HOW TO PICK A SCHOOL
THIRTEEN TIPS TO HELP NAVIGATE THE MINEFIELD OF DIGITAL MEDIA TRAINING PROGRAMS
Visual effects school? Animation school? How do you pick the right school or program? What questions should you be asking prospective schools? Here are a few tips to help you pick a school that will get you more than just an empty diploma or degree:
Disclaimer: These tips reflect the opinion and experience of several veterans from the VFX and animation industries. We have recruited and trained hundreds of artists and reviewed thousands of demo reels from many schools so we know what we are talking about. Yet you should not take anything written here as fact. See “Be Skeptical” below. It is essential that you do your own research to find a school that is right for you. Be a critical thinker. These tips are intended to help you arm yourself against less-than-ethical recruiting tactics, nothing more.
We expect you to hold us to these same standards while researching. Go on. We can take it.
1. BE SKEPTICAL!
Don’t believe what a professional recruiter tells you. Many recruiters are paid a commission for recruiting you (ask them about it), so it is in their interest to get you to sign up any way they can. Be deliberate about searching for reasons an animation or vfx school is NOT for you. Schools and recruiters come in all flavours and qualities so protect yourself with solid research. Most people fall in love with the hype and marketing from a school, with glossy brochures or pretty pictures of the campus and smiling students then search for reasons to support the emotional decision they have already made. Unfortunately this often blinds candidates from the reality that most digital media programs are delivered with an academic or theoretical approach and simply can’t provide the commercial skills needed to get a job. They may provide grades and a credential, but that is not remotely the same as job skills. You are investing a huge amount of money, time and effort. Make sure you will get real, professional training, not just software classes. Make them prove it to you.
2. DON’T PAY ATTENTION TO ADVERTISING INCLUDING THIS DOCUMENT
Don’t pay attention to advertising, including this document. It’s mainly propaganda. Schools will try to weave an illusion of excellence with smoke and mirrors. You’ll see words like “unprecedented”, “unique” and “Preeminent” used fairly freely by schools to describe themselves. Some schools will talk about how much results matter as though they are the only ones who think results matter. Of course they do. Results matter to everybody. Some schools talk about how their students live in production. Unfortunately, nearly all schools do not teach studio team production. In most digital media programs, students work independently without production supervisory oversight. They work pretty much on their own and pass or fail on their own, as usual.
Do your own research, it’s important! Don’t let a school tell you how great it is. Search for online reviews from alumni. And be aware that the biggest schools employ PR companies to create fake positive reviews to drown out the negative ones. Every school is going to show you what they think will impress you. When you go to their website there might be some inspiring words, pictures, videos or even inspirational music. Here’s a safety tip: If their advertising evokes a strong emotional response from anything other than the quality of all their student’s work (not just a few select pieces), it is a red flag. They’re tricking you into making an emotional decision when you should be making a rational decision based on the actual quality of training. The best way to discover the real quality of the school is to find out what their real professional job placement numbers are and to view the work from ALL of their students. Schools that only show selected student work are not giving you the whole story. When they give you official placement numbers, ask how many of those are now their own teaching assistants or other (janitorial, security) employees at their school. Many schools hire their own graduates to improve their placement numbers, which is pretty cheeky, we think.
3. DON’T LISTEN TO CLAIMS OF “BEST ANIMATION SCHOOL IN CANADA or IN THE WORLD”
…or “School of the Year” or “Preeminent School”. Be especially wary of this. In order for a school to legitimately make this claim, they will have had to compete against every other school in the world (or in Canada) and to have been judged by an impartial, professional judging panel. Claims like this actually come from small competitions against a handful of other schools/students which means the results are valid only within the context of competition with those specific schools/students, not relative to all the other schools in the world or in Canada. Some of these winning claims come from the opinion of one writer who has categorized and judged the schools according to unstated criteria. One of the bigger private film schools in Vancouver constantly claims to be best school in the world, even though they competed against only 0.2% of the other schools in the world. The claim may sound impressive, but it really isn’t. In fact, they know they are bending the truth into a pretzel to attract you. What expectations do you have of a school that begins a training relationship in this way?
