COMMITMENT TO EDUCATION
By Alexandra Pasian
Since its inception in 1986, Softimage has focused on helping artists create art. Now the company is extending this commitment to students, who the vendor plans to help not only break into the industry, but excel in it.
To this end, Softimage held its first Education Summit at this year's Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, where the firm launched its new educational program aimed at answering the demand for artists trained in Softimage XSI professional 3D software.
Based on the success of this summit, Softimage will be hosting other training events this spring, and is planning to hold another summit at SIGGRAPH in Los Angeles this summer.
This inaugural event included an Education Conference for instructors, as well as a Student User Group during which a panel of industry veterans discussed the importance of education for landing a job.
The Education Conference was headlined by Perry Harovas, director of Flashpoint Academy; Michael Endres, art director at Crytek; and Carey Chico, executive art director at Pandemic Studios. All three men shared their thoughts on how educators can best help students land jobs following graduation. In particular, Endres and Chico focused on what their specific studios are looking for from applicants, while Harovas spoke more generally about the importance of a comprehensive education.
Educating the Educators
According to Harovas, it is important for CG artists to know and understand the concepts behind a piece of software. For him, it isn't enough to know the name of the button or how to do a single cool effect. "By focusing on the ideas underlying a tool, instructors are able to instill in their students the ability to teach themselves as new versions of that software arrive on the market," he notes.
Educators listen as industry experts discuss how instructors and institutions can best prepare their students so they are job-ready upon graduation.
Harovas also believes it is important to teach students the realities of the industry. "Train them for what it really is," he says, "and prepare them for the workplace."
How it really is, according to Chico, is changing. "Effectively, outsourcing is a way of life now. This doesn't mean that we don't have jobs to fill, but the breakdown of the disciplines is having an impact," he adds. "At Pandemic, we would like to see schools train more generalists since we outsource specialists. We want to have people internally who are capable on a wide variety of fronts."
The best thing that educators can do, Chico says, is "drive artists to learn to be programmers and masters of many skills."
Debra Hooper, director of the School of Communication of Arts @ Digital Circus, was one of 40 instructors on hand for the event and was impressed by what she heard. Hooper found everyone's work informative and, in particular, pointed to Chico's presentation, saying, "He provided wonderful information for educators to take back to their students. I have already shared with my students what he said about outsourcing, as well as his insights on what the industry is looking for in employee skills."
For Hooper, the potential benefits to education that arise from programs like Softimage's new initiative come down to job opportunities for students. "More knowledge always leads to better placement opportunities," she says. "Education, after all, is about getting a great job when you graduate."
Student User Group
The students at GDC certainly felt that increased knowledge would give them a leg up. More than 125 of them attended the Student User Group that featured a panel comprising David Andrews, animation director of The Orphanage; Andy Buecker, co-owner of Zoogloo; Jonathan Harb, CEO and creative director of Whiskytree; and Burke Revet, lead artist at Black Point Studios.
The group held a roundtable discussion about their experiences getting into the industry, followed by a question-and-answer session. What students most wanted to know-and what the assembled panel was only too happy to share with them-were the dos and don'ts about getting a job. A common theme was the value of having an education, as it helps artists develop their technical proficiencies and also demonstrates their interest and commitment.
In addition, the panel stressed the importance of the demo reel. When it comes right down to it, every applicant is judged by what is contained in those brief minutes or seconds.
Afterward, the panel was deluged by students wanting more information. "This is amazing. For a couple hours of our time, we're getting years of experience," commented one student. And the learning kept right on going.
The New Education Program
In addition to providing a forum for educators and students to hear from industry experts, the Education Summit also gave Softimage a great venue to roll out its new education initiative. After months of consulting with instructors, students, and administrations, Softimage has put together a comprehensive education program that consists of a two-phase approach for training future XSI artists. The goal is to help students reach far beyond entry-level positions in the industry.
Harovas was excited by what he has seen so far, noting, "It will help us teach our students better and faster, and who doesn't like that?"
The first phase of the education program focuses on instructor certification. The Softimage Certified Instructor (SCI) program is designed to bring educators up to speed on the latest version of XSI. "We have redesigned the certification program to meet the needs of the future. The industry's demand for artists trained on XSI is increasing, and the first step to getting qualified people out in the field is to ensure that their instructors worldwide are up to date and properly trained," says Teresa Manley, director of marketing at Softimage.
Last year, the animated project Mirage, from Youngwoong Jang, won a Student Academy Award for Best Animated Short.
