A Risky Investment

Admission Process

The process was very personal and friendly. I suspect it is not very hard to get accepted as long as you have the cash. This makes the portfolio and other entrance requirements seem like they are just for show. The advisers I met at this point were not very knowledgeable about the industry or the specifics of the program and couldn’t do much more than tell me what I already gathered from their website. If you have very technical questions about the program it is best to ask a recent graduate. They generally don’t mind giving you frank feedback. I get such emails all the time, but at this point any advice I have to give is probably a bit out of date.

Tuition & Finances

The tuition is daunting for sure. You can partially justify it because in the first 6 months you do have as many as 48 hours of lectures per week and only short breaks between terms. Also, because it is a condensed program you do save some money on living expenses and lost wages, but then Vancouver is a very expensive city to live in.

Ultimately having made such a huge and non-refundable financial commitment was one of the things that drove me to work so hard during my year at VFS. My initial impression based on the work former students posted on forums like CGtalk, and the very professional appearance of the school based on their promotional materials and orientations made me think they might be worth all that money. My first day in the program was a bit of a rude awakening. The actual location of the 3D program is in a very cramped and dilapidated office building just south of Davie St. It looks like the poor cousin of any other local school for 3D animation, and this is the place where you will practically live for the next year. But so what? What really matters is the quality of the instruction and the valuable connections you make while you are there.

You do get very applicable experience from the program, but the diploma you get is not from an accredited institution. It is a private school. Employers won’t mind. VFS does have a good reputation, but if you are hoping to use the diploma to fulfill a work visa requirement you may have some trouble.

Curriculum

It’s hard to comment on the curriculum because I imagine it has changed a lot since I was there.

Everyone will tell you that this program is hard, but it’s difficult to imagine what they mean by that. It’s like when you go to a pub and order the “spicy” chicken wings. They say they are spicy, but you like spicy food, so you should be fine, right? But how spicy is their “spicy”? Well, let me tell you: at VFS the answer is “VERY”. I have never worked so hard in my life. I spent between 11 – 14 hours a day, 7 days a week in that place for a year. Breaks between most terms were a 4 day weekend. In the first 6 months we had 48 hours of instruction per week with lots of homework on top of that. Every second of my day was accounted for. I had to completely adjust everything about my lifestyle. For example, I stopped making peanut butter sandwiches because the peanut butter is sticky and makes it hard to swallow which wastes time that I could be spending doing my homework or getting a bit of sleep before I had to be in class again. It was that kind of crazy. And no amount of work ever seemed like enough. We kept being told that at most only a quarter of us would get jobs upon graduating, and that we would have to try much harder if we wanted to have a future. With the constant pressure, and all of us packed like sardines in that dingy place I also ended up being sick much of the time. The workload in that place nearly did me in. By the time I graduated I looked 10 years older, I was skinny and pale and trembling as I accepted my diploma, but I had accomplished more in a shorter time than I ever would have dreamed. I had a very original demo reel and felt optimistic about my prospects for the future.

Even though VFS is a private career oriented school, their programs still have quite a few B.S. courses that really won’t help you get a job. My personal grievance was with the Classical Animation classes. We had 6 hours a week of those in the first 2 terms with lots of homework, and for those of us who had no plans to even enter into the animation stream they were really not all that helpful. Those concepts could have been taught really easily and quickly in 3D rather than having us spend endless hours hand drawing 2d animation exercises with pencil and paper. The History of Animation class was also useless, but at least enjoyable for the most part. History of Film was fairly painful. We were forced to watch a never ending stream of scenes from musicals and really only talked about camera angles and moves. Not a single current movie in the bunch which seems like a major oversight if you are hoping to work in VFX. I could also easily have done without any of the sculpture classes as modeling in 3D just seems basically like the same thing but at least those were fun. It sounds nit-picky, but when you are paying so much money, these things really get to you. To be fair, any program is going to be like that. If you were going to a college you’d have a lot more prerequisites even less related to your field. So my advice is this: Pay attention in those classes, do your work, but don’t stress out about them. Focus just on what matters to you.

In my time I felt that the software we were taught was a bit behind the times. They still taught XSI, After Effects for compositing, and for zBrush we had limited licenses and no instruction at all. This may have changed now. If you want to be a modeler, you definitely need to be good at zBrush, for compositing you need to know something node based, and while I love XSI, it’s just not very useful in terms of helping you get a job because hardly any studios use it anymore.

In the middle of your program you have to declare your specialty: Either Modeling, Animation, or VFX. The problem for me was that by the time we had to make that decision they really hadn’t taught us anything about VFX so it was really hard to make an informed decision. We spent so much time on animation and had only one crappy course in After Effects. They do tell you that you will have to learn a bunch of new software if you go into VFX which seemed really insane at that point in the program as I only just barely started getting a handle on the software they taught me so far. The VFX stream in general was a disaster as far as I could tell during the time when I had to make my decision, so I went into the modeling stream instead because at least I knew that this was something VFS did really well. But as soon as I made my decision, the mentor of the VFX stream was replaced and the program improved immensely which really made me wish I had gone into that stream after all, but it was too late by then.

