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The Digital Eye: Expanding Education for the 3D Industry

In this month's issue of "The Digital Eye," Alexandra Pasian explores how Softimage's recent educational initiative is helping to push boundaries in 3D.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Last spring, I had the opportunity to write about Softimage's new educational programs. The programs were developed to increase the number of artists proficient with the company's animation software and to help institutions prepare students to get into the industry. Clearly, the folks at Softimage, like so many of us, believe that education is the key to getting the right job in the area of your choice. And these days, there seem to be an increasing number of educational options out there for aspiring 3D artists.

If you're one of the growing number of aspiring 3D artists, then one of your options is attending an art institute or university to earn a degree. Full Sail University in Florida and the Vancouver Film School in British Columbia both offer a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees that include computer animation and digital design. This type of learning can provide you with a comprehensive understanding of a variety of software as well as an extended period of time in which to hone your abilities.

If a three-or four-year program isn't your cup of tea, however, then another opportunity available to you is a school or college that offers certificates or intensive courses. In downtown Montreal, students at Centre NAD earn certificates in 3D animation and visual effects or attend intensive weekend or summer camp programs. With seminars, distance learning and customized training in 3D production management, post-production, as well as targeted software training on SOFTIMAGE|XSI, Autodesk 3ds Max, Character Studio and Combustion, Centre NAD certainly offers plenty of opportunities for artists to get up to speed and out into the industry.

Then again, if you aren't interested in having the classroom or school experience at all, you can teach yourself how to use 3D software by accessing a variety of programs on-line. In fact, many sites offer free on-line training, including Softimage's new community site that has more 300 free videos.

So, while we may be in agreement that education is important, there are so many options out there that you might have difficulty figuring out which path is best for you. With students everywhere returning to school, it seems to be the right time to take a closer look at the state of education in our industry.

Alexandra Pasian.

The Current State of the 3D Industry

If one of the goals of education is to help 3D artists break into the industry, then it only makes sense to start there. What does our industry look like and, more importantly for emerging artists, who is hiring? Currently, games are the fastest expanding segment of the 3D market. Statistically speaking, there is a huge section of the population that spends more time and money on video games in a week than they do on movies and television in a year.

But there has also been a significant spike in the number of live action films made with 3D technology-- including CG characters and sets, stereoscopic 3-D and previs. Given the success of movies such as Iron Man, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and any number of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas' films, this can hardly come as a surprise. And, with animated feature-length films winning Academy Awards and doing huge sales at the box office and on DVD (and now Blu-ray), there seems to be no end of opportunity there either.

Post-production and work in television are also on the rise, and there are growing opportunities in other industries. Students can now choose from traditional 3D work as well as architectural and medical imaging, pilot training, and emergency response scenarios to name but a few. With an ever-expanding list of opportunity, you would think that our industry would be changing to satisfy this increased demand. And you would be right.

Meeting Industry Demand

As the demand for 3D rises in almost every sector, our industry must adapt. According to Craig Slagel, 3D art educator, "The most noticeable change that has occurred over the last year or so is a move to the outsourcing of art. Many jobs that formerly would have been done in-house are going to small production studios or contract artists." Carey Chico, exec art director at Pandemic Studios in L.A., echoed this view during a presentation at GDC 2008.

Emerging artists shouldn't feel discouraged by the outsourcing of art jobs. There are still jobs to fill, especially ones for generalist artists.

But emerging artists shouldn't feel discouraged by this change. Said Chico during his presentation, "This doesn't mean that we don't have jobs to fill. It just means that the breakdown of the disciplines is changing." Chico called for more "generalist artists" as opposed to "specialists," saying that "the specialist roles are the ones being outsourced and the people we want internally must be capable on a wide variety of fronts."

What does this mean for students? Whether you're going to work in-house at a large studio or be part of the expanding pool of contract artists, this shift means that you should be looking for more from your education. Added Slagel, "Artists should be looking at either gaining the business skills necessary to set up your own business or the more advanced skills necessary for becoming a technical artist or TD. And, to become a technical artist or TD, students need to develop an understanding of advanced software tools, scripting, and how to use software API's to create art assets efficiently."

All of which begs the question… once you've decided what type of education to pursue, how do you decide which courses to take?

The Best Course of Study

If we go by what industry insiders Chico and Slagel have said, the days of focusing solely on a single software package are gone. Students must be both knowledgeable and adaptable. It's almost guaranteed that, wherever you end up, you'll be facing either a mixed studio or a variety of contracts. You'll have to know the basics and be ready to step up.

One way to meet the challenges of working in a mixed environment is to begin by working with flexible tools that themselves allow you to work quickly in other 3D environments. And, luckily, animation tools like XSI are designed to do just that.

The days of focusing solely on a single software package are gone. Students must be able to work with flexible tools that allow them to work quickly in other 3D environments.

When considering a class -- or even a program of study -- you should keep in mind the most conducive learning environment for you. The best school or the best instructor might not be the right choice for you if you don't learn in that particular environment. If you're unsure about the kind of environment in which you learn best, consider Slagel's advice, which comes from years of experience both as a senior graphics trainer at EA and as an educator in the industry.

"Ultimately," said Slagel, "Whether you're learning in a classroom or self-teaching, I feel project-based learning is the most effective." This means using your own projects as the focus of all your training. According to Slagel, "Working on your own scenes even when using videos or tutorials is the best way to learn the necessary techniques."

Why does a project-based approach work best? It is hard to say. It could be that focusing on one project -- a project that you might have developed yourself -- allows you to really get into the nuts and bolts of a software package. Or, it might be that using one project over and over allows you to forget about the project entirely and really figure out the techniques you're learning. Or, it might be that truly the best way to learn how to do anything is to just do it.

Education for Everyone

With software companies catching on to the value of education, it is becoming easier than ever to get your hands on very sophisticated tools to start learning. As I wrote last spring, Softimage, for example, offers a variety of educational programs targeted toward each type of learning facility, and they are making it painless to start using XSI. You can download the 30-day free-trail version or, if you're a full-time student, you can get a full-educational license for only $295 for Windows version. What's more, when you graduate from a designated institution, you can get a one-year commercial license of XSI for free through the Softimage Graduate Program.

Clearly, if you're interested in breaking into the 3D industry, there are plenty of opportunities for you to do so. And don't worry if you're already an established artist in the industry; there are plenty of opportunities here for you too. Nicolas Poteet, professor and lead 3D art animator at Centre NAD, pointed out that, while "Intensive courses are great for beginners who want to test their aptitude, they are also a great idea for someone already in the industry who is looking for a refresher course." As we know, Centre NAD offers a variety of ways for you to upgrade your skills. And I can tell you from experience that Montreal is a great place to study.

Alexandra Pasian is a Montreal-based professor and freelance writer specializing in media and technology.