A Few Good Mentors
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 12 (December 2004)

A Few Good Mentors

Last spring, the editors received a rather cryptic e-mail from an animator at a major studio about a “side project” that he and a few of his friends were working on. When we checked it out, we learned that the group was planning to launch an animation school with a couple of novel twists. Rather than following the typical instructor-in-the-classroom model, the school would be online and available to anyone, anytime, anywhere. And instead of providing boilerplate responses, as is often the case with any sort of online services and support, a staff of professional animators would offer personal, video-based, one-on-one mentoring.

Intrigued with the concept of personal online mentors in an age of impersonal electronic communication, we invited the three founding members of the group to put on a Q&A demonstration over the summer at our booth on the SIGGRAPH convention floor. We were curious about what issues were on the minds of those in the animation community and how much interest they would have in posing questions to these animators.

What transpired during the demonstration surpassed expectations. Hundreds of attendees stood for hours at the booth querying the trio of self-proclaimed "animation mentors"—Shawn Kelly of ILM, Bobby Beck of Pixar, and independent artist Carlos Baena—with questions ranging from the simplistic to the sublime.

The session, in fact, was similar to an experience two of the artists shared years earlier when teaching an animation course in a traditional university program. Kelly, who had been the instructor for a couple of semesters, invited Beck to deliver a guest lecture to his class. During what many of the students would later say was one of the most inspirational nights of their education, the instructors let the class run over a couple of hours while they were bombarded with questions about the finer points of animation. Kelly says, "We couldn't help notice the hunger for the type of knowledge we were trying to pass on, and the apparent scarcity of it in the school system." As Beck drove home that evening, the basic idea for the online animation school was born.

Immediately following the demonstration at our SIGGRAPH booth, we asked the artists to continue their conversation with the animation community and participate in a Q&A dialogue with the visitors to the Computer Graphics World Web site. To view the results of their efforts, or to pose questions of your own, go to www.cgw.com and click on the Ask the AnimationMentors icon in the left margin.

Why has this concept of asking questions of personal mentors been so appealing? In retrospect, the positive response should have come as no surprise. Students who are passionate about their field of endeavor naturally generate questions that fall outside any linear path to knowledge. And professionals who are passionate about their work are eager to give back to the community. As Kelly puts it, "We hope that by bringing the knowledge of all these ninja animators to students, we can help them grow into the next generation of animators who will blow us all away and push our art form to a whole new level."

By featuring the animation mentors on our Web site, we hope to play a key role in building a stronger graphics community. And to that end, we invite people with all levels of expertise to participate in the Q&A sessions as well as in our online forums. Bringing together people with passion is a powerful way to advance the state of any art.

Phil LoPiccolo