For the last 3 months we were in the “Ant Farm”; A huge open lab where you have access to a computer of your own 24/7. Our class load was reduced to a minimum, and from that point on I really learned more from my classmates than any of the mentors, instructors or lab aids. This is not intended as a slight and it is not as if the instructors or aids were unapproachable. This really is just how things work in the industry in general. In school and in the work place it is just a lot easier to turn around and ask your neighbour a quick question than to seek out a leading authority. I was in a good class and got along fine with my classmates so this was a real turning point in the program for me.

The Ant Farm is really the secret of VFS’s success in my opinion. The fact that they give you a full 6 months to work on your demo reel is why the work from VFS students always outshines that of almost all other school. This is of course good for you. It will help you find a job and the only way to get good in 3D is to mess around on some project for a long time. It is however also really good for VFS’s business as the impressive work of their graduates becomes in turn their advertising to attract new students.

The other thing you should know is that a lot the really outstanding demo reels come from students who already had a background in 3d before they came to VFS. Some of them even reuse assets they created before coming to VFS to enhance their reel. Don’t expect your work to look like theirs if you are new to the field as I was. Just work twice as hard and set realistic goals.

Every few weeks during the last 3 terms we had to make a presentation in front of all our classmates and a panel composed of the director of the 3D program and the mentors of the 3 respective streams. These presentations felt just like American Idol, only there were 2 Simon Cowells. Every time we would have to hear how we were never going to finish what we proposed to do, that it wasn’t good enough, that we should just give up and try something easier. It was painful, time consuming, and in my case not very helpful.

Faculty & Administration

I’m sure there have been considerable staff changes since I was there. I had some truly exceptional instructors, and some amazingly bad ones too. The 3D Animation instructor at the time was probably my favorite for his enthusiasm, friendliness, energy and broad knowledge. His name was Magic. The lighting and texturing instructor really wasn’t inspiring. I’m not really sure who is currently working there, so it could go either way for you. I do know one of my classmates is teaching there now (James McPhail) and that should be really good since we was incredibly helpful and friendly when we went to school together and more knowledgeable than many of the instructors. Now with several years of industry experience on blockbuster movies I’m sure he is even better.

Equipment & Facilities

As mentioned previously, the facilities are pretty janky. It’s an old office complex, run down looking inside and very cramped. It doesn’t really feel like a school. It also doesn’t feel like a post production company. Pretty much any place you might work at afterward will be much nicer. The lunch room is way too small. The equipment is adequate at best. In my time the software was out of date but I think some of that has changed now. There was no internet access on the computers which was very annoying since it made it difficult to find reference images or online help. The facilities were however open 24/7 which was essential. Students really were there 24/7 and you should expect to do the same if you want to succeed.

Career Preparation

Much of this I have already touched on in the Curriculum section.

I think the stress and constant pressure at VFS does a good job of preparing you for what your work life might be like after graduation. It’s a very competitive industry, you need to constantly learn new skills and get better at your core skills. You need to feel comfortable talking about your work in situations that are intimidating, and you need to be able to take criticism without taking it personally. You need to put everything you have into your demo reel and no other school will drive you harder to do that. It is a good idea to have a clear specialty after you graduate, especially if you want to work at a big, reputable company and VFS makes you choose one and tailor your demo reel toward that. This is VFS’s main advantage and it’s a big one. I know I have a lot of criticisms, but in terms of career preparation I do think they probably have most other schools beat.

As for my personal experiences: I didn’t get a job immediately after graduation. Luckily I had my old career to fall back on while I looked for something in the 3d field. My first disappointment was that there are virtually no companies using XSI anymore. I had just spent a whole year getting intimately acquainted with XSI, I knew all its ticklish spots, knew how to behave when it was being moody, and ultimately fell in love with it. But it was not meant to be. Other than Nerd Corps in Vancouver, Ubisoft in Montreal, or Hybride in Piedmont Quebec, there are hardly any XSI shops in Canada. Currently Maya seems most popular, Max is still doing ok in games and smaller studios, but XSI is pretty much dead.

