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January 03
2023

ISSUE

Winter 2023

VFX CONTINUING EDUCATION: WHERE DO VFX ARTISTS GO TO KEEP LEARNING?

By CHRIS McGOWAN

DNEG employees benefit from a variety of trainingresources available through the firm’s intranet. (Image courtesy of DNEG)

DNEG employees benefit from a variety of training resources available through the firm’s intranet. (Image courtesy of DNEG)

In these days of rapidly developing VFX technologies and processes, it can be hard to keep up in your field, let alone master new realms. Fortunately, there are many options for continuing education – on the job or via schools or online tutorials. “Since a majority of VFX workflows are closely allied with emerging computing technologies, VFX artists, production management and pipeline staff need to constantly keep abreast of change in workflows and tools resulting from new technologies,” says Shish Aikat, Global Head of Training for DNEG. “Depending on the depth of commitment a VFX artist has to a specific topic or workflow, the sources of learning can be anywhere from a series of tutorials on YouTube, online courses at portals such as fxphd or Gnomon Online [to] an undergraduate/graduate program in VFX at a degree/diploma-granting institution.”

Oftentimes, one need not go further than one’s job to find new training. Dijo Davis, Senior Training Manager for DNEG, comments, “Once the artists make it into DNEG, a variety of in-house training resources is available for their reference via our intranet. In addition to this, custom ‘upskilling’ training programs are organized and conducted to support employees and keep the existing and upcoming shows in line.”

Here is a look at several upskilling paths for the VFX artist.

A clay sculpting master class is one of thebenefits at Framestore. (Image courtesy of Framestore)

A clay sculpting master class is one of the benefits at Framestore. (Image courtesy of Framestore)


TCS and its studios have a trainer for eachdepartment who is a specialized in the tools of that department and pipeline. (Image courtesy of Technicolor Creative Studios)

TCS and its studios have a trainer for each department who is a specialized in the tools of that department and pipeline. (Image courtesy
of Technicolor Creative Studios)


The Unreal Fellowship is a free 30-dayblended experience for learning Unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of Epic Games)

The Unreal Fellowship is a free 30-day blended experience for learning Unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of Epic Games)

“Thanks to a lot of open-source tools for VFX, a lot of tools and learning materials are available, and going by the views and comments on VFX tutorials on YouTube, it appears that a surging number of VFX artists are taking advantage of these courses. Game engines, GPU rendering and real-time technologies have piqued the interest of a multitude of VFX artists. Companies like Epic Games and Unity offer hundreds of courses and channels for artists to interact, and VFX artists are thronging in large numbers to these sites and channels.”
—Shish Aikat, Global Head of Training, DNEG

ONLINE RESOURCES

A vast variety of visual effects courses is available on the internet. For starters, “The tutorials you can find on independent sites or YouTube are super helpful to help fill in any targeted foundational gaps an artist may have. I would say the companies and artists that provide these tutorials are champions for these applications, and they are a great way to learn focused skills,” says Matthew Cruz, Global Creative Training and Development Manager for Technicolor Creative Studios (TCS).

Aikat adds, “Thanks to a lot of open-source tools for VFX, a lot of tools and learning materials are available, and going by the views and comments on VFX tutorials on YouTube, it appears that a surging number of VFX artists are taking advantage of these courses. Game engines, GPU rendering and real-time technologies have piqued the interest of a multitude of VFX artists. Companies like Epic Games and Unity offer hundreds of courses and channels for artists to interact, and VFX artists are thronging in large numbers to these sites and channels.”

Supported by Netflix, the VES Virtual Production Resource Center offers access to free educational resources and information on the latest trends and technologies. Aimed at both current and future VFX professionals, the center is an effort of the Visual Effects Society in collaboration with the VES Technology Committee and the industry’s Virtual Production Committee (https://www.vesglobal.org/virtual-production-resources).

“When it comes to tools, there’s a tremendous amount of autodidactic training that the artists do on their own on their personal time with both paid or free master classes and a lot of online videos,” comments Sylvain Nouveau, Rodeo FX Head of FX. “VFX artists spend a lot of time sharing their knowledge with each other both during and after work hours – scouring for videos online and posting in relevant forums, checking Reddit.”

Showing a demo inside theVirtual Production Stage at FMX 2022. (Image courtesy of David Schaefer)

Showing a demo inside the Virtual Production Stage at FMX 2022. (Image courtesy of David Schaefer)


Many students attend New York City’s School ofVisual Arts (SVA) to get a next-level job or change their career path. (Image courtesy of SVA)

Many students attend New York City’s School of Visual Arts (SVA) to get a next level job or change their career path. (Image courtesy of SVA)


A virtual production class at Escape Studios at London’s Pearson College. (Image courtesy of Pearson College)

A virtual production class at Escape Studios at London’s Pearson College. (Image courtesy of Pearson College)

SOFTWARE COMPANY TUTORIALS

Some software company tutorials (for VFX, animation and related creative tools) charge a fee, but many are free. Autodesk offers thousands of free tutorials across YouTube and AREA, according to a company spokesperson. Its YouTube channels include Maya Learning Channel, 3ds Max Learning Channel, Flame Learning Channel and Arnold Renderer. And there are AREA tutorials and courses at https://area.autodesk.com.

