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Animator & Video Game Veteran Greg Marlow serves as Assistant Professor of Animation and Modeling at ETSU.
Nestled into the idyllic and adventurous landscape of the Great Smoky Mountains, East Tennessee State University offers a comprehensive Animation program on par with some of the best in the country. It does so with a highly competitive public university tuition rate, small class sizes, rigorous curriculum, and an enviable roster of working faculty members.
Assistant Professor of Animation Greg Marlow is no stranger to the many merits of ETSU. As an alumnus himself of the university, he gained exposure to big studios that eventually led him to coastal cities in pursuit of animation opportunities. But he was lured back to east Tennessee to guide the next generation of animation students within ETSU’s Digital Media Department.
Offering 4 concentrations including Digital Animation, students in the department gain a broad foundation from which to build a footing while advancing into the particulars of their respective focuses. We recently caught up with Marlow to talk about the unique qualities of the Digital Media major as well as how Animation students leverage it for their growth as animators and career potential. Enjoy!
ACR: Greg, your story comes full circle at East Tennessee State University. You’re both an Assistant Professor of Animation at ETSU as well as an alumnus of the university. What did you appreciate most about being a student at ETSU, and what drew you back as an educator?
Greg Marlow: I was initially drawn to the program as a student because it was one of the first of its kind. The program that eventually became our Digital Media department started in 1994; for comparison, the first Toy Story movie was released in 1995. I came here in 1998 as a freshman only knowing I wanted to do something creative in my life but having no idea where it was going to lead me.
I was drawn back to the department because I feel like we are doing something important here. We offer a B.S. in Digital Media at a state university in the Appalachian region, and our students’ work is competitive with the best student work in the country. Being in this department still feels like we are pushing boundaries even today. I’ve given lots of tours of the department to prospective students, and I think they can feel that energy and it makes them want to be part of it, too. You can see it click in a students head when they realize, “Oh, wow! I can really spend the rest of my life animating, and people will pay me for it!”
ACR: You teach within the Digital Media Bachelor of Science degree that offers students a choice between 4 concentrations- Animation among them. At what point in their education do they select their track?
GM: This is probably one of the favorite things about our curriculum. There is no freshman-level review to get accepted into the department. If you are accepted by the university, you can start as a freshman in Digital Media. During freshman year, students take four “principles” courses, one for each of the four concentrations. This gives students a chance to try out all the different paths the department offers and learn the foundations of each.
Students then choose their concentration during their sophomore year in the mid-point review course where they present the work from their first year’s principles courses. I went to a high school that didn’t have art classes at the time. I wouldn’t have been accepted to a college with a freshman portfolio requirement. Our program gives students a chance to build that portfolio as freshmen, and at the same time helps them make a more informed decision about what they want to focus on for the next 3 years.
ACR: In your view Greg, what are the advantages for Animation students to being a part of the Digital Media degree umbrella?
GM: I tell my students that their major classes will get them their first job, but their core and elective classes in the department get them the promotion. We are not only helping students develop into amazing digital artists, animators, game designers, and effects artists, but with a Bachelor’s degree they also come away with a well-rounded understanding of math, history, science, and culture. Creators need to draw from areas outside their focus to make powerful and relevant work. The curriculum’s electives and core allow the students to customize their degree in order to create some unique student experiences. Dance, C++ programming, and figure painting are all suitable electives for a specific student’s goals. The industry changes every day, and the B.S. degree allows the flexibility for the students to adapt to it.
ACR: How many students are in the major and the Animation concentration, Greg?
GM: We maintain around 300 majors. About 100 of those choose the Animation concentration and another 100 choose Game Design. The Visual Effects and Visualization concentrations have about 50 students each.
ACR: Students work together both in an out of class time with a variety of co-curricular activities they engage in. What’s the culture like within the Animation concentration?
GM: I would describe the culture as “supportive.” Our program isn’t easy. It’s fun, but it is also a lot of hard work. Of course the faculty are all very helpful and approachable during lab time, office hours, and one-one-one meetings. But there is a sense of camaraderie amongst the students that seems to start in their first year of principles classes. They form friendships while working late on projects with their classmates or in one of the student organizations like EDGE (the digital media student interest group) or Gaming Communities (the gaming student interest group). They meet supportive students from higher level clases who remember the help they received in the past and want to pay it forward.
I was surprised the other day to find out our students had formed several Discord servers just to help lower-level students who might be struggling. I think our students take pride in the work that comes out of our department, and they encourage each other and hold each other accountable to raising the quality of that work every year.
So lots of work, but also a lot of fun. Game nights, movie nights, and whiteboards covered in drawings that have developed into departmental memes. You can’t work that hard as part of a team without forming some friendships.
ACR: Which hardware and software are your students leveraging?
GM: Our labs are renewed every four years with high-end PCs, and multiple labs have Cintiqs and 4K monitors. Students can check out cameras, lighting equipment, VR headsets, and a variety of other equipment. This reduces the need for them to buy their own expensive hardware. And we attempt to teach using the most relevant industry software for the topic they are learning. For 3D animation, we use Autodesk Maya and for 2D animation we use Toon Boom Harmony Premium. We use Unreal Engine 4 and zBrush for gaming classes, Substance Painter and Designer for creating 3D materials, the Adobe Creative Cloud suite for 2D image creation, design, and layout, and Adobe Premiere, Adobe After Effects, Houdini, Cinema 4D, and Nuke in visual effects work.
But it is most important to realize that the industry changes quickly. Job advertisements aren’t looking for “Maya users,” they are looking for animators. We try to emphasize skill above software. Once you understand how to create a believable performance or convincing weight in your animation, it becomes relatively trivial to become comfortable in another software package.
