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Linda Sellheim Talks Epic’s Unreal Fellowship

One of the company’s innovative new fellowship creators discusses the program’s intense virtual production workflow curriculum, participation requirements, and goals for the future.

With today’s announcement of their new free self-paced Virtual Production Primer educational resource, Epic Games has made available to the community a collection of eight courses and 10 videos designed to teach the fundamentals of Unreal Engine and real-time production, and how these skills and techniques may be applied to the emerging area of virtual production. This new online learning resource is the latest Epic educational initiative, part of the company’s ongoing efforts to support rapidly expanding game development, visualization and virtual production communities in their use of Unreal Engine as part of their real-time graphics rendering and integration efforts.

Linda Sellheim, Epic’s Education Lead, is one of the creators the company’s Unreal Fellowship, a 30-day intensive program for VFX/animation professionals to learn Unreal Engine and real-time and virtual production workflows. The fellowship, which comes with a $10K stipend per participant, had its first run this past August; the applicant response was so overwhelming, more programs are planned, with the hope of running quarterly. The new Primer’s release was a direct result of the huge response to the first Fellowship announcement. AWN spoke to Sellheim about the Fellowship program’s origins, goals, and future plans.

AWN: How did the Unreal Fellowship come about?

Linda Sellheim: For years, Epic has invested in building free educational resources for the Unreal Engine community, such as the Unreal Online Learning platform, which provides guided learning paths and a la carte video courses, and covers a variety of industries from VFX and animation to game development to architectural visualization. 

Recently, as more and more film and TV productions have been adopting Unreal Engine for virtual production, we identified the need to empower exponentially more industry professionals to better grasp the technology and workflows so that they can take advantage of new career opportunities in this emerging field. Since virtual production is still such a new area for most storytellers, we aimed to develop a deeply tailored program that goes beyond foundational Unreal Engine skills to also offer dedicated live training, hands-on mentorship, guest lectures from industry leaders, and networking opportunities. 

Of course, we had never operated an online school before, and we knew that this would be a journey where the trainers and students feel the bumps in the road together, so we started out small by establishing a pilot program with 15 participants to test this new curriculum, along with a few folks who audited the coursework. While it was intense, and at times quite tiring, overall, the pilot was a huge success as it provided valuable feedback and helped us refine the formula for opening up the initiative to more professionals. 

From there, we finalized the curriculum and other details, and now we are thrilled to have the Unreal Fellowship off the ground.

AWN: What can participants in the Unreal Fellowship expect from the program?

LS: The latest sprint of Unreal Fellowship, which ran during August and September, is a curated, four-week intensive learning experience, designed to help film, animation, and VFX professionals learn Unreal Engine, understand the state of the art in virtual production, and learn in a practical sense how to bring this knowledge back to the set. 

It’s a full-time commitment, with about 95 hours of total content – including 50 hours of live training and 45 hours that’s a combination of mentoring sessions, labs, and weekly reviews focusing on project-based work. In training, Fellows focus on learning Unreal Engine fundamentals, model ingestion, animation, mocap integration, lookdev, lighting setups, and cinematic storytelling. All the learning tools are completely free of charge, and Epic is providing each participant with a $10,000 stipend to ensure that they can dedicate the time to successfully complete the rigorous curriculum. 

There are also many opportunities for Fellows to connect with each other through a dedicated Slack channel, Zoom happy hours, and more. Those connections will serve participants well as they go back out into the field and build teams around their projects.

AWN: What was the response for this first call for applications?

LS: We were blown away by the interest when we announced the call for submissions – which just shows how critical this kind of education is in the industry. In one week, we received 6,000 submissions for just 50 Fellowship spots. Based on our eligibility criteria – a minimum of five years of experience in commercial film/television production, immersive entertainment, or game development – about 3,500 of those applicants were qualified. It was a huge challenge to select the Fellows for this first cohort, and we actually ended up pulling together additional resources so that we could run two groups at a time – so we were able to accept 100 Fellows altogether.

AWN: What type of applicants are you looking for?

LS: The Unreal Fellowship is highly curated and goes beyond a typical online learning course, so we are looking for industry standouts – people who will be on the forefront of adopting and implementing virtual production techniques in film and television. 

A well-rounded mix of skills, experience, and general industry participation are important to us. We’re looking at reels, LinkedIn profiles, IMDB pages, and affiliation with industry groups to get a sense of not only career background but also how active applicants are in the community. 

Inclusivity is also important to us, and we want to help foster a more diverse industry moving forward. Having diversity across race and ethnicity, gender, age, and geography are all key considerations.

AWN: What resources are available for those who weren’t accepted, or missed the opportunity to apply?

LS: Based on the overwhelming response, we’ve released a new self-guided learning path within Unreal Online Learning called the Virtual Production Primer. This collection of resources is now freely available to the public. The Virtual Production Primer combines a curated selection of courses and videos that teaches Unreal Engine fundamentals and exposes learners to the world of virtual production. In addition to existing content, it includes two new courses on the core principles of virtual production hosted by Epic’s Luis Cataldi and Cinetracer’s Matt Workman.

The Virtual Production Primer teaches people how to work with the Unreal Editor, projects, file structures, and more, along with the basics of producing content in real time and key considerations for performance and design. It also features recorded talks by industry experts, sharing details on what goes into creating world-class virtual production pipelines and how to deploy them.

We know that people are craving practical knowledge on virtual production, and we hope that this new Virtual Production Primer will help people get off to a great start. Visit Unreal Online Learning to get started!

AWN: How does the Unreal Fellowship impact participants’ career opportunities?

The deep knowledge base that Fellows ingest from this program has the potential to transform their career paths. As virtual production is more in-demand across film and television, Fellowship alumni are now being seen on the front lines of implementing effective virtual production workflows and techniques on their projects. They’re demonstrating the knowledge, confidence, and connections to be able to utilize real-time technology for greater creativity, more experimentation, and higher efficiency – and most importantly, they’re sharing their hands-on knowledge with peers to help drive the entire industry forward.

AWN: What’s next for Unreal Fellowship?

LS: Since we had so many qualified applicants from our first round, we’ve selected another 100 participants from that talent pool to begin a new five-week Fellowship program this month. 

Ultimately, we’d like to do the Fellowship on a quarterly basis, and expand across the world to better accommodate those in other time zones. We’re currently working with our teams in EMEA and APAC to scale up in order to roll that out. We know that there’s an enormous qualified population of the workforce who are ready and willing to jump into this, so we want to do our best to help everyone succeed.