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3D Education: Meeting the Needs of a Changing Industry

Karen Raugust explores what the industry is looking for from vfx and 3D animation schools.

3D animation and vfx programs constantly strive to meet the needs of a changing industry. Schools stay current so that graduates are prepared for the real working world. Image courtesy of

Certificate, bachelors and masters programs focusing on 3D animation and visual effects are constantly striving to meet the needs of a changing industry. They monitor these needs in many ways through conversations with faculty who have industry experience, by talking with visiting professors and recruiters, by attending industry conventions such as SIGGRAPH and VES, and by consulting regularly with their professional advisory committees.

With tight resources and compressed deadlines, some studios are reducing or eliminating their internal training facilities. They want people to be able to hit the ground running, says Pam Hogarth, director of industry relations, Gnomon School of Visual Arts.

The faculty at Expression College for Digital Arts helps prepare its students for the real world by making sure they know they could be working 100 hours a week once they secure a job. Studios appreciate this, according to Chryssa Cooke, director of industry relations and career development, visual arts. Theyre looking for people with a ready-to-work attitude.

Cooke notes that Expression is a four-year accredited program that is completed in two-and-a-half years. Tight project deadlines and a production atmosphere prepare students for their first job. This is how its going to be when you get out there, Cooke comments. Vfx margins are so low, [studios] might have just a half-day of training, and that includes the HR paperwork and a tour of the facility. They can get it done faster if they hire people that can get in the groove quickly.

Expressions fast-paced program approximates the tight project deadlines and atmosphere of students first job. Work by Ryan Shevlin (left) and Meike Loomis courtesy of Ex'pression College for Digital Arts.

We try to offer our students an infrastructure where they can develop their own ideas and visions and, at the same time, work in a team under professional conditions, adds Thomas Haegele, head of fmx and the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Post-production of the Film Academy Baden-Württemberg. This way, we try to prepare them for working life, so that they can take up a job in a production team as soon as they have their degree.

Most newbies are overwhelmed by how much they have to work, the hours, the pressure. Some cant hack it, explains Michael Squire, department head of vfx at the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts. Like other schools, VanArts tries to simulate a production environment. Its very much like a post house, Squire says. Its run just like it.

Many students have little idea about what a real production process is when they enter school. As a result, were trying to put students into as many real production situations as possible, and we make every attempt to create opportunities for students to work together on collaborative projects, reports Tad Leckman, chair of vfx at the Savannah College of Art and Design. SCADs vfx students work on projects with students in the film, interactive and sound departments, mirroring the process of working for a customer.

VanArts runs its program like a post house so that newbies wont be overwhelmed by the hours and pressure on the job. Work by Ryan Patterson courtesy of VanArts.

Schools also emphasize teamwork and collaboration. The industry is looking for students that have solid problem-solving skills as well as a certain creative flair that shows in their work, says Mary Clarke-Miller, associate dean and academic director of media arts/animation and visual arts/game programming at the Art Institute of California San Francisco.

We dont teach videogames or animation, offers Drew Davidson, a faculty member at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. We focus on professional leadership skills, teamwork skills, presentation skills and problem-solving under pressure.

Melding of Art and Technology

The industry has a growing need for technical artists to create tools for animators and serve as a bridge between artists and programmers. Increasingly, schools are adding subjects such as programming and scripting. For instance, The Art Institute of California San Francisco added a B.A. degree in visual and games programming, which grooms students for roles as technical artists, for example.

SCAD also teaches programming, scripting and Linux; all vfx students take at least some programming. Its that synthesis of technology and art, suggests Leckman. SCAD also has a technical direction minor, as well as a strong RenderMan program.

Many educators believe students are at an advantage if they have a good grounding in both fine arts and technology, no matter what job they secure. [Studios] want artists, not technicians, Hogarth insists. If you know Maya, great. If you know Maya and can sculpt, even better. Gnomon has an analog department featuring more than 20 non-technical courses ranging from figure drawing to concept design to career realities. Courses from this department are required for students in the certificate program, and, like all Gnomon classes, are open to anyone on a continuing-education basis.

