Monday, April 18, 2011

Workshop 3 Notes

Just finished Workshop 3, and it took me a week to recover from it. It has been a challenging experience as it was focused on acting, especially on the face, and it required a big change in my way of thinking. I feel like I've learned a lot but also that I've only scratched the surface.

Apart from the subject matter, another difference I noticed from the previous workshop was the composition of the class. Most of my classmates were already working professionals, most of them with quite a bit of experience under their belts, attending iA to finese their skills further. As far as I know, only three out of ten of us were pure students, the rest are already working in the industry. iA doesn't impose as many entry barriers for working animators as they don't have to start the program from the beginning. They can plug directly into the workshop that best suits their skill level. I believe this is the main reason why we have such a high percentage of working pros and alumni from other schools. This was an added challenge because I felt like I had to push harder the whole time, just to keep up. It was great having all these people with experience around, it helps a lot when one's classmates know what they are talking about but it was a bit intimidating as well. I guess everyone would react differently to it, but because of that, and despite the generaly more relaxed approach of the school, I felt a dose of self imposed pressure throughout the workshop. I think all people have a degree of competitivness to them, some more some less, and we can't help but keep comparing ourselves to our peers, consciously or subconsciously, and strive to do better. I had to be out of my comfort zone a lot but I can't complain because I feel that I've learned from the work of my peers almost as much as from my instructor.

One practical issue that I encountered was how much the lighting can change the perceived mouth shapes and the lip sync. Normaly, I wouldn't worry about lighting and rendering my shots, I would just playblast them. However, my playblasts are usually done with the default lighting in Maya's viewport, which doesn't cast shadows and falls pretty much straight on. As soon as I would change the direction of the light, the combination of shading and shadow would change what my mouth shapes look like. What I ended up doing is submitting my animation as a playblast as well as a fully lit and rendered sequence, to ensure that I get notes from the instructor on what the shot will look like in its close to final form. It could be just me, but I feel there is a progression of the level of detail that I can detect in motion, going from a normal playback in Maya's viewports, shooting playblasts and rendered shots. With each level I am able to notice more and finer issues with my shots. So now, I make sure to test-light and render everything, to try and flush out as many issues as I can before I finish my shots.

Assignment 2:

Assignment 1:

These are best watched full screen, but Blogger's YouTube gadget doesn't seem to allow that.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Overwhelmed with the learning material

Coming into a brand new program like ianimate I never expected to be overwhelmed with the amount of available learning material. I knew that Jason will be giving out his full set of existing tutorials and webinars when I join, but I completely underestimated the size of it all.

What's more is that the material is growing at a very fast pace. The main reason for that are the Q&A sessions. Sometimes they are just Q&As as the name suggests, but more often they take the form of lectures or shot analysis, simply the kind of stuff that is very hard to find anywhere and one you wouldn't want to miss. When you consider that at least two or three of these happen every week in groups other then mine, plus my own Q&A session, plus Jason's weekly two hour live demo/lecture/interview, I am looking at at least five hours of new lecture material evey week. Now, this may not sound like too much at first, until I have an off week and I miss on some of the stuff.

Being voracious as I am when it comes to these things, it is unsettling because I want it all but I can't have it. It is close to impossible to hear and see everything that is happening. Currently I am having a hard time of letting it go and accepting that I have to be more patient. Hence this brain dump, it helps me get over the issue. Thankfully, all the Q&As are recorded so I can always go back to them. There is also a few threads around the site discussing the content of Q&As and we even formed the "Cream of the Crop" group where the recordings of the best ones are posted. Anyhow, I feel really fortunate to have all this knowledge at my disposal.

