The Hardest Year

Admission Process

Introduction

I graduated from Vancouver Film School’s program for Sound Design for Visual Media in October 2011. It was a ceremony filled with friends and mentors in a big theater, and it showcased some work that I don’t think any of us knew we were capable of when we began a year earlier.

While I kept a blog of my experiences and projects throughout the whole thing, it took me a some time to get my thoughts together on how I felt about the program at the end of it. It was a very powerful experience with a lot of ups and downs; it was everything I thought it would be, and it wasn’t.

This is a heartfelt review of the program and an examination of my experiences there. Though a lot of this is going to be specific to VFS, some of its themes will be about the broader industries of post-production and game audio.

Do You Need School?

The first thing you should realize is that in any industry and all walks of life, people get to where they are from different places. It seems to me that there’s no “right” or “best” way into the field you love, especially if you’re talking about the arts.

Post-production audio is no longer the sole and secret practice of guys who came up apprenticing in 1970s Hollywood, and even game audio’s a whole lot less arcane than it used to be. The barriers to learning have come down with the internet, especially in the last couple of years; you have sites like Social Sound Design, Designing Sound, Lost Chocolate Lab’s Game Audio Relevance page – I could go on.

Basically, if you want to start learning about sound, you don’t have to pay anyone a cent and you don’t need to wait for an acceptance letter. You can start right now. No one will ever wonder where your art school degree is when it comes time to start entering the market.

So while you may not need to go back to school, there are still plenty of reasons why you might want it. My story is below.

Admission Process

Before the program, my experience with audio was pretty limited: some history of recording voiceovers with microphones I couldn’t name, throwing single-layered sound effects onto a timeline for some small game audio gigs. I knew a few editing programs that aren’t really in use anymore. I had some musical background from childhood. After those few projects I drifted into project management/production and worked on the business end of games and tech start-ups for a couple of years. Then I got restless.

I wanted to give myself some set amount of time to see what I could push myself to do in the field of sound with no distractions or excuses. I came across VFS in the course of doing some research and became obsessed. Major credit to their marketing team. I did solicit information and calls from a couple of other places – Full Sail, Ex’pression – mostly for due diligence’s sake and in my mind there was really no alternative.

Once I showed interest, the school was totally encouraging, and I was even able to come up to Vancouver for a few days and sit in on a couple of classes while I was still considering it. Their admissions advisors are super helpful with answering any questions you might have, and it was a total pleasure to deal with those guys all the way through.

I thought I had a bit of experience in sound design and just needed the right environment/frame of mine to cultivate my skills. But really, if they had screened me on ability instead of my ability to pay, I might not have made the cut. What I learned after I arrived is that if you can pay, they’ll take you.

Tuition & Finances

The school is incredibly expensive, especially for international students. I’m not saying you don’t get your money’s worth – it’s not cheap to bring in top-tier talent or keep a bunch of Dolby-certified mix rooms running smoothly. But odds are pretty stacked that you won’t be getting rich doing sound any time soon, and as an international student, you’re looking at $50,000+ for tuition and living expenses. Easily. And the interest rates on private loans for US students are outrageous – when I ran the numbers, it looked like I would’ve ended up paying back almost twice what I borrowed.

You’ll also need to buy gear after you graduate, probably around $1000 at the bare minimum for a Pro Tools license, and more if you need a capable computer. For all that money, the school really only provides you with a $30 pair of headphones and a ~$200 Zoom portable recorder on the hardware side.

Unless you have the money independently, are able to borrow it from your family, or can pull together a series of scholarships (VFS runs contests from time to time), it’s going to hurt. If you are somehow sitting on that money independently, you could do just as well to pay it forward on buying a reasonable microphone/recorder, a Pro Tools license, a MIDI controller, some plug-ins of your choice and try out a cheaper program to see if you really have the spark in you to make it.

As a saving grace, students pretty commonly manage to set up pay-over-time arrangements with VFS so that their full tuition isn’t due in a lump sum. That makes things a little less painful.

Curriculum

VFS’ Sound Design program takes place over a very intense year. It’s broken up into six semesters of two months each. The curriculum, what you do in each of these is constantly changing on a macro level, because VFS needs to keep its program competitive and up-to-date with what the industry expects. They are a business that keeps money coming in the accounts through steady enrollment. That enrollment only happens when prospective customers can see graduates landing in places they dream about working, and that dream placement happens when companies see VFS producing top-tier talent.

The Subject Material

In Term 6 (the last two months of your study), you’ll be doing almost nothing else but working on your final project, which will be redoing all the sound for a short visual clip. You can choose basically anything you want – a trailer, an animation, some footage from a game, a digital design / VFX reel – as long as you take the initiative, get in touch with the rights holder and get them to sign the proper permissions forms.