This redesign includes placing the certification process online and making it free of charge. Once accepted into the program, instructors have three months to become certified, which they can do in the comfort of their own home or studio. Thus, the certification process adapts to their timeframe, and candidates can schedule around teaching and production schedules. Alternatively, schools and training centers with larger groups can arrange for an on-site trainer at their facility.
For would-be instructors, the benefits of the SCI program include working at their own pace, close collaboration with the Softimage Training Team, and access to the 40 hours of training material developed for both the program and as teaching collateral for the classroom.
The second phase targets students through their schools by giving them the support they need to land jobs in the competitive world of 3D animation. Institutions are given access to Softimage's education portal and marketing materials, and they have priority access to XSI experts and early software versions.
To participate in the program, institutions must offer a degree or diploma program, or a professional training program in animation. They must also have a certain number of XSI licenses and offer courses that include XSI as part of their curriculum. In addition, they must have at least one Softimage Certified Instructor on staff.
The most empowering advantage for students studying at the Softimage Education Program institution is that, upon graduation, Softimage gives them a free one-year license of XSI Essentials. This means that, after graduation, students can either spend a year developing that killer demo reel or can take positions with community-based companies to build up their resumes. Or, they can even bridge the year between school and work by devoting themselves entirely to an artistic or creative project. Whatever they decide, these students no longer have to worry about financing their work. "Softimage's new education initiative is up to date, easy to access, and comprehensive," says Harovas. "It's just what we need."
Now the industry just has to wait and see what this new generation of XSI artists will do.
Alexandra Pasian is a Montreal-based professor and freelance writer specializing in media and technology. She can be reached at email@example.com.
BEYOND THE TOOLS
Teaching management, leadership skills at the Centre for Digital Media
By Marc Loftus
The Centre for Digital Media at the Great Northern Way Campus (GNWC) in Vancouver opened last fall and is currently instructing its inaugural class through its Masters of Digital Media Program. Sounds typical, right? For the most part, yes; but in some aspects, it is anything but.
The GNWC is a collaborative university campus environment that draws on resources from the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Emily Carr Institute of Art+Design, and British Columbia Institute of Technology. As such, those who complete the 20-month Masters of Digital Media Program receive a graduate degree that bears the seals of not just one, but all four academic partners.
Moreover, the government-funded facility grew out of lobbying efforts by local digital media successes-such as Rainmaker and Electronic Arts-looking to attract top-quality talent to the region, which claims to have more game developers per capita than anywhere else.
Located on the Great Northern Way Campus, the new Centre for Digital Media is attracting students from well beyond Vancouver.
Two years ago, the government awarded the school a one-time economic development investment of $40.5 million dollars to get started. But unlike other schools where tools are the focus, the Centre's purpose is to develop talent that can eventually step into leadership and management roles in an industry that is changing dramatically as a result of the Internet, the convergence of mobile, user-generated content, and everything going digital.
"We assume that our students are already experts in their chosen field or core discipline," says Gerri Sinclair, executive director. "We do not see ourselves as technology trainers in that sense. We provide a technology infrastructure. We have an amazing rendering farm and a high-speed network, and students are given a state-of-the-art laptop. We have HD cameras and surround-sound capabilities. Our whole facility is built in a multimodal jack in/jack out capability where AV, the network, and projection is pervasive."
The inaugural class is home to 21 students, some from as far away as India and China. That number, says Sinclair, will grow to 35 with the next class, which begins session in December.
Students come from a multidisciplinary range of expertise. Approximately 40 percent have an art background, and another 40 percent come from the tech side. The remaining 20 percent are from business or any other number of disciplines. "We've put a lot of emphasis on teamwork, collaboration, project management, and business development, and we give them a lot of real-world experience, as well as a number of intensive courses, which are mostly project-based and team-based," says Sinclair.
What to Expect
In the first semester, students take a Foundations course in digital media that covers subjects such as social media marketing, Web design, video games, theme parks, postproduction, television, digital films, and interactive TV. The class also looks at career possibilities, as well as the business and management of digital media. It is instructed by Electronic Arts' Tom Frisina, a former head of partner publishing at EA, who brings in a range of people from the company to talk about careers within the game industry.
Other courses include The Visual Story, which provides an interdisciplinary grounding in historical, theoretical, and applied issues related to storytelling for digital media productions; Building Virtual Worlds, wherein students learn about building immersive 2D and 3D environments; and Improvising Story and Character, in which techniques of improvisational acting are used to develop collaborative and creative skills.
Paid internships are available after the first semester. During the second year, students study Foundations of Game Design and participate in team projects.
Industry veterans are helping to shape the school's direction. Pictured (from left to right) are: Tom Wujec, Gerri Sinclair, Tarek El-Eryan, Michelle Parent, Matt Jenkins, Glenn Entis, and Steve Danic.
