Thursday, May 8, 2008

Animation Ramble - Making The Most Of Your Final Year Of Study

OK so I sat in on an interesting conversation between two of my favourite second year students the other day and they were talking about the way that they had many tasks to do right now and found it all a bit overwhelming.

So I wanted to talk about this, and try to make it clear how you can get the most out of your study time. This could have been something I just put in an email and sent out directly to the students, but I think it is worth a mention for a broader group because the principle I want to focus on is hopefully helpful in any context. Before we look into solutions let look at a couple of things to make sure we understand where we are.

So lets start by having a look at What an animation course run by an institution is:

You see most institutions that teach stuff want to be able to offer a qualification to their students, a qualification that will be recognised around the country and even the whole world. In order to do this they have to satisfy certain rules and regulations that are set up by the government, if they don’t meet the regulations then the government won’t let them give the qualification to the students. For animation THIS IS RIDICULOUS for two main reasons.

1. Animation is a highly specialised industry, and I don’t believe anyone can reach a level within the government where they are writing this sort of thing and be an expert on animation, so the rules for the qualifications tend to be insanely vague or even downright wrong. They often adopt a shotgun approach, covering every possible thing a bit instead of focusing on the things that count.

2. Because qualifications have been out of touch for so long they aren’t worth anything any more, for animation getting a job all comes down to your reel. You don’t have to take my word for this, the Internet is full of high end industry folk who will tell of the ultimate importance of being able to show that you are already able to produce a high standard of work. I'm sure that employers would enjoy the convenience of being able to look at a qualification and assume that the graduate can produce work to a certain standard, but I'm afraid it is proven that they just can't trust the qualifications. They can only trust the proof, your reel.

I’d love to go and see the Director of the institution where I work and tell him that we shouldn’t let the qualification rule us, we should just concentrate on letting the students focus on where they want to get to and making the best reel they can to get there. If I could choose we would focus on character animation, basically running an Animation Mentor style course. But that idea is so foreign to senior government employees, they tend to come from a different generation where qualifications were the be all and end all, they have a whole bunch of other courses were the qualification is important so can’t see why ours isn’t, they understand that the qualification is probably important to students parents so it helps with marketing, from their point of view they are in the business of delivering qualifications.

Most, if not all, institutions don’t run a course unless it offers a qualification. Its nuts! But it’s the deal and we have to make the most of it.

Next up, The context for an animation course:

In our part of the world (Queensland Australia) the market in animation education is very crowded, in the small city of Brisbane there are at least 4 large animation courses. I’ve just been watching Bobby Beck’s webinar about Animation Mentor, and I think it would be so cool to write a whole course that just focus’s on character animation, but in a situation where we are competing for students the perception is that we can’t afford to exclude potential students who are into a different aspect of animation than one specific thing we choose to teach. My understanding is that all of the institutions in Brisbane are only just attracting enough students to run their animation courses so they feel that they can’t afford to specialize ( I’ve made the case at times that specializing my be a way of distinguishing ourselves from the competition, but with little impact so far).

Games animation may be the exception here, but I'm talking about what you animate, not what you animate for, good character animation is relevant to games and other formats. If anything a games course (there are a few in town now) opens up more possibilities (modelling, level planning, prop design, rigging, skinning, programing, testing) rather than focusing in on one particular aspect of the production.

So there are too many courses in this part of the world for now, and we can’t change that in the short term either. Even if I could run an Animation Mentor style course, we probably could fill it up with students from the Brisbane area. Again its not ideal, but I want to focus on making the most of the existing situation.

The end result is a course that (on paper at least) tries to be all things to anyone interested in animation, or even popular art. As well as having to create a show reel or short film second year students are still coping with the usual barrage individual assignments covering a broad range of animation techniques and different parts of the animation process, when its clear to me that you only really have time to concentrate on one.

These may be pretty specific issues, but if we look at things from a broader context, I’m fond of saying that life isn’t going to get out of the way so that you can become an animator, you have to make it happen. That’s at the heart of what I want to communicate here.


Easier said than done? Well it might not be as hard as you think, and for our current second year group I don’t think its too late to get this happening for you. So I’m going to outline some steps I think you should be taking.