But until that point, you’ll be taking proper classes with assignments, deadlines and the line. When and how you’ll learn this stuff shuffles around, but here are some foundations of sound design you’re pretty sure to encounter at VFS:

Pro Tools

You’ll be an expert in this by the end of the year. Or at least really good. This is pretty unavoidable since it’s where you’ll be spending nearly all your time. You’ll be able to set up sessions, route tracks, edit, mix and submit things in an organized fashion. Pro Tools is super present in game audio and there’s almost no part of audio post-production for film that doesn’t use it, so this is great.

Editing

For post-production editing like sound effects (cars, guns, doors), sound design, backgrounds/ambiances, a lot of the battle is learning how to properly select and layer sounds for the piece you’re working on. It’s part technical, part creative and owes a lot to experience and ear training. There’s only so much of that you can get within a year, so within VFS you’ll mostly learn this stuff through guided trial and error unless you have some prior experience. You will be pushed enough that it will rub off on you, no matter what, and the instructors who guide these classes are pretty harsh if they see that you’re not trying. You’ll learn a bunch about recording and editing Foley (sound recorded in sync to picture, think all those videos you see of people doing footsteps to Hollywood films.)

Mixing

This is another area of sound that will benefit in the long term from a lot of ear training and experience. That said, you’ll spend enough time on it at VFS that if you’re paying attention, you’ll be pretty passable at making film mixes by the time you get out. You should be able to recognize when a scene needs something louder or softer, whether something sounds too harsh or muddy and needs a touch of EQ, how to create reverb presets that will let you make things sound like they’re happening in a small room, outside, etc. And you’ll learn about bouncing down and delivering your final mixes in a variety of formats.

Game Audio

This facet of the curriculum just isn’t at the same level of depth as VFS’ film instruction right now, though I know they’re focusing on bringing it up to speed. In the school’s defense, most serious game audio luminaries are still in the industry and working, since it’s so young, and so you won’t see any 20-year game audio veterans in the teacher’s lounge. Just the same you’ll spend a lot of time learning about exactly what game audio is and how it’s different from ‘linear’ (film) audio. You will build standalone game audio projects in Audiokinetic’s Wwise software, which is pretty widely used stuff amongst AAA-level game developers. You’ll spend a couple of days in both FMOD and Unity, which is just about enough time to not be afraid of them, should you run into them again, but will not give you anything to slap on your portfolio. Wwise will be your mainstay for most of Game Audio, but even that aspect suffers a bit from there being no projects where you link up with a real-deal game team and get to see your stuff implemented and linked up to actual actions in the game, refine your project, redeliver, test again – basically the whole part of the process that makes game audio so different from film audio in the first place.

Everything Else

There are a bunch of other classes scattered about that form either the foundation of the above stuff (your first term goes heavy on psychoacoustic stuff, the physics of how sound works and travels). And there are some that are just nice side avenues to go down, if you’re so inclined – like the term where you cover the Max/MSP visual programming environment, or the primer course of MIDI and synthesis. The school isn’t too inclined towards forcing people to focus on any specific tool for sound design and they just assume you’re going to exploring and using the ones you like as time goes on. Stuff that sounds good, sounds good, and it doesn’t really matter what you make it with – pitching whale calls from the library, routing LFOs and envelopes and chopping up microfragments of sound, twisting and cranking some curious Foley prop in front of a microphone. It’s all valid.

What You Won’t Learn

VFS is not a music school and you will not spend any time at all on music composition. You also won’t really focus on music production or recording live instruments. However, if you have absolutely zero experience with recording sources and microphones, you might find that a lot of the experience you pick up through the year as you record actors’ voices and sound effects are going to have some musical applications if it’s your first time with recording anything.

Faculty & Administration

Administration

Though VFS is very clearly a business, it doesn’t often feel this way while you’re still in the program. Everyone on staff knows one another and cares about what they’re teaching. Day to day you don’t get a real sense of some unseen corporate heads calling all the shots and people are really friendly and care.

But sometimes things break, and then you’ll notice it. It feels like the sound department gets hamstrung harder than than any other (3D Animation, Game Design – both VFS cash cows with classes sizes in the 30+ range) where the budget is concerned. This is annoying when you’d really like to have at least one IT guy around 24/7 in case, say, you’re suddenly drop a project in a teacher’s assignment box due to crazy network permissions. Or the main computer in the mix theater crashes irreparably just before your previous 8-hour booking slot. This stuff happens more than it probably should but the campus’ facilities seem to hum along smoothly 85% of the time.

The Teachers

All the teachers have been culled from the film/TV/game industries and know their stuff. As with anywhere though, quality varies. Some will inspire you with every single class, make themselves available at all hours to answer your questions and push you – hard – to improve to a place you didn’t know you could go. These guys are pretty universally adored and manage to build cult following in nearly every class of students by year’s end. It’s a shame that there aren’t more of them in the program for the money you’ll spend, but if there were, you’d probably die of exhaustion.