SideFX offers free lessons about Houdini and Houdini Engine, which plugs into applications such as Unreal, Unity, Autodesk Maya and 3ds Max,” says SideFX Senior Product Marketing Manager Robert Magee. The SideFX website (https://www.sidefx.com) is host to 2,758 lessons designed to support self-learning within the community. Magee explains, “To help navigate all of these lessons, the SideFX site has 18 curated ‘Learning Path’ pages, which highlight the best lessons to explore for a variety of topics.” The 450 lessons created and published by SideFX are all free. The other 2,300+ tutorials are “submitted by the community.”

The Unity Learn platform offers “over 750 hours of content, both free live and for-fee on-demand learning content, for all levels of experience,” according to the company (https://learn.unity.com/). There are hundreds of Red Giant tutorials on its YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/c/Redgiant) and free Maxon webinars here: (https://www.youtube.com/c/MaxonTrainingTeam). Foundry’s site, learn.foundry.com, has Nuke, Modo, Flix and Katana tutorials, among others.

CONFERENCES

Conferences such as SIGGRAPH and FMX also help keep artists current. DNEG’s Aikat notes, “Many smaller VFX houses do not have the resources to house an R&D department, and they often lean on technologies and workflows seeded through academic research. Conferences like ACM SIGGRAPH are opportunities for VFX artists to learn about the products of such research. Many VFX studios send delegates to these technology conferences to soak in the future trends, workflows and solutions predicated by emerging technology.”

FMX, held in Stuttgart each spring, draws thousands of professionals and students. “At FMX, we curate conference tracks on the latest and greatest developments in projects and processes as well as in hardware, software and services,” says Mario Müller, FMX Project Manager. “Conferences play an important part in continuing education [about] the art, craft, business and technology of visual effects. Compared to the readily available information by vendors on the internet, a conference can provide a more concentrated, curated and neutral perspective as well as a community platform.”

The RealTime Conference, founded in 2020 by Jean-Michel Blottière, is fully virtual and free. The live gathering explores real-time technologies with live demos, panels, workshops, classes and keynote speeches (https://realtime.community/conference).

VIEW Conference (https://www.viewconference.it), another notable event, is set in Turin (Torino), Italy, and focuses on computer graphics, interactive techniques, digital cinema, 2D/3D animation, VR and AR, gaming and VFX.

VFX/ANIMATION SCHOOLS

Schools offer various levels of courses, which can be utilized by VFX artists currently working or between jobs. “VFX artists are constantly learning,” says Colin Giles, Head of School of Animation at Vancouver Film School (VFS). “As the industry changes, it is important that people who work as VFX artists have the outlets to keep learning while they’re working. This is why, in addition to our courses and workshops – called VFS Connect – to help people learn part-time without having to leave their jobs.”

For VFX artists to keep up-to-date at work, “some of the bigger studios have quite extensive internal training programs,” while “smaller studios and freelancers depend on online resources [free and paid for] and upskilling via training providers like ourselves,” says Dr. Ian Palmer, Vice Principal at Escape Studios, part of Pearson College in London.

According to Scott Thompson, Co-founder of Think Tank Training Center (TTT) in Vancouver, “In some cases, studios do work with schools like Think Tank to increase their understanding of new ideas. As an example, Think Tank had Mari well before the studios did, so our grads often became teachers to catch them up.”

Escape Studios provides continuing education for VFX professionals “through our short courses, most of which are in-person. We do short daytime courses for those who can take a break from their day job and evening courses for those who are fitting around other commitments. Many of our evening classes are available online,” Palmer says.

Framestore offers its employees classes ineverything from software mastery to life drawing to clay sculpting. (Image courtesy of Framestore)

Framestore offers its employees classes in everything from software mastery to life drawing to clay sculpting. (Image courtesy of Framestore)


Students on set in the on-campus greenscreen room at VancouverFilm School. (Image courtesy of the Vancouver Film School)

Students on set in the on campus greenscreen room at Vancouver Film School. (Image courtesy of the Vancouver Film School)


Technicolor Creative Studios, through MPC and its other studios, havea training academy to educate new employees in specific VFX tools. (Image courtesy of Technicolor Creative Studios)

Technicolor Creative Studios, through MPC and its other studios, have a training academy to educate new employees in specific VFX tools. (Image courtesy of Technicolor Creative Studios)


The Unreal Fellowship teaches about virtual productionand the mechanics of using Unreal Engine for storytelling. (Image courtesy of Epic Games)

The Unreal Fellowship teaches about virtual production and the mechanics of using Unreal Engine for storytelling. (Image courtesy of Epic Games)

VFX artists are often looking for an upgrade. Palmer explains, “Sometimes it’s just to get a fresh skill set to enhance their career. We also have people that want to change direction and need some guidance in that.”

