Here’s how you can learn VFX in a real studio production environment

Vancouver’s CG Masters School of 3D Animation & VFX teaches more than just the tools.

A common issue raised by animation and visual effects studios when they are recruiting is that although new artists do tend to know the software, what these artists don’t always know is how to work at a studio production level.

That’s something artists can learn from experience, definitely. But where they can also gather key production experience is from a school that is actually set up as a production environment day-to-day.

CG Masters School of 3D Animation & VFX in Vancouver is set up in just this way. It’s an approach co-founder Nicholas Boughen decided to implement after working as a CG supervisor and later visual effects supervisor at various studios.

Students at CG Masters engage in practical shoots and a real-world production environment.

“I spent many years recruiting and training teams for film, TV and commercial VFX production,” he says. “During that time, I learned that schools taught how to use the software tools, but not how to do the job. We found that the quickest and most effective way to get new people up to speed on production procedures was to simply dump them into production, with a mentor, buddy or leader for support. So naturally when we started the school, it made sense to use this same approach.”

Boughen suggests it’s a bit like teaching someone to use a hammer, saw and tape measure and then letting them loose to build a house. “There is so much about building a house that one can only learn from building a house with others who have already done it many times. Experience counts, big time.”

Nicholas Boughen is the co-founder and director of education at CG Masters School of 3D Animation & VFX.

How the practical experience actually works

So how do students at CG Masters get that experience? It works like this: students spend three terms (one full year) in the VFX program, for example. The first term is spent studying production theory, in other words, learning the language, processes and technique of a collective production system.

Then in terms 2 and 3, “they put this knowledge into practice,” says Boughen. “Students will work as a team on a production project where assets are built by being handed from student to student (department to department), where assets are animated, shaded, lit, rendered and composited by different team members and where they experience review processes known as dailies and rounds to complete tasks by deadline.”

Students review a shot they are working on as a team.

An added component is access to on-set experience with cameras, greenscreens, lighting and studio equipment. The idea, of course, is to replicate a real-world shooting and then post-production environment. And it continues each day. In fact, when students arrive at the school each morning they view their task tracker to see what tasks they have to complete that day.

“The tasks will be tackled in priority order and, once all the notes are complete, will be submitted to the dailies folder for a review,” outlines Boughen. “This is pretty much how it is done in production.”

A production shoot underway.

Tools of the trade

While they’re immersed in a practical training environment, students at CG Masters also have access to essentially the same off-the-shelf tools utilized in studios around the world. This includes Houdini, Maya, Katana, Renderman, Nuke, Modo, Mari and Substance.

The hardware set-up consists of workstations with dual monitors and Wacom tablets. Plus – and this likely won’t come as a surprise – the instructors at CG Masters are all experienced industry professionals, so students are trained from those who have been right there in the field.

Students participate in a talk at CG Masters with ILM senior compositor Luke Vallee.

The production experience mandate at CG Masters also extends to other areas, such as render farm management. “Students learn the proper, responsible use of our render farm, good render management and optimization,” explains Boughen.

“Important data is prohibited from being saved on local workstations. All students are required to use specified network locations which are backed up nightly and secure. We reinforce this by routinely re-imaging student workstations, so if they had something important saved on the desktop, it’s gone forever. It’s a great lesson to learn at school. We’d rather not have them learn it on the job.”

Software used at high-end VFX and animation studios is also used at CG Masters.

Ready for work

Boughen believes students graduating from CG Masters leave with both technical skills and something much more powerful – an understanding of the role of a commercial artist, including the idea of being cost effective.

“When a student takes this philosophy to heart, they start to make all their decisions with cost-effectiveness in mind, making them faster than everyone around them. They will learn other very practical aspects of production, such as good file and folder naming convention, good time and task management, and the overarching directive, ‘deliver or communicate’.”

You can find out more about how to study at CG Masters School of 3D Animation & VFX by checking out their website: https://cg-masters.com/.

And keep an eye on befores & afters for more from the school, including tutorials, profiles on past students and tips and tricks for getting a head start to working at a VFX or animation studio.

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