800 Carnarvon Street, #323 New Westminster V3M 0G3

Advanced Animation & VFX Training offers New Approach

Founder and Visual Effects CG Lighting Master Nicholas Boughen


Nicholas Boughen is possibly the most experienced and capable visual effects instructor in the world.  His career in the entertainment industry spans 33 years, the most recent 15 years in visual effects production creating work for 27 films, four T.V. series and countless commercials.  With four, published books, international guest lectures, Emmy and Gemini nominations, ten years of teaching experience up to the University level and a rebellious passion for innovation, it only stands to reason that he eventually decided to pass along his wealth of knowledge and experience to the next generation.  He has carefully designed and launched a new kind of visual effects training institute that uniquely delivers on the promise; genuine production-line training and skills, pioneering a new standard of training.  This isn’t much of a surprise though.  His career is defined by creativity, innovation and an incorrigible attitude.

But his vision for a better school aims far beyond the classroom, into the modern, ever-changing industry for which he prepares his school’s protégés.

“There are a lot of things wrong with the industry,” he says, “things that make visual effects too expensive, things that burn people out and destroy health, families, marriages and careers; things that can be fixed if people approached problems a little more analytically and with a little less drama.

“It has always bothered me that, while my production staff and I were able to protect our crews from the manufactured emergencies surrounding our own projects, the tools, methods, techniques and relationships my team built up were swept away as soon as the project ended, often to be replaced with iron-fisted rules from hyperbolic producers and clueless executives who thought they could get more out of a production crew by beating them with sticks, by applying those age-old favorites strategies:

-guilt (“you’re a team player aren’t you?”)

-peer pressure (“nobody else has a problem with these work hours, just you”)

-and false promises (“After we deliver, everybody will get a big bonus”).

“The world needs to know that animation and visual effects can be made in 8-hour days and 5-day workweeks just like products in most other industries.  The sick culture of crisis that permeates commercial entertainment needs to evolve to a point where companies can be profitable and team members can live normal lives.  All of that is possible today if the will exists to make it so.  The barrier is the cultural expectations that have developed around the glamour and money of film making and the fact that it is very difficult to maintain a business model in an industry with ever-changing technology.

“There is a lot wrong with the training industry too,” Boughen says, “Not just in digital arts training but across all practical disciplines.  Everybody has heard countless stories of graduates and post-graduates working at coffee shops and grocery stores because the education they spent years and life savings acquiring has little or no practical application in the world.  The list of completed courses represented by a diploma or degree doesn’t get you past the reception desk of most companies. Certainly not into any modern, innovative company and absolutely not any visual effects, animation or game studios.  They recognize the true value of a team member is whether or not they can do the job.  In the case of visual effects and animation, ‘the job’ is far more than receiving an ‘A’ in History of Animation or knowing how to work the software tools.

Boughen starts every visual effects project by recruiting a team for the job.  “I have spent hundreds of hours sifting through stacks of demo reels and resumes and I can tell you unequivocally the primary reason we look at a resume is for previous production-line experience and we only look at it after we have seen a reel with some talent.  Higher Education is practically meaningless, what really matters is the skills.  We couldn’t give a crap if you have a Ph.D. in computer science, an M.F.A. from Yale or no high school diploma at all.  If you can’t make a great picture or code effective tools efficiently you’re not much use on the production line.  If you can, we want to talk to you.

“It’s astonishing how many people still spend their parent’s life savings going to school for educations that ultimately result in theoretical skills.  It is unbelievable that most students in animation or visual effects programs are not being taught to see and interpret the visual world they are attempting to recreate or how to effectively wield the camera which records it, to know the difference between reality and photographic reality or how to understand the nature of light, the single primary factor in the creation of a believable final image.”

Boughen left the industry behind to start this school because, as he puts it, “Somebody has to start fixing it.”  He says working from within, it is very difficult to convince decision-makers to change their way of thinking about how to approach production problems.

“Everything is always an emergency.  There is never any time to even talk about rethinking the philosophy of production, let alone implement it in any meaningful or permanent way.  Even when we managed to successfully run a production on normal work days and come in under budget, the value of our approach was ignored, or considered a fluke, even though we accomplished it again and again.  Executives change so fast that it is impossible to convince anyone of anything.  It was very frustrating.  There seemed to be no way to change things from within.  People didn’t want to or didn`t know how to fix it even though it is so horrifically broken.  Some people, usually single people, actually enjoy the constant state of crisis.  It energizes them, for a while at least, but it also robs family people of the most important connections in their lives.  So we made the decision.  We left to engineer a new kind of school that will change things for the better.   Now, while they’re all running around trying to figure out how to deal with the latest manufactured emergency, we’re out here shaping the future.”