At SVA, a lot of students “are working professionals,” Adam Meyers, Producer at New York City’s School of Visual Arts (SVA), says. “When you have that allotted time after work hours each week, it seems easier than fitting it in at work. Most of them are looking to get training that is more focused.” Meyers adds that “my current continuing education classes are online since COVID.” Asked if he often sees visual artists leaving the industry and going to school for an upgrade to get a “next level” job or to change their career path, Meyers responds, “Every semester. Education is about growth. Artists evolve just like the software.”

At the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, students in the visual effects department take on assignments that reflect the most current working studio practices, such as in virtual production. Dan Bartlett, SCAD Dean of the School of Animation and Motion, notes, “The LED volumes in Atlanta and in Savannah are industry standard, so what we’re able to do in these spaces are create learning experiences that are absolute mirrors of what they would be doing if they were working for a major studio on features or on long-form television. Students work on everything from negotiating the production design components to developing both the digital and the physical assets that go into a shoot, to working in-engine – in our case Unreal Engine – to build the virtual cameras and the virtual lighting setups in order to bring those on-set shoots to life.”

At some VFX studios, like Framestore, visual effects artists do extensive in-house training and also benefit from some specialized classes. “Framestore has a real ‘melting pot’ of learning styles and preferences,” Simon Devereux, Framestore Director, Global Talent Development, says. “Historically, their studios have always offered their employees everything from life drawing and clay sculpting masterclasses to software mastery and behavioral skills training.”

Framestore recently hired a new Global Head of Content & Curriculum, Chris Williams, “who now leads the development of technical and software training, building new learning pathways, and he will ultimately develop the teaching capabilities of all our employees in order to support our global network of offices,” Devereux says. “That, along with a dedicated Unreal and 3D trainer and two production trainers, means we’re in a unique position to build on what is already an incredible investment in the personal and professional growth of our colleagues. In addition to this, we invest in a range of technical tutorial-based training platforms that are accessible across all of our studios.”

Aikat adds, “Constant in-house upskilling with customized training programs and keeping a close eye on the new trends in the market is the key to success.” DNEG also supplements its training curriculum with talks from experts on a range of topics that cover technical tools, product technologies and creative pursuits.

Rodeo FX helps broaden its employees’ horizons with evening classes (paid for by Rodeo) at official partner schools and a few technical colleges. But the greatest learning may come from the other artists. “Fifty percent of what we learn comes from others – whether it is new talent arriving from other companies or Rodeo employees sharing their knowledge with other studios,” Sylvain Nouveau, Rodeo FX Head of FX, comments. He adds, “In many ways, it’s all of these exchanges that keep the industry moving forward. With an average of about two years in a studio, there’s a lot of information flowing.” Marie-Denise Prud’homme, Rodeo FX Manager of Learning and Development, remarks, “Formally, artists share information with each other [tutorials, videos how-tos] through an information-sharing platform we use called Confluence. But shared learning can even be as simple as arranging meetings and calls on the fly.”

Behind the scenes of a fireside chat onthe Virtual Production Stage at FMX 2022 with, from left: Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull, HaZimation; Shelley Smith, DNEG Animation; Mikko Matikainen, The Mill; Paul Debevec, Netflix; and David Sheldon-Hicks, Territory Studios. (Image courtesy of Dominique Brewing)

Behind the scenes of a fireside chat on the Virtual Production Stage at FMX 2022 with, from left: Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull, HaZimation; Shelley Smith, DNEG Animation; Mikko Matikainen, The Mill; Paul Debevec, VES, Netflix; and David Sheldon-Hicks, Territory Studios. (Image courtesy of Dominique Brewing)


Many students at New York City’s School of Visual Arts (SVA) are working professionals looking to get more focused training. (Image courtesy of SVA)

Many students at New York City’s School of Visual Arts (SVA) are working professionals looking to get more focused training. (Image courtesy of SVA)


An Escape Studios virtual production class taking place at the LED volume of MARS, an Escape partner, in West London. (Image courtesy of Pearson College)

An Escape Studios virtual production class taking place at the LED volume of MARS, an Escape partner, in West London. (Image courtesy of Pearson College

For on-the-job training, TCS has had a training Academy for years “for college leavers to be trained on photorealism and specific VFX tools and pipeline for features,” Cruz comments. Recently it started a new initiative. “We have a trainer for each department who are specialists in the tools of that department and pipeline. For example, for the FX department we have a dedicated FX trainer to help the department on the floor, so they would be an expert in Houdini, for example, and FX sims.” (TCS’s network of studios includes the Mill and MPC.)

Ron Edwards, TCS Global Head of Commercial Development – L&D, notes, “We encourage our artists to master cutting-edge technology and tools so they can produce content at the highest caliber. The company will also sponsor these efforts and provide employees the chance to learn from accredited institutes and alongside their peers to further their careers.” Edwards adds, “We always want to stay on top of the latest tech to future-proof ourselves and our students.”

Escape’s Palmer comments, “It’s always an exciting field to work in. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something comes along to amaze you. The industry is full of very bright people with a thirst for knowledge, so while it’s challenging to keep up, that’s what makes it so interesting. Long may it continue!”


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