Monday, December 6, 2010

iAnimate and AnimationMentor Comparison

We're almost done with the first workshop at iAnimate. I've finished the first two semesters at AM as well and I think I've seen enough at iAnimate by now to write a preliminary comparison. We have a few AM alumni at iAnimate and I'm sure they would be more competent to compare the two schools as they have gone through the whole AM program, but until one of them decides to do that I hope some of you will find this information useful. I will try my best to be as neutral as possible in the first part of the post, where I compare the schools directly, but don't expect this to be completely objective. I've made a switch from AM to iAnimate, which means that I had reasons to look elsewhere even before I knew anything about iAnimate and this clearly makes me biased.

I'll start off by saying that AM is a fantastic school and if ianimate didn't open I would've gone through the whole program there. It is leagues ahead of any traditional art program out there when it comes to character animation. iAnimate opening up doesn't take anything away from that, AM is and will be a great place to learn animation. Although the two schools are very similar in many ways there are some differences in their approach. These differences may appeal more or less to certain groups of people which is why I can't argue which school is better. It is all about how it works for you and if you find one environment to be more conductive to learning then the other.

AM was quite a departure compared to traditional schools. iAnimate takes that a little bit further which for some will be a great thing and for others not so much. AM aims to be a school, it is approved by the California's Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education ( As a result AM has to adhere to certain standards set by that body which are aimed at protecting the students and assuring a standard level of quality experience. These rules refer to placement rates, refund policies etc. As another result of this approval, AM has to have grades, students have to have a minimum C or better to move on to the next class etc. In other words, to maintain a status of a school AM had to limit it self to how far it can depart from the traditional approach to education. iAnimate was able to go even further because it doesn't have these limitations. iAnimate is trying to distance it self from the "school" concept. It offers online animation workshops, it doesn't have grades and there is no pressure for anyone to move through the school at a certain pace. Neither of these institutions are accredited, and they can never be accredited exactly because they took a different approach and are focused solely on one subject. This is a good thing because if they were not able to do what they are doing we would have to take a ton of unrelated classes and the cost would have gone up significantly. To sum this section up, if you had trouble persuading your parents to join AM instead of a regular university, you'll probably have even more trouble persuading them to join iAnimate. On the other hand, iAnimate should be even more unencumbered by the educational standards and can potentially offer a more advanced experience. My advice to all high school graduates out there that are considering taking up any of the online animation schools instead of a regular university education... don't. If you have a chance to go to college and you can afford it, do it and join these animation schools as an addition or after you finish. You will miss on some of the best experiences of your life and you will miss on a great general education that will serve you well for the rest of your life.

Length (Update 11/2011): When I first wrote this comparison, I didn't feel like the difference in the length of the programs needed to be specially emphasized. However, since the introduction of another workshop at iAnimate I feel that the difference has become considerable enough to talk about it. As everyone knows the whole program at AM consists of six semesters, each 12 weeks in length. With the introduction of a new body mechanics workshop at iA, the whole program consists of seven workshops, each 14 weeks in length. This adds up to quite a lot, so the program at iA has whole six months of instruction more then AM. To my understanding, iA came to the same conclusion as AM at the time (the original AM curriculum was different then the one they have now) and that is to expand the emphasis on body dynamics. Unlike AM, which chose to keep the length of the program the same by eliminating the short film production, at iA they decided to just add another workshop and thus lengthen the whole program. The new Workshop 2 at iA has been inserted between the WS1 and the old WS2 and it is supposed to give a little bit more time for students to develop their body mechanics skills in addition to exposing them to the basics of quadruped animation.

Lectures: At AM we had weekly prerecorded lectures. These were almost always very good and they featured a variety of different professionals. However, they are not available throughout the semester, you can't see the lectures ahead of the week you are in and you can only see them four weeks back. I always found this to be an issue because often the lecture that I was able to open during the current week would've really been useful a week or two earlier. Of course you were never able to see the lectures from the previous semesters either and you were not able to download them. At iAnimate we don't have prerecorded lectures per se. Jason made all his tutorials and his Webinars available to students for free instead. I never had a chance to go through all of it, but I think there is around 80 hours of material there. Most importantly it is all downloadable and you can watch it when and as much as you need. Instead of a prerecorded lecture iAnimate has a weekly, two hour long, live demo session with Jason Ryan himself. These can be in different formats and address a different topic every week. Most of the time they are hands on tutorials where you watch him animate specific shots live, but sometimes he brings someone else in and has it setup as an interview. We are able to post questions and these are recorded and are downloadable for later viewing by everyone, anytime. Also, he's been producing interviews with some of our instructors and people he has brought from outside, separately from the demo sessions, and made them available for download. Sort of like guest lectures.

