Date: August 18th 2008

CUBE DREAMS - August 17th, 2008

At the SIGGRAPH 2008 conference in Los Angeles this past week, I saw one of the the most depressing student films ever made. It was shown during a panel I participated in entitled, “Teaching Computer Animation For Results”, hosted by my old friend Craig Caldwell of the Griffith University Film School in Brisbane. Each of the four presenters focused upon an educational segment (I drew the “graduate” straw). The short film in question was screened during the undergraduate level portion. In it, a flabby animator pulls an all-nighter in his cubicle. He stares at the cavorting cartoon character on his monitor and wearily laments, “I use to like bears.” Noticing that his coffee pot is empty, he gets up to leave his cube in search of more java. But his ergonomic chair blocks his exit - subtly at first, and then with mounting confrontation. The animator’s desperate attempts to escape this nightmare prove futile as he is forced back into the chair - which “soothingly” rubs his shoulde
rs as he sobs uncontrollably before his unsympathetic monitor: slave to the mis en scene.

The beat outline for this film was described as follows:

* An animator pulls an all-nighter during crunch time
* He notices that he is out of coffee
* The animator tries to leave his cubicle to get more
* He is prevented from doing so by his chair
* The animator learns that there is no time for coffee during crunch time
* He learns that he should do his work without complaint

Somebody slit my wrists now… please. Frankly, I’d expect this sort of “story” from an animation school in North Korea - not from one located in the Southeastern United States. Needless to say, the student filmmaker has probably already been gobbled up by a major studio who is happy to see that someone “gets it”. Who wouldn’t want an employee who “understands” that they can’t leave their cubicle for a cuppa?

Now, I’m no pollyanna. As an animation industry vet, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve put in my share of overtime - burning the midnight oil on studio assignments and independent projects alike. I’ve dealt with work-induced RSI, back pain, stress and exhaustion. I know the realities of our business, and it’s not all kittens and unicorns (even when we may be animating kittens and unicorns). So, I wasn’t bothered by the fact that the film’s hapless protagonist didn’t get to take his prescribed union coffee break, or was probably working unpaid OT, or had clearly let his health and personal life go to pot in the service of a menial “effects wizard” position. What bothered me was the loss of fire in the belly, underscored by the opening gag line: “I used to like bears.” Here was a self-portrait (or soon-to-be self-portrait) of an artist whose spark was extinguished, who was forced to sit at his desk and feed the machine without pause like one of those human Duracell
s in “The Matrix”. There’s nothing wrong with “paying your dues”, but NOT at the cost of your soul.

Ironically, this was a perfect segue into my own segment on the graduate level. The three hallmarks of a graduate education in computer graphics & animation as I see them (based upon my tripod of experience as a graduate student, professor, and recruiting animation supervisor) are as follows:

* Building a bridge: to the industry, academia and/or private practice
* Learning how to learn
* Finding your voice

In addressing these points, the seminal question that I posed to the SIGGRAPH audience was this: “What are you preparing your students for?”

* …a job?
* …a career?
* …or a vocation?

While these three are not mutually exclusive, they are hierarchical. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a job. We all need one - coming in handy as they do for little things like clothes on your back, food in your belly and a roof over your head. ;-) But one can easily shlep along from job to job without any sense of a career arc, which is the next level up. Preparing a student for a job involves training, while preparing a student for a career requires education: if job preparation addresses the buttons and menus, then career preparation addresses the concepts and principles underlying those buttons and menus. And vocation preparation addresses the vision that these functional aspects serve. The distinction between career and vocation is that between artisan and artist: the distinction between the hand and the heart. And even the major studios need more of the latter, whether they know it or not.

Which brings me to the subject of the animation industry’s relationship to academia - a dissertation in itself, but something that I will touch upon here. On my flight to Taipei a couple days ago, I was flipping through the latest issue of 3D World magazine, and came across an article in which industry “pressure group” Games Up? was bemoaning the skills crisis in UK games development, and laying blame squarely at the feet of UK schools and universities. In the first place, let me observe that the stance of “pressure group” is very telling, and significantly different than that of “support group”. A “pressure group” is a pointed finger, while a “support group” is a helping hand. And guess which one is superior in terms of intention, commitment and results? My suspicions regarding the attitude of the companies in question were confirmed by a subsequent comment in which an art director spoke ruefully of CG candidates with “salary issues”. Note to companies: like it or not, when
demand exceeds supply - as it clearly does in the landscape addressed by the CG World article - any “salary issues” belong to YOU, not your prospective employees. That sword cuts both ways.

The article posed the question: “Are graduates up to the job?” I’d like to turn that right around and ask: “Are companies up to the job?” Are companies willing to partner with schools to create mutually-enriching programs? Are companies willing to democratically support the percentage that is “irrelevant” to them, in order to more effectively seed and leverage upon the percentage that is “relevant”? Are companies brave enough to pleasantly surprise themselves by looking for talent outside of their cookie cutter preconceptions (anyone remember the days before “digital content departments”, when CG artists came from the ranks of biology, architecture and dance programs)? Are companies forward thinking enough to realize that what they want today is not necessarily what they need tomorrow? And are companies committed enough that if they can’t find what they need today, they don’t just stand there pointing fingers from the self-satisfied ring of their “pressure group”? Rather, the
y invite schools into their circle: they get involved. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and the more prescient studios - such as Sony Imageworks with their IPAX program - are already wise to this.

That said, I’ll advance the “radical” liberal arts notion that there’s more to an education than turning out “a good little worker bee”. As a student, you should ask yourself: “Do I want to be a drone, or a trailblazer?” And as an institution of higher learning, you should examine yourself: “Do we want to turn out graduates who slot neatly into the job opening of existing production companies, or do we want to turn out graduates who revolutionize the industry, and knock those companies on their @sses?” What is the more inspiring goal? Which philosophy best serves our students (and ultimately our industry) in the long run?

And to the kid and his instructors responsible for the short film about the animator trapped at his desk, take it from a seasoned pro: there’s ALWAYS time for coffee! :-)


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