SCADs vfx students work on projects with the film, interactive and sound departments, mirroring the process of working for a customer. Work by Gresham Lochner and Brian Walters courtesy of SCAD.

Art talent is one criterion for acceptance into Gnomons certificate program; the schools faculty includes a portfolio review as part of its screening process to identify potential students. It gives us a good idea of who will succeed in the industry, says Hogarth. If theyre very talented artists, its pretty likely we can teach them how to use the computer and work well with others.

Storytelling skill also is important. The Art Institute of California San Francisco started an MFA program in computer animation, in part to give students more time to develop their storytelling expertise something for which theres not much time in a BA program as well as improve their technical side. On the animation side, you need a good sense of story and the ability to tell a story, Clarke-Miller says.

Eric Hanson, a vfx educator at the USC School of School of Cinema/Televisions Division of Animation & Digital Arts, and at Gnomon, notes that each schools approach to fine arts varies. Some, such as USC, provide a broad art education that includes plenty of drawing and traditional animation, while others, such as Gnomon, have a professional focus, training more narrowly on vfx techniques and tools, although fine art is part of it.

In the masters degree program at the National Film and Television School U.K., we put an emphasis on filmmaking and a personal approach rather than training for the industrys immediate needs, says Gillian Lacey, head of animation direction. She notes that students have the opportunity to make an authored piece of work during their school years, something they may not get a chance to do for a long time after graduation.

Not everyone agrees that fine arts is a critical component of a vfx education, however. I have a different opinion on that, Squire says. If you can draw, its fine, but I think you dont need to know how to draw.

SCADs Leckman is moderating a panel at the upcoming SIGGRAPH 2006 in Boston (July 30-Aug. 4) titled Art School or Trade School?, which deals with the issue of fine art vs. digital technique. Its something thats been on my mind lately, he says, noting that there seems to be a dichotomy between what studios say they want and what their actions show. They say, We want students who know how to draw, but when you look at the job descriptions, theres nothing about art or storytelling. They want x number of years on Maya doing nerves modeling or something like that.

Art talent is one criterion for acceptance into Gnomons certificate program; the schools faculty includes a portfolio review as part of its screening process to identify potential students. Above is a Gnomon lab.

Leckman believes his departments proximity to other art-education disciplines within SCAD, such as film, sound and architecture, benefits the vfx students. A vfx major could pursue a minor in architecture, for example, which would give him or her an advantage in the architectural visualization field or in creating film environments. Savannah also has a major in sequential art, which focuses on comics and comic book art, and that department offers a minor in storyboarding.

Students who want to be digital-only artists dont always understand why they need a grounding in drawing or painting, according to Davidson of Carnegie Mellon. Theres a difference between what the studios want, which is an artist, and the students, who dont want to draw, he says. But if you dont know how to draw, ZBrush isnt going to make you a great artist. You have to keep reminding the students of that. Carnegie Mellons two-year masters degree in entertainment technology, overseen by the college of fine arts and the school of computer science, has 40 students a year. About 15 have technology backgrounds, 15 are artists or creatives and 10 are from other disciplines.

As far as technology, each school has its own approach. Our program is extremely market-driven, says Hogarth. We teach [the tools] as theyre used and not as the software vendor thinks they should be used. Gnomon has added courses in software packages such as Zbrush, in response to industry demand.

Carnegie Mellon is on the other end of the spectrum. Were not that vocationally specialized, says Davidson. The Entertainment Technology Center doesnt offer classes on specific software packages, although it provides students with the latest tools and gives them experience in various packages so they will be able to learn any software they may encounter in the workplace without a struggle.

Typically, the training students receive when they join a studio will focus on that companys pipeline and its proprietary packages, according to Hanson, who points out that the employer will assume its new hires have a knowledge of and some mastery of the basic tools by the time they graduate.