Recently, the Centre for Digital Media partnered with Autodesk and EA to develop a two-day hot design/pre-pro workshop that was offered to students right before they began their second semester. Glenn Entis, senior vice president at EA, along with Autodesk fellow Tom Wujec, developed the curriculum and taught the workshop, which was designed to help visualize workflows and cut down on time wasted during development. The idea is not to get tied down or to formalize or rigidify ideas too quickly, which could lead to costly problems down the road.
The Centre for Digital Media is not a resident campus, though students have 24/7 access because their intense course structure often results in long nights working on projects. "The students are ambitious and want to put a dent in the digital universe," notes Sinclair, "and they want to push the envelope as far as they can."
Once students complete the graduate program, the school can help with placement-it has dozens of affiliate partners, such as NBC Universal, Microsoft, Propaganda Games, Radical Entertainment, Relic Entertainment, and Reach Games, to name a few, and is seeing interest from facilities abroad, as well.
ANTI-JOBS.COM: A NEW TYPE OF JOB SITE
Portal launched by working VFS pros looking to build a community
By Randi Altman
While many Internet job sites-with free listings for artists and employers-emerged from a grassroots movement, some of these have recently been bought out by independents, and as a result, the site models have changed.
Producer Billy Jones and VFX supervisor Craig Russo, founders of 310 Studios in Los Angeles, are industry veterans who have been following this evolution closely. Jones and Russo believe this change has reduced the diversity of companies posting openings on job boards. "Many of the small to midsize [studios] seem to have disappeared from these sites, leaving job seekers with multiple posts from mainly large companies," reports Jones. As a result, many of the listings are "outside the range of typical animation job positions," he adds.
So Jones and Russo decided to do something about it, launching Ani-jobs.com, which they describe as a free job board and resource dedicated to the animation, visual effects, gaming community, and beyond. According to Jones, the pair came up with the concept in December, spent January building the site and figuring out the format, and launched it in early February.
"In our industry, there are just a few Disneys out there, but a ton of little visual effects houses, animation and Flash studios, and little gaming companies that need to hire freelancers," Russo continues. "And when you put them together, they add up to a very large job pool, but they don't have big budgets to spend on this." Rather, it's the free listings that bring in the diversity of the posts.
Though still a nascent venture, the site's job board and main page were up last month, and the guys reported the first confirmed hire from their board. "We are still developing new features for the site," reports Jones. And the momentum is building, with postings from companies as diverse as Nickelodeon, ABC Television, Midway Games, Animal Logic, CIS Vancouver, Luminetik, and Barnyard Animation.
Reeling Them In
Russo is currently working on the section of the site where people can post resumes and reels. To save costs so that the service can remain free of charge, the group requires applicants to upload their job to YouTube, and then on the job site, they fill out a form that includes their YouTube code. "This will put their reel in a structured template," he explains.
Russo has seen other job sites with resume sections that are free-form, and with his experience in hiring for 310 Studios, "it becomes a little mind-numbing to look through because there is no consistency," he says. "We've made it very structured, so it's easy for an employer to find who and what they need."
"Our hope is to build this into a comprehensive tool for employers who can post an ad and see what responses they get," adds Jones. "Also, if you are a younger artist, you can look at other people's demo reels to get an idea of how you should be building your own."
Ani-jobs will have the resume/reel section broken down into disciplines, so users can search and find those lists quickly in a format that is uniform. "We are hoping this will turn into one of the most comprehensive databases of talent on the Internet," says Jones, who readily admits this site is a work in progress.
Building a Community
In addition to making the site easy to use, Russo and Jones want to keep it exclusive to the community. "All people have to do is log in and register with us," explains Jones. "We do that so the board isn't completely open, like Craig's List, where there is no moderation to the site-you see people posting things that really don't belong there. We want to build a database that ensures they are a reputable part of the community without it being a painstaking process for the employers to go through." The duo also wants feedback in terms of what employers are looking for from a site like this.
For smaller facilities, job budgets have been increasingly restrictive. "Having to break out a few thousand dollars from your budget for job recruitment can hurt," says Jones. "We are hoping that as people become aware of this tool, they will help spread the word."
And spreading the word is exactly what these partners have been doing, e-mailing studios in the industry and talking to human resource departments about their needs. They have also been reaching out to colleges and animation schools. The two intend to keep their site free of charge through the use of advertising. "Our intention is to leave it free as long as we can," says Russo. "When you look at a model like Google, it managed to become profitable and remain open to everyone. We are trying to stick to that as long as we can."
Randi Altman is the chief editor of Post, CGW's sister publication. She can be reached at