South Africa’s budding animation and visual effects industries have been on a roll in recent years. Immeasurably aided by the critically acclaimed work of production houses like Triggerfish Studios, South Africa’s burgeoning animation ecosystem owes much to The Animation School.
The school was founded over a decade ago to remedy the lack of highly trained 3D artists embarking on their careers and stimulate local industry. Offering a comprehensive three-year Animation Diploma, it has fueled that industry ever since with talented graduates who garner international awards and find work in enviable places- both at home in South Africa and around the globe.
Today, the school’s 300 students choose between the original Cape Town campus and the new Johannesburg digs- both of which mimic the studio and feature state-of-the-art facilities. We were eager to hear how The Animation School services the needs of industry with such success, so for our latest spotlight Q&A we speak with co-founder Nuno Martins. We hope you enjoy! (This interview was done via email & has been edited minimally for length).
ACR: Back in 2000, you and fellow animator-turned-educator Peter den Hartogh founded The Animation School in Cape Town. What was the impetus and the industry response?
Nuno Martins: Our mission was to establish a specialist animation school that provided students with the skills required to enter the South African animation industry. At that time, the South African animation industry employed visual effects artists/animators based on their traditional art skills and trained them on the job which was time consuming, expensive and slowed down production tremendously. We developed a curriculum that prepared students with the skills to enter the animation industry and be productive within the first day of employment.
Initially, the animation industry was skeptical of our intentions due to the fact that no other institution at the time had satisfied their immediate needs. However, within three years we proved that we were going to build the visual effects and animation industry from the ground up. Industry began to give us feedback on how we could progress and best prepare the graduates for employment. The Animation School continues to service the industry with skilled animators and our employers feel that we here to assist them with any particular needs they may require to push the industry forward.
ACR: Your instructors hail from a wide variety of industry backgrounds. Tell us a little about how you choose them...
NM: Our first and most important criterion is industry experience, but it doesn’t end there. Our teachers need to have a passion for teaching, be able to deliver a very demanding curriculum, and inspire. We believe that teachers are the heart of the institution and should be mentored and supported accordingly. At present, we have an excellent team of teachers with both industry experience and higher education qualifications including Masters in Animation graduates. We also support and fund any teachers wishing to continue their studies as this benefits both student and teacher. We are currently in discussion with a well known foreign animation school to implement a teacher exchange program which will be the first of it’s kind in South Africa.
ACR: What software are your students currently using and why?
NM: Our selection process is quite simple: we look to industry for advice. Working with industry helps us to determine any upcoming trends that could influence the curriculum. Then we adapt accordingly. Our academic advisory committee (which includes industry professionals) meet twice a year to discuss and advise us on industry trends. At present, our core 3D software is Autodesk Maya and MudBox; on the 2D side we teach Toonboom and TV Paint. We also rely heavily on Adobe products such as Photoshop, Premiere and After Effects.
In our 3rd and final year of study, students produce their short films in groups and for these productions we have introduced highly acclaimed software packages such as Nuke, Houdini and Renderman. We are the only animation institution in Africa providing these high-end software packages to students. If we identify industry needs early on then skilled artists can be groomed in respective software packages accordingly to fit industry needs. It is this attitude that has contributed to The Animation School being the most popular option for industry when selecting candidates for employment.
ACR: Third-year students participate in a capstone in-house internship program. Tell us a bit about it.
NM: In our third and final year of study, we have designed the environment and the curriculum to simulate a professional visual effects and animation studio. So, final year students learn the process of visual effects and animation production while producing their animation short films. This in-house internship allows students to understand the intricate processes of an animation pipeline while producing their short films- something that is non-existent in most animation courses in South Africa.
In addition to this in-house internship program, final year students take part in a mandatory 2-week experiential learning program which takes place at an animation studio, production house, games development studio, etc. It further prepares graduates with the an understanding of production pipelines at the professional level. This extensive preparation has been a success in both the skill level of graduates and their confidence in finding employment. In fact, industry leaders have openly confirmed that our graduates are productive within the first day of employment, validating that our program is adding value and servicing the industry with skilled visual effects and animation artists.
