Ahead of the Curve
Issue: Edition 2 2020

Ahead of the Curve

While many animation and visual effects colleges and education institutions have had to quickly pivot to virtual/online learning due to the novel coronavirus, not so for Animation Mentor. The highly regarded animation school, in fact, was founded on the premise of distance learning 15 years ago, pairing up its all-remote student body with mentors, experienced working professionals in the industry.

Since its founding in 2005 by three working animators - Bobby Beck, Shawn Kelly, and Carlos Baena, from Pixar Animation Studios and Industrial Light & Magic - Animation Mentor has developed and perfected a curriculum and infrastructure specifically tailored to remote students.

The structure of the school's courses and the nature of its community have always been virtual, so the online transition that many other educational institutions were forced into earlier this year did not alter Animation Mentor's own teaching processes. The school believes in smaller class sizes (which it limits to nine students per instructor) and experienced, tech-savvy mentors. It also runs on its own proprietary platform, which keeps students and mentors engaged and encourages its community to make friends and connections.

Work by Antonio Vieira, from the 2019 Animation Mentor showcase.

At a time when many schools are scrambling to shift its education model from in-person learning to online learning due to COVID, it was pretty much business as usual at Animation Mentor, at least from a curriculum and platform standpoint. "We made sure our students knew we were available if they were in need of help, and we also made sure to put additional resources in place to help students manage their focus time," says Beck, CEO and co-founder of Animation Mentor.

Even though Animation Mentor wasn't negatively affected by stay-at-home orders like other schools, some of its students' lives were heavily impacted by the virus. To this end, the school staff made themselves available to listen and help find solutions for struggles the students may have encountered. This included providing assistance for issues related to financial struggles, or even lack of motivation in the face of uncertainty. They also instituted extra resources on a weekly basis, including an office hours-style live session with animator and mentor Paul Allen. This gave students an additional way to connect, feel supported, and talk through any issues (creatively or otherwise) they may be facing.

Nevertheless, there were some changes/precautions taken by the school to keep the education process running smoothly. For instance, Animation Mentor has been using Zoom for all its online teacher/student meetings for years, but recently implemented additional security features to ensure that the learning experience wasn't interrupted. "Zoom became the go-to for online meetings this spring, and with that additional scrutiny, instigators bombarded the Zoom platform. The security features we enabled ensured that only our students and mentors could join each meeting (for Q&A)," Beck says.

Out of the gate, Animation Mentor embraced online instruction. Ambitious, yes, but the founders believed it to be the right move, even amid many warning against an Internet business at a time when the dot-com bubble had just burst. "Despite the bubble, we knew that we wanted to be online. We were part of awesome creative communities like CGChar, and we wanted to take things to the next level. We wanted to bring animation to people in their homes and bring the top talent in the animation industry directly to people so they didn't have to move across the globe to access them," says Beck.

The founders also liked the fact that there weren't any models for online animation schools, allowing them to define what that could look and feel like.

Work from Cinthia Mussi, also from the same showcase.

"We wanted to make online feel more personal than a brick-and-mortar school, and we wanted people to make friends and connections they'd have for life," says Beck. "The cool thing is that those friendships could be across continents and come from different cultures, bringing their voices and their stories to the world of animation."

The founders are as confident in their decision now as they were 15 years ago, as the advantages to this model are many. For instance, it allows people from anywhere in the world to learn alongside equally passionate peers, and it allows people who are more introverted to have their voices be at the same level as those with louder voices. In addition, students can see other students' work and mentor feedback on the virtual campus, regardless of the class they're enrolled in.

"An open campus means they can learn, not just from their own class group, but from other students as well. This facilitates a sense of mentorship, with the advanced classes helping newer students gain their confidence and footing," says Beck.

Not only do students join Animation Mentor to learn a new creative skill like animation, modeling, storyboarding, visual development, and so on, but they also come out with so much more, according to the school. They build confidence in themselves, and they make incredible, lifelong friendships and connections, both with their mentors and the Animation Mentor staff. There have even been over two dozen marriages from students who have met through Animation Mentor.

Of course, there are challenges to online learning, as many other colleges are just now discovering, such asaccountability and potential feelings of isolation. Nevertheless, Animation Mentor recognized and addressed these early on, and from the beginning, focused on making the school more than just a place to learn, but a place to come together and connect as well. As a result, students feel engaged, even when they're spending the majority of their time alone in front of their computers.

Work from Daniel Vargas, from that showcase as well.

The school also stresses the importance of deadlines and following the mentor's (director's) instructions. More than just learning the art of animation and other artistic subjects, the school also teaches students good work ethics and habits. "We want students to be prepared for the studio environment, and having a strong work ethic is a big part of that," says Beck.

The core teaching model at Animation Mentor has remained the same over the years - generally a small class size to each mentor, so that students get more individualized attention. The curriculum and technology, however, are always evolving. The school is constantly looking at how its classes are performing, and make routine adjustments to the curriculum to ensure the best learning experience.

Furthermore, the school is constantly evolving its technology and platform, creating custom-developed tools to help support its teaching model. This includes feedback tools where mentors (and any other community members) can directly draw over and comment on student work. Animation Mentor also built a Web-based pipeline for students so that they can begin learning studio workflows while in class, as well as gaining a host of other useful features from that system.

The core teaching model at Animation Mentor typically involves some pre-recorded material that covers the key learning goals for the week. That's followed by a live Web meeting between the mentor and students. Students get an assignment to complete by the end of the weekend, and then the mentor will record a video critique of the assignment, noting what's working and what could be improved. This continues each week as student learning and growth continue.

Animation Mentor offers four terms per year - Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall - and all of the courses and workshops start at the beginning of each term. Since the stay-at-home orders began in March, Animation Mentor has seen an increase in enrollment, something it attributes to the fact that people are at home with additional time to focus on animation.

Will this trend toward remote education and even remote working continue across the industry? Beck believes so. "Firstly, it's been interesting to see the animation industry go from a very low percentage of remote workers to 100 percent remote workers in record time. It's something we've always believed in, as it gives artists the opportunity to have more balance and gives the industry the opportunity to tap into talent that they may have had to pass on previously due to visa restrictions," he says.

As far as Animation Mentor is concerned, it has seen an increase in the student body over the last six months. "People are giving online learning a real chance, and they want to see if it really is 'as good' as their brick-and-mortar school. We hope that people are pleasantly surprised. It's not something we had to piece together overnight," Beck points out.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.