By CHRIS McGOWAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By CHRIS McGOWAN
Once the pandemic hit and turned classes into virtual events, VFX and animation schools scrambled to get their curricula online, make classes glitch-free and dynamic, and offer remote access to workstations. Zoom has been an essential platform for online classes and meetings, with Discord, Blackboard, SyncSketch, Slack, MS Teams and Shotgun, among others, also cited as key software – for collaboration, communication, learning and/or project management. Online classes have generally functioned well, according to schools contacted, and in some cases provided extra benefits like recordability for later viewing, available on demand. Plus, guest speakers can join a seminar even if they are in Timbuktu or Tasmania.
“As the world changed, so have we,” says Miguel Rodriguez about Vancouver’s InFocus Film School and its response to COVID-19. Rodriguez, Head of the 3D Animation and VFX program, comments, “It definitely was a rough process of adapting to the new normal. During the first week of the quarantine we worked hard to set up online learning tools and remote access to the class computers. It gave [students] 24/7 access to their workstations without leaving home.”
Regarding classes, Rodriguez notes that a webcam and microphone can’t convey as much as sharing a space, “but there are plenty of tools that help make the class more dynamic. Video, audio, drawing boards, screen and file sharing play an important part in this.
“Zoom is definitely important, allowing us to have classes and meetings without too much setup,” he continues. “We have also used Discord with great success, [as its] ability to share multiple screens between several participants and share files while keeping a chat history makes it an effective tool when keeping track of several medium and large-sized projects. For production purposes, I’d say Shotgun is still the number one option when compiling all of the aspects surrounding a project.” As of fall of last year, InFocus
animation and VFX classes were online, while the Canadian school’s film production classes were hybrid – with distancing and masks.
When USC’s School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) went online, it was a “stressful and difficult time for everyone – both professionally and personally,” notes Teresa Cheng, Chair of the John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts at SCA. “The resilience of our [division’s] students has really been impressive.” Cheng continues, “This pandemic forced everyone to adapt and do so quickly.” The silver lining is that “remote collaboration has been the norm in our industry for some time now.”
SCA’s animation and digital arts classes are using Zoom, Blackboard, SyncSketch and Slack, according to Cheng, plus “our Creative Technology department has worked out virtual desktop access for our students via Teradici.” However, she emphasizes that “our value is in our faculty. Zoom is just a tool. Of course, there are limitations [in not] being physically in the same space, but good teachers always find inventive ways to reach their students and deliver good content.
We already have access to great people in the industry, alumni and professional contacts who are all eager to help,” she adds, “now not limited to the same time zone.”
Guest appearances by notable film and VFX professionals have been a plus for SCA and many other schools. SCA’s summer 2020 “webinars” featured the likes of Jeffrey Katzenberg (Founding Partner of WndrCo), Ted Sarandos (Co-CEO of Netflix), Kristine Belson (President of Sony Pictures Animation) and Karen Toliver (Executive Vice President of Creative at Sony Pictures Animation). The webinars were for students and for professionals to keep up to date, and typically had about 200-400 participants.
VFX courses at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) also converted to remote learning for the spring through fall of 2020. SCAD has campuses in Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia and Lacoste, France. Kevin Mannens, Chair of SCAD’s Visual Effects degree program, comments, “Classes were conducted live over Zoom during the usual class times. Because lectures are recorded, students could revisit sections of a class they want to see again for better understanding. Students love this feature and we will keep recording classes even once we go back on ground.”
Mannens notes that even classes that required hardware and gear – like cameras, lights and greenscreens – were converted successfully to virtual, which in some ways “added
benefits because the students were forced to flex their creative problem-solving muscles to come up with solutions to shoot, light and work on footage, despite not having access to the gear at SCAD,” he says. The university continued with virtual programming for its fall 2020 curriculum, but planned to open designated spaces for students who desired access to labs and studios with specialized equipment.
The College of Motion Picture Arts at Florida State University pursued a hybrid model for the fall of 2020, going remote when possible, according to Ron Honn, Filmmaker-in-Residence, Visual Arts. He notes that the school went the extra mile for its students when the pandemic began. “We were determined that our students would have the equipment necessary to continue work on their projects. So we shipped professional camera packages, lighting and grip gear, as needed, to students in their various locations.”
At New York City’s School of Visual Arts (SVA), “the value of experience, insight, advice and critique that our faculty bring to our students is fully present in our online classes, and ensures that a Zoom session can offer a valuable learning experience,” reports Jimmy Calhoun, Chair of BFA in Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects at SVA. In addition, “Our alumni and industry friends that work outside of New York City have been able to join us for guest lectures and workshops, and our industry thesis screening jury increased from 50 professionals to over 200 participants from around the world this past spring. As we look for ways to add value to what we are doing online, we find new things that we will retain when we return to campus.
Zoom is certainly our go-to software for connecting students and teachers in real-time,” explains Calhoun, “and our instructors have found new and better ways to take advantage of our learning management software, Canvas. Our students and faculty have always used professional tools to both create and track their productions. Our reliance on Shotgun to monitor our students’ progress has been a huge benefit.”
Calhoun also expresses his continuing gratitude towards “companies like Autodesk and Epic Games, who make their software always free to students, and we are thankful [to] other software companies like SideFX, Avid and Foundry that have also been very supportive to our students in providing them access to the tools they need to create from home.”
The coronavirus situation has been different in every country and subject to rapid change. According to Richard Southern, Head of Department, National Centre for Computer Animation at Bournemouth University in England, the school will provide online classes through January, but will also open some facilities to students. “A small proportion of our teaching will necessarily need to take place in specialist facilities, such as greenscreen and camera training,” he elaborates, “although special measures are
in place for the safe shared use of equipment.”
He explains that animation and VFX students have also had physical access to a proportion of the physical workstations. “The remaining workstations are available via a remote/virtual desktop solution” and all production software “available to students via VPN should they have the personal equipment to use it.” Zoom, MS Teams, Shotgun and SyncSketch are platforms used by the school, among others. Southern recalls that at first there were several specific problems to resolve. One example was that “the virtual/remote desktop access compatibility with OpenGL was a challenge.”
Southern explains that it was also challenging in the shift online to maintain “cohort culture,” which he considers one of the most valuable components of the school’s programs. The promotion of the use of collaborative platforms for peer contributions became “increasingly important – for example, the use of MS Teams for peer assess project dailies or pitches, and Shotgun for project management and collaboration,” he says. “In my experience the ability to screen share and work collaboratively on documents via MS Teams and Shotgun has actually improved small group collaboration and supervision.”
When adapting studies to the pandemic, SCA’s Cheng states, “We have to lead by example and show [students] how to pivot in an uncertain world under impossible circumstances. This is what professionals in our industry do all the time, so these lessons help prepare our students for the working world when they leave USC.”
InFocus Film School’s Rodriguez observes, “These are difficult times for everyone, but it’s also a great opportunity to look into developing your career. People will keep watching shows, movies and playing video games, much more so during these crazy times. That means more work needs to be done, more hands and talent are needed.”