Knowledge & Career - Jan 08
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 1 (Jan. 2008)

Knowledge & Career - Jan 08

John Slowsky shows that you can learn new tricks and create new opportunities for youself.

According to John Slowsky, video games took an important step toward technical maturity two years ago with the release of the Xbox 360, followed by the PlayStation 3. “It was like night and day what you could push through the pipes,” says the veteran video game art director. “The explosion of storage capacity opened the door to more drama and meaning through character animation.”

It was 2005 and Slowsky, who works as a freelancer, had already scored high as the art director on the much-lauded Van Helsing, Battlestar Galactica, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy games. Facing the medium’s newfound potential and increasingly discriminating audience, Slowsky understood that his creative edge, going forward, rested on his ability to draw stronger, more expressive performances from his artists.

Slowsky’s wife, Phelan Sykes, a successful video game art director in her own right, was already studying at Animation Mentor, an online school she had discovered. Despite her years as a production artist, she was challenged by the school’s program, which was designed from the ground up by animators from Pixar and ILM, and by its instructors, all of whom are working studio animators at Sony Pictures Imageworks, DreamWorks Animation SKG, Blue Sky Studios, and other well-known facilities.

Attending Class
Slowsky, who is 54 years old and has been working in the video game industry for 16 years, also signed up for the 18-month program, which uses Web 2.0 technologies to take animation education beyond the limits of time and geographic location. Students are placed under the wing of six different studio mentors, who personally critique all the assignments and offer guidance and advice.

Each week, Animation Mentor’s students download rich media lectures featuring the latest topic and assignment, filmed documentary-style with industry leaders; the students also gather virtually in small, real-time, interactive classes led by their mentor and using Web conferencing technologies. Additionally, they log on to a thriving online campus and social network, where they maintain personal pages with blogs and vlogs, view one another’s mentor critiques, and chat.

The curriculum was designed by the school’s three founders—Bobby Beck (Pixar), Carlos Baena (Pixar), and Shawn Kelly (ILM)—and is based on the animation fundamentals  squash and stretch, anticipation, follow-through, arcs, and more. The working milieu is patterned on the studio production experience, with the mentor serving as the director and the students as members of the animation team.

Animation Mentor CEO/president Bobby Beck (left) and John Slowsky (right) are pictured at the Animation Mentor graduation ceremony held at SIGGRAPH 2007 in San Diego.

Students study at Animation Mentor from as far away as Tehran, Berlin, and Cape Town, and from as nearby as San Francisco and Montreal. The average attendee is 29 years old, but the school has seen students as young as 19, and there is currently a first-termer who is 64 years old.

Although he calls Southern California home, Slowsky became one of the many Animation Mentor students to work internationally when THQ sent him to Japan to work on Smackdown vs. Raw, when Vivendi sent him to Canada for Scarface the World is Yours, and when Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment sent him to India, where the studio was working on certain character models—all while attending the school. The only tools Slowsky needed were his laptop and a broadband connection to continue his studies from abroad and submit his assignments on time.

Even though the schedule was convenient—Slowsky attended the live classes at night in the States and early morning overseas, and did his homework at nights and during weekends—it wasn’t always easy. “At times, it was exhausting,” Slowsky confides. “Whenever you go to school and work at the same time, it’s very demanding, and you have to commit from the get-go. My mentor would push me when he knew I was capable of more, and I pushed myself to keep up with my classmates, whose work grew stronger with each passing term.”

Slowsky counts among his personal mentors Pixar animator Brett Parker, then Sony Pictures Imageworks supervising animator Pepe Valencia, Back at the Barnyard director Mike Gasaway, and Circus Ink Entertainment creative director Dimos Vrysellas. From these accomplished talents, Slowsky learned how to add life to his characters through action and emotion, and to exaggerate or diminish a movement or feeling to enhance the storytelling experience.
Slowsky traveled to Japan to work on Smackdown vs. Raw for THQ while studying at night online.

