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IPAX: When Teachers Join the Crew

Ellen Wolff reports on the latest developments in Sony Pictures Imageworks innovative new faculty-based training program called IPAX.

Sony Pictures Imageworks has developed an innovative program to educate teachers on the real demands of working CG artists. All images © Sony Pictures Imageworks.

For students seeking studio internships, programs abound that offer glimpses of what to expect in the world of work. But over the past year, Sony Pictures Imageworks has been developing a program designed to reach these future employees through a different conduit their teachers. According to Mae Turner Moody, Imageworks vp of digital production and administration, Many of us whove worked in this industry for a while have been thinking about what we can do to help schools produce the kinds of students that were looking for. Weve never seen any program that specifically involves faculty. So we came up with the idea of embedding teachers in our facility for a four-week fellowship. During that time they would go through our training program and be assigned to shadow a staff person working on a particular production. They would experience the ups and downs and pressures of a show.

The idea is that they would experience the same training that any employee would go through, so theyll understand whats expected of new hires, adds Sande Scoredos, Imageworks executive director of training and development. Theyll take that experience back to the classroom and pass it on to their students.

The first presentation of this idea now called Imageworks Professional Academic Excellence Program (IPAX) was made at a SIGGRAPH 2004 reception. Moody, who spearheads the program with Scoredos, recalls, We invited about 25 to 30 schools from across the United States to talk to us about what they would think if we were to do something like this. Out of that invitation list, I think we had about 20 schools that talked to us. We got really good feedback.

An Imageworks task force then set about assembling criteria for the program. Moody explains, We invited the schools to submit not only their letter of intent, telling us how they thought we could work together, but also information about their curriculum and their faculty. We had 18 schools submit material, and we took quite some time evaluating each one. Knowing that our plate would be rather full in the facility, we didnt want to overburden ourselves by taking all 18 schools. So we decided upon six.

For the first year of IPAX, those schools are DePaul University in Chicago, Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, Pratt Institute School of Art and Design in New York City and three Los Angeles-based institutions: The University of Southern California, Otis College of Art and Design and Gnomon School of Visual Effects.

In spring 2005, the first two IPAX faculty fellows completed the program. Otis department chair Harry Mott shadowed Imageworks Frederick Lissau, whos an associate production manager on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Meanwhile, USC professor Richard Weinberg was assigned to shadow Seth Maury, digital effects supervisor on Monster House.

Sande Scoredos, Imageworks executive director of training and development, sees the conversation between the IPAX schools and Sony as a two-way street.

Weinberg, who is the director and founder of the USC Computer Animation Laboratory, called IPAX a very innovative approach. This was a type of program that Id never heard of before. Which is saying something, given that Weinbergs distinguished career dates back to the earliest CG in motion pictures 1984s The Last Starfighter. (Weinberg, then an employee of Cray Research, worked on-site at Digital Prods. when they used a Cray supercomputer to produce the films CG.)

So it was intriguing for Weinberg to see the current technology being applied to create the all-CG Monster House, which not only global illumination but also the Imagemotion performance capture technique introduced last year in The Polar Express. My objective was to get a pretty broad understanding of what is going on in the production of a major motion picture, says Weinberg. In many ways, its kind of a snapshot of the process, because as time goes on the process changes.

Weinberg planned to do his Imageworks fellowship at the end of USCs spring term. Before classes ended, he informed his graduate students that he had committed to working for three weeks at Sony. They thought it was great. I think that students really like it when faculty have direct contact with the industry that theyre preparing themselves for.

In preparation for his IPAX fellowship, Weinberg consulted with Imageworks to design his schedule. Moody notes, Were customizing each fellowship per participant. We certainly are flexible, and we understand if a teacher cant come for four weeks. But we want to keep the program at least three weeks to make it truly meaningful.

When professors Weinberg and Mott arrived at Imageworks, notes Moody, We didnt just drop them in with the new hires. I do a separate orientation that describes what they should expect. If they have any questions they can come to me. Theyre in training for a week and after that they have a person that they partner with for the rest of their time here. The people on the show that theyre joining expect them.

