When it comes to 3D education, companies in the film, TV, and games industries are no different from their brethren in the medical, scientific, and construction fields. “Employers in our industry are looking for candidates who come out of 3D programs ready for production,” says Autodesk’s David Della-Rocca. “That’s their number one concern.”
Della-Rocca, Autodesk’s education industry and business development manager for Media & Entertainment, has a unique perspective. “As a technology provider with a heavy focus on grooming the next generation of 3D digital artists, we sit in between the education and production communities. We bring these parties together to identify challenges to the production-readiness goal and come up with solutions.”
While the goal remains consistent, the challenges of achieving it morph at a rapid pace. Della-Rocca shared some of the issues and trends that are top of mind for educators, studios, and Autodesk alike.
“With the fast growth of 3D, there’s a real need for professional development to build the instructor base,” Della-Rocca says. “There is also a need to better equip instructors to address industry requirements more quickly and to update programs more frequently as things change. At Autodesk, we’re always looking at ways to help educators anticipate what’s coming six months down the road so they can incorporate it into the curriculum.”
What’s That Mean?
Another challenge to turning out production-ready graduates is defining what ‘production ready’ really means. “There is really no globally accepted baseline competency yet,” says Della-Rocca, noting that Autodesk is actively working with educators and the industry to establish some measurable baseline guides.
A change in students’ learning styles is also driving new approaches to 3D education. “The current crop of students learns and interacts with material very differently than previous generations,” notes Della-Rocca. “There is a lot more emphasis on creating the most effective, dynamic learning environment.”
For its part, Autodesk invests heavily in resources, tools, and ongoing programs to help educators deliver production-ready graduates to a hungry animation and VFX community. Della-Rocca emphasizes, however, that while Autodesk bridges the two worlds, “we’re not educators, and we’re not in production. We develop tools and resources to complement what and how instructors teach. We provide resources to move programs along and prepare students for the production challenges defined by our customers.”
Pete Bandstra, director of the computer animation and game-arts programs at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, shared his institution’s approach to the “production-ready” challenge. “We staff our team with production veterans. I don’t accept the adage that ‘Those who can’t do, teach.’ My adage is, ‘Those who can, teach here.’ ”
Full Sail, like most 3D education institutions, has an active advisory board made up of industry pros from studios like Blue Sky Studios, Turbine Games, Raven, and ILM. “That gives us a nice diversity across visual effects, gaming, broadcast, and film, and helps us see a bit into the future. We’re able to continually bring relevant production knowledge into the classroom, both on campus and online.”
Bandstra’s staff also taps into Autodesk’s Online Education Community and support materials to aid in professional development. With programs that run in month-long sessions, Full Sail is able to quickly integrate curriculum changes. “If there’s a new version of software out, we can have it in students’ hands in 30 days.”
Greg Berridge, head instructor of Vancouver Film School’s (VFS) digital character animation program, offered some insights on developing production-ready graduates. “An animator needs to know a little bit about many things. We provide a foundation aspect that includes modeling and texturing as they relate to animation.”
Belinda Fung, a recent graduate of Vancouver Institute of Media Arts’ Visual Effects program, shares that philosophy. As a compositor freelancing at Vancouver’s Anthem Visual Effects, she found that having 3D skills made her an efficient employee. “All the shots are done through teamwork. It’s important that I know 3D to be able to communicate with artists in other departments. It saves time for the studio, and it helps me with my own creativity.”
Schools are working hard to make sure their graduates are production-ready.
Berridge, who started the computer animation program at Alberta College of Arts & Design, has been teaching at Vancouver Film School for 10 years. “I’ve seen a dramatic change in the student population. They’re much more computer savvy, and many of them come in with some Maya experience. They download the software from Autodesk’s site and experiment with it before they get here,” he says.
One of those students is Thiago Martins, a 2009 graduate of Vancouver Film School’s digital character animation program. “About a month before I started at VFS, I downloaded a Maya trial from Autodesk’s Web site. I had been using 3ds Max for years, but I didn’t know Maya. Having a chance to get to learn the interface and shortcuts beforehand was really useful,” he says.
During the six-month program, Martins conceived, created, produced, and finalized the smile-inducing animated short “Saloon.” He’s currently working at Sao Paulo-based VFX studio Magma in Brazil.
Vancouver Film School also taps into Autodesk’s Subscription Service, which offers no-cost DVDs, books, podcasts, and other material for professional development. “A lot of that information seeps into my lessons,” notes Berridge. “It’s a great resource.”
Over at Vancouver Institute of Media Arts, Larry Bafia, vice president of faculty and business development, gives his perspective: “We prepare students to be industry-ready in their areas of passion. We treat classrooms like they’re studios. It’s all about practice time and focus.”
Instructors at VanArts have years of industry cred. Many of them have held recruiting positions, where they were responsible for hiring and developing animators. “That gives us a great feel for what the industry needs,” says Bafia.
In terms of industry changes impacting 3D education, Bafia notes, “Technology has allowed a broader range of animation—anything from chipmunks to transformers to Gollum. There’s nothing that can’t be approached. That calls for different animation skills. We’re focused on making artists more marketable by training their eyes and teaching them to focus on solving problems in animation.”
Bafia adds: “The tool sets available now empower artists to attack any look they want. Tools are also more accessible—not just in terms of cost, but in the availability of good tutorials. The time it takes for students to get over the learning curve has gone down. That allows us to focus on getting them seasoned.”
To aid in professional development, Bafia taps into the knowledge base Autodesk provides. “I have a real back-and-forth relationship with David [Della-Rocca] and his team. He sends me materials and ideas to vet, and I get his opinion when we’re considering development in courses,” he says. “It says a lot when someone like David, at a software company, comes forward and takes a personal interest in what’s going on in education.”
Coming full circle, VFS graduate Martins gives his perspective on what it takes to come out of a 3D education program “production-ready.” “I think you can go to any program, any course, any university. At the end of the day, it’s your decision as a student to take advantage of the time, tools, and teachers,” he explains. “You need to take it seriously. It’s all up to you.”