QnA Sessions: At AM, we had one live event which was a 1 hour long QnA session. It used a little flash application within the AM website where you can see the instructor, you can type your questions and the instructor can pull your camera up and have you speak to the class. The window size is quite small but is adequate for the conversation type event and simple question asking. These are not recorded and you can't access the QnAs of other groups in the school. At iAnimate there is also a live, hour long QnA session once a week but this session is recorded and is available to everyone all the time. iAnimate uses an externally provided application, also flash based, that is much more functional. It is full screen, it allows for all participants' camera feeds to be shown at the same time and most importantly it allows for desktop sharing. This allows for QnAs to take a different form, sometimes the instructor can screen share a specific shot and analyze it with the class or choose to animate something in Maya for all of us to see. An advantage AM has at this point regarding the live QnA is that they are able to find a time slot that is better suited for people living in different time zones. AM has a lot more instructors, some of which live abroad and are able to take on students that live in time zones closer to them. I am one of those, as I currently live in China. My QnA time is fine because it happens in the early evening PST which is the following late morning where I am, but my review sessions currently fall at around 1am. I never had an issue with it, but everyone living outside of US should be aware of it.

Review/eCritiques Sessions: At AM, eCritiques are prerecorded. They are very easy to access for everyone in the school and I was always happy with them. People who never attended any of these schools often think that 10 minutes is not enough for a critique but from my experience it is more then enough. eCritiques at AM, from what I've seen, are rarely more then 8-9 minutes, most of mine were 2-5 and they were completely adequate. At iAnimate weekly review sessions are live and recorded. They take a form of a class gathering that is usually between an hour and hour and a half long, and it allows for some one-on-one discussion between the student and the instructor regarding the assignments. As such, the review sessions at iAnimate simulate the real dailies much more closely. Some instructors allot a time for each student and some just go as long as they have to. It is all flexible in general because everyone gets to ask a few questions and these sessions often go over time. It is worth noting that the platform used for QnAs and review sessions is hosted by a service provider external to iAnimate (Adobe). This has advantages and disadvantages, but most importantly I think it's one of the main reasons why iAnimate is able to keep the costs down, there are no overheads related to software development and hardware purchases and maintenance. We are able to access any of the QnAs and reviews from the past and watch them whenever and as much as we want. However, they are streamed and unlike Jason's weekly demos, there is no option to download them to a local computer. This is pretty much how the whole AM website functions so its not really a difference. There were a few minor glitches with this platform that didn't affect the experience significantly. I am in China after all and I am used to problems like this, I had weeks at AM when I had to miss my QnAs either because of bandwidth or server issues but that didn't stop me. I can't vouch for anyone else's experience.

Instructors: All instructors are working professionals, in both schools. AM is a much larger school and it has more variety, animators from different studios, whereas currently at iAnimate all instructors except one or two are from DreamWorks. However, starting in 11/2011, the students at iAnimate are able to choose their instructors on a first-come-first-served basis. Whether having most of the instructors coming from the same studio is better or not you have to judge for yourself. To me it doesn't matter because they all have extensive experience and most of them have worked in multiple studios in their careers anyway. Speaking of workflows, a common misconception is that the only workflow taught in the school is the Flipbook approach that Jason advocates. This is not the case at all. I for one haven't touched Flipbook so far and that hasn't been an issue at all. As in AM, every instructor has his own way of doing things and every student has the complete freedom to approach the shot any way they think works best for them. The choice of instructors at iAnimate is made when we sign up for a new class. The instructor roster is worked out before hand, they get to choose which workshops they are going to teach in each block and then the list is published along with their review and QnA times. The existing students are given priority, we get to sign up for the classes and instructors a week or two before it gets open for the public. At iAnimate, the class size is capped at 8 students, two groups of four. I apologize but I can't remember whether the cap at AM was 12 or 16, so if anyone can contribute with that information I would really appreciate it.