The other instructors can be hit or miss for some students. Maybe their teaching methods don’t jive with everyone, maybe the students just don’t care about their subject material in some cases, or maybe they’re just treating it like the job it is instead of some sworn commitment to improving their padawan learners like the superstars do. Some are hypertalented geniuses of sound that actually just need a little more practice teaching instead of doing.

In any case, there’s something to learn from every teacher, but it’s going to depend on your interest level and how hard you work to pull that knowledge out of them.

The administration is totally open to feedback on their instructors – again, they’re a business and have to keep their students/future marketing material sharp – and you’re given forms to submit it at the end of every semester. But most people are slow to change, and just because they’re given feedback doesn’t mean they’ll have reformed everything they do by the next semester.

Equipment & Facilities

The facilities on the VFS Sound Design campus are pretty world-class, except for when they’re not. Network issues keep this rating down.

You’ll be working predominantly on Macs throughout the year, with one term on PCs for a particularly Game Audio-focused term. They’re not the newest machines, and you’ll find pretty quickly that if you’re not resourceful with your memory (setting your Preferences correctly, removing tracks/plugins you don’t think you’ll need from your active sessions, frequently bouncing audio down, making certain tracks inactive while you print stems, etc.) you’ll be dealing with your fair share of crashes. Pro Tools is temperamental no matter what platform you run it in, and to some extent these issues are just part of parcel of being a sound designer. When shit happens, you learn how to troubleshoot it and you’re all the wiser for the next time you encounter the problem. Just the same, no one likes running into computer issues late at night when all the TAs and technical support have gone home — and this will happen.

Network performance is the bane of the Sound Campus and the crux of their technical woes. Currently, all of VFS — 3D, Game Design, Film — favors the PC platform, and the network/file sharing servers have been built to accommodate this. This leaves the Sound Design campus as the group for whom all the exceptions need to be made, and you’ll quickly get the feeling that IT is critically understaffed there (though they mean well). PCs and Macs don’t always play well together, so library searches within Pro Tools can be extremely unresponsive as your Mac plods through the server’s PC-friendly filesystem. It’s worse under load and always seems to be the most congested when you just really need a sound. Again, you can do a lot to troubleshoot and fix these problems through the use of indexing and catalogs, but it’s inevitable that you’ll run into server woes at some point.

Permissions issues are a frequent problem for students and teachers alike. Again, with the sound campus’ tech architecture being the one exception in the whole system, shit happens.It sucks to run into “cannot copy file” dialog right as you’re getting ready to drop something in a teacher’s folder, but it will happen to you at least once over the course of a year. Good thing is that the teachers are really understanding about this, but still — it shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

On the plus side, the Resources department is amazing. While at the school — or working on a VFS project after graduation, within limits — you are able to rent out cables, stands, portable recorders, microphones, preamps, mixers, MIDI controllers of a and all sorts of fun sound toys for nearly as long as you want if you’re good on renewing them. It’s a great way to get some hands-on experience with the type of stuff the industry is using and expects you to use, because you’re probably not going to be able to afford it straight out of the program. Sometimes something won’t be available because someone’s accidentally broken it, and that sucks, but for the most part it’s all there.

There are four, nearly five 5.1 mix labs with Control-24/Pro Control boards in there ready to go. Most of the time, they’re working and sounding great, but now and again a fuse will have blown and it’s up to your trained ears to pick up on that and get it fixed. The Foley rooms have a few surfaces each, and the ADR rooms are comfortable. You’ll deal with a pretty consistent 120Hz hum in each of them that’s mostly solved by using more directional microphones and turning off the ventilation system that runs over the rooms. It’d be nice if the rooms were quieter, but the administration would say that this stuff builds character.

Their favorite thing to show is the mix theater and the ICON console. You get about four months’ of reasonably unrestricted access to this guy, though you’ll be fighting with your colleagues for time as deadlines get close. There’s not much else to say here — the room sounds great, the board is cool and you will want to get your picture taken with it. Enjoy it, because you may not be seeing one again anytime soon.

The up side to all of this is that if you pay attention, by the end of the year you’ll have become pretty freaking good at troubleshooting, which should make you a valuable assistant somewhere if you can find the work. The real world isn’t perfect and it’s no surprise that VFS’ facilities aren’t, either.

Career Preparation

Job Placement

Before VFS has your money and you’re in the door, their marketing team wants you to believe that almost all their graduates end up designing the next generation of assault rifles and robots at AAA developers like Bioware, Microsoft, Crytek, etc. For sure there are a few students that have placed there, all of whom are phenomenally talented. But some of them have been there for several years, back before the global recession, the game industry trend away from in-house sound people. Times are tougher and the bar is higher.

