Create a real world pipeline inside your classroom

Every type of learner, whether auditory, visual or kinesthetic, eventually needs real world experience to help give their learning relevance. That’s why you often hear artists say they never really understood a subject until after working at their first job for awhile. At times, the isolation of the classroom can leave students feeling like concepts are too abstract and that what they're learning has little real world context. For digital art students, such a direct connection to actual employment and the industry is often limited to internships, which can provide a vast amount of practical experience. However, some progressive digital arts schools, like the Arts and Technology (ATEC) program at the University of Texas at Dallas, succeed in creating a similar type of beneficial real world experience within the classroom. Todd Fechter and Eric Farrar are two ATEC professors who teach a course in animation called Animation Studio Production (ASP). Over the last few years, Fechter and Farrar's class has produced several high quality animated shorts entitled Sticky and FrightLight. The class is designed to expose students to a real world studio pipeline while also producing an animated short in two semesters. ASP students are taken through every phase of production from concept, layout, modeling, texturing, animation and rendering. Each of these disciplines is also an individual ATEC class, but the ASP course was designed to bring them all together in a real world pipeline setting.

Beginning with a purpose

ATEC2 The class is relatively new (just finishing up it's third year) but the purpose for creating it was clear to Fechter and Farrar from the very beginning. Fechter explains, "We wanted very much to tie everything our students had been learning to this type of [working] experience because we still think that's where you learn the bulk of what's real. Students may know how to build a model or how to rig it, but they don't really understand it fully until they're in the context of someone else using it and then coming back with information or notes." Fechter makes an important point here: such a class is intended to teach collaboration and a broader understanding of a process--essential cognitive abilities that go beyond just understanding how to operate a specific software. "We want to make sure students understand that it's more about the thought process than it is about the technology or software," Fechter continues. "It's not just about what buttons to push and when. It's about: 'What does that mean for somebody else? Can you look at it in a broader context? Is this solution better than that solution? What are you basing that evaluation on?'" Collaboration is connected to social skills like patience and empathy, and it's also an interpersonal skill usually learned most effectively while on the job working with others. There are deadlines to meet, scripts re-write, budgets to consider and all of the other pressures that force working artists to quickly learn how to cooperate with others. Real world classes like the ASP course are intended to mimic a similar production environment, giving students the same learning opportunities while in school.

Real world application

[caption id="attachment_45941" align="alignnone" width="800"]Fright_light2 Character concept drawings from FrightLight[/caption] To fill seats for the ASP course, Fechter and Farrar have structured their selection process to include a portfolio and resume-like submission, which usually consists of around 60 applicants each year. "We first have an open call for students who are interested in being part of the project," Fechter explains. "They submit some of their previous work and identify different areas that they're interested in. Then they write a little bit about their expectations for the class." From the pool of applicants, 30-35 students are chosen based upon the type of project, the students' areas of interest, and the different positions needed. "Even from the beginning," Fechter states, "we're trying to set it up like they're applying to a studio of sorts. That gets them focused on what types of work to submit and not submit and starts that whole process." Aside from student interests, expectations and portfolio quality, Farrar admits that the selection process has a practical component that considers each student's range of skill sets, a similar hiring approach for many studios. "We look for students that maybe have a secondary skill," he states. "If they're going to be an animator, maybe they also can rig. Or if they're going to model, maybe they can also do textures. That way we're able to spread their skills and responsibilities over the entire two semesters." Keeping 30 students focuses on one specific project for an entire year can be a challenging task. Large amounts of dedication, motivation and perseverance are needed. A big help with this is the class' exclusivity: only a few students are chosen, the films will be viewed by the public and screened at festivals. Therefore, there are high expectations for completing the work. Fechter believes that the submission process and exclusivity help increase student buy-in for the project.

