If you learn anything from animator Nick Fredin’s IMDB page, it’s that he’s a busy guy. His work has spanned from game and character animation to digital effects and pre-visualization, taking him from his native Canada to the shores of New Zealand in the process. With a slew of award-winning and blockbuster films under his belt like Rango, The Adventures of Tin Tin, and The Hobbit, Fredin is no stranger to the sometimes frenetic world of animation. In fact, he embraces it.
Along with fellow animator Jeff Peppers, Fredin co-founded CG Spectrum a few years ago- an online film and games school that’s rapidly gaining recognition. Attracting top-notch industry mentors and boasting incredibly small classes (typically 5:1), the school’s top priority is its students. Diploma-granting programs in 3D Character Animation, 3D Modelling, Concept Design, Houdini FX and Maya bring them up to work-level competency in as little as a year from wherever in the world they happen to be. CG Spectrum also offers several non-diploma courses to get students up to speed or help them brush up their skillsets.
We were eager to learn more about CG Spectrum from Fredin, who’s currently working for Weta Digital Down Under (psst… we hear he’s in the midst of wrapping up work on the impending The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug). He graciously granted us his limited time via email. Read on for our exclusive interview below!
ACR: Nick thanks for participating in our latest Q&A amidst your busy schedule! I have to start by asking what crunch-time is like at Weta Digital on a Peter Jackson film…
Nick Fredin: Crunch time on a Peter Jackson film is quite intense. Given the scope and the complexity of such a massive film franchise, there is a demand from artists to be constantly on top of their game and to dedicate themselves to the project. Peter Jackson constantly raises the bar and pushes the envelope. Weta has the resources and skills to accomplish the best and we’re expected to deliver high quality work in a relatively short amount of time due to the sheer amount of work we have to accomplish. That being said, artists at Weta are treated extremely well and we work on the best projects in the world so it’s an amazing experience and it makes coming to work every morning quite easy.
ACR: Despite your hectic work calendar, you and your colleague Jeff Pepper start up CG Spectrum, an online film and games school. Why?
NF: Jeff and I had talked about starting a school almost immediately when we met each other. We both felt our educational experience hadn’t given us the skills that we expected to acquire. We were both lucky to have received great opportunities through hard work and dedication but felt we had taken the long route. Our conversations eventually led to us understanding we thought we could offer something far more personalized- and of much higher quality- than we had ever hoped to have had. In all honesty we didn’t fully realize what a large endeavor it would be until we started meeting so many other people that had the same experience which created the demand.
ACR: What are some elements you feel are often missing in animation education that CG Spectrum addresses?
NF: The biggest thing we felt that was missing from the educational experience was the amount of time that teachers spent with the students and the lack of experience that the teachers had. A lot of the people you learn from, unfortunately, are professional teachers not industry professionals. At CG Spectrum, we want to give the students as much time with industry professionals as possible so they can get the best possible education for their tuition. The amount of money that students pay for their education can be staggering for the quality of education they receive.
ACR: Does online learning present unique attributes that trump traditional brick-and-mortar schools for animation and VFX?
NF: The advent of online education has opened the doors to a host of benefits that you can’t get with a brick and mortar school. The costs of running a physical school (hardware, software, electricity bills, etc.) are passed on to the students; with online education you can invest in the teachers which allows you to attract high-end talent who may otherwise not be available due to location. Someone in Canada or the USA, for instance, can learn from someone who is at that moment working on a feature film half way across the world. It gives students access to a wide variety of specialized professionals as opposed to teachers that are conveniently located nearby and might not currently work in the industry.
ACR: Your students enjoy enviably close working relationships with their instructors, thanks in part to very small class sizes. How do you find instructors willing to give up their spare time?
NF: That has actually been one of the easiest parts of setting up our school. It definitely takes a certain type of person who after a long day at work still has the energy to dedicate to teaching but this industry seems to attract those types of people from the beginning starting with their educational experience. Our head of animation, Mark Pullyblank, says “Those who do it the most do it the best.” That attitude goes for both students and instructors so the two seem to attract each other. We don’t weigh our teachers down with so many students that they feel they aren’t able to offer their best. They are able to channel their passion into their teaching which in turn inspires the student instead of leaving them frustrated and bitter.
ACR: What type of student makes a good fit for a CG Spectrum education?
