Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Trade Education Model

The term liberal arts denotes a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities, unlike the professional, vocational, and technical curricula emphasizing specialization. The contemporary liberal arts comprise studying literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science.[1]

-- Wikipedia

I believe that the best candidates for the new entertainment marketplace are those candidates that can easily communicate their design capabilities through written, verbal and technical communication.

As I mentioned last night, working in teams that are not necessarily within your local office space, building, city or country will become the norm, and therefore communication skills which identify you as a design leader will play a role in your ability to find a senior position down the road.

Frankly, it's too early to tell for many of you how far you will go in the business. Many of you will work for five years and find linked careers in human resource management, production management, scientific connective industry, telecommunications, and education. Production, unless to traverse the ladder quickly, tends to burn you out on long 80 hour weeks after about five years.

The key is traversing the supervisory ladder quickly, and those skills that will best serve you are rooted in the liberal arts.


Most trade-focused baccalaureate programs allow for at least 45 units of liberal arts study. Masters program do not, providing just a handful of units designed to provide you with critical or analytical thinking related to your specific field.

Missing most notably in the liberal training core is mathematics, physics and programming languages. I truly believe that in order to float on the technical sea of the New VFX Age, you must be fluent in at least two non-English languages (Mandarin!) and two computer languages (C++, Python). I have seen many modeling and rigging candidates turned away because they failed
Python and Linux tests at the door.


I think it behooves you to get that training any way you can. You can learn Mardarin, C++ and Python through fairly inexpensive commercial means. The downside is that you won't have a mentor. Sometimes having a mentor in the initial stages of your learning process is essential to get you past the unknown and into the known. Once you're comfortable with your goals, you'll move along your path with pace.


After working for nearly seven years in an accredited program, I found that onsite candidates far outpaced their online counterparts. For years I searched for an answer, assessing the delivery model (the learning management system or more commonly, the LMS), demo video quality, and lecture content of the online courses.

Having taught a very successful advanced VFX course on campus, I had a pretty good idea of what was missing from the online experience. Every year we had nearly a thousand entries from campus students in our departmental show. Every year we'd get a handful of successful online entries, and ALL from the illustrative side, in visual development.

Why? As Director of the program, I'd tear my hair out trying to figure out what the essential differences were.

The idea of working from your home for four years in a degree-seeking trade track has always been mind-boggling to me. I would routinely encourage my online-only candidates to start online, but leave and come to San Francisco to study. There is no substitution for studio collaborative training. There is a dynamic between artists and supervision, the kind of culture that you see in the market, training that you cannot get alone, by yourself, in your bedroom.

The idea that the part-time artist, working full-time, raising a family, keeping their own schedule seemed at cross-purposes to the amount of training necessary to dedicate in order to enter the MOST competitive marketplace in the world. I would observe that the average festival winner would spend nearly 1,000 hours on a project, in the lab and at home at night after lab closure.

The ability to dedicate clear time to a project was one of the keys in the disparity. If you can't find a clear creative space, both physically and emotionally, you can't truly find a path to design solution, not to mention technical troubleshooting.

There was one clear reason. Here is another.

Artists observe. We push one another to achieve greater understand of our craft. This synergy allows for rapid growth in artistic collaborative areas, like animation and post-production. Without the synergy, you simply have a series of unlinked exercises.

So what was the biggest difference between online and onsite?
Synergy. Plain and simple.

Surely, if you are a painter or a photographer or a trainee in one of the classic
beaux-arts, you can get by in an online training universe. A classic sculptor might need to see his colleague's material in order to assimilate competitive skills acquisition, for example, but unless his or her work is installation-based, requiring a team, a sculptor might grow in an online training environment.

Not so with a collaborative studio environment. A modeler must work with a surfacing artist and a rigger in order to solve for a particular shot or character design in an entertainment/story-driven project. A compositor must understand how the matchmove will serve the set-extensions in the digital matte painting to be inserted in a sequence of shots. A set of "live", dailies-based, collaborative communication skills must go hand-in-hand with the technical training in order to be ready to join the market at the finish of any degree plan.

Synergy. That's what's truly missing. Sure, dedicated time is essential. You must have calendar space in order to provide the 15 or so hours per week per core course. Beyond that, you need the studio culture benefit of synergistic observational experience. Just seeing the best of the best work around you is key to inspiration and success. The ability to incorporate valuable approaches, approaches that you had not thought of, approaches that your instructor did not reveal, is absolutely part of the studio culture.

Dodging the larger question of how you find the enormous amount of clear time to dedicate to your project training, how do you go about adding synergy to any training path, whether online, hybrid or onsite?

This question answered in my next installment.

Be well.


  1. Do you think internships are a good alternative to studying on campus? My internship helped me understand your VFX 1 course better. There's nothing like seeing all of those cookies and barn doors close up on a sound stage and knowing from the class reading that the lights are extremely hot, so be extra careful or just keep a safe distance all together.

  2. I'm not sure what you mean, by alternative.

    There is no true alternative to in-studio training in the arts, unless you have years of time and a willing master to apprentice with.

    The sophisticated process of design synthesis requires some sort of guidance, by instructor or mentor. Realistically, industry mentors prefer some sort of qualification in prime skill sets in their mentees... otherwise the nuances of practical training are not only lost on the uninitiated, but the mentorship/internship process is more cumbersome.

    Before the advent of trade schools, you had simple apprenticeship. Perhaps this is what you mean. Nowadays, there is no time/budget for such roles. Internships are only awarded to students in accredited programs. An intern is not allow to perform in a role that could be remunerated at the hosting company. There are very strict rules governing internships, the hours assigned to interns/week, and other non-performance training expectations.

    While an internship is a necessary complement to a campus education, you are essentially comparing apples to oranges.

    Train in liberal arts and within your discipline. Do this at an accredited college or university, trade or otherwise. When you are ready, apply for internships that will help you place your training in context.