3dRender.com Schools and Training in 3D
by Jeremy Birn
  Note: I am trying to add pages to my site that cover most of the issues that I am asked about by e-mail; after "how do I get a job" the issue of "where do I get training" seems like the #2 most popular issue.
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Try Before You Buy

It would be stupid to spend years getting a specialized degree in something you don't really like doing, or to discover late in your education that you're in the wrong school.

Before you apply to schools or training programs in computer graphics, be sure to give the process a try yourself.  It's easy to get started with the free trial versions of leading professional programs like Maya, Softimage XSI, or Houdini.  If you find learning and working with these programs to be fun, even addictive, then you are probably interested in the right field.

A Brave New World

Ten years ago, there weren't many training programs specialized in 3D graphics. Most art schools couldn't afford the expensive hardware and software (costing tens of thousands of dollars per seat) that were required in order to run professional 3D graphics software.

I was very lucky in 1994 to be at the Art Center College of Design, which because of its Industrial Design and Vehicle Design programs had a great Silicon Graphics computer lab.  The lab was funded and intended for the Design departments, but I was fortunate (as a Film major) to get access to all that hardware and software, gaining experience  with Alias and Softimage software, and working in a UNIX environment.  Most of the courses taught there were in industrial design.  I had to learn most of what I learned there on my own, but the access itself was extremely valuable.

By 2004, driven by the cheapness of personal computers that can now be used to run professional 3D software, and the appeal of computer graphics and animation among art students around the world, computer graphics training has grown into a huge industry unto itself.

In some areas, computer graphics training is a larger industry than computer graphics production.

Schools and training programs are selling a dream to tens of thousands of aspiring young artists that they will be able to work in animation or visual effects - even though the supply of aspiring students greatly exceeds the number of new jobs that are really open to them.

Today there are classes (as well as books and DVDs) covering all sorts of specialized tasks that used to be primarily self-taught a few years ago.  Schools today offer classes in organic modeling, 3D lighting, texture mapping, digital matte painting, compositing, and other specialized tasks that most of today's working professionals had to learn on their own.

If you do go through one of these curricula, remember how many other students are getting the same classes!  It's up to you to somehow stand out from the crowd, and you will ultimately be judged not by how well you did in your courses, but by how far you went beyond what everyone else was being taught.  (If all you did was work hard enough to earn A's, that by itself wouldn't ensure that you had a great demo reel or the skills that got you a good job.)

No school will get you a job automatically.  When I hear some students complaining bitterly about the training programs they attended, I have to wonder if their own actions and decisions aren't equally to blame for their situation.  Training centers are businesses, and as with any purchase, the rule is "buyer beware."

Touring Other Fields

Most people working in leading studios today did not get a degree in Computer Arts.  Most majored in something else, from related fields such as Computer Science or Fine Arts, to tangents like Robotics, Linguistics, or Psychology.  Most of today's working professionals are self-taught in the software they use today.

If your own strengths or interest lead you to take another route into the industry, by way of developing your programming or art skills first, that will give you an advantage over students who have only been through a Computer Arts curriculum.  You could always complement these degrees with some training in 3D graphics on a shorter-term basis - entering a Computer Arts program with really strong existing art skills or computer skills would give you a huge advantage over the rest of the crop of students.  Most of the students chosen for the most desirable internships at the top studios had previous Computer Science degrees before going to art school.

There are a lot of different kinds of people working in computer graphics, with a diverse range of skills and backgrounds.  If you have art skills you can develop, go for it.  If you love working with computers but don't really feel like an artist, there are lots of positions for talented programmers, or you could get really good at the technical side of tasks like character rigging or dynamic simulation.  Best of all, many of the jobs in computer graphics call on multiple talents: people need both an artist's eye and creative problem-solving skills on the computer, and actually get to exercise both halves of their brains at work.  In short, any art skills, and any tech skills, can be a big "plus" for you, so you should explore how far you can go (or want to go) in those directions.

Location, Location, Location.