4. HIGH JOB PLACEMENT
Achieving very high job placement numbers is really, really hard. Most schools will let in anybody who can pay regardless of skills potential or committment, so placement numbers are not likely to be very high. To get high placement, schools need to be picky about who they let in. If a school is claiming a high placement number, like anything above 60%, make them prove it to you.
5. LOOK FOR REAL PRODUCTION TRAINING
Find out if each student works alone or mostly alone on their assignments or reel during training. If this is the case, then the school is not teaching production, even if it claims to be doing so. Some schools say they teach “production” but what they mean is, “IF ONE PERSON WERE DOING THEIR OWN PRODUCTION BY THEMSELVES, HERE’S THE ORDER THEY WOULD LIKELY DO THINGS”. That’s not real production training. Studio production is ENTIRELY about collaborative workflow in a team over a long period of time and under constant, professional, supervisory oversight using one or more of the standard studio review methodologies; How are problems collectively identified and solved? How do assets flow through the pre-production process into shot production? How is pipeline developed to address the unique needs of the project? How do we share resources across a studio? How is a large, diverse team organized? How do tasks get shared, reported, assigned? How do professional reviews happen? What is the process that takes an entire team from concept to polished shots? What are standard studio procedures?
Collaborative workflow is a foreign concept to most people (including most schools), but to be successful in industry it is essential. Be sure it is a major component of your training or you won’t last in industry, if you get employed at all. You see, most schools teach tools and technique only. That’s like teaching a carpenter to use a hammer and a saw, then expecting them to be able to build a house. Building a house requires the carpenter to already have experienced building a house with other, experienced carpenters who understand the schedule, materials, workflow, logistics, business and financing of house-building. It’s a big, team project, you can’t do it alone.
6. BEING A PUBLIC UNIVERSITY DOESN’T NECESSARILY MEAN BETTER (OR EVEN GOOD) JOB SKILLS TRAINING
In fact, most universities, while great at academic teaching, provide some of the least useful animation and vfx job skills training on the planet due to their academic process of tests and grades. Very few digital media degree holders find employment, based on their academic lessons actually. Skeptical? Contact us, we’ll put you in touch with digital media degree holders who couldn’t get an interview until they trained with us.
A little more on Academic Process:
As industry professionals, we have found that academic education, while great for exploring ideas, concepts, philosophy and the past, is a very poor method for delivering professional job skills. Universities are so focused on academic process and bureaucracy that they have difficulty seeing the needs of the professional or commercial world. Industry needs skilled, experienced, creative problem solvers who understand their primary responsibility is to be cost effective. Universities are about the credential, not job skills. There’s nothing wrong with the pursuit of a credential and there are many great reasons to do so, but it won’t get you a job in this industry. The simple, obvious fact is that a potential employer couldn’t care less about your MFA or PhD if you can’t do the job.
7. ASK TO SPEAK DIRECTLY TO A CURRENT STUDENT OR RECENT GRADUATE FOR A FIRST HAND ACCOUNT OF TRAINING
Speak to more than one if possible. Many would be ideal. See if the school will let you sit in on a class where you can observe the training and speak privately with whichever students you wish. If the school will not permit this, it is reason to become cautious.
8. BE WARY OF THE SCHOOL SAYS THINGS LIKE “YOU ONLY GET OUT OF YOUR TRAINING WHAT YOU PUT IN.”
This implies that all the responsibility for your success is entirely on your shoulders. So when you fail, they can blame it on your lack of effort. It attempts to absolve the school of responsibility for any failures. In fact, schools that say this nearly always have a very high failure rate and/or a very low placement rate. At the other end of the scale, a student-centric school is deeply committed to ensuring students are properly trained and prepared for life in the industry. After all, if you pay a school to train you, they should train you, not let you fail, right?
9. FIND OUT IF THEIR TRAINERS ARE REAL INDUSTRY VETERANS OR IF THEY ARE PROFESSIONAL TEACHERS WHO WORKED IN THE INDUSTRY 10 YEARS AGO FOR A WHILE (OR NEVER).
