As its name suggests, there’s nothing common about Odd School and its approach to digital arts education. And that’s exactly how its founders wanted it. Seeking high quality candidates for positions in one of the country’s largest production companies, Até ao Fim do Mundo, was no easy task. The school formed out of this dilemma in an attempt to cultivate the next generation of animators and 3D artists in Portugal’s vibrant capital, Lisbon.
Odd School is raising the bar on its course offerings, the artists it turns out and the growing, internationally-oriented Portuguese digital arts scene that it is part and parcel of. Recently, it attracted our attention, landing a spot high on our annual Top 100 International Animation Schools list and spurring us to learn more about it. For our latest spotlight Q&A, we caught up with Agostinho Ribeiro, Creative Director of Até ao Fim do Mundo, and David Dias, 3D artist and Odd School instructor to learn more. Enjoy! (This interview was done via email & has been edited for grammar & clarity where necessary).
ACR: Gentlemen, thank you for participating in our latest Q&A! Agostinho, let’s start with you. Odd School was hatched by one of Portugal’s largest production companies, Até ao Fim do Mundo. Why did the company want to get involved in the education sector?
Agostinho Ribeiro: First of all, thanks for the invitation to do this interview. Odd School was created by Até ao Fim do Mundo company and by a group of professionals with the objective of creating “critical mass” for the Portuguese VFX, animation and games industry. This is an ambitious and defiant project- the industry (here) had to grow in its response capability, so that the goals could be achieved. It takes time.
Traditionally, artists were self-taught doing small courses in technical schools, more generic courses in universities or they had to go to schools abroad which consequently costs more. In time, Portuguese companies, besides having a remarkable growth, were confronted with difficulties in hiring enough quality artists. Although companies would recognize the creative capacities of many artists, they also acknowledge some lack of objectivity, technical skills and work methods. The artists weren’t prepared for team work, company work and most importantly for constantly evolving work.
Founder companies and professionals understood that they had to help make the industry grow but they couldn’t do it by themselves.
Odd School created an environment where education occurs as if it was a real life work project. There is an ideal space for creative experimentation and objectiveness with some pressure to meet deadlines while having an educational team to support the students. We realized that not only did we have to create the “critical mass” for the Portuguese market but also that this is a global market.
ACR: How has Odd School evolved in the time since its inception?
AR: We adjusted our focus to help aspiring artists evolve so that they can achieve well placed positions in any international company and, at the same time, (we can) attract international students. The better our students are, no matter the country they work in, the better the Portuguese market will be and international artists will be attracted to work on local projects.
We had to focus on quality (to do that). In the beginning, the results were hard and the methods were reasonably different from previous ones- evolution was achieved by trial and error. Odd School built relationships and partnerships with other schools and international artists as well as with national and international companies as a way to conquer space for our students to continue their path. Nowadays, with educational processes closer to what we wanted, every year we evaluate creative trends and analyze the needs and capacities of the market so that we can better define our choices. Odd School is a project- it’s a business of growth but most of all it is an idea. Just like all the ideas, only time will tell what it’s right or wrong or if it’s the right one.
ACR: Turning to you David, how big is Odd School now in terms of its student and faculty populations? And what are some of the classes currently offered?
David Dias: We are a small school and happy with that… for now! The number of students varies from 30 to 50. Our classes have a maximum of 10 students so that the instructors can give full attention to each one and to their projects. Their learning curve is more efficient this way.
Right now, the school always offers two classes that run full time: the 3D Modeling and Texturing class (1 year) and the Concept Art class (2 years). Each can have a maximum of 10 students. We also have the Foundation classes that are around 5 weeks each for students who want to get in the advanced classes or just want to improve their skills. We also have one or two night classes.
The number of instructors varies, so it’s difficult to give you an exact number. Most of our teachers are either freelancers or professionals from different studios. Some can only teach at night, others just for some months and others can come two days a week. On top of that, we have invited artists that stay for a short period of time to (give) lectures, workshops and review our students work. It’s hard to manage the schedule this way but we believe the students will have a better experience with professionals who themselves are working. They can bring real life experience and expertise to the class room. Our instructors are one of the reasons that we’ve been progressing- not only because of their capabilities but also because of their belief in this idea. They are our motor of change and we are very proud and grateful to them.
ACR: I hear your instructors are quite diverse with regard to their own professional endeavors…
DD: Our instructors, generally speaking, are really diverse regarding their work experience and background. We have photographers and traditional painters and CG painters to motion designers and video editors, 3D artists for animation and illustrators. They can come from advertising agencies, TV studios and freelancing. It’s a mixed solution that we believe is the best for students to gain knowledge on all these different work realities.
ACR: Speaking of working professionals, David you were a freelancing 3D artist prior to teaching at Odd School. How did you get this gig at Odd School and what do you enjoy most about teaching?
DD: To be honest, I had never imagined myself as a teacher but one of my closest friends is one of the school founders. He knew my work so about two years ago he asked me if I wanted to give a Foundation class in 3DS Max. I managed to teach the class while keeping my freelancing going. I had some doubts about my capability to teach and was really nervous about it; after all, some of the students were older than me! But the environment of the school is really relaxed and casual, and everyone- from students to the administrative structure- was really nice. That helped me to get on my way.
