Vanarts Summer Intensive
This summer, I made the decision to finally attend a summer animation program. After much research, I decided to attend the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts‘ (Vanarts) Character Animation Summer Intensive. Even though it was located at the farthest point possible from my home in Orlando, Fl, USA, it was still well worth the trip– I count it as one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.
I haven’t seen any reviews on the summer program, so I figured it would benefit other prospective students if I wrote an honest, comprehensive review. Initially, it was between the Vanarts’ program and another program at Parsons in New York. I can say with full confidence that I choose Vanarts instead thanks to a fantastic first impression from Ken Priebe, who (I believe) was head of admissions at the time. I had a lot of questions, and I used the Chat Live feature of their website and ended up speaking to Ken. Not only was he able to answer every excessive question I had in accurate detail, but he was also friendly and patient with my barrage of geeky questions. After speaking to him, I had full confidence that the Vanarts summer program was run by professionals with great intentions. I was even encouraged to contact the wonderful head of the animation program, Wayne Gilbert, who promptly answered questions and cleared any remaining fears about the value of program.
(For those curious, the Parsons program didn’t live up to my hopes in the least. The advisors I spoke to were incredibly rude, had no knowledge of the program at all, and just wanted my money. To this date, my e-mail requests to the program heads/teachers for more information are still unanswered. I found out eventually on my own that the animation teacher had no animation experience, and was simply going to teach us how to tween in Flash. No thanks.)
I arranged for accomodations for the duration of the month long program through Marilyn Bell of Bell Accomodation Services. I whole-heartedly recommend her if you’re looking for a place to stay in Vancouver. Not only is she one of the sweetest, most helpful people I’ve ever met, but the house itself was great. I had a wonderful month living across the street from the Commercial & Broadway Skytrain station.
On a side note, I made the mistake of flying to Canada using United Airlines. Never, ever again. The flight attendants were rude, the planes were incredibly old, the in-flight entertainment was awful (The Last Song was the movie both there and back), and there were NO free in-flight snacks– on a 5 hour flight. You, the captive prisoner, had to buy an expensive, awful snack box if you were to survive the trip. Next time, I’m flying Canada Air.
I arrived in America’s Hat the evening before classes began. Jetlag aside, the first week was a little rough: Vanarts had just moved to a new building so technical difficulties abounded. Originally, our teacher was slated to be Wayne Gilbert, so initially we were surprised to find industry vet Sarah Taylor as our teacher instead. All our fears were quickly rendered null and void– Sarah was an absolutely fantastic teacher, but more on that later. My fellow students in the class were not only wonderful people from far away lands such as myself (Australia, Brazil, Korea, Japan, Mexico, & the US), but talented, driven artists and creators in their own right. I felt so blessed to be in a room with so much talent, hoping every day some osmosis effect would take place. Not only did we study together, but we also socialized together at lunch, after class, and on the weekends. We bonded over Fresh Slice, the greatest pizza ever made. My dear Fresh Slicers, I miss you.
We immediately jumped into 2D animation, our main focus for the first half of the program. I used an animation desk for the first time! Discs! Pegholes! Pencil tests! Red & blue pencils! It was every traditional animation geek’s dream come true. I even finally learned how to flip paper. We were all enthusiastic for traditional animation, so we plowed ahead and tackled as much as we could. We animated a ball bounce, a pendulum swing, waving seaweed, a walk cycle, and a box jump. Sarah was always encouraging and incredibly helpful in helping me see how to fix the problems I was stumped on. I finally understand things that I now consider to be vital skills for animation– research and planning. With the meticulous nature of 2D, planning was a lifesaver. I planned out all my keyframes and movement before each project. It was vital to me understanding the movement and goal of the action. Of course, we filmed reference for our shots too, and reviewed those heavily while preparing our shots.
In addition to regular classes, we had some wonderful bonus lectures: Every Wednesday afternoon was dedicated to live life drawing with Clint Morris as our teacher. For the record, Clint Morris is hands-down the best life drawing teacher I have ever had. Ever. I can see the massive improvement that only four classes with him have made on my life drawing skills. I have some new portfolio pieces to scan in and upload now. On Fridays, we had great classes from both Wayne Gilbert (in weight and 3D animation workflow) and Ken Priebe (stop-motion). “Intensive” was a really accurate description of the program.
