Tom May visits the college that trains illustrators and animators, with alumni that are working on some of the world’s biggest films
Escape Studios alumni work on blockbuster films.
Offering training in visual effects for the game, television and film industries, Escape Studios, part of Pearson College London, attracts a wide range of students. And they’re not all what you’d expect.
Take Penelope Pochez. By 2015, she was working as an illustrator for animation studios. Having graduated from New York art college Parsons in 2009, she’d been gainfully employed as a background designer and pre-production artist at Curious Pictures, Titmouse NY and FlickerLab Animation Studios, on animations such as Adult Swim’s Superjail!. So why on earth would she want to go back to school?
“I moved to the UK to follow my boyfriend,” Penelope says. “And there’s less demand here for illustration for animation: the industry is more geared towards visual effects. So it just made sense to make that switch.”
Consequently, Penelope decided to train in compositing: the art of combining filmed footage and digitally created backgrounds and effects to make a single, seamless scene. And while there were a number of colleges teaching visual effects and animation, Escape Studios stood out.
“It seemed like it was the most practically focused, the most interested in getting us jobs and teaching us the right skills,” she says. Speak to the tutors there, and you’ll hear a similar story. Escape Studios places a strong focus on practical skills, with all courses geared to producing showreels that can get students into jobs.
strong industry ties
“Our teachers all come from the industry,” points out Davi Stein, head of 2D, who’s worked on movies including The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Harry Potter films. “So we have very close ties with the big visual effects studios. And we’re constantly in contact about what skills they want graduates to come out with.”
The college now has more than 4,000 alumni (dubbed Escapees), who’ve worked on movies including Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina, Shaun the Sheep and The Jungle Book. And this creates a virtuous circle, says Alex Williams, head of animation. “We’re recognised as the place where people
learn industry-relevant skills,” he says. “And our Escapees are feeding back all the time. They’re telling us: ‘I’m working at such and such a place and this is a particular skill you need to do this.’ So we’re constantly tweaking what we do.”
As important as the skills themselves are the way they’re taught. “One of our big things is making sure the students get the real experience of a work in production,” explains Mark Spevick, head of 3D. “So I run the classroom environment so it’s as close to a film production environment as possible, with ridiculous deadlines and client reviews. These may come from industry partners as well as ourselves, so students really feel the pressure.”
Full-on learning environment
The work is hard and relentless, he stresses. “On our short courses, for instance, you’re in the classrooms from 10am to 5pm every single day. It’s full on lectures from 10 till one; the whole morning devoted to theory. Then in the afternoons we put that into practice on projects. By the end, you end up with two pieces for your showreel to get a job with.”
Known for its postgraduate and short (three-month) courses, this September Escape Studios is launching a host of new undergraduate courses. But don’t expect these to be any less practical, says Mark. “A big part of it for me will be screwing students up like you would in real movie production,” he smiles.
“So in the middle of doing their projects, I’m very likely to come along and change the brief, like a director would. Or suddenly take the job off them and give them another job completely. We might even break the servers. So the idea is that when they get into industry it’s not a culture shock – they know how it is in real life.”
So how do you apply? First, attend a taster day. This will involve an actual day of study, so you really can try before you buy. If you’re still keen, you can apply for the short courses directly via the website, while for the undergraduate and postgraduate course, you’ll need to go through UCAS, the UK’s organisation for managing and assigning university places.
it’s not just about the grades
Mark stresses, though, that grades aren’t the main thing you’ll be judged on. “It’s more about the potential that we see in people,” he explains. “We’re about creating artists who can craft and create wonderful things. You may not be academically great, but if we see an ability in you, we’ll take you on. So if you’ve got a yearning to get into the industry and you’ve done a little bit outside, we’re sure to be able to find a course that suits you.”
Perhaps surprisingly, there’s no requirement to be proficient in any particular software, says Davi. “Most students coming in have used a bit of Photoshop. Some have done After Effects, or played with Cinema 4D. But some come in without any graphics experience at all. It is possible,
although you’d have to practise quite a lot at the beginning to get your head around the general concepts – layering images, things like that.”
More important than technical knowledge, though, is “the passion and the drive to want to learn that stuff and want to enter the industry,” she says. “Dedication, passion, hard work – those are the most important things. As well as an open mind, to think a bit differently.”
Students at Escape Studios work in classrooms that are designed to feel like a real VFX studio environment.
Allar Kaasik, one of Escape Studio’s 2D tutors, oversees the progress of one of the student’s projects.
To enhance the feel of a real-life studio, lecturers will often throw spanners into the works, such as change the brief or even shut down the servers.
No previous knowledge of 3D software is needed, but there is a steep learning curve.
Vania Alban-Zapata, one of Escape’s 3D VFX tutors, lends his expert advice to a student.
George O’Keeffe’s Diner Diaorama references a 1950s Seeburg jukebox in stunning detail.
This 50s diner is an game environment modelled in Maya by George O’Keeffe. Finer details were painted using ZBrush.
Escape Studios’ close links with the VFX industry gives it access to the latest in software and techniques.
MA student Penelope Pochez demonstrates her advanced compositing skills in this castle scene.
Class sizes are kept deliberately small.