Thursday, July 25, 2013

Animation Training - Theory or Practice?

What price this piece of paper?
Yesterday's post by Steve generated a lot of thoughtful opinion on what exactly a degree in animation is worth. One of the problems that Universities face in teaching animation is what, precisely, they ought to be teaching. Should they focus on academic content, mostly of a theoretical nature, or should they teach practical, technical skills? No university likes being called a trade school, and "training" is something of a dirty word, as it sits uneasily with the academic aspirations of a Liberal Arts education. A BA is, or should be, a guarantee of reflective, critical analysis.

In practice though, what most students sign up for (or imagine they are signing up for) is proper training in the latest technical skills. Specifically, most students want training that, at the end of three years of study, will get them a job. 

So which is better? Theory or Practice? Animation professionals David Davis and Sterling Sheehy face off in the debate.

David Davis: I think animation degrees (at least the UK) are pretty much useless. They take the idea of teaching theory over practice knowledge way too far. The joke I like to make is that they teach you what a keyboard and mouse are. Then show you a Pixar movie and ask you to replicate it.

Animation is an interesting field. It's artistic and creative but there's a strong technical side to it too. In the case of 2D animation it's an understanding of motion mechanics. In the case of computer 2D and 3D then the technical side is extremely challenging. So you really do have to be good at having an artistic brain and translating that into the technical computer environment.

Any teaching you receive has to teach both the ability to be artistic but also the technical mechanics of how to transfer what you have in your minds eye to paper, computer screen or whatever medium you're using.

Sterling Sheehy: I think the problem here is that these trade school factories have degraded the general concept of a degree. Neither do their certificates prove academic merit nor skill proficiency. They are doing a real dis-service to their students and the community as a whole. They are clearly just robbing these kids and then setting them up for crushing failure.

As for training, I think the big fail in most of these schools is that they teach software and not core skill sets. Students waste all of their time trying to navigate Maya's interface. It is a complete waste of time because, by the time they get out, the software is outdated. If you ask me I think students should learn software on their own time and not be allowed to use it in their work unless they show proficiency. The focus should be on content, theory and execution.

David Davis: I have to disagree. Skills from one software package are easily transferable to others. The real problem if that if real employers are looking at showreels to decide if a student is skilled. Then students with lots of working theory but unable to show it in a reel will struggle to find employment. 

Speaking as someone who went through the idealised education you described, it's no fun applying to companies with poorly polished work because you simply don't really know technically how to make things looked polished in the software. The idea of not being allowed to use Maya while learning and then being expected to somehow throw together a good enough showreel for employment after just doesn't work. I ended up working doing night shift stacking shelves in Sainbury's and spending my days spending even more more on self-learning materials even after getting a First Class Degree at university. 

All the feedback I was getting from companies was that "my skill level wasn't high enough". After that, I finally got a position at the dizzy heights of making minimum wage (less than I got as a shelf stacker) as a runner in a company making teas, coffees, and being a cleaner. Being allowed to work on projects in my own time after hours. I'd have LOVED to have been taught skills in Maya."

Sterling: Yeah but that's the thing with Maya and massive programs like it. It's impossible to master the entire thing. There is a reason people can spend their entire careers focused on just one sliver of it. Even if a student masters one aspect of it, the parts they don't know will doom them. This is why so many kids have ugly reels. 

The way I see it, if somebody majors in English Literature we expected that they can already read and write. The same should be said for animation; if your don't know the basic workings of the medium, you really shouldn't be there. It makes a lot more sense to do a bunch of tutorials on your own time and then apply for a program.

David Davis: From my personal experience by our second year of university. Most of us knew what we wanted to do. Some animators, some modelers and texturers, some compositors. But that didn't really matter since we weren't really allowed to choose to do those things. They were too busy teaching in abstract.

Bear in mind that not everyone on the course even needed to learn animation. We had 2D animators aged 35 to 50 studying with us that had tried to learn alone, but kept getting stuck. They had joined for the tuition as much as the degree (which they didn't get). Most of the older students all dropped out because they weren't getting help with the digital side of the learning.

By our third year this phrase became common: "I don't have time to do my uni work, I need to work on my showreel work." I think something has gone terribly wrong if people have decided they don't have time for their education, because they need to to put time into actual helpful work.

I think most students are clever enough to know to focus on an aspect of the industry to learn in, but right now, many universities don't even get you that far. For students that don't know what they want to focus on, they'd have that problem whether or not they were self teaching or not. 

(Editor's Note: You can see David Davis's work here, and Sterling Sheehy's work here. As always, feel free to add your comments on the debate below - we welcome your thoughts!)

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