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Choosing a School for 3D

How to pick the right degree program


Go to your favorite search engine and run a query for “top animation schools.” You might find an occasional piece of useful information, but for the most part the results are a disappointing hodgepodge of affiliate advertisements and misinformation.

If you’re someone who’s serious about learning the art of animation or visual effects, choosing the right course of education is one of the most important decisions you’ll face in your young career.

There are several matters you ought to consider before rushing into any decisions—here are some of the important ones:

School or Self-Taught?

The self-taught route is always an option in this industry. In the end, landing a position depends far more on your demo reel than where your degree came from, however there are definite advantages to attending an academic institution:

  • Fixed Deadlines: Teaching yourself 3D is a hard road, and unless you’re either remarkably disciplined or extraordinarily talented it would almost certainly take you longer to get a foot in the door. Academic programs keep your progress focused and linear. Deadlines never fail to motivate.

  • Networking Opportunities: Not only does a brick-and-mortar education give you face-to-face interaction with industry professionals, it also opens the door to internships and trade conferences. It’s a sad fact of the world, but your connections are often just as important as the quality of your work.

  • Like-Minded Peers: Perhaps the greatest advantage of a degree program is the opportunity to surround yourself with similarly motivated students and friends. You can learn a lot from the people around you, and having a group of folks to share ideas, feedback, and inspiration with can be invaluable.

If your situation makes relocation impractical, we recommend you check out this discussion on distance learning and consider whether an online education might be a viable option.

Generalist or Specialist Education?

Within the computer graphics realm, there are two types of industry professionals, specialists and generalists.

  • Generalists are typically well versed in every aspect of 3D production, but would not be considered a leading expert in any one field.

  • Specialists are the opposite breed, masterful in their focus area but reliant on the team around them for other production necessities.

Whether to attend a generalist school or to enter a more specialized degree track should be dictated by two important considerations:

1. Where Do You Want to Work?
  • Large Studios: If your goal is to work at an industry giant like Industrial Light & Magic or Pixar, find a program that allows you to specialize as early in your education as possible. Large scale productions are incredibly compartmentalized—if your job title at Pixar says “3D modeler,” don’t expect to do any animation.

  • Independent Studio or Freelance: If variety appeals to you and you’d rather work at a smaller studio or as a self-employed freelancer, a generalist degree is advisable. Smaller studios can’t employ as many artists, so every hire has to possess a broad range of abilities.
2. How Much Do You Already Know?
  • No Experience: If you’re fresh out of high school, or have no previous 3D experience, strongly consider seeking out a generalist degree. Without experimenting in different aspects of 3D development, it’s very hard to choose a specialty. The best course of action would probably be a traditional four year institution that allows you to complete a narrowly focused thesis project in your final year.

  • Ahead of the Curve: If you’ve already become well versed in 3D on your own time, or have previously completed some sort of generalist training, start looking into one or two year specialist programs.

    Specialist programs have the advantage of being tightly focused; if you put in the necessary work you’ll leave with a polished demo reel to show prospective employers. If you’re absolutely sure what branch of 3D you want to focus on, a specialist degree is the fastest way to develop your portfolio.

What to Avoid:

There are a lot of good degree programs out there, but only a handful of great ones. For-profit schools like Full Sail University and the Art Institutes look and sound appealing at first glance, and they market themselves very thoroughly.

As is the case anywhere, a highly motivated student can come away from a school like Full Sail with a very solid demo reel and skill-set. But tread lightly—anecdotal reports from many CG forums and online communities are generally discouraging.

The Most Common Criticisms:
  • Quantity over Quality: Because the schools operate for a profit, their goal is to admit and graduate as many students as possible, sometimes at the expense of quality instruction.

  • Inaccessible Instructors: Professors have too many students, rendering personal relationships and one-on-one feedback virtually impossible.

  • Outdated or Unfocused Curriculums: Students complain that new tools and production techniques are adopted slowly, and curriculums are bloated with “filler” courses with little industry relevance.

Making the Decision:

By now you’ve probably noticed that this article didn’t exactly contain a ton of tangible recommendations for specific schools and degree programs.

Our main purpose here was to get you thinking about which questions you should be considering when you start your research. There are a lot of schools out there, and it’s far easier to narrow down your choices when know exactly what you’re looking for and why you’re looking for it.

Your final decision should be well informed, and we strongly urge anyone considering a 3D education to do thorough research before settling on a school.

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