The Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg is a powerhouse of a film school and a leader in animation and visual effects education. Offering multiple Animation and Interactive Media degrees, the school draws raves from around the world and produces an enviable roster of graduates. The curriculum centers around project-based learning and classes are taught entirely by working professionals rather than faculty fixtures.
As a publicly funded academy (yes that means tuition is free for all students), The Filmakademie maintains constant dialogue with the German film, animation and VFX industries. It plays host to the globally-renowned FMX International Conference on Animation, Effects, Games & Digital Media, attracting thousands of artists, studios and industry pro’s while offering students the chance to participate in the activities and display their own work. Additionally, the schools has exchange programs with several fellow European Union film school powerhouses which students can take advantage of.
To learn more about the many unique attributes of a Filmakademie education, we were fortunate to speak with several of the powers that be including Professor Thomas Haegele (Dir. of Ints. of Animation, Visual Effects & PostProduction), Professor Inga von Staden (Head of Studies, Interactive Media), Professor Andreas Hykade (Head of Studies, Animation), Tina Ohnmacht (Curriculum Supervisor) and Joachim Genannt (Head of Technology). There’s a lot of information to digest, but we don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Enjoy! (This interview, done via email, has been edited for length & clarity).
ACR: Thanks to each of you for participating in our latest Q&A! The Filmakademie has become a renowned institution whose roots stretch far and wide. Tell us a bit about the school’s history and its offerings…
Thomas Haegele: The Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg was founded in 1991 as a non-profit. Today, it is one of the most renowned international film schools. All Filmakademie courses are tuition-free. German is required for the basic training. Students with a degree from another film school can apply directly for the 3rd and 4th year. As most of the teaching here is done in English, German language skills are helpful but not required.
The project-oriented curriculum triggers learning-by-doing during the different stages of a film and television production, thus making study at the Filmakademie a unique experience. More than 300 highly qualified experts from the film and media business instruct the students and take care of their projects. About 300 films of all genres and formats with top rankings on international festivals are produced each year by teams of students enrolled in animation, cinematography, directing (documentary film, fiction film, advertising film, TV journalism), editing, film music/ sound design, interactive media, motion design, production design, production, scriptwriting and series formats.
ACR: Animation has been a part of Filmakademie from the very beginning. How has it evolved since?
TH: In 2002, the Filmakademie's animation department became the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction, underlining the growing importance of animation, visual effects and games within the Filmakademie's curriculum. Today the Institute takes responsibility for the teaching of all students enrolled in the subject areas Animation and Interactive Media, for the digital postproduction of all projects produced at the Filmakademie, for a small but efficient research department and - last but not least - for organizing one of the top events on digital entertainment: the FMX, Conference on Animation, Effects, Games and Transmedia in Stuttgart.
ACR: Within the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Post-Production, there are two subject areas: Animation and Interactive Media. Prof. Haegele, what can students expect from the Animation side of things?
TH: Both the Animation and Interactive Media studies are four and a half year courses starting with one and a half year of basic film training, together with all the other Filmakadmie students. During their second year, the Animation and Interactive Media students move over to the Institute for half a year of animation and game basics. During the third year students create a short or an interactive application. The fourth year on allows enough time for even ambitious diploma projects.
The subject area Animation is divided into four specializations "Concept & Art", "Animation & Effects", "Animation & Effects Producing" and "Technical Directing". Concept & Art is about finding ideas and developing project proposals and design drafts. Stories, characters and setting are described, visualized and formulated in a world bible that leads to an animated short as a proof of concept or prototype. Concepts for animated features, TV series, games, websites, smart phone apps or other animation-driven media can be derived from these story worlds as well.
Animation & Effects is about creating films and other animation-based projects using various production techniques and personal skill sets, developing workflows enabling a smooth transition from pre-production to the production of assets, post-production and distribution. Dedicated teams of Concept & Art, Animation & Effects, Technical Directing and Animation & Effects Producing students can turn even ambitious projects into reality.
Animation & Effects Producing offers hands-on training in a strictly project-based curriculum with international guest lectures and courses. The curriculum focuses on producing animated shorts and effect sequences in teams of producers, artists and technical supervisors. Emphasis is put on planning, budgeting and scheduling as well as on dealing with team communications, technical resources and working within time constraints. Animation & Effects Producing is a two-year continued education degree requiring a bachelor’s degree or an intermediate diploma in business management or an equivalent working experience.
Technical Directing offers a 30-month training program for computer science graduates; it combines the students’ previous technical knowledge with artistic work – either by working on animated shorts and visual effects as part of a film team or by implementing scientific publications in content-creation tools. Game TDs specialize in transmedia projects, game prototypes and interactive installations. The curriculum is closely linked to the Institute's various research and development projects.
ACR: Professor von Staden, tell us a bit about the Interactive Media offerings…
Inga von Staden: Interactive Media is divided into three specializations: “Content & Interaction Design”, “Visual Expression and User Interface Design” and “Transmedia and Games Production”. Students train to become experts in the design, development and deployment of games, interactive environments, social media platforms or mobile applications. At the same time, students learn to communicate across media disciplines to empower them and their fellow students to work in an increasingly converging media landscape and integrate their expertise in transmedia teams.
