Making The Impossible Possible

By Yuta S. who graduated in 2009.

Ever since I watched Star Wars Episode 4 when I was 3 years old, I have always dreamt of re-creating it. In university, I took astrophysics just to be acquainted with space, stars and galaxies. After I completed my graduation research on “The Fractal Property of the Distribution of the Molecular Cloud Cores in the Orion Molecular Cloud,” I seemed to be well on my way to achieving my childhood dream.

An Arduous Path

Although there are many schools in Japan, I didn’t think that I could learn Computer Graphics (CG) skills at an advanced level there. So I began my research with schools in the United States. I found some, but they were too expensive since I had just graduated from university. In addition to this, during my university life, I was calculating the structure of stars and had not used my English for a very long time. Both the financial and language problems were reasons enough to give up on my dream. But I didn’t know how to give it up. Like a child, I believed that nothing was impossible. I still do.

My solution was to apply to the Japanese government as an international volunteer to teach science and mathematics. I fortunately passed my exam and was dispatched into deep jungles of Papua, New Guinea. I spent 2 years there teaching high-school students, surrounded by nature, amazing culture and tradition. I was able to save some money and improve my English to a so-so level. Again my search for CG schools began using 5 Kbps internet in New Guinea.

I spent one more year in Japan working 3 jobs at the same time to save up for the program.

I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do, but 3D animation seemed to resemble my dreams more so than Modeling or Visual Effects. The program also had to be a 1-year program because I was getting too old to take longer courses. Once again the US programs were outrageously overpriced, so I started to look into Canadian schools. I had heard that they had the 2nd biggest film industry. Two schools caught my attention: VFS and VanArts. I decided to apply to VanArts because the tuition was cheaper, but the $26,350 US for international students was still too much money for me, considering I had to pay for the cost of living as well. I spent one more year in Japan working 3 jobs at the same time to save up for the program. In February 2008, I finally enrolled in the VanArts 3D Animation for Film, TV & Games program and came to Canada.

The School Process

Classes were Monday to Friday from 9AM-12PM, 1-4PM, and sometimes from 6-9PM as well. The school is open 24 hours a day all year round so we were able to spend a lot of time there to work on areas that we wanted to improve on. It was very helpful for students like me who did not know anything about animation and life drawing to have this unrestricted access to the school. I was at school for nearly everyday in the year and spent an average of 11-20 hours per day there. My computer crashed completely twice, maybe because I worked too hard. Backing up your data is so important. This process may be tough to many people who lack the motivation and discipline, but I never felt that way because it was a very fun and rewarding experience for me.

The Courses

From these courses, we learned advanced 3D Animation, Basic 2D Animation, Life Drawing, Story Boarding, Modeling, Rigging, Acting, Sculpting, Animation History, Photoshop, etc. The programs we used for 3D animation were Maya and XSI. At first it was confusing to use two programs alternately; however, looking back it is better to know both programs in preparation for the future.

In the 1st term, we mainly learned basic 3D animation intensively. We had 17 assignments such as bouncing ball, walk and run cycle, animals, etc. Then we learned more advanced 3D animation techniques like pantomime and dialogue in the 2nd term.

In the 3rd term, we started pre-production for our final project short film. We needed to create the story for our short film, make the storyboard, design our characters, model and rig them. I think the 3rd term is the toughest term by far. Although we didn’t have any assignments, we needed to plan everything by ourselves so that everything would be ready by the beginning of 4th term.

In the last term, we finally started animating our final film. In this 3 month span, I spent all my time working on the final project, lighting, rendering, and compositing. I didn’t even notice whether it was sunny, raining, or snowing outside. I finished my demo reel on the morning of my graduation. Of course, not all students were like me, but don’t expect to get much if any sleep in term 4.

We also often had critiques of our exercises from Pixar animators using iChat.

The Experience

Overall, this program is great. Especially in 3D animation, we learned cartoony and photo realistic animation from several instructors who have had experience at Walt Disney and ILM. We also often had critiques of our exercises from Pixar animators using iChat. Moreover, the school invited animators, lighters, and directors from the industry for lectures. These were great experiences for us.

It is essential for an animator to be a good actor. We had pretty strong acting class and it was really helpful not only for animation but for creating realistic stories. In my opinion, life drawing is also a very important prerequisite for animators. A good animator should be a good actor and drawer even in the field of 3D. VanArts has great life drawing class and you can always take extra workshops for cheap.

The Downsides

Of course there are some weak points in this course. Computers are not so great and crash a lot. The modeling in Maya was not taught well. The lighting course was also quite weak. The texturing course was almost non-existent. But given that it was a 3D animation program, the courses were taught sufficiently for us to make our demo reels. If we learned super fancy texturing, we wouldn’t have time to do it. If we learned super realistic modeling in Z-brush, it wouldn’t have worked for the animation. If we learned super cool lighting, we wouldn’t be able to finish rendering. Like I said, my way of thinking is very positive, so I have no complaints about VanArts. If I had to say something, it would be to fix the air conditioner. It broke down twice in the summer, so we basically worked in a sauna for a week. It was tough to say the least.

Preparing us in finding jobs, they taught us how to make impressive demo reels, proper resumes and cover letters. We also had job interview practice sessions. In addition, we had a lecture about work permits and immigration procedures for international students. VanArts even held an “industry night” to show our demo reels to various companies. But given the recent downturns in economies all around the world, getting a job is becoming more difficult for everyone, especially for international students like me. I just graduated last week and have begun to look for jobs located anywhere in the world.

I am totally satisfied with my choice in VanArts. I could not have had this quality of education in Japan.

The Verdict

I am totally satisfied with my choice in VanArts. I could not have had this quality of education in Japan. The 3D Animation Program was a great program for beginners like me. Even students who had prior 2D or 3D experience were satisfied with the program. For someone who is solely interested in animation, I probably wouldn’t recommend this program to them as they might find modeling and rigging painful. However, to be able to create a short animation from the beginning to end as a director, animator, modeler and rigger was great experience. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Currently, the tuition for this program is about $34,750 CDN for international students. It is a lot of money even comparing with other schools that are more expensive. It is up to you whether you can find the value in your education. As for me, I got more than what I paid for.