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2nd generation Animation & VFX Training: What does it mean?

You want to find the top visual effects school and you’ve stumbled across CG Masters with all it’s ‘attitude’ and ‘philosophy’. You’re wondering if it’s real or just a bunch of marketing nonsense. CG Masters claims to be the first school to implement “2nd Generation Training”. It’s reasonable to ask exactly what is meant by that and to expect some rational explanation. A solid explanation requires a little history lesson. So here it is.

Digital imagery was initially used in feature film in 1976. The first film to use it was Futureworld which incorporated a computer generated hand and face created by a university student named Ed Catmull, one of the founders of modern CG, who later became one of the original members of PIXAR along with John Lasseter. Later that same year, George Lucas used computer animation in Star Wars: A New Hope to generate the wireframe plans of the Deathstar. However the first serious use of CG came in 1982 with Tron. This was the beginning of the digital age with the first photo-real attempt made by James Cameron in The Abyss.

This was the first generation that hacked its way into unknown territory and opened the pathways for the rest of us. In those days there was no training for digital artists. The work was done by computer scientists who were simultaneously developing the hardware and software to generate the effects. “Real” artists had to be brought in, of course, but it wasn’t until the mid 90’s, following the huge successes of Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park that the demand for digital imagery began growing beyond the number of available CG specialists and coders and even beyond the artistic skill level of computer scientists. More and more artists had to be brought in to bring these digital creations to life. So training began in earnest with the goal of teaching great artists to use computers as their new medium. Training was all in house, at first. You’d be brought in, trained in how to use the hardware and software. You’d then establish your own workflow, contributing to the development of the primordial tools as you went along. But once 3D software became commercially available, the demand for digital artists far outstripped the ability for studios to train their own. The pressing need for digital media training centres quickly resulted in established colleges and universities adding digital media course programming to their CIS departments or film departments. It didn’t take long for the number of working digital artists to reach a critical mass; the point at which there were enough working artists with enough experience to begin teaching the skills they had learned. This was the beginning of the first generation of training.

The first generation begins teaching the 2nd generation of digital artists and TDs. This makes a lot of sense, at first. 2nd generation artists enter a rapidly moving technologically-driven industry and get swept along with the tide of quickly developing and changing technology. The industry is young and hectic; exciting and life-draining at the same time. In fact many skilled, experienced first-generation digital artists find the teaching lifestyle so superior to the hectic demands of film post-production that they move permanently into fulltime teaching. Some schools demand that classes are taught during the daytime, which means that many teaching jobs are available only to non-working digital artists and TDs, which is just fine for people fed up with the culture of crisis that has come to pervade visual effects. Some schools solve the daytime class problem by hiring back their own graduates to teach classes.

Now, while all this is happening, while schools are popping up, trying to find professionals who can teach their classes, the software continues to develop rapidly. The 2nd generation is using tools so vastly superior to first generation tools that new technique, workflow, tool preference, pipeline, operational method and workspace awareness are soon developed

If you haven’t seen it coming already, this is where the wheels start to fall off.

First of all, when a working professional drops out of an industry whose primary factor is rapid innovation, it is easy to see how these teachers’ knowledge will quickly become obsolete. In a very few years, they are teaching information that is so far out of date as to be not only useless but actually damaging. Even many part-time, first-generation instructors are teaching material from their first-generation experience, which is now totally obsolete. Obsolete tools are used and taught in obsolete ways. This continues today.

Secondly, the demand for digital artists is so high that the only ones available (aka not already working in the day) for daytime teaching almost certainly do not have hire-able skills which, you’d think, would make them un-hire-able as teachers as well. Unfortunately the college/university academics do not have the industry experience to identify a teacher-worthy skillset. They don’t understand the industrial demands.

There is a third issue as well. It is that colleges/universities/private schools have been using the same teaching process for two hundred years and see no reason to change. It’s called “Process Based” teaching. You’re probably familiar with the process: you sign up for a number of individual courses. You attend each course, write copious notes during the lectures, complete the assignments, study and memorize your notes, write the exams, and if you get a passing grade in all your courses then you get to graduate, which means you are now ready for the professional workforce right? Sadly not. We all understand that this process leads students to focus on grades rather than knowledge, comprehension or skills. Students actually become strategic about which assignments they can blow off and which they have to complete to achieve a certain grade. Parents expect certain grades and the students know that this is the only metric by which they will be judged. Unfortunately, in the real world, straight As won’t get you a job if you don’t have the skills.

This brings us to the genesis of 2nd generation training.

2nd generation professionals, now veterans working their way up into leadership, management and recruiting positions are appalled by the generally poor level of training coming out of all institutes, public and private. They have little choice but to hire these unskilled “graduates” and train them on the job in all the skills they really need to become professional. It is horrifically expensive to do this, but there is no choice. Schools just aren’t generating skilled graduates.

On-the-job training and mentorship methodologies get refined and improved over the years to the point where a reasonably intelligent, motivated person can be taught, within a few months, to create feature-film quality pictures. This system works well, aside from the expense and the fact that after investing all that time, effort and money in training these “graduates” of digital media programs, they then take their training to other companies. This means training of new “graduates” is continual.

But when the industry globalizes, profit margins drop sharply. VFX studios find they no longer enjoy the huge budgets required to train. There remains to this day a large (and growing) demand for well-trained digital media artists and technicians, despite the fact that schools worldwide are cranking out tens of thousands of digital media “graduates” annually. We hear reports of these “graduates” unable to find jobs, yet many jobs remain unfilled due to the lack of skilled workforce.

Out of these events has emerged a clear requirement for a higher professional level of training outside of the studio.

2nd generation veterans have witnessed, analyzed and understand the shortcomings of the traditional “process-based” approach to training as well as the other issues that are preventing digital media schools from graduation people with the skills to fill a professional position. For one thing, nearly all schools teach only tools skills. They treat each student as an individual who is learning how to work some software. In a studio, digital artists work in a complex collaborative production hierarchy that requires extensive understanding of team production process. This is one of the keys reasons that on-the-job training works so well. It is one of the key reasons process-based training works so poorly.

2nd generation veterans understand that copious, front-line experience is critical to teaching quality; that obsolete artists, out-of-work artists and inexperienced graduates cannot offer complete training.

2nd generation veterans also know that grades are bad distractions. Grades become the focus. Grades must be replaced with a skills-based evaluation system that ensures trainees are acquiring and can demonstrate real, professional-level skills. This is the only way they will be able to get and keep a job.

So “2nd Generation Training” is about recognizing traditional training is really, really bad at developing professional skills; its’ about implementing a program similar to on-the-job training that teaches real skills. It is about identifying and eschewing obsolete and irrelevant information. Above all, it is about maintaining not only currency but leadership in tools/pipeline use and development. There is no better place than a professional training school to smoke-test emerging technologies.

And it is high time too. With digital media exploding world-wide and most training programs woefully inadequate, modern technique, workflow, tool preference, pipeline, operational method and workspace awareness are in desperate need.


Nicholas Boughen is a professional Visual Effects Supervisor and crew trainer. With 34 years of experience in the entertainment industry, many of those teaching skills, he is reshaping how skills are passed along to the next generation in a training environment.