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The Pixel Priestess: Education & Visual Effects

The Pixel Priestess takes a personal look back on visual effects education.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Education and visual effects. Well, now theres a subject near and dear to my heart. Having been involved in the education end of our fabulous industry over the last decade or so, Ive developed quite an opinion of art, work, students work (and some of the schools out there). Though I wasnt involved directly with recruiting, I watched many, many reels; some good, some decidedly not. It was clear that some schools produced great students, and others didnt. It was also clear that some students are great regardless of their affiliation. Theyre just great. A bit erudite, but applicable: Poeta Nascitur, Non Fit A Poet is Born, Not Made. Its an inevitable fact of creativity: gifted artists arise regardless of formal education, though even the most talented artists may benefit from exposure to the basic techniques and tools. In many ways, though the industry has matured, very little has changed. Art and technology need each other.

For those years that I worked as an education manager, my peers and I answered multiple requests for curricula advice. Schools coffers had just been filled with the promise that technology would enable them to churn out talent as fast as they could power up their PCs. These administrators and teachers were so ready to buy the fastest computers and the best software that they forgot about the fundamentals; they forgot about everything that makes a great cinematic experience: storytelling, mood, expression, character, dramatic composition. They forgot about teaching aspiring artists how to create with simple tools: how to write, draw and animate. At our studios, my educator friends and I were faced with the challenge of integrating third-party software into proprietary pipelines. There were still many, many studios that used completely proprietary systems. Once the software was mastered, though, there was still the fact that these fabulous geeks had to understand the nature of light, or the way dust looks as its being blown in a desert or the way the ocean rages in a storm. And the overriding obstacle was how to convince company executives to spend production time and money on drawing classes, anatomy, color and light. (Production schedules have a way of impeding the course of education!) At the time, when visual effects films were exploding onto screens faster than the explosions were detonated within them, it almost made sense that schools made their fortunes on the backs of software. Almost. Its even less justifiable today.

Back in the 1990s, our industry was fast becoming a multi-billion dollar juggernaut; effects artists who worked away silently were emerging from the shadows of makeshift laboratories and soundstages and model shops and backlots, and signing autographs: it was amazing. The geeks who labored in their bedrooms making horror-show masks, or blowing up stuff in their back yards had fans, lots of them. And it came at such an interesting time, a period when automotive factories were closing and the aerospace industry was in serious decline. Seeking to create jobs and rescue the economy, they mistook our exploding industry for an opportunity to retrain widget makers into artists. After all, both disciplines used technology. As with so many who wanted to understand the magic behind the morph, they missed the art completely. It was easy to do: at the time, we few but mighty studio-based educators were figuring how to meet the needs of our rapidly expanding studios, involved with teaching our new-hires how to use our studios proprietary tools or communicating the integration of those tools into the quickly developing third-party applications flooding our studios.

Though schools concentrated on filling the spaces and maybe even achieving some kind of imagined nirvana with hardware and software, it became rapidly apparent to those of us on the receiving end of those thousands of reels that the product most likely reflects the education that informed it. When we were learning about water, wind and explosions, we needed the technology. We also needed our water, wind and explosions to obey the directors vision. In the education end of the industry, we had always emphasized art: so many times we found ourselves preaching, rather than advising: teach art; teach the students to see; teach them to collaborate; teach them to listen to criticism; teach them to draw; teach them to understand the power of composition within the frame; teach them to see; teach art. Over and over again. It became a bit of a mantra. Some schools listened, some didnt.

A watershed event in the evolution of computer-generated imaging was the release of Pixars Toy Story. Suddenly, a critical mass of folks realized that no matter how great a film looked: if it didnt have a great story, it wouldnt be a great movie. (Seriously, think about all the great movies you love because you love visual effects. And then think about them without the visual effects. Yeah, right). In the aftermath of Toy Story, with its abundance of wit and depth, its intricacy of facial expression and interpersonal chemistry between computer-generated characters, a drastic reassessment of the role of training took hold. We wanted animated characters to be as full, affecting and nuanced as those the viewing audience so loved. Everyone wanted to make the next Toy Story.

And this evolution was all to the good, affecting both studios and schools. While essential studio structures seem to remain consistent, a couple folks I spoke with confirmed what seems to be in all our conversations: there is an increasingly conscious emphasis on storytelling: exposition, storyboarding, character development. Weve been seeing great stories on European reels for the past several years: complex ideas presented in a mature, unhurried style, unafraid to include extended contemplative moments and not reliant on violence to create its drama. Thankfully, our most accomplished animation schools continue to pursue the same ends. By concentrating on the basics of visual expression, teaching the filmic language and pushing their students to dig deeper, they produce, on the whole, a higher degree of artistry, that nexus where talent, skill and knowledge converge to make truly great cinema. We can only hope.

Yes, its asking a lot. The student who wants to animate cute, fluffy characters (or, more likely in this country, mean, angry, threatening characters) is now required to understand how to tell a story, communicate that idea verbally and then develop that story visually. It seems were going to be digging around the halls of UC Irvine, Indiana or UC San Diego: schools known for their emphasis on narrative technique. The thought of animators taking creative writing classes is amazing: yet another step away from technology and closer to the pencil. Again. Ours is a demanding industry requiring multiple skills: skills that one person I queried suggested would require two degrees. And, though it contradicts our quest for instant gratification, its not so far out of the realm of possibility. Anyway, even then as now, finding your path in this industry is not about the software, the processor speed, the computer or even the pencil: its about the art, the story and the brain that precedes both. That hasnt changed, and isnt likely to.

Jill Smolin has been a grateful member of the visual effects industry for about a decade, and has documented the industry (before it was one) for about twice that long.