Excuses: "No money." "No school teaches what I want to learn in my city." "I am working and have no time.""How in the heck am I supposed to master that software?"
... and the excuses continue for those that want to take the next step in their careers toward digital animation and visual effects.
Today there is an emerging sub-industry in the animation and visual effects business. It is online digital training that can be done from the comfort of a laptop in any corner of the globe.
Online education is not new. Most colleges and universities for the last several years offer courses for students that are taught in their homes and dorms. Many of these courses are book-learning type subjects, where the topic is lecture based. However, back in the day of CD-ROMs, technical education such as certification in software, had to be taught in a digital method. Today, the online experience is more interactive and the method of teaching is far more comprehensive.
Many of the CGI and vfx programs being offered are still in their infancy with only a couple of years of teaching, but the results are phenomenal. The programs being offered vary in price, length, method and flexibility for the student who is just starting out or for those pros that need to learn a new technique or software.
In examining four online educational opportunities, not all training programs are being offered through a school or academic institution. Two of these programs will confer a certificate diploma upon completion, one school is an offshoot of an online community and the last is a "guild."
Gnomon and Animation Mentor are two schools that offer certificate diplomas under the California Bureau for Private Post-Secondary and Vocation Education. Because of this regulated certification, each of these schools can offer student loans under Sallie Mae. As they are certified academic institutions, the education is more formalized.
Animation Mentor is a program focused on character design and offers an 18-month program for someone who is on the junior animator career track. Animation Mentor students learn how to accept guidance and criticism from their mentors and other students, and learn to meet deadlines, to budget and schedule their time. Animation Mentor was founded in spring 2005 by Bobby Beck, Carlos Baena (Pixar) and Shawn Kelly (ILM), all working animators, to train character animators worldwide for employment in the studios and at gaming companies.
"If I were to choose the two most important things that set us apart, I would have to say it's our production model of teaching and the additive design of our curriculum," says Bobby Beck, ceo/president of Animation Mentor, located in the California Bay Area, "Additive Design" means each lesson builds on what is taught before.
"Being online opens so many doors on a global level. It allows us to hire working studio animators as our mentors, not just to make special appearances, but to guide our students throughout every facet of their learning experience," adds Beck about the online experience. Online teaching for Animation Mentor means they can tap into top working talent worldwide, mostly from California, New Zealand and the U.K.
Students have more one-on-one time with their teachers with Animation Mentor and receive personalized instruction to develop a real student/teach relationship. The way they achieve this is to have Q&A sessions each week, where the mentors engage in real back and forth, talking with students rather than talking at them. Because their students come to Animation Mentor with varied levels of experience, they have created a multi-tiered assignment system. Students, with the help of their mentors, can choose the appropriate sequence each week through which to hone their skills.
And in looking at one of the current employment realities, how animation employment is now seasonal unless you are chosen to be a core team member, Animation Mentor has designed its curriculum with this new reality in mind. What does it take to land one of those coveted jobs? How can animators hone their skills for those cherished slots?
According to Beck, core team members must be quick, great communicators and work well under pressure, but most of all, they must be able to think like filmmakers. In other words, The Animation Mentor curriculum goes beyond teaching students how to realize shots; it offers them broad-based creative skills.
Gnomon Online is a relatively new addition to the already established and much regarded "on-ground" Gnomon 3D curriculum. Gnomon, established their online program in January 2007 with only four classes, and increased it to six for the spring term.
"Our goal with Gnomon Online is to produce online courses that directly mirror the curriculum being taught in our physical classroom," says Eric Miller, producer and instructor for Gnomon Online. "Online instruction is obviously different than doing an in-class lecture. Online lectures are more precise and flow a little nicer than when you lecture in front of 10 or 20 students."
"You have the ability to edit out issues like simple mistakes, software crashes or any other glitch that could be disruptive to the flow of the lecture. The flip side to this is that it is sometimes very helpful to students to see mistakes made and fixed, and to see what causes software to crash," adds Miller. "I find that when doing an in-class lecture, the questions and comments from my students can sometimes open the lecture to other relevant subjects and creative ideas."
Miller and Gnomon actually found that there were no adjustments that needed to be made to any of the curriculum from in-class. Their goal is to make the online experience look and sound like being in a classroom. Gnomon is the brainchild of Alex Alvarez, who was working as a systems engineer for Alias|Wavefront, spent his time working with digital animators. In 1997 he opened Gnomon's doors to provide a solution for the lack of well-trained digital artists. Gnomon's mission is to provide the most comprehensive training for the film, television and video game industries. With the addition of the online courses, they can add the "anywhere, anytime" element to their training programs.
