Thursday, 26 July 2012.

Can learning animation online be good?

A criteria of sorts for choosing the right instruction.

Can learning animation online be good?

This is an oft debated subject, especially with the rise of new online animation (and animation related) schools. Admittedly, I have a biased opinion, as I am an instructor at one of those schools.  But I am also a former student of one.  I attended Animation Mentor, back when they were the only game in town.  I was already a working animator, so I wasn’t learning from scratch, but I remember being just as excited as my own students are now.  So why did I go?  Well, like a lot of you, I was really excited to have the opportunity to take my foundational knowledge and flailing skills and kick them up a notch (or two or three).  Plus, there was the added bonus of honing my skills under the individual tutelage of a skilled and experienced artist who was working in the industry I dreamed of being a part of.  Let’s be honest, it was like a 12-week “audition” in front of each of them, and I planned to make the best of it.


Now that there are choices between competing schools, there are two angles, in my humble opinion...

 a) what they should give to you, and b) what you should give to it.


What should an online animation school give to you?


Well, there is no real definitive guide, but I can do my best to give you my four main criteria based on my view from both sides of the “podium”.


1) A wealth of focused instructional material.  At iAnimate, we have the vast collection of JRA tutorial videos that range from foundational to advanced topics, as well as all the live demo/lecture time available during the week from our instructors. Other schools offer similar content, in either live or recorded formats.  All of it is great, and based on well established animation “principals”, and the interaction with animators who spend their day producing work for large studios is an invaluable resource.  Of course, make sure it is all covering the topics you feel you need to learn about, but also, I’d say make sure it is doing it in the “way” you like to learn.  Can you watch them and practice on your own time?  Can you ask questions? Do you have access to the content in an easy to browse recording archive? Can you request certain subject matter be covered?  Will it push you in to the more advanced skill level you desire? Just be thoughtful about what you are getting and that it matches the way you learn.


2) Collaborative forum. Really, there is nothing more important, as an artist, than collaboration. Learning how to take the responses from your audience and peers and turning them in to the best performances you can is a valuable skill.  Feature quality animation is not done in a vacuum.  Working with a team and creating a product that is bigger than any one person’s idea is what it’s all about. So if the school creates a great social atmosphere, provides intuitive framework to be able to share your WIPs, and helps you learn how to provide constructive feedback, then it is the place for you!  Or, you know, me.  Or you.  You know what I mean.


3) Attentive and caring instructors. Show me an un-enthusiastic animator and I’ll show you a person who needs a new job.  Seriously, I have never met anyone in this profession that isn’t chomping at the bit to share their knowledge, tell you stories, and give you whatever feedback you ask for at any time of day.  It is difficult, I’m sure, to comb the roster of any of the online animation schools and find a crappy teacher.  So the real trick is just listening to word on the street and finding out the opinions of former students.  They will be the ones to tell you if they felt cared for as a pupil, or if they got the right amount of attention in their shot reviews. No student animator learns at the same speed, and a good staff of teachers will know how to manage their available time to make sure that each person actually learns something.  If any school is known for running out the clock and just pushing people through, that school is not a good choice, clearly.  But, as I said, none of them have the reputation of doing that, so you really have to take the time to ask around.  Maybe even drop an email to an instructor.  Getting a thoughtful reply could tell you a lot about the level of attention you’ll receive as a whole. 


4) A window to the industry.  Your ultimate goal is to get your showreel looking great, of course.  But what does it matter if no one is going to see it.  If I were choosing a school for myself right now I would want to be making sure that recruiters from major studios had their eye on it, and generally held it in good regard.  Making yourself and your talents visible is such a huge part of any time consuming endeavor like this, so making sure the school is reputable and “plugged in” to the industry is very important.  Again, it involves a bit of research on your part to find out what the statistics are on alumni employment.  But a successful school will probably do its best to brag about their alumni success stories, so that may make your choices easier.



Is there other stuff?  Of course, but not in the top four, I think.  Like, should they have great rigs for you to use? Sure. That’s a great plus. But, really, a talented animator can make me believe and existential crisis is brewing in a simple polygon cube.  Just watch the first 20 minutes of Wall-E and you’ll be a believer. ;)


There are also promotional perks, like software discounts and supplemental site memberships.  But that’s a distant second (even third) to the real reason you are enrolling; to learn.  



What should you give to an animation school?


1) Time. That’s it.  Your dedicated time.  You will not become a skilled animator by virtue of merely completing any program.  The goal of all of the online schools is to help you create the best showreel you have ever produced, and to help you find the feature level skills and workflow to hit the ground running at any studio. But if you don’t commit the time to practice, you won’t become better at your chosen instrument.  I’ve sat through many a guitar lesson, but I still suck.  I never practiced.  Something I think we all share is that we are obsessive, and spending ridiculous amounts of time inside an animation shot is not hard to do.  But make sure you can make the space in your life.  Coming to class saying “I didn’t have much time this week to work on that” doesn’t do you much good.  Work and family schedules are hard to juggle, I know.  But even if it’s for one dedicated 14-week block of time, you should try your best to reserve it for animation practice time the best you can.  It will always always ALWAYS pay off. :)


Like I said, I’m biased, and I think we have something good here at iA, on all those points.  I’m always happy to answer any questions about what we do here.  You can find me stalking the Facebook and Twitter feeds (on iA’s behalf) any old time.  Happy to chat :)


Until later...