ACR: You mentioned VR headsets. How does VR/AR play a role in the curriculum?
GM: It plays a role primarily in the Game Design concentration. We have Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets that we use in game design classes and have even used to create products for clients in the region. A student team developed a virtual tour of the university’s new football stadium. Other student teams created interactive VR and AR museum tools for the Gray Fossil Site and training tools for medical professionals at a nearby children’s hospital. It is important for students to interact with new technology to stay relevant to changes within the industry. We try to layer those opportunities into the classroom experience.
ACR: Animators wear many hats, so to speak, and tackle a variety of jobs. It sounds like the curriculum prepares students for the diverse work opportunities that await them...
GM: Our students get a broad foundational understanding in the freshmen year principles classes, and then a deep focus on an area of their concentration. The upper level classes are repeatable for credit, so if a student wants to dive deep into character animation or effects animation, they can tailor their portfolio to the job they want. We think of this as a T shaped skill set -- a wide foundation and a deep focus. This means when our students are in the industry, they have a basic understanding of what their coworkers’ jobs entail and how they can best fit into that pipeline. It also means that they are more adaptable and capable of shifting focuses on small teams or even making lateral moves if necessary. It also helps in smaller studio environments that our students can wear a variety of hats.
ACR: Having worked as an animator in the video game industry for many years now yourself, Greg, what skill sets have proven to be the most effective?
GM: The most important hard skills for animators- whether it be in games, film, or tv animation- is a strong foundation in the 12 principles of animation. They are the gift that keeps on giving because I learn something new from them every day. We teach them at the freshman level, and then spend 4 years digging deep into the concepts and learning how to utilize them. No matter how many layers I peel back, there always seems to be more to learn from them. I think each creative focus has an equivalent set of foundational skills that are crucial.
Some of the soft skills that prove helpful in a studio are things that make you a valuable team member. Stuff like good communication skills, being positive, being reliable, and putting the good of the project ahead of personal feelings. These are things that are very important in a studio environment. Because most of our classes are project-based and many projects have collaborative elements and critique sessions, our students hone those skills while they are here.
Lastly, critical thinking is kind of an academic buzzword, but I tell my students that their job is not going to be repeating the same task every day. They are going to be hired to solve problems. I like to say that I never start a project I already know how to do. Problem solving skills are hard to teach, and the only way to learn it is to practice solving problems you haven’t already solved.
ACR: What technological advancements and trends excite you and your students the most in the field?
GM: I’m very excited about the future of real-time and GPU rendering and the impacts that will have on both interactive and passive media. It really shakes up the traditional production pipeline of animation in ways that will lead to a lot of creative uses. We are already seeing game engines being used for rendering in animation and film production and many of our students have used Unreal as their render engine for animation projects. There is also a growing number of animators who are really starting to think out of the box in how they create animation. There are people like Richard Lico who animates using a series of tools instead of a predefined rig, or Goro Fujita who is animating virtual 3D paintings in VR using Quill. They are making people realize how far outside of the box you can push your workflow. Animation is just images that change over time. How we create those images is subject to innovation and creativity.
The students’ interests are pretty wide and diverse. I often learn about new technology from them. They really have their ear to the ground, and they are encouraged to take new things they discover and incorporate that into their classwork. It might be an innovative style, tool, or technique. If they can use it to make great work, they are encouraged to do so.
ACR: Switching gears, let’s talk about ETSU’s location. Though it’s tucked into the Appalachian Mountains, it’s not far from Knoxville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and many other cities. What do you enjoy about its rural location?
GM: I think there are wonderful and challenging things about every location. I lived in Baltimore for five years, and I loved the seafood but hated the 5 pm traffic. The big perks of our region is the natural beauty of the mountains. If you like hiking, mountain biking, or just being out in nature, it’s a beautiful place to live. There is also a lot of great culture, music, food, and events like the International Storytelling Festival right down the road. It is small enough to not feel hectic yet big enough to keep you entertained. And Asheville, NC and Knoxville, TN are both just about an hour drive. I moved back to the region because I was born and raised in east Tennessee, and I love it here.
ACR: Many of ETSU’s Animation graduates have found work around the country. How do they gain exposure to studios located elsewhere?
GM: A lot of the animation industry is in California and bigger metropolitan areas. Our graduates have gone on to work at Pixar, ILM, Blizzard, Epic, and countless other places. Opportunities for our students come from those connections to the industry. We regularly send our students to conferences like Creative Talent Network Expo, Siggraph, and the East Coast Game Conference. We also invite industry professionals to be guest speakers each semester. It helps our students build their own professional networks and make industry connections.
I think if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we are capable of overcoming location boundaries. I personally still do a lot of remote freelance work for game studios from my home here in Tennessee. A lot of companies are starting to realize that where you live and where you work don’t always have to have the same zip code.
ACR: Last but not least, Greg, who is the ideal student to apply to the program in terms of their current skills and prior experience, as well as their interests and goals?
GM: An ideal student is anyone who has a passion to create and is willing to put in the time and effort it takes. The vast majority of students who start in our department have never animated or done anything like this before. That’s fine. If you have some experience or even dabbled in animation or other forms of digital media, that’s great but it definitely isn’t required. Everyone brings something with them that is going to help them along the way. Maybe you are a great storyteller or love to solve puzzles or have great rhythm from playing a musical instrument. All of those things are skills that will help you as you work to become a better animator. Each student I meet has a different starting point and end goal. We meet you where you are and help guide you to where you want to be.
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.