Rigs: Currently, iAnimate has ten rigs provided by the school, all of a very high quality. A lot of people are using other publicly available or self built rigs as well. We usually get, on the average, a new rig every semester. The variety of rigs is great, cartoony, naturalistic, quadruped, creature etc. Preference between rigs is highly subjective, but I prefer to have a variety because it allows for a variety of shots that I can do, I don't feel pushed into a certain style of animation. I personally lean towards naturalistic characters as I feel that they are closer to what I'll have to work with on a real production in the future.

Cost (Update 11/2011): Determining the cost is actually not that straightforward because if you're accepted at iAnimate at a higher level you may not need to go through and pay for all seven workshops, while at AM you always go through the whole thing. AM offers a 72 week program (6 semesters, 12 weeks each at around $3,200 per semester), while iAnimate offers 98 week program (7 workshops, 14 weeks each at around $2,000 per workshop). The whole program at AM, if paid in installments costs around $19,500 at the time of this update, as opposed to $14,000 at iAnimate. Since the total cost of the program depends on how many workshops you need to take at iAnimate, the most reasonable comparison I think is on the cost per week of instruction, which at the time of this edit puts AM roughly at around $270 per week and iAnimate at around $145 per week.

Impressions and experience, a highly subjective part with my personal opinions which explain why I chose to stay at iAnimate instead of AM:

At iAnimate I feel there is a closer relationship with the instructors. We get more live time with them, the class size is smaller, some one-on-one time as well. The school is less strict about what we can and cannot do. At AM I was discouraged to contact mentors other then my own or to exchange files with them etc. I always felt that there is more of an artificial barrier between the students and the mentors, a lot of things were frowned upon. To manage the size, AM has to impose more strict rules in this regard, it is completely justifiable. At iAnimate we have to be very appreciative of instructors' time of course but if the instructors are OK with something, the school doesn't stand in the way. The classes are smaller which means the instructors get to know us better and that shows during our QnAs and reviews. Our communication doesn't end with the QnA and the reviews though. Some of them post resources for us on the community website all the time, sometimes they even share their Maya files with us.

At iAnimate there are no grades. At AM there is a constant pressure to keep going forward and you are graded each week. In a lot of cases I personally found this to be an obstacle because it forced me to focus more on getting a better grade for that week then having the whole shot in mind. I found my self having to redo a lot of the work from the previous week because I rushed forward when I wasn't ready. At the moment, I believe iAnimate has a more flexible and relaxed approach in terms of assignments. Focus is more on getting better then getting things done at a certain time. Because there is no grading criteria each week, there is no pressure on how to progress through the shot in a certain way. Because of this, if success at AM depended on ones work ethics and self motivation, success at iAnimate does even more so. I would be in favor of having grades if they had appropriate meaning. In my opinion at AM currently they don't, they are not a realistic representation of your skill. All straight A-s at AM don't necessarily mean that your skills are at an employable level. This is a bold statement especially when I can't substantiate it with hard data, but I can extrapolate mine. This is not solely AMs fault, I think this is very hard to accomplish and I don't blame them. It's just something people should be aware of and approach it appropriately, in other words, take the grades with a bit of caution. Also there is no pressure to finish the school in a certain amount of time. If you are not ready to move up to the next workshop, you are able to take the time off. There are no strict limitations aimed at getting you "processed" through the school in the most efficient manner. When you are ready you can send your reel to Jason and he'll let you know if you are ready to continue or not.

