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With an impressive portfolio of award-winning feature films and games Nelson Lim, Animation & Game Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas shares his experiences working for industry giants and how he stays current in an ever-changing technological landscape.
You have an impressive portfolio of work; would you share how your practice has evolved and the effect it had on your work?
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my experiences.
Early in my practice, I was involved in big studio environments at Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Unfortunately, that meant I never really gave much thought about my practice. Coming from a computer science background, I did not even see myself as an artist. Beyond learning and acquiring the skills to succeed at doing my best work, I had not thought further. So that was a season in my practice, where I was just so focused on the technical and creative skills to succeed.
I was certainly working on plenty of big profile Hollywood projects and to an extent, the prestige acted as a diversion for me for a while, avoiding the question of my creative purpose. It began to be important to me that I work on projects that are not only cool but meaningful. While that is not always the case with client work, it became a driving principle for me to look out for in a project.
Along the way, my creative practice was shaped by my work as much as it was shaped by the things I worked on. I found out that I really enjoyed working on photorealism as there was an excitement in observing and mimicking what God has created. The complexity is awe-inspiring.
The technical aspects of the art are as enjoyable as the creative to me. So, I would always want to have both a technical and creative goal in my projects. As I grew older, I think I have also begun to see a greater sense of ownership of my practice. Beyond client work, these days I am learning and exploring what it means to build a business around my practice.
After working on so many high-profile projects, what made you go into teaching?
I have always gravitated towards teaching, whether it was being involved in internal training programs or conference presentations at ILM, guest lecturing at universities and even teaching an advanced diploma in Visual Effects. When I was trying to join the industry, there were few educational opportunities to learn and so I have been interested in opportunities to share what we do with people.
I am excited to be involved in the process of learning. I get to see people empowered through the skills they develop, and mindset change that comes about through my teaching and that is very satisfying. So, as I was seeking to open a new chapter of growth in my career, teaching was a natural choice that dove-tailed with my other professional and personal goals. It also helped that the opportunity came through an ex-colleague.
What are some characteristics that make the Animation and Games program at the University of Texas at Dallas stand out?
When I started my career at Lucasfilm and Disney, it was one of the only few places on earth where Games, Animation and Visual Effects were all being done in the same place. That was a thoroughly exciting and unique opportunity I had to experience all three. I thought I wanted to be a game developer when I started but found out that I loved Visual Effects.
Unlike many other places, at UT Dallas Animation and Games Program, students get to explore a variety of courses and are not stuck to only games or animation courses. They get to tailor their learning path in conjunction with faculty and advisors, which is so important for young creatives who are still exploring their interests in a world where the domains have converged.
There is also such a deep bench of talented faculty with deep industry networks who have worked on some of the biggest companies and popular game and film projects. I wish that I had such faculty during my undergraduate studies who could speak deeply, knowledgeably, and passionately about the field.
What real-world experience do Animation and Games students get during their time at UT Dallas?
UT Dallas Animation and Games Program’s animation and game labs are large-scale, collaborative projects that take place across multiple semesters via classes called labs. Students get the opportunity to work together on short films, or a game in a real-world studio scenario. They will learn to collaborate using tools, pipelines, and best-practices from industry to produce a short film or a game. These are student-led projects with students directing, producing, leading, and managing other student teams. It is quite an invaluable experience. The projects will spend the entire gamut of the production pipeline and are excellent opportunities for students to experience what it feels like to be in an actual production. Many of our students also collaborate on game and animation projects with other students through student organizations like the Animation Guild and Student Game Developers Association on campus.
Technology evolves by-the-minute. How do you stay current and how do you make sure students stay up to date in such an ever-changing landscape?
You are right. The pace of change in technology has dramatically accelerated in the last couple of years. Implicit to the question is whether we would be relegated if we do not keep up with all the changes. There are not enough hours in a day to learn everything that is changing or going on in our industry.
I try to focus on a limited few topics that are strategic and that I am excited about. I then try to create something with it as it allows me to dive deeply into the topic. That approach has been helpful to me as I always find a need for knowledge to be useful for me to remember it.
As for students, I am always thinking about what they need to know in the next 5 years to be successful. These become things that I incorporate into my lessons.
Streaming companies are in constant competition to produce high-quality content in large quantities. The same can apply for the game industry, as they try to outshine each other with the latest version of an exciting game. How has this competitive landscape impacted the Animation and Games industry and the availability of opportunities for those entering the field?
There have been many changes going on in the industry in the last couple of years. Television and the pandemic have dramatically increased the demand, budgets, and expectation for higher quality content. In general, studios everywhere are finding it hard to hire enough talent to work on the unprecedented number of projects. The demand for the same type of talent has also increased in other fields such as engineering, medical and technology companies as they get further along into the various applications of computer graphics in their business. It is an excellent time to be an animation and games practitioner as the applications across industries are endless.
What skills do students learn in your classes? What is the one thing you want them to leave knowing?
Students in my classes learn quite a variety of skills. From Python, Houdini to cinematography, I teach them how to incorporate technology and arts to solve cool problems or create awesome art. But more importantly, as Horace Mann once said, “A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.” So, I really hope that they leave my classes with a sense of wonder, intrigue, and interest in what the combination of arts and technology in film and games can do and imagine their role in it.
On a lighter note, what animated feature film and which game should students in the Animation and Game field watch/play and why?
That is a hard one. I already assume that students in this field watch and play a lot of video games. I would encourage them to try their hands on something that is not a film or a video game. Something more tactile like gardening or photography. I think they will find that these will only serve to inspire them as they work on their next project.