Animation Mentor's New Pipeline & Curriculum
Karen Moltenbrey
January 15, 2013

Animation Mentor's New Pipeline & Curriculum

Following the Animation Mentor announcement about its new pipeline and new curriculum (see related story in news), CGW Chief Editor Karen Moltenbrey spoke to Ben Fischler, curriculum director at Animation Mentor, and Kevin Cureton, senior pipeline engineer at Animation Mentor, about the big announcement.
After all these years, what made you decide to venture into VFX?
Ben Fischler: In 2005, we launched Animation Mentor and ventured into, at that time, a very new territory of online education. Since then, the landscape of our industry has changed, and keeps changing. To account for this change, we went directly to the studios and asked them what would add the most value to them; after all, our students want jobs, so that is where we started. 

After many conversations, we were able to narrow it down to the fact that they want artists who have production experience, that know the importance of what creating good work looks like with a team. It’s not all about the individual, it’s about what that person can do with their team, how they pass along their finals to the next department and ensure it’s done on time and with as few technical issues down the pipeline as possible. To fully realize this, and add the right disciplines that studios say they hire the most from, we decided to add aspects of visual effects next.

For a long time, we've had interest from students asking us to teach the technical arts, as well as hearing from our studio partners that there was a need for production-ready talent, and that the [Animation Mentor] model would apply equally well to the technical side of things.  

As studios become more nimble and more distributed, they have an even greater need for talented artists who can hit the ground running across all aspects of production. Conversely, we felt that the best way to serve our students was to provide a deep, rich production-level experience, and this meant teaching production from a holistic sense, with animators, lighters, and comp’ers all working together.

Were you concerned about logistics?
Ben Fischler: Absolutely. Like production out in the wild, this is a complex process, with challenges that change with time and the work itself. While managing that complexity is a big challenge, it's one we've chosen to embrace as we move forward.

To prepare for these challenges, we went into a heavy R&D period working on a distributed short film with artists from most every major studio around the world. We’ve had incredible input, and we feel we’ve begun to really crack the nut of how production can work across time zones and continents, and we’re really just beginning to scratch the surface.

Was the key to pulling this off in the establishment of the right pipeline?
Ben Fischler: Definitely! There is no way we can teach students at the level we are without a fully viable production pipeline. If you look at any mid- to large-scale studio, it's artists who produce the amazing work, but it's their pipeline that allows them to all pull together and work as a team. For our students from around the world, the AMP studio pipeline is key to their whole experience.

How long did it take to set up, once you committed to doing this?
Ben Fischler:  Two years, with a lot of testing, trying, iterating along the way. We are blessed with some very talented technical folks who made this a reality. It was not a small undertaking.

What was the most challenging aspect?
Ben Fischler: Hammering out the specs on a fully distributed production pipeline. We started with a blank slate, which is both fantastic, and scary. Many of us have worked in production and are familiar with existing studio pipelines, and have had good and bad experiences using them. Our goal was to build something that we wished we had when we were in production, and I'm happy to say that we surpassed that goal.

How many students do you anticipate for this new VFX curriculum? 
Ben Fischler: I can’t give out the details, but I can say that we anticipate our VFX student body to grow quickly and be comparable to the size of our Animation Student body.  

What new challenges come with this curriculum?
Ben Fischler: Probably complexity. Scaling is a huge challenge. As an animation school, there are fewer moving parts. As a film school, we're embracing whole new areas with a variety of dependencies, interconnections, and cross-discipline interaction that were not there before, all of which we channel into the student experience. Production is complex and growing more so constantly, and we want our students, whether in animation, lighting, or comp, to come to production with a level of comfort, confidence, and familiarity that is born out of their experience with us. And to build toward that goal meant creating something that's an order of magnitude bigger than what we had before.

What other changes will the students at Animation Mentor see?  
Ben Fischler: We’ve got a ton of cool new stuff. First off, we’re reducing our pricing and offering shorter program lengths (formerly six classes, now four) to provide students with better access and options. We’ve got some cool new intermediate characters available to students in the Spring 2013 term, a new advanced character from our partners at CG Monks in the Fall 2013 term, a simplified grading system, new loan options, a host of new student learning tools and monthly payment plans.