Tossing out the first pitch

[caption id="attachment_45944" align="alignnone" width="800"]Final chameleon render from Sticky Final chameleon render from Sticky[/caption] Before the ASP class can begin work, of course, they need a story idea. During the first few years of the class's existence, the professors structured the idea selection process similar to student applications. There would be an open call for story ideas and then a pitch process. A jury of faculty members would then choose the idea they thought would lend itself best to the structure and size of the class. However, that pitch process has since been modified and extended to other avenues of idea generation. The impetus for the change centered around shifts Fechter and Farrar were seeing within the class's culture, particularly around issues of project ownership. "One of the biggest things we've struggled with in a couple of these classes is the sense of ownership that some students have when they pitch a story," Farrar explains. "We try and make it clear during the entire pitch process that they're pitching a story idea that's going to be developed by a class of your peers. We've had a couple of instances where students who've pitched the stories then went into the project thinking 'This is my project and my team of artists that are going to develop my story vision.'" ATEC3 While it's easy to understand how passion for one's idea can lead to strong feelings of ownership, such attitudes often disrupt collaboration, break down communication, create resentment or hurt feelings, all of which can severely disrupt a pipeline. To help avoid this problem, Fechter and Farrar broadened their search for story ideas to include entire classes rather than just individuals, which includes the possibility that an "author" may not even be selected for the ASP class. The instructors also began to see problems with organizing the class in a professional hierarchy. That is, one based on an actual studio structure (i.e. artist>lead>supervisor>etc.). For Fechter, the introduction of a chain-of-command into a more egalitarian class setting eventually began to create conflict. "You can introduce a professional studio hierarchy into the class structure and identify students as 'leads' or 'supervisors,' but at the end of the day they're all still just students in the same class. You can give authority to certain ones, but they really have no leg to stand on. They can't tell another student 'You need to do it this way.'" Since this realization, the professors have changed the class's organization to resemble more of a mentorship where students with more experience in the program or who've been in the ASP class before are asked to guide others in their work. Technically speaking, these mentors are not "in charge" of others, rather they listen, evaluate and make suggestions. "The mentality we take now is basically seniority," Fechter explains."We've found that that approach has worked much better in terms of building a team, instead of trying to build some kind of hierarchy." Helping support this mentorship program is the fact that students are eligible to take the ASP up to two times, typically in their junior and senior year. The two-year structure helps ensure a good sized group of seasoned mentors vs. new students. Although this mentor approach is somewhat different from real world studio structures, it seems essential to stressing the primary objective of the course, which is to teach. Studios, of course, exist to produce a profit. Managing that distinction while also showing students the realities of hierarchies seems a difficult thing to do for any program; however, Fechter and Farrar seem to have struck a effective balance by stressing students' accountability to instructors: "We've found that it's really important that all of the students know that ultimately they still answer to the faculty as opposed to a sophomore answering to a senior or a junior student...We've also developed a structure for having 2 or 3 students to serve as production managers who keep track of everything," Farrar explains. [caption id="attachment_45943" align="alignnone" width="800"]Final fly render from Sticky Final fly render from Sticky[/caption]

Strengthening pre-production

While the ATEC program is in its 10th year, the ASP course is just finishing up its third. The ASP class was designed as a kind of culmination of the variety of courses that make up the ATEC's animation department--a single class where all of the disciplines and skills coalesce and are put to "real" work. As such, the course has begun to inform the rest of the curriculum based on its specific needs. For example, Fechter and Farrar have recently seen a need to tighten up the class's story development process because their current project ate up too much time in pre-production. This called for a change in strategy, one that would have the story line and characters completely fleshed out before the first day of class. "It really helps if we're able to have the stories locked down before the class actually begins," Farrar explains. "So we can hit the ground running instead of spinning our wheels trying to develop a story." As a result, ATEC's current pre-production class has been modified to include a second level specifically devoted to fully developing ideas for the ASP project. Fechter explains, "We're taking the idea generation and pre-production design components and putting them in an actual course where an entire group of students who are interested in pre-production are working on that rather than having a huge class of 35 [ASP] students waiting to build models, rigs, etc."

Teaching software self-reliance

ATEC1 Just like all of the other faculty within ATEC's animation department, Fechter and Farrar both have studio experience. The intention is that such industry perspectives can lend a practicality to the overall pedagogical approach. However, this practicality also extends to a broader, theory-based instruction. While ASP uses mostly Autodesk software, instructors stress how to model with a capital "M" rather than just how to model in Maya. Farrar explains, "One of the things we tell students is that if their goal is to go out and work at a large studio, chances are they're going to be learning new software anyway. They may be using Maya, but they may not. They may be using some proprietary software package. It becomes less about the specifics of a particular software app and more about the process of how you learn what these things do." Farrar's point is well made: the constantly changing nature of the industry demands that digital art departments take a relatively software agnostic approach--one that stresses modeling, rigging, animating, and rendering as primary skills, independent of any particular app. The same idea can be extended to teaching itself. Effective instructors should theoretically be able to teach any subject. That's because "teaching" is really a method, a practice, a way of approaching a subject, rather than simply the presentation of information. In a very similar way, good animators will have a fundamental understanding of the process, which is completely independent of the software they're using. Fechter explains the critical thinking method that helps instill these fundamental lessons: "We ask students: 'when you don't know what the solution is, how do you work backwards and start with what you do know? How do you then build up to a solution?' Learning to be self-sufficient and self-reliant is all part of that process."

