Alex Weight told us about the unique methods UTS Animal Logic Academy uses to train animation and visual effects artists, spoke about collaborative project experiences the academy offers at its Master of Animation and Visualisation course, and gave some useful tips for beginners in the industry.
My name is Alex Weight, I am the Creative Lead at the UTS Animal Logic Academy. I completed a Bachelor of Fine Art at the National Art School here in Australia, and have other qualifications in art, multimedia, and animation.
My career covers over 25 years as a writer, director, animator, and script consultant in senior roles across the animation and VFX industries, working at companies including Rising Sun Pictures, Animal Logic, Flying Bark, and Script Central.
Most recently I worked on Peter Rabbit and wrote and directed the Chinese animated feature films Frog Kingdom 3 and Frog Kingdom 4. I was Co-Director of the animated feature Blinky Bill: The Movie, Animation Supervisor on Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and Lead Animator on the Oscar-winning animation feature Happy Feet.
UTS Animal Logic Academy
The Academy is a collaboration between the University of Technology Sydney and one of Australia’s leading 3D animation and visual effects studios, Animal Logic. We offer an accelerated 1-year Master's in Animation and Visualisation, as well as a 3-month Graduate Certificate, industry short courses, and research opportunities for students wanting to undertake a Ph.D.
Animal Logic wanted to help fill the talent gap in Australia for highly trained animation and visual effects artists. This was in response to the rapid growth in the industry down-under, where a number of studios are producing projects for a global market. They approached the university and together they developed the Academy, which intends to mirror industry practices.
Today, we are a small team that has come primarily from the industry. We have a Creative Lead, Visual Effects Lead, and Technical Lead – all of the team members including me have worked on major studio productions. Rather than delivering traditional-style university lectures and assignments, we mentor the students on large-scale project work as they would experience in the industry. So students effectively get their first year of industry experience while still at university. We also have amazing support and IT teams that make everything run smoothly.
Master of Animation and Visualisation Course
The Master of Animation and Visualisation (or MAV as we like to call it), is a 1-year accelerated master's course, that is led by industry experts and focuses on giving students large-scale, collaborative project experiences. Students nominate a specialization on entry and develop their skills to specialize in that role on the productions. The roles vary from the art department, modelers, riggers, animators, lighters, visual effects, and composting to production coordination and technical directing. This really helps them get straight into the industry when they graduate.
Because we are an accelerated master's course, we pack 1.5 years of learning into just 1 year. To do this, we run three trimesters (rather than the typical university model of two semesters). Students also have to participate in the studio as they would in their first job in the industry – Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The three sessions generally run from February to May (14 weeks), June to August (10 weeks), and September to December (16 weeks).
Applicants need to have an undergraduate qualification in a related field (like animation, art, computer science, screen media, games development, etc.), although this can be a Diploma, Advanced Diploma, or Bachelor's degree. But we also take applicants from the industry who have not studied but have 2 or more years of work experience. Most important for us is the quality of their portfolio and their focus on wanting to become a specialist in the industry.
In Studio 1, the whole group develops a story idea for a 3D animated short film. Then they are put into the relevant departments and start developing art, pre-visualization, assets, and animation. In Studio 2, we down tools and get the students to research emerging visualization technologies, then develop creative project ideas using these which are presented to an industry panel. In the past, these have varied from interactive games to mixed reality, virtual production, and real-time projects. In Studio 3, it’s all hands on deck to complete the 3D animated short film, and also to complete a high-fidelity prototype of the selected project from Studio 2.
Intense Course Approach
Although it is an intense course, students love the immersive nature of the project work. It also means that in just one year they have their Master's and have specialized in a role that will get them to work in the industry. So it is an investment, but they are also out in the industry earning a salary while students from other universities are still studying.
Because we are a postgraduate Master's course, students need to come in with pre-existing knowledge and skills. We can’t teach someone to be an animator during that time, but we can mentor an animator to become a specialist which leads them into these roles in the industry. On average, 90% of our graduates get work in studios within six months of graduating.
Our approach is simple, we mentor students to produce studio-level productions in an immersive and collaborative studio environment. We find this is the best way to prepare them for the industry.
Working in Large Groups
When the industry collaborated with the university to develop the course, one of the things high on the list, was to teach students how to work as a part of a large collaborative team in a high-end project. In most universities, students work alone or in small groups on individual projects – that is not what they will experience in the real world if they want to work in a larger studio. With us, it is learning by doing, and students learn quickly to let go of ego, become highly adaptable and learn to create positive and highly collaborative working relationships. In the end, it's all about the "soft skills" – how to communicate, collaborate, and take feedback on a creative project.
Tools and Software
Although we like to stay software agnostic in order to quickly adapt to the latest software being developed and used in the industry, at the moment Houdini and Unreal are rapidly emerging as important tools for most studios and artists. Our Visual Effects Lead Dylan Neill is an expert in Houdini, and we are focusing our emerging visualization session this year on Unreal Engine because we are seeing such rapid application of this in the industry.
We mirror major studios in using Maya and ZBrush, but increasingly we are seeing Blender being used in art departments, so we are adapting accordingly. We are seeing increasing cross-over from games, cinematics, real-time animation, and rendered animation. This software and associated skillsets are finding application in a range of cross-over industries such as digital fashion, architecture, manufacturing, and health science, just to name a few. So we are pretty sure our graduates will be finding work in these sectors as the industry expands.
Software like Maya, ZBrush, Katana, and Nuke have an established place in studios' productions, but the field is constantly changing, and Houdini, Unreal, and Blender are increasingly playing important roles in major productions. The rapid rise of virtual production is having a huge impact and a number are areas of the industry at the moment. These are exciting times.
Tips for Beginners
It is important to develop a good foundation of knowledge and skill. This can be self-taught, but there are also some great online courses and institutions out there that can help you build up a good level of competence. Then it is important to focus and specialize. The clearer you are about where you want to go, the easier it is to hone your skills and get the right job. Your focus may change over your career, but when clear where the next station is, work hard to develop your skills to get there.
A number of the software providers offer educational licenses, some of which are free, and some with reduced pricing. It is best to keep investing in your knowledge and skills as these will enhance your employability. The more specialized your skill, the more you can earn.
I think it is also important to make a commitment to lifelong learning. The software will change, so you have to bring openness and adaptability to continually develop your skill-set, and not be too dependent on software, instead, grow your skills. This is not only a great approach to have to your technical ability, but is also something that will help you to continually grow professionally and personally.