ACR: Obviously, The Animation School focuses on preparing graduates for industry. Do any of your graduates leverage their skills for the increasingly relevant non-entertainment fields that utilize animation and visual effects?
NM: As of the early days, we knew that the curriculum lent itself to many industries as you mention. However, we needed to service the animation industry as they required larger teams of digital artists. The great aspect of teaching students visual effects and animation for television and film is that it’s the highest possible quality of digital artistry one could produce, meaning that graduates had a larger pool of options upon graduation. We can confidently say that we have graduates in every possible industry related to animation, visual effects and many others fields including games development. In the final year, students are introduced to several guest speakers from a variety of related industries so as to encourage them to consider their broad range of options available.
ACR: Your campuses in Cape Town and Johannesburg mimic tricked-out studios that would no doubt be the envy of many readers here. What are the benefits of the studio environment that you’ve created for students?
NM: We had the opportunity to build an environment to educate our students and provide our teachers with a platform to deliver our demanding curriculum. Together with a team of architects and engineers, we invested time and money to establish an environment that is comfortable, well equipped in terms of technology, and inspiring. We once again observed what was going on in industry and mimicked the studio feel so that our students could become accustomed to the environment making their transition into industry less daunting.
When we launched the new campus in Johannesburg two years ago we prepared it with exactly the same philosophy making it an additional animation institution with equipment, facilities and staff contingent to match. In the spirit of maintaining quality of education in both campuses we have synced the curriculum to the extent of providing the exact same delivery in both campuses simultaneously day in and day out. We believe and have received positive feedback that students not only require the theoretical knowledge and technical skills but must also be able negotiate the challenges of working in a team.
ACR: What do you believe South Africa has to offer to the animation landscape and what are your expectations and hopes for its evolution in the next decade?
NM: We live in a developing country with immense potential and energy. The South African animation and visual effects industries offer a uniqueness that is exclusive to Africa and the world. South Africans are excited to produce, collaborate, deliver and compete. We have the talent and workforce to provide a fresh new African look to the entertainment industry as Triggerfish Studios has proven with their films Adventures in Zambezia and Khumba. They paved the way for the South African animation industry and gave us the confidence to compete internationally. We work very closely with Triggerfish and about forty other studios in South Africa which include a vast cross-section of the digital production industry tackling any possible industry you could imagine.
The Animation School understands that our role as educators is to service the industry with skilled, talented and well-prepared graduates. Having this philosophy is what’s helped develop the animation and visual effects industry to this point but it requires maintenance so we will continue to work with industry so that hand-in-hand we can continue to build this digital ecosystem and deliver fresh new entertainment to the world.
ACR: Creating that ecosystem has no doubt included some unforeseen challenges. Any that stand out?
NM: The unforeseen challenges were a lack of funding; in this industry, equipment and software is expensive and requires daily maintenance. The ecosystem has grown organically and we have benefited hugely from the investment of time, advice and active role that the industry plays (here).
ACR: And the rewards?
NM: The rewards are seeing our students enter the market place both in South Africa and abroad. Being pivotal in the feature film productions by Triggerfish Studios and many other local production houses in South Africa, which have and continue to awe the world with their high quality visual effects and animation. The international awards are incredibly gratifying as this allows us to assess whether or not what we deliver is at an international level. Our goal is to win an Oscar... watch this space.
ACR: Last but not least Nuno, with all of its success to date where does The Animation School go from here?
NM: The Animation School strives to be one of the leaders in animation and visual effects education. We invite collaborations from foreign institutions and are open to share and learn. We have the privilege and honour to be associated with Gobelins L'École de L'Image- ranked number 1 in the world. We have entertained master classes for many years and now we are moving into an exchange student program in 2017. We also support and send teachers to their prestigious GOBELINS Summer School programme on an annual basis and are working on marketing their Masters programme to our graduating students. The Animation School will continue to work towards being in the top 20 animation schools in the world and excited to continue to build the South African visual effects and animation industry.
ACR: Exciting, indeed. Thanks for filling us in on The Animation School Nuno!
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.