Chryssa Cooke of Expression believes the industry is looking for generalists, especially small studios and game companies. Work by Nick Dumbeck (left) and Ryan McCoy courtesy of Expression College of Digital Arts.

The Specialization Question

Educators views diverge when it comes to whether employers are looking for specialists or generalists. I think what the industry is looking for is generalists, says Cooke. Small studios are naturally more apt to want generalists, while the major film studios, in general, remain specialized. That said, even large game companies are moving toward hiring generalists, Cooke says. A modeler who is familiar with UV mapping, texturing, rigging and lighting, or someone who can model both props and humanoids, will be at an advantage against more narrowly focused modelers.

Davidson offers another point of view. I think its getting more specialized, actually, he says, noting that a students reel should address that fact. Rather than a Swiss army knife portfolio, its better to have 30 seconds to a minute showing that youre the best texture artist in the world.

Leckman agrees with Davidson that, in many ways, there is a trend toward more specialization. He believes that even smaller vfx houses such as The Orphanage or Giant Killer Robots are looking for more specialists.

Still, students at most schools are trained to take on many different roles, working on projects that could include kiosks, theme park animation, videogames and beyond, as well as gaining a knowledge of various tasks in the vfx or 3D animation process. Our students get fairly fearless about doing things theyve never done before, Davidson says.

Gnomon developed its certificate program to address what it perceived as a growing need for generalists. The 21-month program gives students a focus in one aspect of 3D, according to Hogarth, but also a well-rounded education in all facets of the process.

At the Art Institute of California, students focus on three main areas, with an emphasis on one. They end up with a range of experience; for example, someone who is primarily a texture artist might also have solid modeling skills. That is more appealing to the industry, Clarke-Miller says. Theyre flexible and more employable.

Even for specialists, it is crucial to have a general idea of the complete processes and thus fit in the team as a whole, adds Haegele.

Carnegie Mellons Drew Davidson maintains that the industry is seeking specialized artists. He advises students to show their specialty in a minute reel rather than a Swiss army knife portfolio.

How to address the specialization vs. generalization question can be a challenge. It seems like the higher up [executives] are in the chain of command, the more they want filmmakers and storytellers, Leckman says. The lower down they are, they say, We need particle fx and Maya, and can they start Monday? Its hard for us as educators to figure out what to do about this problem.

He thinks most studios want something in between: that is, employees who can excel at a specific task but understand the pipeline and how that task fits into it. And they look for people who arent satisfied staying at one job forever, who want to be promoted into positions with more responsibility.

Films vs. Games

The line between games, animation and effects is really blurred, says Cooke. An exposure to all three, therefore, will help students no matter where they end up working. For example, students who can do movie-quality vfx, or are experts in film color or lighting, are in demand in the gaming industry, since the next generation of consoles requires such knowledge. In addition, students are increasingly likely to work in more than one sector, moving from film effects to gaming and back again during their career.

Several vfx and 3D animation schools have added courses and programs in gaming, as Expression did when it developed a class in which a team builds a game level. This generation, people in their 20s, grew up with games that were a lot more sophisticated than Frogger, Cooke says. To them, thats an exciting field.

Gnomon developed its certificate program to address a growing need for generalists. Pam Hogarth of Gnomon reports that its program gives students a focus in one aspect of 3D, but also a well-rounded education in all facets.

USC has added courses in interactive entertainment as well, part of the new John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts, the result of a $5 million endowment from the John C. Hench Foundation, which oversees the estate of the late Disney animator. Meanwhile, Gnomon has supplemented its roster with classes on creating game environments.

It is difficult to generalize about what the industry wants from vfx and 3D animation graduates, as each studio and company has different needs. Some companies want skilled operatives, trained rather than educated, others want graduates with ideas, some are looking for the conservative and others for new trend setters, says Lacey.

In addition, the needs of the industry change quickly. We tell our students, dont decide what you want to do by what the industry needs, Hogarth says. This is hard work, and its your career. Do what you love doing and youll do it longer, and be happier.

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).