Haz reflects on his experience of education institutions which teach VFX courses and explains why some people interested in a career in the VFX industry may be better off not attending University
I’ve visited a lot of education institutions: colleges, universities - which teach Visual Effects courses where I’ve given guest lectures or “recruitment talks” to students about the Visual Effects industry. I’ve realised that more and more places are offering VFX courses to their students.
I’m not going to talk about specific establishments here but instead I’m going to talk about my general experiences.
Observations from my Visits
Many of the faculties I visited were not the well-established universities renowned for providing Visual Effects courses, and yet these less high profile facilities were often kitted out with the latest hardware, beautifully designed work areas, Red Epic Cameras, Green screen studios and even motion capture!
Often this was as a result of government funding, but I realised as I was shown round may of these places that most of these resources were not being used or were empty. Typically I would be told that they get used by the lecturers or occasionally by some of the high caliber students who take a particular interest in Visual Effects.
When I looked at some of the curriculums and course content of the places I visited, I was surprised to find that the level of knowledge wasn’t what I expected. There seemed to me to be a lack of industry-standard learning and my feeling was that students weren’t getting value for money with their course fees.
Is Studying VFX at University Worth the Money?
Some students that I have met have questioned the value of VFX courses at university. Perhaps it would be better to spend less money there and train at FXPHD or Gnome rather than an educational faculty. Particularly as Hardware - including high end machines and tools - is becoming more affordable and the educational license for the tools is free, making them both increasingly accessible.
Some may argue that going to University means that while you are going to obtain a degree, depending on the type of student that you are your drive to do projects during weekends and evenings etc, there’s a danger that you’ll just come out of university with a bunch of material provided by lecturers, an “OK” show-reel from your final year project and a certificate.
Main Problems Perceived
These are the main problems I’ve come across in VFX education so far:
1. The lecturers tend to be academics, with little recent experience of working in the industry
2. The courses are sometimes based on dated material. They should be using current or at least future-proof material if they’re going to produce students who can work in the industry
3. Final year projects are examined by academics as opposed to external advisers and industry experts
4. Students typically aren’t prepared for the VFX industry. They have no idea how to approach studios, put their reel together or work inside a typical Visual Effects house
There are a number of viable solutions, but - largely due to the politics of the educational system - potential improvements either take too long to implement, are ignored or don’t make it through the red tape - sadly hindering the students and their career prospects.
I am however, going to share a number of potential solutions for educational establishments.
1. Have course materials reviewed by an industry expert; VFX supervisor, senior artist etc.
2. Liaise with a VFX facility/ studio and create a partnership, as DNEG and Framestore have done in the past. This has produced high quality graduates who go straight into film-based projects at those studios
3. Get in touch with the likes of Skill-Set in order to ensure the course is accredited by them. This not only ensures your course material is vetted and updated, but also reassures students and gives them confidence in the course when they sign up
4, Organize for guest lectures to come in and talk to students. Even better, get in touch with a VFX house and arrange studio visits
What the educational faculties must do is look at what the successful VFX training sites/ studios are doing (FXPD, Gnome, Escape Studios etc.) and take note that those students are walking away with updated skills and experience, allowing them to get a job right away as opposed to starting-off as a runner. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with being a runner first, but when you have paid out 20k worth of student loans then you want to be able to go straight into a paying job - even if it’s a relatively junior position.
I also feel that there are many lecturers in educational facilities who want to push the courses to be up to date and liaise with the industry but are often restricted by internal politics, and held back by the “traditional” approach taken by many academics who tend to be focused on student numbers, to the detriment of course content and relevance.
Things need to change to allow students to receive the highest standards of VFX training, as they will become the next generation of creatives, and will help bolster the country’s economy as visual effects work becomes increasingly important in all areas of motion picture production (Film, TV, game cinematic, commercials, corporates etc.). Similarly, studios and VFX houses rely on new talent being able to execute projects to the required standards.
Advice to Those Aspiring to work in VFX
My advice to future students, or anyone looking to enroll on a Visual Effects, Animation or CG course, is to make a checklist of the things mentioned in this article. Go to open days and ask the representatives the percentage of graduates to go straight into a studio job, and find out the level of industry experience of the lecturers.
If you just want to get straight into working in the industry and have both the drive and passion, you can always enroll on the online courses and use websites such as the FXGUIDE and The Art of VFX to keep up to date with the latest technical trends. You should also download the educational licenses of the tools; Autodesk and the Foundry both offer these for you to access easily. Finally, there are also Forums where you can interact with other artists and also studio professionals for advice and critique of your work.
Conversely, if you are not quite as self-disciplined and motivated - not everyone is - or perhaps want to experience university life then you can always try places such as Escape Studios or apply for Universities with the industry track record such as Ravensbourne, Bournemouth and Hertfordshire.
Just remember: it’s your future, your education and there is no right way to obtain your Visual Effects Training, so take your time and do your research to find an option to truly suit you and your lifestyle.