Just as there are many ways into the industry, people start at all different levels of proficiency. Speaking for my class, some of us had a lot of natural talent and relevant experience (live sound, composition, computer music/synthesis courses, game audio) and ostensibly were just there to put a spit polish on what they already knew and get a little discipline. Some came in totally cold. Some, like me, were in the middle. By the end of the year, everyone had dramatically improved, but no one really shook up the pecking order too much. Some of the best talent in the class are already finding pretty solid employment but I fear it could be a while for everyone else.

This industry is competitive, employment still moves mostly in closed circles, and more than anything, it’s very hot right now – to capitalize on that, schools like VFS/Full Sail/etc. are churning out 10-20 competent, hungry grads each every two months. Add in the home-grown learners and subtract the number of top tier jobs out there: you have a lot of starry-eyed sound design hopefuls that are going to have to scrape for the months and years it takes them to find the right opening.

You may not want to consider it, but if you’re thinking about this program – no, this line of work, period – you will need to be honestly prepared for that reality. If you are willing to stick sound out for life because you love it that much, you’re guaranteed to find something. But if the idea of not having a full time job for six months or a year while you establish yourself scares the shit out of you, you had better be really, really good.

Also – try to head home and find work around wherever you came from, if that’s an option. At the least pick a new city. Many SD grads just continue to hang around Vancouver afterwards because it’s easy to do and they’ve got a one year work extension. But the industry there isn’t exactly what it used to be, and in any case you’ll be going face-to-face with a lot of friendly competition for the few jobs that crop up.

Alumni Services

VFS’ alumni services were nothing but helpful throughout the year. They’ll make sure your papers are always in order and help you secure a one-year extension on your ability to work in Canada if you’re not a resident. The day after graduation, everything changes – your access card’s turned off and you’re not permitted to go back onto campus to use any of the equipment for non-VFS projects. (You can continue to collaborate with the VFS Film Campus to improve your portfolio, and in that case they’re okay with you coming back to the sound campus to use the place.)

I didn’t think this was going to be a big deal since I had been out and working for several years before school, but it hit everyone I knew pretty hard to have it drop off so hard after a final two months of non-stop work.

VFS is a business and for the most part, once you’re out, you’re out. Get out there, get a job, report back and let them know how well you’re doing so they can get an interview with you up on the site for a new crop of prospective students.

Specific job placement or recommendations from a teacher? If you are one of the better people in your class, you may get your resume passed along to a recruitment officer once in a while. But it’s not something you should count on. There are no guarantees. Those connected industry veterans that make up the teaching staff? They don’t owe you anything just because you paid tuition. Their contacts are their own, they earned them the hard way, and they’re not going to stick their neck out to recommend you to friends and colleagues unless you are seriously shit hot.

Social Life

After a gentle first two months, the program ramps up and you won’t really have time for a proper social life. Even if you did, Vancouver’s expensive, and you’re a student on a budget. If one of your reasons for selecting VFS is because you plan on exploring beautiful Vancouver in all your off time and having it feel like a second home by the time you graduate, I’ll tell you that most of your time outside the school is going to spent commuting to and from it.

Within school, though, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet new people and make friends. There’s always someone around those fluorescent-lit hallways, usually a dozen or so at the least as each semester draws to a close.

Keep this in mind: the physical experience of this program, for most, is going to be spending a year away from family, friends and your support network; you will probably be under the pressures of borrowing money, eating poorly and working at school for 12+ hours a day as time rolls on.

It’s unavoidable that you’re going to confront some truths about how you handle pressure, deadlines, stress and isolation. The class I was in is one of the greatest groups of people I’ll ever meet; we were pretty close-knit and had a great time. But when things get really dire, truth is that everyone’s probably just as freaked out as you are. You’ll have to pull yourself through a lot, so if you’re not the type of person that does well under those factors, maybe consider another way.

The Bottom Line

“Was it worth it?”

Yes. I mean if I’m pressed for a single answer, that’s it. But if you’ve read this far in, you know that it’s not that cut and dry. At the end of the day, I definitely wish I had spent some of my time at VFS differently, focused on certain areas more, burned just a little more midnight oil.

I learned more about sound than I could have reasonably hoped for and created work my old self wouldn’t recognize as mine. And I’m excited by how much more I have to learn.

I met friends and colleagues that I’ll keep close through the rest of my life.

I took a risk, went through it, survived, and learned a lot about myself in the process. And I’m forcing that risk to pay off through some hard work and perseverance, here on the other side of the academic bubble.

In short: if you’re serious about this thing, VFS is as good a school as any. Be prepared to pay, to work harder than you ever have and to keep your expectations in check. The experience will change you.Good luck.