NF: We make sure we meet with every student and try to understand their intentions and desires. Enthusiasm is the first and most important quality. You can tell right away when you talk to a potential student whether they have the drive and excitement that it takes to become a professional VFX artist. Someone with no experience but true enthusiasm will always go far. We made the choice to offer specialized programs so we can focus on teaching those aspects which in turn attracts people who have a curiosity and passion for them.
ACR: Typically how long does it take for the average student to complete one of the diploma-granting programs?
NF: Depending on the course, you can complete a diploma course in 12-18 months. We suggest dedicating a minimum of 20 hours per week on all courses. We strongly recommend a student applies themselves to the courses full-time but we know that many students have part-time jobs and life happens so we are very flexible with our scheduling and try to accommodate student schedules. Like any type of study, you get out what you put in.
ACR: The CG Rent-A-Mentor program helps individuals who may already have their education or be working in the field but want to fine-tune their skills. Tell us about it.
NF: CG Rent-A-Mentor was designed with several types of people in mind. We wanted to offer a way for graduates to get any extra help they need, whether it’s designing an amazing demo reel shot or getting advice from people who understand what they have been through. We also wanted to offer guidance for anyone who felt their skill set wasn’t up to their satisfaction and get them to a level they are happy with. Another interesting example is someone who came to us wanting to learn 3D animation who had been a professional stop motion artist for many years. We really try to cater to anyone’s needs and we make sure to find the right mentor for that job.
ACR: On the flipside, if someone is lacking animating experience or prior coursework, where can they go before enrolling in one of CG Spectrum’s diploma programs?
NF: We encourage any potential students who apply to have an enthusiasm and curiosity for animation and to have some software knowledge. We offer an introduction to Maya course where students can download a copy of Maya and we teach them the basics in a 4-week intensive course. With our small class sizes it’s easy for us to focus on an individual’s needs and give them the attention they deserve rather than expecting everyone to be on the same level from the get go.
ACR: As you know all too well, animators and VFX artists are often freelancers with very nomadic lives. What gives artists an edge in this competitive environment, and how do you foster these attributes in students?
NF: That’s a really great question and an issue we feel extremely passionate about. Firstly, we feel that schools are doing an injustice to the hundreds of students that graduate yearly without the proper skills to succeed in such a competitive environment. The sheer volume of students that some schools pump out breeds a toxic environment and creates so many problems such as an oversaturated industry of low skilled workers; in turn that drives lower wages and creates lower quality work. What we aim to do is train highly skilled graduates that can hit the ground running without being burdened by huge student debt and work at an industry standard without having to be retrained their first day on the job.
As you mentioned, the life of an animator can be a nomadic one. This has become a reality in the industry which has affected people positively and negatively. There are a number of factors that control where a studio decides to base the location which is mostly out of the artists’ control. VFX has become a global industry and following the work is a part of that. Animation and VFX are only getting more and more prominent and won’t be going anywhere so there will be plenty of work. It’s just a matter of where it is. It gets harder to move when you have a family and kids so it’s something to take into consideration when you’re starting your career.
ACR: Where do CG Spectrum grads typically go once they earn their diploma?
NF: Upon graduation, without previous experience students can realistically expect to have acquired the skills to animate for television or games. For those students graduating with an exceptional skill level, junior animator level positions for feature films may be achievable. We aren’t in the business of selling dreams; there are a lucky few that make it straight into the big studios but realistically everyone has to work hard and dedicate years to reach their dream job. Our graduates have gone on to participate in Sony Pictures Imageworks internships, animate on Nickelodeon's Monster vs. Aliens TV show, and create amazing video game cinematics.
ACR: Last but not least, anything additional you’d like to share with aspiring animators and prospective students?
NF: All right here goes! Before committing yourself to a school, make sure you do your research. Try to talk to other students about their experience. It’s easy to get hypnotized by the “Graduation Reels” that mostly show the best work from artists that take courses and have been working in the industry for years. Find out how many graduates they have each year and how many (of those) have jobs. Becoming an animator is not a “get rich quick” pursuit and it can take years of determination and patience to reach your goals. If you want to be amongst the best, there are only three things you have to do: practice, practice, practice.
If you’ve read all of this and still want to be an animator we’d love to talk to you! Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ACR: Nick, thank you immensely for giving up your time to answer our questions. Looking forward to watching CG Spectrum in future!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.