Clearing Hurdles in the Classroom
Issue: Summer 2019

Clearing Hurdles in the Classroom

By Karen Moltenbrey

The road to a meaningful education is always laden with barriers - some tangible, some intangible; some expected, some unexpected. Indeed, this is a very stressful time in a person's life, and schools recognize this anxiety, as many of today's animation, VFX, and film schools have spent decades and even longer preparing young artists and filmmakers for careers in the industry. They probably have seen it all hundreds of times over and have worked hard to stave off many a crises over the years, nipping problems in the bud before they have time to root.

A number of schools were asked to identify the biggest hurdles students face today in terms of their education and then discuss how the institution helps students overcome those issues. "There are many hurdles that students face today when it comes to getting their foot in the door of the VFX industry. It's important to look at the complete package when we think about fixing the current problems for graduates seeking to get their first job," says Anna Hodge, manager of training and education at Rising Sun Pictures (RSP), which has partnered with the University of South Australia in offering accredited training opportunities in undergrad and post-grad visual effects courses.

Finding Confidence

Confidence, or the lack of it, is a struggle for most young 3D artists, especially those graduating from university with expectations of going into the industry. "We know that time and experience are the best options for building comfort and confidence in a 3D artist's work. Staying dedicated and continuing to build strong content will produce the end results of a career," says Pete Bandstra, program director of 3D arts at Full Sail University.

The lack of confidence is apparent just about everywhere. RSP's Hodge often comes across students who are very capable but fear asking questions when it comes to improving their show reel or resumes, or applying for a job. "The reality is, there is nothing to lose when it comes to applying. Understandably, there will be job rejections along the way, but the better you engage with recruiters, respond to feedback, and just keep the dialog going by showing that you are taking what they say on board, you will get there," she says.

Nevertheless, the flipside of this is attitude - or the wrong one! "Again, there are many talented students and graduates out there, but with the wrong attitude, you will never get a job even with the best show reel," Hodge warns. "The industry of visual effects is a team sport, so you need to learn to participate and be a team player and understand your place on it."

Another way to improve confidence is through problem solving. Max Dayan, director of education at Gnomon, notes that every discipline has its own challenges, but the one thing that transcends all others is problem solving. "We teach art, design, technique, and software, but all of that is irrelevant if you cannot use creative problem solving to achieve your end goal. The tools and techniques change over time, and artists must do the same to stay relevant in the entertainment industry," says Dayan.

In this regard, at Gnomon this is promoted in the classes from day one, ensuring that student have ample time to build solid critical thinking skills. "Our education staff and faculty are all professional production artists who understand the importance of adapting and overcoming technical and artistic hurdles and empower our students to do the same," Dayan says.


 Also, students generally struggle to find their role or voice in this complex industry, says Colin Giles, head of animation at Vancouver Film School. "Our mission is to provide a home for students to train their artistic voice, support learning through experimentation, while continually training for the skills needed to begin a career in their chosen field. They will be prepared for the long term by being adaptable problem solvers who can navigate a constantly shifting and evolving entertainment industry," he adds.

The Art of the Critique

Time is always going to be a hurdle, as well, especially in an accelerated program, says Bandstra. However, at Full Sail, the students are in class roughly 40 contact hours per week, which gives them time with the instructors to help develop their work. There are a variety of critique sessions in each course, with feedback from both the instructors and peers. The instruction is designed to create a positive growth environment, strengthen their ability to take criticism constructively, provide constructive criticism, and build strong assets to show the skills developed.

At Full Sail, graduating students as well as later portfolio students participate in the school's Student Showcase event. These showcase events allow students to answer questions about their work, with more feedback from the instructors and peers. "The more opportunities the students have to show and talk about their work will increase their confidence levels and build stronger portfolios," Bandstra says.


Jimmy Calhoun, chair of computer art, computer animation, and visual effects at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), agrees, pointing out that the first hurdle students must overcome to gain the skills they need is learning how to give and take critique of their work. "Students need to learn that the purpose of a critique is to better their work and themselves as artists, and that criticism of their work is not an attack on them as people or creators," he says. At SVA, they engage in group critiques on the first day of class and review the responsibilities they have as both givers and receivers of feedback. Students prepare questions they have about the work they're presenting to classmates, so they may better understand how their work is being received, he adds. 

"The person giving the critique should not just say nice things, nor should they tear apart the work," advises Calhoun. "The critic should be able to express what they see and feel, and offer ideas of how to improve the work to evoke the intended message better. As students learn to receive critiques and to implement the notes to make their work stronger, they mature as people and artists." 