Boughen has taken a long view of the challenges.  We asked for specifics on how he plans to accomplish his vision of a better industry.

“It has to begin at the beginning.  New digital artists and technicians are currently being indoctrinated into the culture of crisis by instructors, mentors, lead artists and supervisors who are teaching them to work overnight and sleep at their desks.  This is bad for everybody; absolutely everybody, and has to stop.  Most schools make their computer labs available 24/7 in keeping with the culture of crisis.  This is advertised as something good when it is, in fact, completely the opposite.  Instead, students need to work within limited hours and the challenge must be to complete tasks within that time constraint.  This develops powerful task estimation, planning and time management skills that are rare in the industry today.  And, oh snap, it also reduces costs and makes sure people get sleep and come in well rested the next day, creative, energized and ready to go.

“We don’t just build great artists,” he says, “We build high performing teams.  High performing teams reach a gestalt state of capability.  This goal is impossible if everybody is burnt out.

“Another problem is that most new digital artists and technicians are being taught old methods of creating pictures.  These methods are often out of sync with modern technology.  Sometimes this is because instructors have been out of the industry too long or grew up with the old methods, didn’t innovate and now that’s all they have to pass along.  There are more efficient, faster and higher-quality methods using the latest developed technologies.  Schools need to lead the industry, not follow it.  They should be pushing the envelope and sending graduates out into the world with new tools and techniques that further the art and science of visual effects and animation.  Using the latest technologies effectively is one of the keystones to profitability in the industry, but nobody is teaching that.  They’re mostly still teaching the old techniques and tools, believing that they should follow an industry that is always in a state of emergency.

“At CG Masters, we don’t follow the industry, we lead it.  We read the white papers, research the latest technologies and introduce them at the classroom level if they look ready for the pipeline.  We innovate with pipeline methodology and production philosophy.  We believe a healthy workspace is essential to maximum creativity and that means good workstation ergonomics, access to daylight, decent air circulation, reasonable workday expectations, access to kitchen, showers, places to take a rest, watch TV and chill.  Above all, we teach a professional demeanour that is centred in courtesy and respect for our professional colleagues at all levels in the production hierarchy.  We demonstrate to the industry what works and what does not work in a changing and often unpredictable environment.  Our artists go out not just to find a job but, over time, to help change the whole industry for the better.  We know that, under these philosophies, digital animation and visual effects companies and studios can be profitable without burning out their crews.”

So, what’s it like at CG Masters?  It’s designed like a studio, not a school.  It houses three team-rooms and a large production meeting room, admin offices, facilities with shower, a full kitchen and student lounge area with couches and a TV.  Most of the furniture is industrial redux to add to the studio feel.  There is also a 1500 square foot studio used for commercial shooting rental, dailies screening, student green-screen shooting, photography and drawing classes and industry events.  The school feels a little like an art gallery with its bold colours and slightly out-of-square design and it looks out over down town New Westminster and the mighty Fraser River from the top floor of the rail station complex that houses it.  Speaking of rail, the school is actually in the train station at New Westminster (it’s an elevated train known as “skytrain” to locals), so a ride into down town Vancouver takes about 25 minutes.  CG Masters was recently nominated for an architectural design award for innovation.  When people see it for the first time, they usually say “Wow…this doesn’t feel like a school at all…”

The classrooms are arranged in a horse-shoe shape which enables mentors and instructors to easily work with each individual like at a professional production studio.  Class sizes are deliberately small to provide optimum mentorship.  A full class is only 12 students.

“Much larger and we wouldn’t be able to meet our own education and mentorship goals ,” says Boughen.

As for the faculty, each member has been carefully screened and handpicked to live up to the school’s name.  Every faculty member is indeed a Master and veteran in their field of specialty.  It is easy to call this the finest collected visual effects faculty in the world.

“It has been amazing,” says Boughen.  “We thought we were going to have to hunt around to find instructors of the skill and experience level we needed to meet our targets.  But as soon as people hear about our school and its philosophy, they come to us.  We have uber-experienced industry Masters contacting us nearly every week offering to teach.  They understand what we are doing and they want to be a part of it.”

So who can get in to CG Masters, we wondered.  Do they accept anybody who can afford the tuition?

“First of all,” Boughen replies, “Our tuition is the lowest in the region for a private school.  Partly this is because we are new and want to attract interest.  But we also think most schools are charging too much.  We wonder why private schools charge more for international students, in some cases much more.  It’s not like publicly funded schools where domestic students are subsidized.  There is little added expense to international students, so we keep the playing field level for all candidates, domestic and international.