Despite being a much younger school, iAnimate already has a lot more learning resources then AM, simply because everything is recorded. At the time I wrote this update (08/2011), there are literally hundreds of hours of lectures, shot analysis, tutorials and interviews recorded and available for viewing. One of the most important practical differences are the rigs. I always felt constrained at AM because the provided rigs were too limited in style and always favored a certain style of animation. At iAnimate the variety of the rigs is fantastic and we are getting new ones all the time. I personally feel this is far more beneficial for the student.

The student websites at the two schools are very different. While AM's website is more streamlined, iAnimate's website fosters a more immersive community. AM's website is more structured and oriented on one's personal area. It is really easy to find people and their work but it takes a lot of effort to stay in the loop sort of speaking, you have to cruise it. iAnimate's website structure is little less comprehensive and it takes a few days to get used to, but it is really easy to see what is going on in the whole community. I found this to be very important because you never feel like you are being "left out". Being a smaller school obviously helps with this as well. Neither is perfect, but they have different qualities that appeal to different people. The attitude of both communities is great and all you could hope for but I feel that my work gets better exposure at iAnimate. At AM I had to constantly stay on my toes and go out to comment on other people's work for them to come back and comment on mine. If I would skip this step only for one week I would often find my section without any comments at all. This is not the case at iAnimate, everyone is aware of who is dong or saying what and where and I find that my work gets seen more regularly and with "no strings attached" sort of speaking.

I think most of the differences come from the size and the fact that the founders are directly involved with school's everyday activities. The whole place has a different vibe when you can see Jason browsing the campus every day and leaving comments for everyone. Even when iAnimate fills up all its workshops, AM will still be around four times as large. I personally hope iAnimate stays smaller because if it grows too much many of the things listed here may change and maybe some of the advantages will be lost. AM is a larger and more established school with dozens of employees but with less flexibility and a more impersonal feel to it compared to iAnimate, although still miles away from most other places. iAnimate is a smaller place with a lot of personality and fewer barriers, from what I hear pretty much the same as it was when AM was just starting out. I think in the long run iAnimate will appeal a lot to the working professionals and already somewhat experienced animators because of its cost and flexibility and because it allows people to join the school at the appropriate level, unlike AM that would force them to start with the fundamentals. I can imagine that having to go through bouncing balls all over again can be a little off-putting for a working animator that wants to polish his acting skills.

Again, these are my personal views and experiences so far. In addition to this post being biased it is probably not entirely fair to AM either. There are a lot of things that iAnimate didn't have to go through yet and a lot of issues they didn't have to deal with. Instructors at iAnimate for example are at this stage all handpicked, they are people that Jason Ryan already worked with and most of them still work together on a daily basis. It is more likely that they will treat iAnimate as their own and less as yet another job, and that can already be felt. Although most mentors at AM are great, because of its size, I don't think it would be fair to expect of AM to have quite the same synergy. Also, some things cannot be compared because iAnimate is too young, like job placement etc. iAnimate turned out to be everything I expected it to be when I decided to give it a go. There is an intangible quality to the school that I believe is a combination of all the little things that I mentioned here. I suppose this is what AM felt like when it was just starting up. There is that extra bit of genuine enthusiasm (and I emphasize genuine) among students and instructors alike that makes me feel like being at the right place at the right time. It is a place that makes more sense for me but that doesn't mean it is the best choice for everyone.

Addendum I (April, 2011):
Elsewhere on the Internet, some people have suggested that I must have not attended AM at all or that I have flanked, implying that I must have wrote this out of some sort of a grudge against AM. I can't offer much in the way of proof to the contrary other then to post my progress reel from AM at the time when I left, so here it is:

To be fair, following are three shots that I have done in my first workshop (WS2) at iA. These should have accompanied this article initially but at the time we weren't showing the rigs yet.

The credit for the Myronman rig goes to Joakim Palmkvist.