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Graduate students within Texas A&M’s College of Architecture have been spending their waking days immersed in the world of digital visualization since the late 1980s. But it wasn’t until a decade ago that the Department of Visualization took full flight under the auspices of an Aggie who has built a curriculum fit for the 21st century.
Early in his career, Tim McLaughlin left Texas behind for coveted visual effects jobs on the west coast where he earned his stripes by working on numerous blockbusters. He was in tall cotton, as Texans might say. But it was the opportunity to create a rigorous program that marries art with science that lured him back to his alma mater a decade ago.
Serving as Head and Assoc. Professor of A&M’s Department of Visualization, McLaughlin has overseen the program’s meteoric rise both in terms of recognition and growth. There are now multiple undergraduate and graduate degrees that have nurtured close industry ties, produced exceptional alumni, and even earned a top spot on our very own annual animation school rankings. For our latest spotlight Q&A, we catch up with McLaughlin to learn more about his rich career, the program he oversees, and the future of the field. Enjoy!
ACR: Before you began teaching, your career took you to some very enviable places in animation and visual effects like ILM and Lucasfilm. What projects stand out for you most?
Tim McLaughlin: That topic comes up regularly with my students. The most fun project was Mars Attacks because of the crew I worked with and because Tim Burton’s vision was a hoot. The project that I’m most proud of technically speaking is Van Helsing. There were five or six significant creature-related problems we tackled like the transformation of the werewolf. The movie didn’t do as well critically or popularly but the coordination between the art department and R&D and the technical artists was a blast. The film that catches most peoples’ attention in my career was Star Wars Episode 1- The Phantom Menace. I’m proud that Jar Jar received so much negative press about the acting and character because it was fully synthetic. I think there were two insert shots and everything else was completely digital; to have a character succeed at getting critiqued at that level in the late ‘90s was really amazing.
ACR: Why did you decide to pivot into teaching and tackle the role of spear-heading Texas A&M’s Department of Visualization?
TM: It stemmed from reasons both personal and professional. Parenting young kids while being a visual effects supervisor are two things that don’t get along together too well. Professionally speaking, being the first department head here was alluring for so many reasons. The Master’s program had been here since 1988 in the College of Architecture. I was on the external advisory board when the dean at the time had a vision to create an entire department of visualization. As the first chair, I got to set the tone and path and kick it off. Being an Aggie myself and having family ties here, it was too hard to pass up. Plus, I knew so many of the faculty already and loved the environment.
ACR: In the time since, you’ve overseen the department’s significant growth in numbers, offerings and reputation. How did the multiple undergraduate and graduate degrees come about?
TM: It’s really been a matter of managed growth. Early on, the Master of Science (in Visualization) program was successful and it really walked the line on both the science and art sides. Many students emerged with an MS but had really done an MFA. In the arts, an MFA is a terminal degree so they were doing MFA-caliber work but not getting that credit. So we created the MFA degree. At the same time, we worked on the undergraduate side of things. We had a number of students come in with the goal of getting into the Master’s program and consequently the undergrad numbers exploded. It became one of the quickest programs to fill up each year during admissions. Of course, we tightly control admissions and carefully manage the numbers to keep the department still relatively small. We also have a Ph.D. program in Architecture with an emphasis on Visualization as well as an undergraduate Minor in Art.
ACR: On the topic of walking that line between art and science, how do you cultivate students who will be ready to tackle anything that the future of visualization throws at them?
TM: That’s a good question. Freshmen are usually stressed because they do the same engineering and math courses that engineering majors are doing. But they’re also in the design studios just like art students. They have to do both at the same time. They also quickly learn time management skills and soft skills like collaboration which will serve them well throughout their careers. I always say, we don’t try to make experts- that would require specialization. Instead, we make our students fearless so they can jump into anything that comes their way.
ACR: How do you determine what hardware and software makes it into the A&M classrooms?
TM: It’s a bit tricky. We’re relatively small and can’t have too wide a spread of a technology base so we try to put together the strongest common set of tools and resources that students can use. We want our students to possess the starter skills that will land them their first job, but longer term I’m more interested in what they’re probably be doing 5 years after they graduate so that’s a big part of our focus. Our best information comes from our industry advisors. I have an industry advisory board composed of various different kinds of companies that I meet with regularly to get feedback, share research, and tune into what they look at. We want to know what they see as their next set of problems.
ACR: Speaking of industry connections, you’ve long been involved in SIGGRAPH which is just around the corner (August 9-11, 2015). Are you students equally as involved?
TM: We put a strong emphasis on SIGGRAPH at both the undergrad and grad levels in terms of students’ participation. This year, there will be over 300 student volunteers at the event and about 10% of them will be Aggies! We have a very active ACM Student SIGGRAPH group- our student work will be in the daily show and our grad students submit research projects, as well. We host an annual reception for our alumni, current students and prospective students at SIGGRAPH which provides a wonderful exchange for all of them, too.
ACR: Those connections that your students form within the industry and alumni are integral to their overall education at A&M, aren’t they?
TM: Yeah, highly important. Each summer, we run a course for grad students called the Summer Industry Course. This year, Disney has partnered with us and is sending 5 or 6 of their artists to our campus for a week at a time. That contact with Disney professionals means our students get on a conversational level with the pros. That’s crucial because they know exactly where the quality bar sits. Importantly, the students realize these artists are real people, too, so they overcome the awe and fear of engaging with them.
ACR: Your graduates can be found at all the big animation and visual effects studios. But they’re also found in a growing number of industries that leverage their skills. How do they find their way to these areas that might not be so obvious to the uninitiated?
TM: We have very good and strong entertainment industry contacts based upon our history of placement at those studios, so those folks come here and give talks and interviews and that creates student buzz and interest. It’s like the sex appeal side of things. But as students learn more about themselves and potential careers throughout their time here, many recognize that entertainment isn’t the best fit for them. Out here in College Station, medical and games and oil and gas are industries that are really pulling hard at all sorts of visualizations. In particular, the 3D side of things and augmented reality are in demand and that’s something we’re very strong at. There’s a convergence of techniques that our students become aware of throughout their education and allow them to use their skills in a variety of ways when they graduate.
ACR: What areas of visualization do you expect to explode in the coming years and consequently focus on in the curriculum?
TM: There are a few big areas. One of them has to do with storytelling. The method of creating the visuals for immersive interactivity means all sorts of storytelling techniques like camera and color theory and drawing the eye have to be reevaluated. The screen is no longer a rectangle- the director can’t control what the viewer focuses on, but they can lead them along. We have to coach students to understand that.
There’s another area in the tactile side of computing where we’re dealing with experiences that include senses other than sight as well as the internet of things- objects that we connect with which in turn connect wirelessly to other objects. Their greatest impact right now is in healthcare and training for engineering but it’s moving to a greater extent into entertainment.
And then the third area of change has to do with the procedural and generative systems of games and films- the visual detail that goes into games and movies to create virtual, highly detailed cities and landscapes. This isn’t being done by artist hours; instead, it’s being done by artists who can create rules and systems to make those landscapes. Those areas are here and now and they’re growing. I expect to see a lot more of them in the coming years.
ACR: Awesome stuff. It’s been such a pleasure to catch up with you and learn about Texas A&M’s Visualization department. Thanks, Tim!
TM: My pleasure!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.