Slowsky’s budding expertise found tangible realization in the games he art directed while studying at Animation Mentor, particularly THQ’s fall 2007 title Smackdown vs. Raw 2008. On Smackdown, Slowsky encouraged his team to add drama and heroics to their shots by intensifying facial expressions, amplifying movements, exaggerating timing, and reshaping fighters to Grecian proportions.

“We animated the wrestlers to vault over the ropes when they entered the ring, rather than clear them by an inch or two,” Slowsky explains. “That is what the actors had done in the motion-capture footage that served as our foundation, but I knew the action could be more dramatic.”

The group also gave the wrestlers’ motions more theatrical range and “had them throw their punches higher, and even redesigned the crowds so they always brought your attention to the center of the ring,” says Slowsky. “Sometimes our changes were subtle, sometimes more exaggerated, but we were always respectful of the athletes we were digitally reconstructing. In the end, we created a much stronger, entertaining game as a result of the character animation skills I learned through [Animation Mentor].”

In August, Slowsky graduated from Animation Mentor at a ceremony held at SIGGRAPH 2007. When you ask him what is next, his vision is clear and direct. “Now that the industry has the [appropriate] tools, we need to step up to the plate and create games with more meaning, drama, and purpose,” Slowsky declares. “It is time to break new ground, to create the new Great Train Robbery of video games, and show the world the real potential of this amazing, versatile format.”

Those at Animation Mentor would not be surprised if Slowsky were on the team that did just that.

How one person turned a hobby into a career

The Pixel Corps was exactly the kick in the pants I needed to fulfill my lifelong dream of getting into visual effects,” says Nick Jushchyshyn, VFX artist at Digital Domain. “As most beginning VFX artisans find, recruiters often are looking for experienced artists who have extensive knowledge working with professional HD and film plates, high-end software, and deadline-oriented production teams.”

Pixel Corps is designed for those looking to nourish a hobby, as well as for those looking to dig deep into visual effects. It also is a global production community capable of generating content around the world, as well as preparing artists for the next media revolution through extensive training, access to advanced applications, real-world challenges, and community participation.

(Main) Pixel Corps’ recent boot camp covered greenscreen production, lighting, and sound. (Right) Member Jushchyshyn is now employed at Digital Domain.

Jushchyshyn’s attraction to VFX began at an early age—the first time he saw The Making of Star Wars. He was intrigued by the creativity, technology, and hard work needed to create the film’s revolutionary effects. But Philadelphia, his home, wasn’t exactly close to the visual effects world of Hollywood. For 10 years he spent his days working at companies specializing in computer programming, project management, and software project management. His free time was expended working on personal effects projects and local commercials, and writing compositing plug-ins.

One night Jushchyshyn attended a lecture on visual effects by Pixel Corps founder Alex Lindsay, and that set him on a new career course. Jushchyshyn joined Pixel Corps, whose organized virtual teams execute real-world production projects—from short films and music videos to commercials and podcasts—via the Internet. The teams work within an environment modeled after pipelines and protocols generally found in top post shops, though the projects aren’t designed to produce revenue; rather, they generate production experience, demo reel footage, and a bond among members.

As an active member, Jushchyshyn was able to take advantage of the organization’s online training and unrestricted access to a buffet of digital media software, ranging from Adobe Photoshop, Luxology Modo, NaturalMotion Endorphin, and Apple Shake. He also took part in Pixel Corps’ forums, which allow members to communicate with one another and share advice. These special forums provided Jushchyshyn with direct access to discussions and seminars with key industry pros on topics such as motion graphics, compositing, and Photoshop.

As his skill level and participation evolved, Jushchyshyn joined special teams, allowing him to rise through the ranks—beginning in 2004 as a junior artisan, working through the 2D and 3D production groups, to his current level of technical division leader heading up all postproduction activities. Pixel Corps has more than 60 artists and team leaders working on a number of independent films, music videos, and podcasts throughout the year. All its procedures and divisions of labor are modeled after large feature-film production shops.

Working in a production-style environment is different from working individually, and Jushchyshyn claims that part of his ease into life at Digital Domain can be credited to Pixel Corps, as its production pipeline is very similar to that of his new employer.