Rendering without a render farm

render farm Aside from challenges like finding better class management solutions, Fechter and Farrar, like actual studios, have to also get creative to solve more technical issues. One of these is project rendering and the massive amount of time and computational resources it requires. Although the department is currently installing its own render farm, their previous project lacked this luxury and students had to render their work locally. Of course, learning to render is part of the ASP class, so even though scheduling can often be an organizational challenge, students also learn to optimizing their workflows and work with limited resources. "It's good and bad," Fechter states. "They're basically rendering locally on different machines, and they have to figure out that process. That's about the hardest, most time-intensive way to do it. But it also forces them to be smart about what they're rendering. They don't really think about it coming in, but it plays into the whole scheme of the class in terms of being smart about what we're doing at the very beginning of the pipeline because it could potentially crush what we're doing at the end." Unsurprisingly, ASP students and faculty have found unique and creative ways to optimize their rendering process. Often this requires scheduling computer lab times for a weekend or at night or even rendering at home. Farrar describes one particular student-lead approach that's been effective: "We've actually had students who've formed a whole team of 'render wranglers' and created a rotating schedule where students will (if the lab is closed at midnight) come in around 11 p.m. and get a bunch of renders set up and going. "Then they'll have another team that comes in first thing in the morning and collect everything and get them onto our network storage drive. The rule is if you come into one of our computer labs and someone has a piece of paper on the monitor that says, 'Do not touch. Rendering.' then you don't touch it until they're able to come and free up the computer. It's a little garage bandy, but they get it done." The class uses a combination of educational and professional licenses for their production software. Some educational licenses are extended outside to students' own computers while others are limited to specific machines on campus. "Because these are student projects we're creating, we use a lot of the academic licenses," Fechter explains. "We do have some professional licenses of Maya and other software for other research projects. But for the past two ASP projects, we've been rendering out of Maya and using our educational licensed versions of Arnold and NUKE. "The nice things about the educational licenses is they're all legit. Students have their own educational licenses on their own laptops and machines, but if they're using Arnold, it has to be here in our building."

Using online learning

The animation department as a whole utilizes both in-house produced tutorials along with commercial online learning like Digital-Tutors. Currently, the department has 80 Digital-Tutors subscriptions, which are usually spread out among students taking advanced courses like Animation Studio Production. "We try and save Digital-Tutors courses mostly for our advanced students,"Farrar states. "Those who have been working in 3D for a while. They'll get access to those seats on a semester-by-semester basis." ASP students with subscriptions can then use Digital-Tutors training as a source to help find solutions to specific production problems as they come up. Many ASP students are already familiar with Digital-Tutors courses because the department uses the training to supplement other classes that are prerequisites to the course. Farrar explains how he uses Digital-Tutors to teach students how to effectively research and solve problems, "One of the things I do in one of my Advanced Rigging classes is actually have students go out and research a particular solution to a problem. If there's a particular type of character they want to rig or process they want to learn, then part of the project is to actually go into Digital-Tutors' library, do the research, work through the tutorials, do the exercises and then apply that to their own project." The major benefit to this method, Farrar believes, is in giving students the hard-won experience of following a workflow through all of its basic steps. "I can show them all the short cuts in the world," he states, "but unless they've had to struggle with the long cut first, the short cut's not going to mean anything to them." Digital-Tutors is also used to teach students the more technical sides of specific software interfaces in order to save time in class for deeper dives into subjects. Fechter explains his approach, "For instance, if we have a sculpting class and we've got a number of students we want to learn ZBrush, I don't want to sit and spend 10 weeks going over how to use the interface in ZBrush, so I offload all of that onto Digital-Tutors. Then I can use class time to talk about the methodology, approaches, anatomy and all of the stuff that makes sculpting successful or unsuccessful." Let us know what you think about the value of real world programs like these.