1. Know what you want, what is your goal. There’s no point in you taking your education by the reigns if you don’t know where you’re going. Its not a complicated thing, you shouldn’t need more than a sentence or two to articulate it. Where do you want to be, what work do you want to be doing? Its that simple. Maybe its obvious, or maybe you need to do some serious soul searching before you can answer, either way there isn’t much point going on until you have answered this question. Be sure of your answer (true to your gut), its not going to work if you change your mind half way through.

2. Communicate your goal clearly to your teachers. This may come as a surprise to you, but in many cases we share your frustration with the system, we didn’t create it. I take no pleasure in making a student who has an obvious passion for a particular thing spend hours working on something else that could be described as a distraction from the main game. If you’re a good student (and most are) then I and pretty much any teacher will want to do what they can to help you get where you want to be.

The worst thing you can do (and I see this happen all the time) is try to avoid your teacher, not turn up to classes or be an “invisible” student in the back corner of the room avoiding eye contact at all times. In the absence of feedback I am left with no alternative as a teacher but to assume that you will be proceeding with the subject/assessment tasks as normal. But if you level with me and let me know what you want to be doing then there are two things I can potentially do, I can use my understanding of the system to twist the class content towards your goal, or if there is no way I can find to make the class relate to your goal I can tell you the bare minimum I can accept in order to free up more time for your major work. Often I make a significant emotional investment in my classes and it may hurt my feelings to hear that my class isn’t your favourite, but I’d much rather know where I stand with a student and find a way to move forward constructively.

3. Enlist some allies. Sometimes I get the feeling that students perceive teachers as just enforcers of the system. I can assure you that that isn’t the case, our main motivation is to help you, that’s why we get involved in teaching in the first place (I can assure you it isn’t for the big bucks). No-one is better placed to help you pervert the system so that it helps you achieve your animation related goals than your teachers. Seek us out as your allies, we want to help. We might have opinions about what you should be focusing on in order to achieve your goals (its almost certain that I will), but if a debate emerges out of that, how can it be anything but helpful, clarifying your goal. In the end we will do what we can to get you where you want to be, and you might be surprised how much we can do.

Its not just teachers, its your class mates. Search the class for people who want to go where you want to go. They may be outside of your current circle of friends, but you can’t let that stop you, its easier to work hard and focus on a single goal when there are others around you working hard and moving in similar directions. There is no need to be crafty, just level with the person, “Your working towards this and focusing on this process and so am I, can I sit at the PC next to you so that we can compare work and help drive each other on?” Who would say no to that? It’s a win, win situation. I’m aware of students in our second year class right now who’s direction is influence by friends in the class who are focusing on different things. I’m not saying there is anything intentional going on, or that anyone has to end friendships, its just the nature of things. If we accept that there is a level of flexibility in the course and that you can steer it towards your goals, then it follows that this will be easier if you are running with others who want to go in the same direction.

4. You’ll HAVE to be relentless if this is going to work. I’m afraid that in order to satisfy the paperwork monkeys we will have to continue introducing the subjects and assessment activities that make up our “qualification“. I see many students being thrown off course by the introduction of new content, and I suppose I can’t blame you. So you need to be chomping at your goal like a dog at a bone, it should be like a mantra in your head all year long. When new classes start next semester, you should be asking, “who can a use this to get me closer to my goal?”

Time is precious, in just a few weeks you will be half way through the year. As many of the classes as possible should be an opportunity to get closer to where you want to be. If they aren’t then talk to your teacher to see if there is some way you can make it so.

So summing up. You are paying for this course aren’t you? If you went to a restaurant you wouldn’t ask the chef to give you a bit of everything on the menu. You would make a decision about what you wanted for your money and order it, if it wasn’t what you ordered then you would ask the chef to change it.

I’m not a big fan of the commercialised education sector, I long for a time when education could happen just for its own sake, instead of only what industry wants. But as I keep saying we need to be realistic about where we are and make the most of it.


Don’t let a system get the better of you, in the first year of the course we do cover some general art stuff just to get you learning and growing as an artist (good stuff), but in the second year (and especially from this late in the year on), every single day should bring you a bit closer to where you want to be.


Your other teachers and I want to help, but we can’t do it for you.

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