Curriculum is Key

SVA's Calhoun also believes in the importance of technical skills. People are often quick to point to the rapid change in software, hardware, and professional practices when discussing the obstacles in teaching the skills needed for a career in animation and VFX. However, the roadblocks students face can be very specific to the individual, he notes.


"Some students already have a talent for technical skills, allowing them to pick up new software quickly, while others have a natural artistic eye for composition, lighting, and design. Other students are experienced story-tellers, and still others are great at working in teams. It's a marriage of these hard and soft skill sets that make a great professional artist in the industry," says Calhoun. "At SVA, we guide students to assess their own strengths and work on the skills that need improvement, based on feedback they receive about their work."

RSP's Hodge also sees curriculum as an important factor, pointing out that course titles and qualifications can sometimes be misleading, and degrees and diplomas can promise the world but not deliver the skills required to make someone employable. "Any good curriculum should be industry-driven, and this can be done in many ways with industry-driven advisory boards, guest lectures, and promotion of key industry events to allow students to engage and gain exposure, not only to the skills required for working, but also the networking that will help them get a job," she says.

Also, the curriculum needs to be responsive and adaptable. According to Hodge, greater focus needs to be put on industry skills and collaborative projects that emulate workplace practices. 

Moreover, students' time spent training should prepare them for the real world, which in the case of visual effects is fast-paced and deadline-driven. And this needs to be reflected in the type of projects designed by schools, Hodge adds. Tutorials are a great way to learn, but these skills applied to a team project provide them with further learning of project management principles and collaborating with various personalities and departments.

It is also important to teach core skills rather than trying to chase industry trends, leading Jim McCampbell, department head for computer animation at Ringling, to point to the constant fluctuations in aesthetic trends and production methodology as some of the biggest problem areas facing students. To combat this, he says Ringling makes certain that its graduates are versatile throughout all phases of the production process in order to give them the widest range of opportunities, while at the same time keeping a laser-sharp focus on storytelling skills.


Without question, having the proper skills can boost a student's confidence. And at Animation Mentor, the focus is on teaching those skills. The online animation school focuses on teaching its students the fundamental skills needed to succeed in any studio environment. They learn from professional animators working in the industry, experts who can best prepare them for a career.

Animation Mentor's students also work and manage their files through the school's integrated pipeline, which mimics the production workflow of major film and game studios around the world - a unique but important element in learning. 

 As a school rep points out, the Animation Mentor community is tight-knit but expansive, with global connections that begin as school friendships. Each student graduates with a demo reel, strong communication skills, and a network of talented mentors and peers, all of which empower them to pursue their animation dreams and tackle any hurdles that come their way. 


Academy of Art University, like Animation Mentor and others, places tremendous value on having students instructed by professionals in the industry. According to Derek Flood, associate director of VFX, often students coming straight out of school lack the practical real-world experience to be able to handle demands of a production -- and this includes working on a team and under a deadline. For this reason, the school has developed what it calls "StudioX," which are a series of advanced-level classes that emulate a production environment but are faculty-mentored.

In these classes, students are working on real shows, with real deadlines, and encounter real problems and challenges that come up in the course of making a film, Flood notes. "The students learn to work together as a team, how to work well under pressure, and how to creatively solve problems," he adds. "The work that has come out of these classes speaks for itself, but beyond that, the experience students gain in these StudioX classes (the X stands for eXperience) has been tremendously important in preparing them to be ready to go from school into a studio job."

Escape Studios is of similar opinion, noting that the biggest hurdle that students face today in relation to their education in VFX and animation is the skills gap between graduating and the industry standard that is required. Achieving a strong foundation of core skills while demonstrating lots of potential in a portfolio to indicate you could progress creatively and artistically early in your career is key to getting hired, a rep there maintains.

Thus, Escape Studios maintains a good relationship with some of the best studios and companies in the industry; and by working with these companies, it is able to provide its students with a range of opportunities that will help support and guide them when starting out in their creative career. The school regularly liaise with industry to ensure it is teaching exactly what they're looking for, and they help design all of Escape Studios' degrees. Moreover, these industry partners will come in and do entire feedback days with students and tutors as well as set industry standard briefs for the school's students to work on.

Indeed, building confidence, teaching a thorough, relevant curriculum, helping students find their voice, helping them achieve problem-solving skills, and enlisting guidance from top industry professionals will help soon-to-be artists overcome some of today's biggest obstacles to finding success in their future. 

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.