I’ve been giving Foundation classes since then. By the end of 2013, I was invited to stay full time to help with other full year classes and give my support to the school in matters related to students and artists. It’s been great so far! I’ve met a ton of great artists and it’s really cool to see our students’ evolution. On top of that, I feel like I’m evolving in my own work with this interaction. On a personal note, we spend so much time together and our classes are so small that we become friends. I still freelance but I have to be more selective about my choices because there are not enough hours in the day!
ACR: You spoke briefly about the Foundational courses offered. What are the expectations for students taking these courses?
DD: Our expectations started small but are getting higher as you can see from the works we publish in our Facebook page and website. This is not just a result of our work but also because of the quality of our students. They arrive here with big desires for knowledge; they want to learn and that’s an inspiration for us. In the end of each Foundation, the students deliver a final project and take an 8 hour test in which they have to respond to a clear briefing we give them, handle the pressure and manage their time on their own. This is quite unusual in Portugal. The students that want to go for the advanced classes (1 or 2 years) need to have at least a grade of 75% on each foundation to get in.
ACR: I understand you are in the midst of coordinating a new 1-year advanced 3D course. Can you tell us a little about that and a few other advanced courses in the works at Odd School?
DD: I'm coordinating the advanced 3D Class together with the 3D artists Rui Louro (from the production company Até ao Fim do Mundo) and David Ferreira (freelancer). This course was the natural evolution to our foundations line-up. Here they will dig deep in 3DS Max, Zbrush, Mudbox and Photoshop, learning how to use them together. The course itself is split into three terms: the first is focused on 3D Modeling; the second on Materials, Textures and UVs; and the last term on Render, Post-production and Character Modeling. They also will have support classes to help them evolve like Color Theory, Anatomy, Traditional Sculpture, Photography and many others.
The students will have to deliver two projects by the end of the year: a class project where everyone works on the same project but does it separately so that the teacher has more control on how everything is processed; the other is a personal project where they choose what they want to do (Sci-Fi, Wild West, Medieval Age, Cartoon, History, War, Movies, Games) and they have to show their development in class every 2 weeks.
Apart from this, we invite an international artist each term for a full week to create a workshop and lecture about their own professional experience or projects. During the year we invite national artists to give a specific class for a day. We also have the advanced course in Concept Art, and are preparing two more advanced courses: the Motion Graphics course and the 3D Animation course. We get a lot of requests for these, but we are taking our time to make sure everything is refined, raising the bar high as we do on all of our courses. If everything goes well, we'll have one of them ready before the end of this year. As I told you before, we are constantly listening and analyzing the market to evaluate our response capabilities.
ACR: As a self-taught CG artist yourself David, do you feel you have a greater appreciation for trial-and-error learning and problem solving? How do you teach others what you learned through experience?
DD: I believe that trial and error is essential for the learning process. The most important thing we can teach our students is how to think for themselves, how to use the tools in different ways to face different kinds of projects. I try to explain the best I can each tool and then give them different exercises where they must think on solutions to use them in many ways.
When students arrive to Odd School, most of them have the preconceived idea that there's just one solution for a problem. We have to make them realize that there are many different ways to solve that one “problem”. You have to figure out what works best to keep the quality high, using the best tool for the job. This helps them get ready for the work reality, where they have to adapt fast and get the job done with what they’re given.
One of the things I try to do is something I really missed when I started: seeing how other more experienced artists work. So I usually do a personal project each term and also make a small presentation during the class. In the end, I give the students all the original files so they can see and play with it. They really like this and it also helps me push to do better for them. The best results come from teaching students how to think. The technique must complete the creative side, leaving space for experimentation and evolution.
ACR: Agostinho, where might we find some recent Odd School graduates?
AR: The results are starting to be rewarding. Odd School has former students working in motion graphics, VFX and 3D, in animation cinema and TV production that possibly will develop into gaming. Other (former) students are showing their work in Portuguese companies as well as some very big international companies.
ACR: Lastly, Portugal’s rich culture has long been influenced by the arts. Today, acclaimed CG artists and animators like Regina Pessoa, Daniel Sousa & a string of others attract world-wide attention. It’s an exciting time to be an artist in Portugal…
DD: Portugal has a rich heritage, history and culture that has influenced the new and the established artists. In architecture, besides the historic works, we have recent Pritzker awards: Siza Vieira and Eduardo Souto Moura. In painting, (Portuguese-born, UK-residing) Paula Rego is considered one of the four best painters in England. Talking about sculpture, Joana Vasconcelos recently sold out in the Versailles exhibition. In writing, Nobel Prize winner José Saramago and in the electronic music DJ Vibe is considered one of the best in the world. We can’t forget our national sound, Fado, and Mariza with several world music awards. Composer Rodrigo Leão created the OST for last year’s film The Butler.
The combination of all of these with great landscapes, monuments, weather, perfect food, a life turned to the oceans and seas, invites 250 million Portuguese speakers around the world; English is a second language so there is the capability to easily learn and communicate in any other language. It inspires artists to get out and absorb everything our country can give and… to live!
In a more specific area- CG art- we already have many great artists working outside Portugal in major companies who have climbed all the way to the top. In 2013, Monocle Magazine edited their annual “countries soft power issue” and after analyzing the artistic and technological capabilities of the country, commented that Portugal should be the European California. In Odd School we are giving our very small contribution to this.
ACR: David, Agostinho- thank you both for telling us more about Odd School. It was a pleasure!
DD & AR: Thanks!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.