“I don’t know of many other ways to have such extensive, insider access to the tools, techniques, and practices of this industry,” Jushchyshyn notes. “Best of all, everything is available buffet style, so I could work on building skills and experience during my free time while still working a full-time job and fulfilling my personal obligations. In short, this was exactly what I was looking for when trying to find a way to break into this new career.”

Promax/BDA promotes studet design talent

An an attempt to locate new broadcast design and promo talent, Promax/BDA, an association for creatives in electronic media marketing, promotion, and design, is holding its second Making the Cut contest, which offers students a chance to showcase their skills in front of a television audience.

The first contest, announced early last year, challenged students to create a non-traditional trailer for The CW that captured the essence of one of the network’s specified shows. The winner, Stacy Young, was announced this past June at the Promax/BDA show in New York. As a result, she got the nod to intern for The CW, working on network promos.

This year’s Making the Cut II promises more competition. The contest began earlier, this past December, giving students even more time to ready their submissions. Like last year, students will have the opportunity to submit promo entries, no longer than 90 seconds, for this year’s eligible CW shows: Supernatural, Gossip Girl, and Smallville. The CW provides program footage from the three shows, but the participants are encouraged to use their imaginations, their own live-action footage, and other visual tools available to them. Once again, the winner will be revealed at the annual Promax/BDA show.

Making the Cut is part of Promax/BDA’s ongoing educational initiative, an effort headed by Promax/BDA committee chair Kim Rosenblum, senior VP creative at TV Land. She says the idea is to engage students by introducing them to the broadcast design and promo industry, and the association that represents it.

User-Generated Content
The contest is meant to encourage unsung talent enrolled in formal design schools. However, anyone with the proper skills and concept may enter. Non-professionals making promos for network programs? Does this seem kind of YouTube-driven, or like some form of video graffiti? “User-generated content is already an art form,” stresses Rosenblum. “Last year, several national commercials, including some featured during the Super Bowl, were created from user-generated content. Increasingly, marketers are calling on consumers to help define their brands, turning to user-generated content to convey their brands’ attributes and develop marketing messages.”

Anthony Armenise, The CW’s senior creative executive of on-air promotion, concurs. “We encourage the use of live action because we recognize that our demographic and fan base are trailblazers in this new world of user-generated content over multiple media platforms. The availability of and access to the tools necessary to express one’s creativity and individual voice are what makes this competition fun and appealing to our audience,” he says. And users generating content on sites such as YouTube are the kinds of viewers The CW relates to and wants to connect with, he adds.

Seth Berkowitz, head of Blink (Los Angeles), originated Making the Cut’s concept. “While user-created content is currently seen as a trend, it draws upon something that is timeless: the passion of fans for their favorite shows,” he says. “When that passion is paired with genuine talent, developed through frequent practice on the available tools, and nurtured by educators at the college level, the results can be miraculous.”

So does this mean that raw, “outsider” talent could walk into a network promo job off the street rather than off the graduation line? “Overall, I think you can tell the difference between the entrants who have had some formal training versus those who haven’t, but with the increase in the availability and quality of consumer/prosumer editing software, the gap is not nearly as big as one would expect,” says Armenise.

The CW’s “goal and vision” for the competition is less about technical skill and more about cleverly capturing the unique spirit of a show, Armenise says. “Whether you’ve had formal training or not, the challenge to our contestants is to put something together that represents their passion for the show. Last year’s winner had no formal training of any kind, but won by writing and composing an original song for her piece. It resonated with everyone who saw it.”

For contestants, Making the Cut is about propelling themselves and their art into a network job. The bottom line for a network is about selling its shows to the viewing public. “Of course, we’d love to find the next promo maven to nurture and come work for us,” says Armenise, “but, ultimately, the competition is more about making a connection to the fans, the fans making a connection with the show, and seeing their passion for the show translate into a product that speaks to other fans. The raw creative instincts and passion of the individual are what matters most to us, not the ‘technical’ quality of the pieces or the [applicant’s] ability to use the latest software.” 
Ken McGorry is consulting editor for Post magazine, CGW’s sister publication.