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Escape Studios Learning Day: A View into Cutting Edge Visual Effect Creation

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This is my report from a one-day introductory course at Escape Studios, a “hub for 3D animation and visual effects expertise” in Shepherd’s Bush, London.

Since I’m a largely self-taught artist and an illustrator with a strong leaning towards software geekdom, the concept of a Learning Day at Escape studios did make me salivate.

I’ve been particularly fascinated by the awe-inspiring results that modern 3D modelling and visual effects can achieve – and have often wondered what goes into it. Having had a small glimpse into the world when I got to “peek under the bonnet” of the computer games industry a few years ago, my curiosity has been steadily increasing with time. I decided to give the Learning Day a go, even if I’d never sign up for another course again. And should I wish to, the small fee from the Learning Day is redeemable against any further courses.

Overall, it was a fun experience, if totally exhausting. I can’t remember the last time I felt so mentally wiped out. And really, that was a bit unexpected after only a deceptively simple set of exercises. If you’re there to learn, there is definitely a lot to take in.

The software packages we used at Escape were Shake and Maya. I felt immediately at home with Shake; sure, it wasn’t simple, but at the same time it felt really intuitive and the concepts were fairly familiar.

Shake 4 is the only compositing software with a complete toolset for both single artists and visual effects facilities. With 3D multi-plane compositing, 32-bit Keylight and Primatte keying, cutting edge Optical Flow image processing, Final Cut Pro 5 integration and an open, extensible scripting language, Shake 4 delivers all the tools required for sophisticated film and television visual effects.

I’ve done enough Photoshop work and I “get” certain things more easily than others, so the Shake part of the day was definitely enjoyable on that level. In fact, I wished we could have done more with it. When I begun to understand the power of this package, it was time to stop. It definitely left me wanting to explore it further.

Not so much with Maya. I’ve had the Maya personal learning edition installed for a while, but unlike Photoshop, which I was able to just play around with in the beginning, until I started learning how to use it properly… well, my experience with Maya was definitely not the same! When I’d looked around it before, I just felt overwhelmed. It didn’t seem to have a natural way to learn by trial and error because even to do the simplest thing, you’d have to know some of the basics about the tools, the interface and about 3D modelling in general. So you have to have an understanding of at least some of it to even get started.

Hence this introduction to the package seemed like a good way to start; to just get an idea of what Maya was like; just to see whether it’d be something I could get my head around and to possibly even enjoy, or to do something useful with.

Our first task was to get somewhat familiar with the interface. So we made a simple ball shape and animated it to make it bounce. This eased us into the software. So far so good. I didn’t fall behind, crash the software, or make my ball resemble a sea urchin (like some others in the class). Awesome.

Then, we were asked to open a file with two elements already in place: a human hand (with one digit missing; an odd-looking four-fingered thing) – and a polygon block floating above it. We were informed that the task would be to shape the hand out of the block. So far so good. The beginning all made sense; how to modify the polygon shapes to resemble the hand’s structure; how to use the different views available, and so on.

However, by the time the tutor had modelled two perfect fingers, my hand was more like a fairly creepy multi-digit space sausage. At least I hadn’t created a zig-zagged 3D chess board like the student next to me.

Still. A space sausage. So, by this time I felt uncomfortable and like I’d just fallen off the wagon; the tutor had moved on to explaining skinning and I still had one of the four digits missing and the remaining ones wiggling at me, all misshapen and sausage-y from the screen.

In the end, we animated the “hand” to wave bye-bye. I’m thinking I could apply for SFX in horror films.

I stayed behind to chat with the tutor, who, incidentally, had started from a similar background to mine – from drawing and illustration to software and so on. She’d gone down the animation route fairly early on and I have a feeling that this is the crucial difference; I seem to be happier with and more intrigued by the still image and by the 2D (or 2-and-a-half-D, as described by our Shake tutor) world.

I expressed my doubts to the Maya tutor and she told me not to be so discouraged. She stressed that Maya is also a powerful texturing/skinning tool and that those skills are extremely useful in the industry. She had a quick glance at my portfolio of illustration, collage and photo manipulation and seemed genuinely impressed. She was encouraging about my existing work without trying too hard sell the courses. I found that to be a positive thing. At all times, the tutors were very open about the obstacles one must face if attempting to do visual effects for a living.

Overall, I really enjoyed my Learning Day. It was exactly what I had hoped – a glimpse into the world of cutting edge digital effects, and a way for me to assess whether it’d be worth trying to learn any of these packages.

I think my next software investment will be Corel’s Painter 9 (or whatever version will be out by the time I can afford the price tag!). It’s one of the few software packages that has made me feel simply awestruck by the possibilities. I downloaded the 30-day trial not too long ago and have dreamed of getting the full version ever since.

I doubt I’ll be delving much deeper into 3D. I don’t have the hunger for it – and the work does not happen by magic.

Those packages are tools, just like Photoshop is – the work is only going to be as good as the skills and patience of the user, and the visual effects of today take a great deal of both.

However, if 3D would be something that I’d want to pursue career-wise, then Escape Studios would be a very good way to get into it. I’d recommend it on many levels – the tutors all have extensive industry experience, or are currently working in the industry – and the studios and equipment all seemed appropriate and professional. The working and learning environment is set up to resemble an actual studio and there are some definite networking and work experience opportunities if you have the ability to grab them. Many students have gone on to work with tutors on real projects, for example.

My only warning would be: take a packed lunch. And a book. Because at lunch, or breakfast, or just about any other time of the day, you may not want to go out. Shepherd’s Bush (at least the bit around the studios/Tube) is a DUMP. Hobos falling over on the road, two branches of McDonald’s within 500 metres of one another, a KFC, some dodgy all-you-can-eat buffet, a small Starbucks with sullen staff, a slum shopping centre with a Morrisons. I suppose it’s reassuring to see the studios situated in such a, how shall we say, boho environment. It roots the place in art, somehow.

Modified from an entry at Tomorrow Could Be Boring.

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About Nukapai

I learned to write before I could read and my first story was published when I was only 9 years old. I'm interested in a range of topics - particularly in science fiction, fantasy, horror, illustration, cosmetics industry, consumer psychology, marketing and perfumery. I keep a personal blog at
  • James

    I’ve just finished the the foundation course at Escape it was amazing! Really good fun but a lot of hard work! I want to do the 2d compositing course next.

  • Nukapai

    Well done! The studios certainly seemed to be made up of people who knew their stuff and have a very active hand in the industry, so you’re in good hands and have good prospects. (I only wish I could split myself into many copies and go off to explore all the things I’d like to learn about. But realistically, I know my adventures in 3D will most probably never get off the ground).