Location is one of the biggest factors in choosing a school.  As a general rule, the closer to an industry center the better.  In a city with many animation, effects, and game companies you are more likely to have instructors who are currently working professionals and teach classes in evenings or Saturdays.  Being local to companies will help you set up internships more easily.  There are SIGGRAPH local chapter events in "industry towns" like San Francisco and Los Angeles that meet monthly to present information about recent productions and let you make connections with industry professionals, as well as events hosted by leading software companies with local users groups.  Extra connections with the industry are a huge advantage when looking for work, even if your contacts are just your fellow students who graduated a year or two before you and found work in a local company.

Location also influences the cost of your education: what you spend on travel can really add up, and some cities (like San Francisco) have much higher costs of living for basics like food and rent than you may be used to.

Size Matters.

It's always an uphill battle to work in computer graphics if you are in too small a program.  There might not be good classes in specific areas like compositing or texture painting, or you might not have access to all of the hardware, software, and facilities that you need.  Worse than that, you might not have many like-minded students interested in the same things that you are.

On the other hand, some large schools are run like businesses that can tend to treat students like cattle, whereas at smaller art colleges you can usually expect more personal attention, even from the administration.  If you do attend a very large school, be sure to ask about issues such as class size to make sure you'll be getting enough individual attention.

What About Length?

Is an intensive, one-year training program enough?  Two years?  Do you need a full four-year degree program?  What about graduate school?  You have a lot of choices of different kinds of degrees (BA, MFA, etc.)

Higher education is usually an investment that pays off in the long run (see the statistics), so going for a full undergraduate degree, and possibly even a graduate degree, can be a smart choice that better prepares you for your career.  Spending more years studying computer graphics increases the chances that you'll have time to both learn the software and also make some great material for your demo reel.

For many people, going to a 4-year college after High School is a part of growing up, developing personally and socially in ways that go beyond just job skills.  Even if you were successful in rushing through a brief training program and into the job market with no college degree, that "success" might mean spending what could have been your college years working slavish hours in the darkened confines of a game company with mostly male coworkers.

On the other hand, four-year degree programs can cost far more than shorter programs, and often require a large number of academic courses (courses in regular subjects such as Math or English) that duplicate what you could have taken at a community college for a fraction of the price.  Some students prefer to get their academic or other courses taken care of in a school that is more cost effective (or has higher academic standards), and then pursue graduate or second bachelors degrees in computer graphics.   In many 4-year undergraduate programs, students don't get started with 3D graphics courses until some time in the second year.

If you already have a good background in computers and/or art, then a short program allowing you to learn more about the software and really get cranking on your portfolio and demo reel.  Short programs cost considerably less than longer-term degree programs, and usually are more focused on computer graphics and art, without including many general academic courses.  If you were always the kid who drew pictures and was good at art, or if you were always a computer wiz, then rushing through a brief programs might be enough to get some good work on your demo reel, if you really crank.  If you're trying to go as fast as you can, you can also give yourself a head start by doing some 3D work at home before you go to the school.

Like all your decisions, this really comes down to knowing yourself.  If school just isn't for you, and you want to get out of school and into real life as soon as possible, then jumping into a brief, focused computer graphics education could be the right choice for you.  If you feel like you could learn more, produce better work for your demo reel, and give yourself a bigger head start by going to a University for four years and if needed going to graduate school afterwards, then that could be what's right for you.

"It's The Students, Stupid!"

Above all else, the most important part of a school is the students.  Most of the people you will get to know, work with, and even learn from, will be the other students at your school.

If you visit a school you're considering attending, be sure to break away from any tours or presentations and spend time speaking with the students who are working in the computer lab.  Ask them about how flexible they can be in choosing their classes, whether the freshman classes are as good as the classes they are waiting to take later on, how they like the teachers, what kind of access they get to facilities they need to do their work, and any other advice you can get about whether you want to go to that school.  Also take a look at the work the students are doing, think about how professional it seems to you, and whether that's the sort of work you're hoping to do.  Your impressions of the students and their work are far more important than anything you can guess from looking at the curriculum or materials presented by the Admissions department.

 

 

Copyright © 2004 by Jeremy Birn, www.3dRender.com. "Make Links, Not Copies!"