Thus, the curriculum features interdisciplinary content development labs with other departments of the Filmakademie and schools from the region as well as workshops with and personal mentoring by internationally renowned experts from across the new media industries (ie. computer and video games, the www, mobile or real world interaction to hone the respective interactive discipline). Project work entails creating content, inventing formats for digital media platforms, building 360° media architectures or designing innovative interfaces.
ACR: The Institute takes a holistic approach, integrating diverse courses and students of different backgrounds under its umbrella. Do they frequently work together on projects?
TH: Animation and Interactive Media students are encouraged to collaborate. They share lectures and workshops and they work together on common projects. These collaborations mean that students not only work on their own project but are involved in many different projects, thus broadening their horizon and learning a lot of essential soft skills. Plus career opportunities for alumni are excellent. They start their own businesses or work as freelancers or join big international companies as well as young and emerging regional enterprises.
Andreas Hykade: For us, the bigger the variety the better. The ideal is that every thesis finds an antithesis. This starts with the selection of our students. They should come from different cultural backgrounds, bringing with them different interests and skills. Then we try to create a space where these different approaches can be exchanged. As it takes many different skills and talents to execute a convincing peace of work, we encourage the students to work in teams so different qualities can be brought into the project. The advantage of this is that the students learn to communicate, learn to work in a team, learn about their individual qualities and make some progress there, but also learn to trust upon others.
Tina Ohnmacht: At the heart of all education at Filmakademie is the production of film projects. We work closely with the film and animation industry. Professionals from Germany and abroad serve as mentors and advisors for student projects. There are, in fact, no staff teachers- all teachers are professionals from the industry. Of course, there are seminars, lectures and workshops but students learn the most by actually producing their projects in teams with different skills.
Teamwork and self-dependency are key elements in the Institute’s education. Animation as we understand it has many different facets and faces. There are numerous forms of animation in our world - be it character animation for a short film, a browser game, concept art, visual effects for a commercial, animated elements in an interactive installation in space, the movement of abstract forms, real-time graphics. We give students the opportunity to specialize, however they do not have to stick to any one specialization: depending on the needs and size of a project, a student could make a film in a very small team where everyone has to work on everything, and then move on to specialize in character rigging on some other projects. Students form the teams for their projects themselves, and are also responsible for choosing an apt production workflow
ACR: Tell us about the post-production work that students so for those in other departments at Filmakademie…
TH: Instead, the Institute provides high-end editing and grading suites that can be booked by all Filmakademie students. It's up to the teams- the DOPs or the directors or sometimes even the producers- to do their own postproduction which follows the Filmakademie's philosophy of learning to make films by making films.
TO: We have also introduced a five steps model of production that all student productions must follow which are designed to guide them through the production process. The first is researching and finding ideas. At the end of this phase, the students have to present four potential ideas for their diploma project.
Next is the development of ideas. All prospective project teams have to prepare a project bible including the core team members, information about research for the project, description of the project, the techniques and pipeline they want to use, first visuals and designs, and a first storyboard. After that comes pre-production which ends with finalized designs, tests (animation, effects, user tests), layout, pipeline/workflow and if applicable, community strategy. Furthermore, they have to present a detailed production schedule and budget.
Then there is production- the actual creation of all final assets, animations, effects etc. Production ends with the presentation of the final film, game, installation, VFX shots, or other project. Lastly is distribution. Distribution for us means that the students have to finish the master(s) of their projects and prepare documentations (trailers, making-of’s, presentations). Also, they have to provide all information necessary to exploit the project on festivals, other events or license them to TV stations or other buyers.
ACR: What are some of the most important skills that your students learn in order to become capable and creative artists and film makers?
AH: First, we tell our students not to train by studying animation books but (rather) by being inspired by real life. We help them to find the individual nature of their projects and encourage them to search for individual expression. In this development, we ask some general questions: what do you feel; where are the visible dynamics; where are the invisible dynamics; what could be the structure; is there a hero; what´s the place; how is the original design; what do we hear; from which point of view do we experience the drama? The students have to find individual and convincing answers to these questions. Once they achieve that, they are ready to take full artistic responsibility.
ACR: Your students’ work gains a great deal of exposure thanks to festivals and industry connections. Can you tell us about some?
TO: The Stuttgart Festival of Animated Film (ITFS), organized by The Film & Media Festival GmbH. is very important for our students. Filmakademie traditionally presents student projects on the last day of the festival to visitors and the general public. Additionally, each year students from the Institute create the trailers for the festival. About 5-8, out of which one is selected as the main trailer for the following year.
However, even more important for the students is the FMX Conference on Animation, Effects, Games and Transmedia which is organized by the Institute and takes place at the same time as the ITFS, broadening and complimenting the festival as a business-to-business event. Over the years it has grown into one of the biggest and most influential conferences on digital media worldwide and is the major European meeting place for the animation, effects and game industry.
