Mastering CG
By Randi Altman
January 12, 2011

Mastering CG

Bobby Beck discusses Animation Mentor’s new Animals & Creatures Master Class
EMERYVILLE, CA — Two years in the making and with input from major visual effects houses worldwide, online school Animation Mentor has added a new course to its core curriculum, which, up until now, focused on character animation.

Animals & Creatures: Master Class ( focuses on animating quadrupeds, flying animals, and fantasy creatures in a realistic animation style. The course also covers integrating animation with live-action footage.

Animation Mentor was started by visual effects pros Bobby Beck, Carlos Baena, and Shawn Kelly, and features classes run by working VFX artists from such studios as Weta, ILM, Pixar, Pixel Liberation Front, Tippet Studio, Sony Imageworks, and many more.

We recently chatted with Bobby Beck to discuss how this idea was formed and what went into making this course valuable for both students and mentors.

So, in talking to the visual effects houses out there, you discovered artists with a strong creature and animal skill set was a priority? Yes, and we always kind of knew that. There is really nothing out there that teaches this kind of animation at this level. I come from a visual effects background. I worked at Tippet Studio back in ’98, and Shawn Kelly, a cofounder of Animation Mentor, has worked in visual effects for 13 to14 years now. This is the type of work he has done, although he can flip-flop between a full feature animation film, the type of thing you’d see with a DreamWorks or a Pixar, to a Transformers-type of film with the live action and integration. It leverages a similar skill set, yet it requires more understanding of workflow and the pipeline, and how to integrate characters into backgrounds.

So we spoke with visual effects studios like Rhythm & Hues, Weta, Industrial Light & Magic, Double Negative, and Framestore, the types of studios that do this kind of work, and they said, ‘We love Animation Mentor and we do hire people from there, but it’s kind of a gamble for us because they do full character animation —characters talking and acting — and we don’t do a lot of that kind of work. We do dragons and big monsters crushing cars and picking people up. So it would be great if there something was more tailored to that type of animation.’

We went into development early on with Tippet, and shortly thereafter with Industrial Light & Magic, and they both helped us along the way to make sure we were creating something that turned out graduates they would be interested in after the course.”

Tippet creates big-time characters and ILM produces both, do you see this course as an additional skill set that will make them more employable or as a full-time specialty?

It’s an additional skill set that makes people more employable. They will appeal to a broader range of people. If you have a good character animation background, a studio like ILM or Tippet might hire you, but if you have something that is tailored to exactly the type of stuff they do, even better. Even Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean is a visual effects character that requires integration into background plates, and before this course, the only place you could learn that was on the job.

So, it will be complementary to a character animation background, but it might also appeal to people who think, ‘I get and understand body principles and body mechanics, and I’m OK with the acting stuff, but what I really want to do is work on the next Jurassic Park, and this class speaks to those people.

It seems you got a lot of input from a lot of pros.
The thing we are super excited about is that this new course is such a collaborative effort. When we first started Animation Mentor, nobody knew who we were. So Shawn, Carlos, and I had to do a lot of legwork, and we pulled in our friends here and there to create the curriculum and refine it.

But now we’ve created this course with full support from the industry – from top supervising animators at these incredible studios, like Tippet Studio, Industrial Light & Magic, and Sony Imageworks. Having that collaboration and allowing us to use their footage is huge. One of classes, the final class in the program, is A Day in the Life of an Animator at Industrial Light & Magic with Shawn Kelly. He goes through a day in his life. It shows him working on Rango, so we have footage. We got to interview the director Gore Verbinski. We got access to other feature-film properties, as well. Rango isn’t even out yet and we have access to all this great stuff!

And all the instructors will be working visual effects pros. They will be working on the stuff these students want to work on. They will not only be teaching them, but cherry-picking the people out who are a great fit at their studios.

How long is a course? How often will you be running them?
We register for classes each term, so winter, spring, summer, fall. Registration will be open immediately after the launch for Animation Mentor alumni, for the spring term in April. On April 11, it will be open for the general public to register for the summer term.

Do students use multiple software packages during the course? We utilize [Autodesk’s] Maya. We think it’s the industry standard. In this program, we provide students with three new characters — cat, dragon, and ogre — that were created in Maya. And we have a suite of production-type tools they can use within Maya to leverage best industry practices, like how to do arcs on the screen and how to get more refined movement out of their characters.

Randi Altman is the chief editor of Post Magazine, CGW’s sister publication.