But having the funding is not a guarantee for entry.

We’re not just looking for students.  We are looking for the next leaders; people with the brains and passion to lead the industry into a better future.  These individuals already know what they want out of their training.  They have already worked hard on their aesthetic or technical skills and they have perhaps hit a wall.  They are looking for that elusive “tower of higher learning” where they can actually level-up.  When we meet these people, we can see it in their eyes.  We can sense the passion and motivation.  We know they are not afraid of the intense training that is to come.  When we interview a candidate like this, we get excited, because we know they are not only going to become successful; we know they will contribute to the success of their teammates during the year of training and then go on to greater things.

So how well does this new method work?

“It’s not new,” Boughen responds.  “We have been training artists this way on the job for years, and it works very well.  We developed our methods in the crucible of deadline-driven film production.  The goal of our training was not to help our students get a job, it was to ensure they could deliver world-class, film-quality pictures to our clients, because if they didn’t we would not be in business very long.

“What’s new is that this training is now available to people who have not yet entered the industry.  What’s new is that graduates leave school ready for a professional environment, ready to contribute to production in a way that will generate revenue rather than suck it up in newbie training.”

CG Masters is the only school in the world to put students into practicums after only one term of training and come away with job offers.

As Kody Sabourin, owner and Director at Goldtooth Creative says;

“We accepted two students from CG Masters who were only 1/3 of the way through training.  The students were professional, efficient and flexible to the daily changes of production needs.   We will gladly offer practicum work in the future and look forward to discussing employment opportunities with CG Masters students following graduation.”

When past students talk about our school Director, Nicholas Boughen, they say things like:

“Nick Boughen taught me for three of my four terms. His courses covered 3D lighting and shading, as well as the VFX pipeline and what it is like to work in a VFX studio. He has an incredibly deep view and understanding of light and our perception of it, and taught me to break down reality and understand it in simple ways that helped me learn and grow not only as a CG artist, but as an artist in general. His production class was incredibly powerful and mentally prepared me for the VFX industry in a variety of ways. Everything he went over in class – whether it was in lighting & shading or production – just sounded right, and on the rare occasion I would have conflicting thoughts with his teaching he would take my opinions very seriously, and give thoughtful, reasonable, and respectful responses that further helped my learning process. If you are a student who is interested in creating visually striking photo-realistic effects I strongly recommend you attend Nick’s classes, read his online blog posts, or check out his lectures and tutorials to gain a strong understanding of how light in the real world works.”

Yegor Swarovski – Lighting TD, MPC

“During the last two years I have found Nick to be an inspiring and motivating lighting master and mentor. His production course gave us the opportunity to further our understanding of how a visual effects studio pipeline works through our dailies and lessons. During that time our class became a team of artists working together and Nick led us as our VFX Supervisor, which was a great experience. His lighting and shading course is also extremely thought provoking, and every class provided us with new knowledge in real-world lighting. Nick’s dailies were also extremely useful and clear, and gave us the push to bring our work to the next level. I hope any lighting and shading artist looking to do photo-real CG will have the opportunity to have Nick be their guide and mentor.”

Alison Lake – Roto Artist – MPC

“Nicholas has a deep understanding of real world lighting and it comes across in his confident and clear teaching style. His lectures are extremely engaging and thought provoking. He offers honest critiques to the student’s work, and he is extremely respectful of the opinions and questions posed to him. Anybody who is interested in the world of lighting and shading, or aims to produce photo realism in CG art could have no better instructor than Nick Boughen. “

Viviani Barrera

“Nicholas is a superb lighting instructor. His knowledge, experience and passion are an asset to any organization.”

-Serena Kohls

“Nicholas has an amazing understanding of the theory and practice of lighting, and an impressive ability to communicate his knowledge to others. His common sense approach helped me to see (literally) in a different way. Nick is more than just an instructor; he is a teacher.”

-Patrick Heinicke

“Mr. Nicholas Bougen is the “one” and the only one in a million lighting master in VFX industry.I was so lucky to meet and have him as my teacher.His knowledge of lighting is impeccable and right on the spot, He knows how the light works and the way Nick teaches the students is so concise and easy to understand. Nick is also an outstanding leader and always takes good care of his crews.I respect Nick a lot and would love to learn more from Nick.”

-Fitra Nagra

“I have had the pleasure of being taught by Nicholas Boughen. His skill and expertise in the foundations of observation, storytelling, visual effects and 15 years of industry experience makes his teaching skill set unmatchable in this field. With Mr. Boughen’s guidance I feel confident in entering the visual effects industry.”
Spencer Dinney.

For Nicholas Boughen’s full credit list please go to http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1163502/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1