Pixel Corps and fxphd call themselves membership programs. But each is very distinctive in their approach to training.
Pixel Corps is a "guild" for today. The digital production business is freelance and contracted. Five hundred years ago, the same was true for artisans and craftsmen who formed guilds to be competitive, provide networking, ongoing training and standards for their craft. Apprentice, journeyman and then craftsman were the paths for all and these standards were established by the guilds. Pixel Corps is a guild for the digital artisan. They offer training, community and, in the future, hope to offer certificates and standardization.
"For us, online training is the normal form of education and in-class is the exception. While the in-class provides a certain immediacy and focus, our online training allows members to work on assignments both alone and in small teams. Members can use online forums to post questions and advice they have on particular activities," says Alex Lindsay, president and chief-architect of Pixel Corps. Vfx artists prefer professional-quality field assignments over basic classroom learning.
Lindsay established Pixel Corps about five years ago and the guild currently has 1,500 members in 35 countries. From his nearly 20 years in production, Lindsay sees Pixel Corps as way to create a global production community capable of generating content around the world.
"We don't consider ourselves a school. We see ourselves as a guild," Lindsay adds. "Our training is designed to provide real-world experience and to challenge members to prove themselves. We actually work with schools to augment their programs with curriculum and class samples."
fxphd is an off shoot of fxguide, an online community for vfx professionals. Mike Seymour in Australia and John Montgomery in Chicago are the co-founders of fxphd. fxphd was the world's first Autodesk online training center and an Apple online training center, which makes their product-specific courses internationally recognized and accredited.
fxphd combines the best of the DVD self-paced experience with the in-class ability to ask questions and interact. "You can go at your own pace -- but still have direct discussion with the expert teacher as you hit problems or need help in certain areas," says Seymour. fxphd experience is that people will buy DVD programs but do not take the time to watch them. They found that classroom experience is not for those who find it hard to give up their time to go to a fixed location. The fxphd experience allows students to study with other students in a group experience, which gives an incentive to stay caught up, but allows the students to juggle work, family and training, as needed.
"Unlike the DVD-based training, where students watch in isolation, our class recordings are supported by online forums that are monitored by the staff and professors," adds Montgomery. "All of our professors are experienced visual effects artists with backgrounds in motion picture and commercial visual effects, as well as commercial and broadcast motion graphics design. When we sit down to design the class, we think about what it would be like talking with the junior artist next to us."
"fxphd has it own custom vfx shoots, such as motion control, stunts and helicopter shoots, where we 'take' the student to see the issues and experience on set problem solving, but we can also provide this footage for them to train with," according the Seymour.
The Results Are In
Students from at least 60 countries have taken these courses. fxphd boasts having members from Dubai, Iceland, South Africa, China, Japan and Argentina. Pixel Corps says it has members in more than 35 countries. Gnomon teaches students from China, Japan, Spain, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Norway. Animation Mentor has students living in Brazil, Mexico, Jordan, the UAE, Serbia, Singapore and throughout Europe.
How have so many people from so many countries found out about this training? They find out mostly through the web and online web communities and good old word-of-mouth. Each of these training programs relies on the credentials of the professors and trainers to attract students. This means these training programs have to bring in the best to attract the best students.
fxphd's Seymour offers, "It is their commitment that allows us to attract the great teachers we do. No one wants to teach in a dinky operation, our reputation is everything and that is defined by the company we keep. I can't stress strongly enough the quality and professionalism of the fxphd post-grad students."
But great quality in curriculum, excellent instructors and a high profile will not keep these programs going. It is the "product" they put out into the production community.
"We have graduates at nearly every major Hollywood film studio now, including ILM, Sony, DreamWorks, Digital Domain, Blue Sky, Tippett, Rhythm & Hues," boasts Animation Mentor's Beck. He also says they have grads working on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and on Surf's Up, plus at Psyops in N.Y. and all over the U.K. and Europe. Gnomon can be proud of a similar record.
No More Excuses
There are no more excuses to learning new skills or a new career. These four training programs prove that excuses can be put aside once and for all.
Jan Nagel, the entertainment marketing diva, is a consultant involved in the business of animation and visual effects since 1991. She represents creative producers and productions companies worldwide, Blanca Ruiz, Jim Keeshen Prods., AGOGO Corp. Hong Kong, as well as being a frequent guest lecturer on the subject of the business of animation. She is also a founding member and current president of Women in Animation International.