After about 4 months of going to interviews in the Vancouver area for crappy 3D jobs (mostly short term contract work for very little money), I ended up getting the opportunity of a lifetime: I got a job offer to come work for director Robert Rodriguez’s in-house special effects team. He was at the time planning to film a remake of the cult classic “Barbarella”, and I was so excited about it I would have paid them just for the opportunity to be a part of it. The only problem was that the job was in the US and I am a Canadian citizen. Jobs in this industry are generally short term contracts for relatively small companies. They do not have staff lawyers or a department to deal with getting you a visa, and they will never plan ahead. They post a job and want you to start within a week. So it fell upon me to quickly become an expert of US immigration policy and here is what I found: As a Canadian, your best bet is a TN work permit. If you have the right background you can come into the country as a “Graphic Designer” or “Computer Analyst”. Despite the fact that a lot of Americans move to Canada due to work shortages in the US, there are still more jobs in the US than there are in Canada. But beware: there are no guarantees; if you get the wrong border guard you will be denied your permit. And your permit is only temporary, when it runs out you have to leave the country or renew it before it runs out. But it is always going to be scary and stressful. You can’t ever make long-term plans because you can never count on being able to get or renew your permit. On one occasion I was actually kicked out of the country on a technicality while trying to renew my permit and had a very hard time getting back in. You spend your life on standby, always ready to move, never putting down roots. It’s hard and lonely. My career did not go as smoothly as I had hoped for the first few years. The “Barbarella” movie I worked on died after a few months. The production company failed to inform me that they didn’t even have a green light. Always be sure to establish that before you make a big move for a job. After that I worked on several other projects which never saw the light of day or had very small budgets.

Eventually I moved back to Canada and spent a few months retraining myself to get more comfortable with Maya and zBrush. It was a tough time. The economy had just collapsed and few movies were being produced. I had no industry contacts in Canada. Even in the best of times there are a limited number of jobs in this field and so many people applying for them. VFS itself puts out 30 new people every 2 months just from their 3d Animation and VFX program, and then there is also their Maya Animation program. VFS is only one of half a dozen schools like it in Vancouver, and Vancouver is only one of many cities in Canada with schools like that. The end result is that your odds of finding work after graduation are relatively slim. It gets a lot easier once you’ve had at least 3 years of industry experience or get your name on some impressive titles, but that requires a lot of luck, hard work and patience.

They really aren’t just trying to scare you when they say that only the top 20% will get a job after graduation, so you need to be really honest with yourself: Are you ready to give absolutely everything you have to be in that top percentile in your class? Are you ready to keep working just as hard after graduation to stay competitive? Are you really gifted as an artist, and very comfortable with bewilderingly complex software? If you are not absolutely sure about this then VFS will not be able to magically turn you into a job ready VFX producing machine.

Social Life

This is a really subjective thing, but it’s probably best if you just plan on not having a social life at all for a year. I was 35 when I enrolled which pretty much made me one of the senior citizens in my class, but nobody ever made me feel awkward about that. There is huge diversity in every class in terms of age, cultural background, and pretty much everything else except for gender. It is about 90% male enrollment. I managed to bond a lot with my classmates. It is maybe a bit like the bond you would feel for your comrades in the army after spending a few months in a fox hole together. You wouldn’t necessarily call it a good time, but it leaves it’s mark on you for the rest of your life. Even if you don’t keep in close touch afterwards you will always remember your classmates.

The Bottom Line

I was pretty cynical for the first few years of my career. I generally told people if you have more money than you know what to do with and want to give it to VFS, and are willing to spend the rest of your life in front of a computer, constantly retrain yourself, never see the light of day anymore, constantly look for new work, move a lot, have no job security, make fairly little money, probably end up popping mood stabilizers as if they were M&M’s just to cope with the stress, eventually probably have your girlfriend or wife leave you (that is, if you can even find one. Computer nerd work = not sexy), never work less than 50 hours a week, be out of work every time any one of the innumerable unions of the film world goes on strike, work miracles every day and still have nobody know your name. If that kind of thing appeals to you, then VFS might be a good choice for you.

In hindsight things are looking a bit rosier for me. It was a long and tough battle, but I had some fantastic adventures since I graduated and I am finally earning some decent money and respect for my work. Some people are just really driven and talented and are bound to succeed at anything they apply themselves to. I struggled a lot to get where I am now, but not everyone had such a hard time. I think I was just really unlucky.

The difference between the top schools and ones with a lesser reputation is largely that the good ones attract a lot more of the star pupils who could go to any school they choose. Naturally those students will go on to achieve great things, but they probably would have done so no matter where they studied. Some will argue with this point, but I speak from experience since I worked at a College for almost a decade before attending VFS. Considering that VFS is a private school with fairly minimal admission requirements it is amazing how many talented students they manage to attract, but they really do.

Ultimately it comes down to return on your investment. This school is extremely expensive and it offers absolutely no guarantee that you will have a career after graduation. If you are extremely confident in your abilities, are willing to make the necessary sacrifices, and can afford the tuition, then this is probably a choice for you. If you have any doubts, then you might be better off getting a lot of books and DVD’s and learning on your own. You do not want to have a 50k student loan debt with no work prospects. For most people I would consider VFS a very risky investment.