Through FMX, Filmakademie is closely linked to the industry. All students of the Institute are involved in the event (whether it be) as guides for the speakers, working on the booth, presenting their work to the audience, or attending presentations on all the latest trends and developments within the industry. And, of course, they use FMX as a career opportunity… especially the recruiting activities taking place at FMX.
ACR: I would be remiss to not inquire about other advantages Filmakademie students have including an enviable assortment of industry tools at their fingertip. Give us a taste of some of the hardware and software students use…
Joachim Genannt: Being an educational institution, we commit ourselves to a wide range of 2D and 3D software packages which are established in the animation and VFX industry like Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite Ultimate (Maya, 3DMax, Softimage...), Houdini FX, Cinema4D, Modo, Unity Pro and more. On compositing side, packages like Nuke (incl. Mari, Hiero, Katana, Occula), Digital Fusion and others are commonly used by our students.
Each student is provided with a dedicated high-end 3D workstation which is renewed to the latest computing technology on a regular basis. These workstations and also dedicated renderblades comprising about 500 CPU cores can be used to quickly output the results of their work, which again is safely stored and archived in a network storage infrastructure of around 280 terabytes (net project space).
Other hardware includes a motion capture system with 24 cameras and a virtual camera system, 3D printer Z450, hardware for stereoscopic and 4K productions. In the postproduction department, our students use finishing and color correction systems from Nucoda, Assimilate, Avid and DVS. All suites are set up for 2D and S3D projection. The final results can be screened for a quality check in our stereoscopic digital cinema theatre.
ACR: Do new animation formats such as mobile apps require different or new skillsets that students must learn?
TO: In the end, the tools, formats and technologies change rapidly and students have to know about them, learn them, apply them in their work. However, films and games and apps for mobiles and all other formats require similar skills in telling a story, designing characters and surroundings and finally resolving everything in images.
IvS: A designer or director of a mobile app, game, interactive environment or social media platform must learn to work in teams right from the start. These students need to acquire the skillsets to communicate with a technical lead, visual artist, animator or creative producer already in the design phase. They become co-creators. The interaction can only become an integral part of the expression if the content- whether it is a story, a game, a communication or function- converges with the technology. And with the advanced integration of CGI in film and the increased use of realtime technologies in animation, we see the same need for such skillsets in animation artists, special effects supervisors or technical directors in film.
The more we see software development becoming an essential parameter in the production of content or the expression of content (ex. games), the more we observe a de-linearization of the so-called pipe-line into a highly iterative and cyclical development process. Alex McDowell from the 5D-institute reframes the process with the term “pipe dream” where all the departments become part of the design phase and optimize the design through a series of prototyping phases into a publishable product. This calls for agile thinking and the willingness to re-design and re-engineer until the very end of a production.
In today’s networked world, the distribution and promotion of content begins in the financing phase. The team starts building a community by kickstarting a project; it feeds content atoms for the future user to play around with in the production phases; there are focus groups that evaluate the usability and functionality of content in the testing phases; and finally the community helps distribute the media product once it is launched. Students who want their products to be seen must learn to build an audience, to understand an audience’s needs and how to activate a community to support the financing, production and distribution of their content.
ACR: What do you believe ultimately factors into the success- both creatively and within industry- that so many of your graduates have found?
TO: I think it is a combination of many things. First, we do not accept students right after school. They have to have some work experience (at least 12 months) before they can even enter the Filmakademie. People who want to apply have to bring a certain knowledge; however, this does not have to be technical or software skills. People can apply with storyboards or concept art, they can apply even if they have never used computers before but are good in hand drawn or puppet animation. We are looking for interesting personalities, gifted artists, and people who bring new exciting ideas into the school to complement each other in inspirational teams.
The Filmakademie’s close connection to the industry plays an important role in the success of the graduates, as well. This is not only achieved through FMX, but also by the fact that we work exclusively with guest teachers who are professionals from the industry – we do not have staff teachers. Thus, the students get direct contact with professionals and the ways of production that are used in the industry.
Another important factor is the success of Filmakademie alumni. Graduates from all Filmakademie departments are found across the German film and TV industry. On top of that, former animation and effect students have established or have been involved in establishing very successful companies located in Baden-Württemberg: Luxx Studios provided the opening sequence to Roland Emmerichs "White House Down"; Pixomondo worked on the Oscar-winning "Hugo Cabret" as well as on Emmy-winning "Game of Thrones"; Look Effects Stuttgart has done the visual effects for Wes Anderson's Berlinale winner "Grand Budapest Hotel"; Mark 13 just finished "Maya the Bee" (German: "Die Biene Maja"), a CG animated feature due for worldwide release; and Studio Soi has been nominated twice in two consecutive years for the Best Animated Short Academy Award - in 2010 with "The Gruffalo" and in 2014 with "Room on the Broom". In addition to that, Filmakademie alumni are working for most of the major animation and effect houses be it in London or Los Angeles. To name just two: Matthias Wittman animated Benjamin Button for Digital Domain, and Saschka Unseld directed the 2013 Pixar Short "The Blue Umbrella".
ACR: An impressive list of accomplished animators and artists, to be sure. Thank you all for taking time out of your day to fill our readers in on the in’s and out’s of a Filmakademie education!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.