We also had an inspiring visit from Bill Matthews, retired animator and former Manager of Artist Development from Disney Animation Studios. We were lucky to have two lectures from him, along with a fantastic portfolio review. He said that I had natural talent and a great sense for color and character design, and that I needed to be applying to studios. After viewing all the pieces, he absolutely loved my work and even said “I could just sit here and look through your stuff all day”. I was elated. He was full of genuine support and enthusiasm for my work– it was a major changing point for me, inspiring me to have the confidence to apply to real studio jobs. It was such an honor to have someone as experienced and bluntly honest as Bill view my work and not only like it, but also encourage me to work in a professional capacity and get the heck out of Florida. As he was leaving, I mentioned to him how much I admired the fact that he worked as an animator for NASA, and how my grandfather used to work there as an engineer on the Saturn V and other Cool Stuff. He asked if he was still alive, and I replied sadly that he wasn’t. As he began to walk away, he turned and said with a smile, “I’ll be sure to say hi to him for you when I get there.” That’s the endearing, quirky humor of Mr. Bill Matthews.
My original dream/goal of attending a summer program was to learn the fundamentals of 2D and continue on my own when I returned home. Imagine my surprise to walk away from Vancouver with an intensive love of 3D and desire to continue working in Maya. The first week in 3D was difficult for me– while I had some tiny bit of experience in Maya from when I took class 1 of Animation Mentor a year or two back, I was never fully comfortable in the program. It was frustrating to go from 2D, where everything was entirely under the control of my pencil, to 3D. This is where Sarah’s teaching really shined– she was originally a traditional animator who switched over to 3D, so her workflow and perspective on animation was something I could understand. Our assignments included a ball bounce, a character walk, box jump, and a box lift.
At the beginning of the final week, something finally clicked. I found an appealing free model of a monster (Beeboy), and I could visualize exactly how I’d want him to move. It made sense! I animated each part of him step by step, following all of Sarah’s advice (mixed in with a bit from Wayne too– He gave me a wonderful alternative to working in stepped mode). When I finished roughing out the animation, Sarah taught me how to clean up my curves in the graph editor. Once again, another light bulb came on. When I finished up my monster, I moved on to animating a dinosaur walk for fun. I tried to manage my time to get as much as I could out of my final week– I stayed after class, and managed to get my monster walk fully rendered with lights, cameras, and all that fanciness (thanks to Sarah and Min!). With their help, I learned how to adjust lights, cameras, and render on my own. It was unbelievable– All I wanted to do was continue animating and working in 3D. I spent one morning fiddling cleaning up a 2D assignment, and then jumped back into 3D. I finally felt completely comfortable and capable in Maya, all thanks to our amazing teacher.
On the last two days of class, Sarah worked some crazy voodoo magic and arranged for us to visit two studios: Next Level Games (makers of Super Mario Strikers for Wii) and the visual fx house Image Engine (District 9). It was wonderful seeing two different production environments in action. While I do love games, working in film is definitely my goal, so I personally enjoyed visiting Image Engine more. Their HR recruiter was by far one of the nicest I had ever met, and definitely made the impression that it was a great place to work. We received tons of great information from both companies, and I know that’s going to come in handy as we all venture out into the industry.
All in all, it was a fantastic experience. Vancouver was a beautiful (though slightly expensive) city to live in. Public transportation was cheap and easy to use, so I was able to really get out and see everything. It really is Hollywood North– one day we even caught the tv show Fringe (one of my favorites!) filming a few blocks from the school. Vanarts was an excellent school, and if I had been braver when I was younger, I would have gone directly there instead of UCF. All of the staff genuinely cared about the students, and they had a wealth of knowledge and experience that they were happy to share with anyone who was interested. Best of all, I never felt like I was there only to be sold to– There was never any push or pressure to join the one year animation program. The summer course wasn’t a 30 day advertisement for the full program; it was a genuine experience to learn and enjoy animation as much as was possible in the short four week span.
In the weeks that have followed, I have continued animating in Maya all by myself. I believe that this is the career I want to have. I love it.
This was one of the best decisions I have ever made. If you’re thinking about doing the same, jump in. You won’t regret it.
And finally, here’s my completed 3D work from the summer intensive.