The Imageworks training sessions, reports Dr. Weinberg, had less than a dozen people. There was a blend a seasoned professionals and freshly minted graduates. I learned the way that their systems are structured. While Weinberg was introduced to Imageworks proprietary computer code, he notes, I certainly couldnt learn it all. But I got a good taste of what theyre up to.

Imageworks Scoredos, who oversees Imageworks training programs, says that class participants could have anywhere from three to eight trainers a week. Our staff trainers each have their areas of expertise, and then we have the subject matter experts from various shows. Class members have to produce work for dailies. Dr. Weinberg had to submit his work, and he was quite proud of it.

Once Weinberg moved on to the production team of Monster House, he admits, I didnt put in the long days that some people were working. But it was, essentially, like a regular full-time job.

Through Weinbergs and Motts fellowships at Imageworks, both professors had encounters that demonstrated the potential value of the IPAX program for their students. Scoredos recalls, When the chair of the Otis department was here, we had a student intern from Otis in the classroom at the same time. And the intern showed the chair how to do something. We ended up hiring that student, so it was a wonderful experience all around.

For Weinberg, when his IPAX fellowship ended, he says, I was able to put one of our USC graduates in touch with the folks on Monster House. Hes working there now. In many ways, timing is everything, and the timing in this case was helpful.

In IPAXs inaugural year, Imageworks invited faculty from six schools to serve a four-week fellowship.

Since IPAX was launched with teachers from L.A., Moody observes that there were inherent advantages to having participants who could live at home while they worked at Imageworks. It will be interesting to see the next phase, she acknowledges. The next IPAX participants, who will start the program on Aug. 8, following SIGGRAPH, will include out-of-towners that will have to find housing (an expense picked up by their sponsoring schools.)

Once such participant is DePaul Universitys Rosalee Wolfe from Chicago, who teaches Foundations of Computer Graphics and a course in writing image-based and procedural shaders. This looked like a wonderful opportunity to see first hand what the state of the art is. Ive always tried to develop industry contacts as touchstones, to get feedback on what were doing in the classroom.

Wolfe has worked with Imageworks to customize her IPAX program, explaining, Im interested in several areas. One is facial animation, particularly in the re-use of material that was previously created. Another area is anything and everything about texturing and shading. Im also hoping to get an overview of the production process on a project that involves a lot of 3D CG. Id like to be able to chat with production people about their education and previous experiences, and find out what was most helpful to them. Theres so much to learn and only one fellowship!

Even before Wolfe commences her tenure at the studio, she has taken advantage of Imageworks advice on DePauls curriculum. I teach a class in scripting in the sense of programming to save on repetitious tasks that animators might find themselves doing. In shaping my course, I looked to Sony for some guidance. Moody recalls that she and Scordoes assembled Imageworks experts to consult with Wolfe via teleconferencing. We sat in a room with Rosalie on the other end of the phone and talked through this course list with her. She used that information to design the course and sent a lovely note back saying how much the students appreciated it.

Wolfe notes that following her consultations with Imageworks, I could bring into the class discussions about how scripting is applied at a premier CG house. And immediately everyone was paying attention. Its something that you might use to help you get a job.

The conversation between the IPAX schools and Sony is a two-way street, asserts Scoredos. These people are professors who understand how students learn. They had some great ideas for us to put into play.

Enabling college professors to experience life in the trenches of production has been enlightening, notes USCs Weinberg. It gave me a good idea of the different roles that people have in the production of a movie, as well as some of the techniques that theyre using. Thats especially useful in a field that has been changing as rapidly as this field has. Its helpful to see whats going on in industrial-scale productions. Universities cant quite match that. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake vs. thousands!

As Moody assesses the future shape of IPAX, she states, Its an open program. We are definitely going to be looking at other schools. But we want to make sure that we can give quality to each participant in the program. We dont want to water ourselves down to the point where we cant do justice to every school. Were hoping that there will be continued dialogue between us and the schools in this program. Well encourage them to share information, and I hope we can be facilitators, especially with curriculum development. Our industry is constantly evolving, and teachers realize that they have to keep evolving as well.

Ellen Wolff is a Southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.