zurich, University of Giessen-Friedberg and the Institute of Animation at the Filmakademie, all in Europe; Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, Tokyo Polytechnic University and Waseda University in Japan; Kasetsart University in Thailand; Media Design School in New Zealand; and RMIT University in Australia.

These schools are integrating Massive into their curriculum in different ways, depending on the nature of the school and how far along they are in the process of implementing it.

Diane Holland's overall goal in education for Massive is to get the software into the hands of as many students as possible.

At Ringling, faculty members are currently working to build a smooth integration into the production pipline, according to Jim McCampbell, department head, computer animation. "Once that is worked out, Massive will be used in the senior classes to add potential to the student films," he says, noting that it will be available to 90 students in August, although not all will need to use it. "We believe that Massive will allow us to make films that were previously rejected due to feasibility issues."

USC is among the schools using Massive mainly for independent projects at this point. "We have about four students who are learning Massive so that they can incorporate complex animations in their research or their animation projects," says Richard Weinberg, research associate professor at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, Division of Animation and Digital Arts. "The projects range from crowd scenes to swarms of sea creatures to traffic simulations. It's an excellent opportunity for students to gain experience creating animations of great complexity to tell their stories visually."

SCAD, which brought in Massive in the fall, will offer a dedicated class next year, according to Peter Weishar, dean of the School of Film, Digital Media and Performing Arts. Vfx students are currently using it for :20 to :30 portfolio projects that might rely on five or six software packages in addition to Massive. Students from all six departments in the division will have access to it and each department will use it differently.

Masters and senior undergrad students at Bournemouth University can use Massive for their own projects as well. This is the second year it has been available, and two or three students are working with it now, reports Jonathan Macey, senior lecturer and program leader of the Masters of Science (MSc) in computer animation. Uses include crowd scenes and aircraft simulations. "The access is a great thing for our students," Macey offers. "We've only scratched the surface."

Before installing Massive, most schools had other software packages available for crowd scenes, some off-the-shelf and some developed by students over the years. But, in general, they weren't as flexible or powerful as Massive. "We experimented with very limited success using the usual suspects -- instancing, particle replacement, heavy compositing in Shake -- but, of course, those methods don't compare at all with the potential in Massive," McCampbell admits.

"It's an incredible software," adds Weishar. "It's been very inspirational to [the students]. It changes the way they see the limits of CG. Instead of one to two characters, they're thinking of large vistas and whole hordes of people."

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For the second year in a row, masters and senior undergrad students at Bournemouth University use Massive for their own projects. Uses include crowd scenes and aircraft simulations. Courtesy of Bournemouth University.

The Integration Process

The curriculum provided by Massive consists of all the tutorials available to the company's commercial customers, plus a series of tasks and quizzes specific to the educational setting, for a total of 40 hours of instruction. The new material "is an educational institution-friendly wrapper for our industry courseware and materials," Holland explains. Some schools offer the Massive curriculum as is to students for self-study, while others integrate it into their larger curriculum.

"We will use a combination of both [the Massive-developed and our own curriculum]," McCampbell says. "There isn't any sense reinventing the wheel, yet we find it important to design our lessons in a way that the students will see how the software enables us to enhance the things that we value, and how this connects with the other things they have learned."

Weishar points out that the Massive-provided curriculum has proven useful in getting the professors up to speed on the software. "It's harder to pick up [a new software] when you're not in a production environment," he insists. "This is a very helpful learning tool."

So far the colleges and universities have not reported any significant challenges in integrating Massive into their pipelines; most have access to technical expertise on the part of professors, students and/or industry colleagues, and they have essentially the same production pipelines as the commercial vfx houses. "If you know how to code RenderMan, do particles in Houdini and advanced compositing in Shake, it's not a stretch," Weishar says.

But many institutions are not in production yet, so time will tell. "The tougher part of the integration is yet to come: making sure all of this works properly with our render farm," McCampbell says. "It will be May before we begin that phase of the testing."

Macey points out that Massive was developed for Weta Digital's pipeline, and may not fit perfectly into other pipelines. "You almost have to mold your pipeline around Massive," he says, adding, "The learning curve is fairly steep to start with."

For Bournemouth Masters students to produce a fight scene using Massive, Maya, RenderMan and XSI, "we did a lot of scripting to shoehorn it into the pipeline," Macey reports. But he notes that overall, it worked well with Bournemouth's Linux-based system. "If you have a standard pipeline with Maya and RenderMan, it's fairly flexible."

Massive has now become the industry standard for creating crowds, stadiums and background people. As a result, more schools offer Massive so that their students are familiar with the tools needed to work at a vfx house.

Industry Standard

More schools continue to come on board with Massive, Holland reports. In addition to the creative opportunities, the institutions want their students to be familiar with the tools they will need when they start work at a vfx house.

Massive is used by virtually every large vfx house now, including houses that used to have their own internal particle-based or proprietary crowd simulation systems, but have gone to Massive so they don't have to continue maintaining those. "It's pretty much the accepted way to do crowds, stadiums, background people," adds Holland.

"We're always adding new software and trying to mirror what's going on in the industry," points out Krumweide of Gnomon.

SCAD works with all the studios, including Rhythm & Hues, where 45 of its grads are currently placed. Weishar says students are more and more interested in Massive as it becomes increasingly utilized in the industry. "The recruiters, they use Massive like a verb," he notes. "The students pick up on that and it becomes a part of what they want to do."

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).

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