Did you try some things that just didn't work in terms of the pipeline?
Kevin Cureton: Fortunately, up to this point, we've been well focused on the right things to do. My co-architect, Lance Burton, and I both have extensive production backgrounds covering CG animation, VFX, and games, so we were aware of problems facing pipelines. We started with asset management. In my experience, it is the problem that is often left unmentioned and ends up being solved in unintentional ways. We took a very intentional approach to asset management. We had to. Having students distributed around the world, we knew going in we could not move vast amounts of data around. We have, however, spent a lot of time building and rebuilding organizational structures within the asset management system. Finding the best way to layout our content into the asset management system proved to be almost as challenging as designing and building it!

How will this work so that all the students are using it?
Kevin Cureton: When students collaborate, they will be working on real productions with real production structure, with sequences and shots. Each student will be assigned to a number of shots. All student shots, together, as a sequence, tell a story. So not only do students have to be concerned with the performance of their own shots, they now have a chance to polish the transitions with their fellow students, make sure they pass their final files forward correctly which brings them to see their work in a more holistic way.

Why do you think you are the first to have a fully distributed production pipeline?
Kevin Cureton: A lot of studios are working toward pipelines that are more global, more interconnected. But they are really just extensions of the studios they have already built. They often use dedicated high-speed data lines to connect studios together and call that distributed. But it is islands of people connected to other islands of people. We are talking about individual students connecting to other individual students. It doesn't get more fully distributed than that. Just students collaborating directly with other students, anywhere in the world they can get an Internet connection.

Can you describe the setup?
Kevin Cureton: The students run a tool on their local machine that is part of their primary tool set. That tool, the AMP Content Navigator, gives them quick and easy access to their shots and makes it possible for students to seamlessly hand work off from one student to another.

What tools are in the pipeline?
Kevin Cureton: We are working with Maya, Arnold, Katana, and Nuke, in addition our own proprietary tools.

How did you select them?
Kevin Cureton: The choice of tools is primarily driven by industry desire and usage. We have to be able to adapt as new tools are introduced into production. We are also big advocates of open-source and open-protocols. We've already been digging into Alembic, pTex, and OpenEXR.

How will it compare to what students are using at brick-and-mortar schools? At studios?
Kevin Cureton: Our challenge was to bring as much of the production sensibility to the educational process as possible, without impacting the learning goals. And much of that sensibility centers on asset management and departmental handoffs and communication. The students will use common tools, like Maya, Katana, Nuke, and Arnold, in actual productions. They will have to learn to manage the data in their shots. They have to manage kicking off dailies so they can meet their deadlines (assignment due). These are things that are typically not learned until a person is in the crucible of production. We want to educate best practices for not just tools, but for tools and processes and prepare the students to become solid production citizens.

What are the limitations of the pipeline?
Kevin Cureton: One of our largest constraining factors will be bandwidth. As we've learned from our years of running Animation Mentor, student's connection speeds can vary greatly.

What will the pipeline enable the students to accomplish?
Kevin Cureton:  True cross-disciplinary collaboration. That is our drumbeat. Animation Mentor has been stellar at teaching students the art of animation, as well as how to take direction and critique. Now we add in the peer-based, production teams component, working with other students. Most artists in production work with other artists. We wanted to facilitate that interaction and use it to educate collaborative production skills.

Will all the students —VFX and animation—be using the pipeline?
Kevin Cureton: Yes.

How are you tweaking the structure of the animation program?
Kevin Cureton: We’ve really stepped back and redesigned the entire educational experience. For instance, in the first class students will be learning the basics of production by using the AMP studio pipeline. They will learn fundamentals first, as they had, while also learning, where appropriate, how to work collaboratively with their production team and across disciplines. It’s really something very different.   

Animation Mentor had an attempt at a collaborative class early in our history, but it was shelved as it needed more time and thought to figure out how to really do it right, and at scale. So the desire has been there from day one. We found a way to bring collaboration back into our educational experience in a supportive way. It had to really work for students and not just feel like collaboration, but really be collaboration and all the challenges that come with it.