The minimum requirement for a post secondary teacher in a private training institute in B.C. is two years industry experience. This can include two years as a T.A. at the school from which they graduated, which is not really professional experience at all. Many schools get their instructors this way rather than going to the trouble and expense of finding genuine masters to teach their programs. The real magic happens in a true professional training program when an industry master walks into a classroom after a hard day of work and tells the students a story about a current production problem or solution on a blockbuster film she is working on. These experiences provide invaluable, real-world context for the training and can not be delivered by non-professionals or T.A.s who do not have significant front-line industry experience.
10. HAVE A REALISTIC LOOK AT TUITION RATES.
Universities often say they have much lower tuition than private schools but this is misleading. If you look at a typical 2-year (4 term) university program in digital media, you’ll see a cost of roughly $10,000 to $15,000 per term depending on whether you are a domestic or international student, so their 2-year program is $40K to $60K. When you compare this with tuition at private schools, many of which are equivalent to 3 university terms, university is not much different and is, in fact, more expensive in some cases. Additionally, Universities split your focus by requiring you to take a ton of unrelated academic courses you don’t need to get a job in the industry.
Ask private institutes why they charge so much more for international students. In Canada, Canadian student tuition is subsidized by the government, but ONLY AT PUBLIC SCHOOLS, so it makes sense that international tuition is more at those public institutions. Private schools, however, have little reason for charging so much more. There may be a recruiting commission and perhaps some additional administrative costs, but it certainly should not double the cost of tuition.
11. WATCH OUT FOR PRIVATE SCHOOLS WITH NO PORTFOLIO
Digital Media is huge. Little private schools teaching ESL and Tourism are starting to jump on the bandwagon sensing a business opportunity. The bad news is that they have little to no expertise in any of the digital media industries and tend to run their new programs the same way they run their language and tourism programs. The good news is that it’s easy to spot them. Look at the kind of training they have traditionally offered. Notice the only digital media images they show are stock pictures not created by their students. Be especially wary of these schools. Make all the usual reasonable demands to see student work, instructor resumes and to hear about the kinds of jobs graduates have landed as a result of the training. This will weed the good from the bad in short order.
12. SPEAK DIRECTLY TO INSTRUCTORS.
Ask them direct questions about their professional experience. See if any of them will give you a no-obligation portfolio critique to help you improve your skills. If you can learn something new from a portfolio critique, that’s a good sign. Most schools don’t have industry professionals reviewing portfolios, just professional recruiters who are deciding whether or not they can make you take an extra “foundation” program. Furthermore, they use the portfolio as an estimate of the candidates ability to be successful. This is complete nonsense. The only thing a portfolio indicates is the candidates CURRENT skill set, not the potential for success. That is determined by other factors.
13. DID WE MENTION TO BE SKEPTICAL?
If you find a school that will admit you without portfolio or interview, that is a sign that they don’t care who you are as long as you have money. You can expect from that kind of school…..well….exactly what you’d expect from someone who doesn’t care who you are. A school that intends to train you well will, at the very least, take you through an interview / assessment process designed not only to tell them if you are right for the school, but also to tell you if the school is the right place for YOU. A good school will have an industry professional review your portfolio with you to help determine your current skill set and how it relates to your training goals.
Please, be careful. Be wary. We’ve heard too many sad tales and retrained too many students from other schools. Worst of all are the tales of students who we could train, but have run out of education funding at a school that didn’t properly train them. This is a serious investment and deserves your serious research. As a professional training centre, it’s our job to prove we are good enough for you, not the other way around. Remember, you have many choices. There’s a big VFX labour shortage right now in Vancouver despite thousands of grads, which says something about the training students are getting at most digital media programs.
According to broadcastnow.co.uk, Amy Smith, head of recruitment at Framestore says “one of the reasons for the skills shortage is that the current educational model isn’t suited to the needs of the industry because it was designed for jobs that existed 10 years ago. “[Educational institutions are] training students how to use Maya and Nuke, which is fine, but it’s not enough any more.” And this is precisely why CG Masters exists.