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Learning Animation & VFX at a University?

(edit: May 20): It has been suggested that the purpose of this post may be to “attack” universities. I thank the university gentleman for his remarks and concerns and offer the following. Quite to the contrary, this article is part of a much larger discussion which will ensure universities and other kinds of institutions improve programming to the point that they can deliver really excellent career training. We are engaged in many discussions the goal of which is to ensure that students, no matter where they choose to study, can be assured of a training regime that is likely to result in employment, unlike the current situation which sees so many degree holders in enormous debt and with low-paying jobs not related to their credential. This article seeks to inform potential students so they can be aware of the disadvantages of university training, not only the advantages advertised by the university. It equips potential students to better make important life decisions and aims to save many from spending tens of thousands of dollars on a course of training that will not be useful. Once students start avoiding certain poor university training programs (not all of them are poor, but you must do your research), the university will be obliged to either stop training in that field or to improve training. Either outcome is good for the student. Any educator, whether from the public or private sector, if truly concerned with providing good training, should see the value in this discussion. So now on to the original post:

Is your school really an animation university or visual effects university? Or is it one of those huge “towers of higher learning” that is focused more on theory and ideas than it is on practical job skills?

Universities are all about theoretical knowledge and study of the past. This is great, if you have a thirst for discovery, if you want to unlock the secrets of the universe, or better understand the nature of viral organisms. If you want to contribute to the ever-changing world of law or engineer great buildings it is essential that you study and understand the masterful works that went before you, that you get inside the heads of the great masters and understand how they thought and why they did what they did. But there is a downside to university as well. One of these is that many of the professors have spent their entire lives inside academia and have no experience in the real world. This doesn’t really matter as long as those professors are teaching topics that require no real-world experience to back them up. Another is that the university degree really doesn’t mean anything anymore. Most of us grew up being brainwashed about the absolute importance of a degree. But how many of those degree holders found themselves plucked up into the promised job upon graduation? Very few indeed. How many degree holders watched their friends who went into the trades buy a nice car as soon as they started working, followed by a house, all before he had finished his undergraduate degree?

Everybody, including universities, knows that when you need practical skills, you go to a trade school or an apprenticeship, or often both. Trade schools don’t spend time on esoteric topics; they don’t demand that you put a significant quantity of your effort and precious study hours into “academic requirements” like social sciences, languages and liberal arts. They know you are there to get job skills and that is what they focus on. They bring in instructors who have real-world job experience to teach the skills so that they can layer the simple manual skills with the years of experiences that inform exactly why something is done the way it is instead of some other way. They bring wisdom to the classroom that comes from the front lines. Universities, however, are growing businesses and it is their mandate to teach everything, if possible. So they push into realms where they really do not belong, and do a piss-poor job of it.

We were horrified recently to learn that a local university claims to teach animation skills by putting 200 students into a lecture hall and showing a PowerPoint presentation. I suppose a PowerPoint might work if you were looking at photos of an ancient ruin, or models of nuclei, but we wonder how a student is supposed to learn the principles of animation without examples of animation from the instructor followed by one-on-one mentorship with the student at a workstation; without an in-depth discussion of the subtle nuances that separate the great animation from the poor. It certainly can’t be done any other way in a real production studio which is crawling with talented professionals and workstations. I can’t imagine an animation supervisor taking a junior animator into a boardroom without workstations and trying to teach them to improve their animation by presenting a series of PowerPoint slides. The mere idea is obviously ludicrous.

So one must ask the question: Do they have any idea what they are doing? Have professors been locked up in the high towers so long that they have no concept of real world deadlines, personal workflow, time and task management, production operations and communications, team structure, hierarchical collaboration and individual responsibility? Because they certainly don’t seem to teach any of these things beyond a theoretical discussion.